Bill requiring labeling of genetically modified foods advances in Massachusetts House

Last modified: Tuesday, May 13, 2014
After three unsuccessful attempts, legislation filed by state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, to require labeling of genetically modified foods appears close to approval in the House, following similar recent action in Vermont.

Story’s “right to know” bill, House 3996, would allow consumers to make informed decisions about the potential health effects and environmental impacts of the food they purchase. She acknowledged that even she is not convinced that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are necessarily harmful.

“All I’m saying is, ‘It’s reasonable for us to expect to know, when we buy something, whether it has genetically modified organisms in it,’ ” she said. “I have scientist friends whom I trust and respect on both sides of this. Some say, ‘It’s nonsense. You don’t need to waste time doing this.’ Others say, ‘It’s much too early for us to know what the long-term effects are. We should be very careful.’ Since I’m not a scientist, I’m not taking a stand, but I’m saying it’s fair to want to know.”

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The legislation, which incorporates another Story bill to require labeling of genetically modified seeds — has moved on to the House Ways and Means Committee after clearing the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.

With 70 co-sponsors in the Legislature and support from a coalition that includes the New England Farmers Union, Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, Seeds of Solidarity, NOFA Mass and 141 farms around the state, Story said, “This really is a grassroots effort. It’s very exciting to see how far it’s gotten this year. When it had a hearing at the Statehouse, there was standing room only. This is by far the most attention it’s gotten.”

Sarah Voiland of Red Fire Farm in Montague said, “I think it’s important to know what kind of food we’re eating and what kind of farming we’re supporting. There are a lot of questions and issues with GMOs, and having it labeled will help people make the right choices. It gives the choice to us.”

Buoyed by Vermont’s recently enacted legislation, following GMO labeling bills in Connecticut and Maine, Story said, “More and more legislators are hearing from their constituents, so there’s more and more of a push for this. As time passes, people hear about this and saying that to have a label seems reasonable.”

With only a couple more months remaining in the legislative calendar, she added, “I don’t know if there’s enough (support) to pass it. There’s a lot of opposition, mostly from Monsanto and its cohorts.”

Story said she was visited by someone on behalf of a Michigan baby-formula manufacturer who said he agreed that people should know what their baby formula contains, but added that the action should be taken at the federal instead of the state level.

“I said, ‘How much have you seen the federal government getting done recently?’ He said, ‘We couldn’t possibly send different kinds of formula to different states. It would be too costly and too difficult.’ That I didn’t buy,” Story said. “This would be much better if it were a federal decision, but since there doesn’t seem to be any chance of that, it’s one of those cases where the states say, ‘Rather than do nothing, we’re at least going to try.’ ”

Like the Connecticut and Maine legislation, the Massachusetts bill has a “trigger” mechanism allowing it to take effect only after at least five states, with an aggregate population of 20 million, pass similar laws. New York and New Jersey are now considering such legislation.

“It has a lot of hurdles yet, but we’re optimistic,” said Pat Fiero of Leverett, an organizer for MoveOn.org, which has circulated support petitions that have gathered 23,000 signatures. “We have an enormous support network, and we’d really like to get it passed this year.”

Meanwhile, Congressmen Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., introduced federal legislation earlier this year that would create federal standards for voluntary labeling by manufacturers of foods that are free of genetically engineered ingredients, but it would also preempt any state approving GMO labeling provisions.

The Shelburne Falls-based New England Farmers Union has come out in opposition to that federal proposal and its preemption of action by states. “New England Farmers Union is in favor of requiring conspicuous, mandatory consumer labeling for foods made from or containing genetically modified organisms,” said its president, Roger Noonan. “This legislation would preempt state actions to label foods containing GMOs. ... Surveys have consistently shown that consumers want more information about their food, not less.”

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