GMO Labeling in Mass. Hotly Debated

Connecticut’s law could trigger labeling movement in the Northeast

By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor

MARION, Mass. — A recent encore showing of “Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives” at How on Earth highlighted the risks and impacts of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food supply on public health, on farming and food production, and the environment.

How on Earth is a restaurant and organic food store owned by the Marion Institute, a nonprofit philanthropic organization that encourages people to reconnect to the world around them through conscious living.

Nicole Cormier, a registered dietician, sponsored the documentary. She volunteers her time on behalf of the nonprofit citizens group MA Right to Know GMOs to help get GMO labeling into law this legislative session. Cormier uses the film to explain why GMO food labeling is needed.

Five bills were proposed in the 2013-2014 session and referred to two joint committees for review and recommendation to the General Court. Unless the bills come out of committee by March 19, the process will have to be re-initiated, according to Martin Dagoberto, director of MA Right to Know GMOs. He said his group plans on re-introducing the bills if they fail.

“We have been meeting with leadership and people are talking about it,” Dagoberto said. He said they are getting many calls from constituents, but the effort needs to be expanded.

Cormier, who has been pushing the effort to get GMO labeling in Massachusetts for two years, said she does community outreach as part of her corporate wellness programs, so it was natural to add this as another outreach project.

Last summer Cormier testified before the House of Representatives that GMO food should be labeled so the public has the freedom to choose what they eat. Last September, she went back to Beacon Hill on Lobby Day to ask the Legislature to pass the food-labeling bills.

What the laws would do
Three bills are pending before the Joint Committee on Public Health (H.1936, H. 2037, H.2093), and two on the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (H.808, H.813). The latter have to do with seed and food labeling in Massachusetts General Laws regarding agriculture.

The three bills before Public Health are similar, but one doesn’t allow exclusions. H. 2093, The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know, sponsored by Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, and nine other representatives was put forward with a companion bill on seed labeling (H813). The other two allow for exclusion of products such as alcohol, or foods that have less than 0.005 percent GMO in an ingredient in fewer than 10 ingredients of a food product.

Prevalence of GMOs
In a recent e-mail to ecoRI News, MorningStar Farms, a leading producer of soy vegetable products, noted that when they began in 1999, only 15 percent of U.S. soy was genetically engineered. Now, 92 percent of the U.S. soy is genetically engineered.

Nine major foods are produced with GMOs: alfalfa, corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, sugar beets, papaya from Hawaii, and some varieties of zucchini and crookneck yellow squash. It’s estimated that 70 percent to 80 percent of conventional processed food in the United States contains GMOs.

The process of genetically modifying crops is not a natural one, according to Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and “Genetic Roulette” filmmaker. Instead genes from bacteria, virus, animals or plants are injected into plant cells so the plants will take on the trait from the new gene. The new plant wouldn’t have joined genes under natural processes, Smith said, so they are very different than the original plant.

Corn, the most ubiquitous genetically modified food, is inoculated with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin to make it resistant to insects. Bt also is commonly used as a mosquito repellant sprayed in marshes. Bt forms parasporal bodies that contain insecticidal properties. The mosquito eats the Bt, and the spores explode in the mosquito’s gut. GMO corn now carries the Bt toxin in each cell, so that insects eating the corn die in the same manner.

Soybean plants, the second major GMO food source, is inoculated with herbicide-resistant plant cells so they will survive high doses of the herbicide glyphosate, which goes under the brand name of Roundup® weed killer, originally patented by the Monsanto chemical company. Soybeans so treated are called “Roundup® Ready.”

While effective in keeping the soybean plant alive during herbicide spraying, the practice allows for higher doses of herbicide application and results in high levels of residual herbicides in the soil and in the food.

Corn, canola and cottonseed are also made Roundup® Ready.

Roundup® resistant “superweeds” have emerged requiring ever-higher doses of Roundup®. According to the Non-GMO Project, a third-party independent GMO certification company, glyphosate usage has increased 15 times since the introduction of Roundup® Ready crops.

In fact, chemical manufacturers are now asking to switch to 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a component in Agent Orange herbicide, because Roundup® is no longer as effective in killing weeds.

Potential health risks
The risk with GMOs, according to Smith, is that there may be horizontal transfer of the genetic trait to humans or animals fed with GMO foods. Smith posits that Bt toxin transfers into humans, taking over the body’s natural bacterial environment and creating problems with digestion.

“Genetic Roulette” compares the increases in gastrointestinal disorders such as irritated bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, gastrointestinal reflux and others since the 1990s, when GMO foods came on the market. Further, the film connects food allergies in children as well as immunological disorders to the prevalence of GMOs in the food supply.

Smith is joined by researchers and doctors who found that the effects of GMOs may also lead to a host of neurological disorders such as autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

No consensus
But there’s no consensus on whether there’s a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. A quick read of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, notes an “editing war” between GMO proponents and detractors. The scientific studies are in dispute, whether scientific studies have been conducted, and whether they were adequate or of sufficient quality to make claims for or against the use of GMOs. There’s even a dispute as to whether there’s a consensus among scientists.

Despite deleted Wiki entries to the contrary, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) clearly has come out against the use of GMOs without additional testing, and disputes there’s a consensus on GMOs safe use in foods.

The ENSSER statement reads in part:

“Science and society do not proceed on the basis of a constructed consensus, as current knowledge is always open to well-founded challenge and disagreement. We endorse the need for further independent scientific inquiry and informed public discussion on GM product safety and urge GM proponents to do the same.”

The statement is signed by 231 scientists, many with Ph.Ds in molecular cell biology, and medical doctors worldwide.

What is clear is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t required GMO food testing or labeling as a result of a 1992 policy decision, and doesn’t intend to revisit that decision. Monsanto maintains there are no material differences between GMO foods and their non-GMO counterparts, so labeling isn’t necessary.

Yet 64 countries, including Australia, China, Japan and the entire European Union, have restrictions or outright bans on the production and/or use of GMOs.

Smith claims that current FDA policy is due in part to the efforts of Michael Taylor, FDA deputy chief and a former Monsanto policy attorney and vice president.

Without a federal GMO labeling mandate, Citizens for GMO Labeling has begun a state-by-state campaign. Citizens for GMO Labeling is the parent organization spearheading the campaign, run by Tara Cook-Littman.

With success in Connecticut and Vermont under her belt, Cook-Littman only needs Massachusetts or New York to clear the hurdle posed by Connecticut legislators when it approved GMO labeling legislation last year. To trigger Connecticut’s law, Cook-Littman must get an abutting state to pass a GMO labeling law, and also have a total of 20 million people in the labeling area.

Getting the GMO labeling law passed in Massachusetts would help put Connecticut over the top, and help ensure that most of New England's residents could tell what they’re eating just by looking at the label. Thirty states have similar legislation pending.