Rhode Island GMO Labeling Bill Delayed

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Since its introduction to the American diet in 1992, genetically engineered food has raised countless questions. Proponents, including many scientists, say bioengineering helps feed the world and that there is no evidence that genetically modified food (GMO) is a health threat.

Critics say GMOs are already messing with the environment and, if unchecked, could create untold health consequences.

Government oversight of bioengineered food is mixed. In Europe, GMOs are heavily regulated and foods containing GMOs must be labeled. In the United States, GMOs lack independent testing, especially for long-term health effects, and have few restrictions. Certified organic food, however, does not contain GMOs.

Labeling efforts have largely failed. Most recently, California voters turned down a referendum to require GMO labeling. This year, the General Assembly introduced a bill (pdf) requiring GMO labeling in Rhode Island. A hearing set for March 27 has been postponed.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Raymond Hull, D-Providence, said a hearing will take place in May so that a proponent of the bill can testify. If passed, GMO food and feed products sold in the state would need labels. The legislation hasn’t gained traction in recent years, or garnered much broad support from local environmental groups.

Nevertheless, there is a deep mistrust of the large agricultural corporations such as Monsanto and Dow that seem to be dominating the seed supply as well as the debate and research about GMO safety. Both companies have developed pesticide-resistant corn and soybean seeds that seem to have undergone little public scrutiny.

Liberty Goodwin, of the Providence-based Toxics Information Project, said large seed companies are more interested in profits than safety. “They say GMOs are safe. Many independent scientists have found serious health and environmental concerns. Who do you trust?” she asked.

Albert Kausch, professor of cell and molecular biology at the University of Rhode Island, said public skepticism is due to a lack of appreciation for bioscience. Most of the food we eat today, even non-GMO food, has been re-engineered by humans, he said. Bananas, corn and apples were all nearly inedible before humans combined them with other plants. GMOs simply increase crop yield, which is needed to sustain a rapidly growing global population with a limited supply of farmland, he said.

“Biotechnology is not a threat. Starvation is,” Kausch says in an online biology lecture. In the video, he promises students an A and $100 if they can find a peer-reviewed study that shows GMOs have harmed humans.

“I would propose that genetic modification is not a health threat,” Kausch says.

An educated consumer, he said during a recent phone interview, would appreciate the benefits of GMOs. But labeling food won’t enlighten shoppers, Kausch said. Instead a broader appreciation of biology is the best approach. “I don’t think a label is an adequate education. We need way more than that.”