Editorial: State must let consumers know when foods contain genetically modified organisms

Last modified: Sunday, May 18, 2014

Vermont earlier this month became the latest state to adopt a law requiring food to be labeled if it contains genetically modified organisms. We hope Massachusetts this year joins its neighbor to the north in giving consumers more information about products they purchase, and we applaud state Rep. Ellen Story’s leadership on this issue.

A growing grassroots movement across the United States calls for food labeling to identify genetically altered substances, commonly called GMOs. These are plants and animals which have been engineered to combine DNA from different species in a way that cannot occur naturally or through traditional crossbreeding. It is a process used, for example, in seeds producing corn and soy crops which are resistant to herbicides used to kill weeds.

Scientists disagree on whether GMOs may be harmful to the environment or people’s health over the long term. While the U.S. government has approved production of GMOs, some countries have placed restrictions on them. In the U.S., there is no federal requirement to label food containing GMOs and labeling proponents are wary of the latest bill introduced in Congress that would allow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set policy and ban states from enacting their own legislation.

Activists who believe people have a right to know what’s in the food they buy increasingly are focused on bringing the issue to a vote in state legislatures. In the Massachusetts House, Story, an Amherst Democrat, has repeatedly filed food-labeling legislation. She is more optimistic this year than in the past about winning approval because it is an issue more and more people are demonstrating they care about. Just as many consumers are conscious of the “buy local” movement, they are becoming more concerned about how their food is produced. According to Story, legislators are hearing from constituents who want a labeling bill in Massachusetts, and a Statehouse hearing this year was packed with supporters.

Last week, in an unusual bipartisan move, Story and state Rep. Todd M. Smola, a Republican from Palmer who has also filed GMO-labeling legislation, co-signed a letter to House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo urging action on the issue this session. “In recent years, public support for this initiative has increased dramatically. ... Currently, many states are moving toward enacting GMO labeling legislation and we believe that Massachusetts should be at the forefront of this movement,” Story and Smola wrote.

Story takes care to point out that she is not passing judgment on the use of genetically modified organisms and says she has talked to scientists with differing views. Some say GMOs will not prove to be harmful, while others contend it’s too soon to tell. The goal for Story is to provide consumers with as much information as possible so they can make their own decisions about whether or not to buy a product.

A broad coalition of groups across the state supports labeling. In Hampshire County it includes the Belchertown Agricultural Commission, the Hilltown Non-GMO based in Plainfield, Cornucopia Foods and River Valley Market in Northampton, Cafe Evolution in Florence, Old Creamery Co-op in Cummington, and at least 10 individual farms. Still, because the agribusiness opposition is well-funded, Story believes there is only a 50-50 chance that GMO-labeling legislation will be voted on by the House this year.

Massachusetts legislators should look to the recent approval in Vermont and join it in being a leader on the issue. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states are considering 84 bills dealing with GMO labeling. Connecticut and Maine also have approved laws requiring labels, but only after other states approve similar legislation.

The law signed by Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin is the first in the nation with no strings attached to a requirement that beginning in July 2016 all food sold in the state include information about genetically modified ingredients. That is a good model for Massachusetts to follow.


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