By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Little Rhody might be a big player in the national GMO-labeling debate.
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, have been controversial since they joined the food chain nearly 20 years ago. The debate continued at a Jan. 29 Statehouse hearing for two bills (H7093 and H7042 ) that would require the labeling of foods containing GMOs — and a lot of them do. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, as much as 80 percent of everyday foods and beverages contain GMOs, mostly due to the widespread use of genetically engineered corn and soybeans.
Heavy spending and lobbying by the grocery association helped defeat referendums for GMO labeling in California in 2012 and Washington state in 2013. Last year, however, Connecticut and Maine became the first states to pass laws requiring GMO labeling. Both have a “trigger clause” requiring other states in the region to follow suit before their laws take effect. Vermont is scheduled to hold a hearing for its bill Feb. 6, and Massachusetts has until March 19 to decide its bill.
Rhode Island legislators are confident of passage this year. “It’s going to happen,” Rep. Raymond Hull, D-Providence, said during the recent hearing. It was the third year Hull has introduced such a bill.
Monsanto derailed Vermont’s bill two years ago with a threat of lawsuits. But Rep. Dennis Canario, D-Little Compton, promised that Rhode Island won’t “be bullied by threats of lawsuits." “We have an obligation not only to Rhode Island consumers but to the nation," he said.
The audience in the crowded hearing room overwhelming favored the bill. Jean Halloran of Consumers Union gave examples of GMOs, such as spider silk genes in goats, human genes in rice and fish genes in strawberries.
Greg Costa of the Grocery Manufacturers Association said GMOs make food more plentiful while requiring less water and pesticides.
Three organic farmers spoke in favor of the legislation. Maxson Hence of Hillandale Farm in Westerly said there no proof that GMO crops curtail drought and grow in depleted soil. “We need to start with reigning in the food waste that occurs around the world.”
Tyler Young, a third generation farmer from Little Compton, described working in the past with flamethrowers and vacuums to kill insects. “GMOs work and they are safe for the environment and human beings,” he said. “They are the future to solving many agricultural problems.”
The sponsor of Connecticut’s GMO labeling law, Rep. Philip Miller, D-Ivoryton, noted the lack of federal testing on GMOs. Patent protections, he said, prevent independent research, “so, it’s really frustrating that our own academics cannot really study these things."
The Rhode Island Farm Bureau came out forcefully against both bills. North Kingstown farmer and Farm Bureau president Bill Stamp Jr. said the added cost to farmers would force him to close his farm. GMOs are essential to feeding the growing global population, he said, and “modern technology is the key."
GMO-labeling advocate Tara Cook said most small farmers probably don’t sell GMO crops.
Other labeling proponents emphasized that GMOs are often confused with cross-breading. Cross-breading, also called cross-pollination, selective breeding or hybrids, has gone on for centuries. The process involves breeding similar species of plants together, or the breeding of similar animals.
GMOs are created by altering DNA and adding genes from any organism — plants, animals, viruses and/or bacteria — to another species. Genes are spliced or altered to create a desired trait.
Critics of GMOs worry that the mixing and the re-engineering of traits creates unintended health and environmental problems, and may already be contributing to asthma and toxicity issues. Monsanto and other multinationals are also seen as having a monopoly on agriculture for selling most of the GMO seed and the most common herbicides. GMO crops, opponents say, build a tolerance to the herbicide, putting farmers in a cycle of buying the latest seeds and pesticides that are owned by a few large agricultural companies.
Canario said his bill is not about health risks, but is a right-to-know issue. “People have a right to know what goes in their bodies," he said.
“If the USDA doesn’t want to (mandate GMO labeling), why doesn’t Rhode Island do it?" Hull said. "And then everybody follow Rhode Island.”
So far, 64 countries have labeling regulations, including Russia, China, Australia, Japan and the European Union.
The bills were held for additional study. At least one companion bill is expected from the Senate.