Will New York State be the first state in the nation to require the labeling of food containing what has become known as GMO -- genetically modified organisms?
More than 60 countries have enacted laws banning the use of GMO in producing food or requiring the labeling of food with ingredients that have utilized genetic modification or genetic engineering. But because of heavy pressure by the biotechnology industry, there are no such laws or regulations in the United States.
There was an attempt in California in November to pass a referendum -- Proposition 37 -- requiring labeling of GMO food. But despite initial strong public support, it failed after an advertising blitz led by biotech giant Monsanto.
"There was a very well-funded misinformation campaign," said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute. "Forty-six million" -- the amount of dollars industry poured into the campaign against the proposition, five times as much as labeling supporters -- "buys an awful lot of confusion and misunderstanding," he commented.
Now political action on a state level for labeling genetically modified food has come to New York with a bill before the State Legislature.
"Consumers have a right to know what's in their food, especially concerning products for which health and environmental concerns have been raised," says the sponsor of the measure in the State Senate, Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson, a long-time educator and an attorney. He says: "My bill was introduced to give consumers the freedom to choose between GMOs and conventional products. Essentially, if a foodstuff is produced using genetic engineering, this must be indicated on its label."
Kathleen Furey, education and media director of GMO Free NY, has been busy criss-crossing Long Island, New York City and elsewhere in the state challenging GMOs and pressing for passage of the proposed law.
Crops using GMOs were introduced commercially in the United States in 1996. But "Americans are still dining in the dark," said Ms. Furey in a recent presentation in Sag Harbor, New York. Ms. Furey, a graduate of Stony Brook University's Sustainability Studies Department with a degree in environmental humanities, said that now in the U.S., 88 percent of corn, 90 percent of sugar beets and 93 percent of soybeans are grown using GMO. Some 80 percent of "bottled, boxed or canned foods in the U.S." contain GMO ingredients. And livestock feed "is comprised mostly of GMO corn and soybeans." GMOs "dominate the agricultural landscape" of America today, she said.
People have "the right to make informed choices about what we eat," she emphasized. "We have the right to be protected from food health risks and the right to stop being used as guinea pigs."
GMO technology is used to create "transgenic species" of plants and animals. Through it, genes from one often unrelated species are introduced into another.
The biotechnology industry insists GMO technology doesn't harm people and is useful. It points to how, with genetic modification, plants resistant to some pests have been developed.
But GMO opponents deem this harmful and indeed, various uses have backfired. Moreover, they charge that the U.S. government -- including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency empowered to protect Americans from contaminants in their food -- has been acting as a rubber stamp for the biotechnology industry, doing its bidding. And it's not the case that inside of government there isn't an awareness of the dangers of GMOs, noted Ms. Furey. She pointed to "internal memos from FDA scientists citing the risks of GMO safety and toxicity that were disregarded by their superiors."
On pest resistance through GMOs, Ms. Furey spoke of how "superbugs resistant to pest-resistanct GMO crops have evolved and are destroying those crops." Also, "superweeds resistant to herbicides sprayed on GMO crops have evolved and caused farmers to spray more herbicide per acre and resort to the use of even more-toxic herbicides."
Ms. Furey and GMO Free NY are supported by national organizations.
The Institute for Responsible Technology -- based in Iowa, describes genetically modified foods as "not safe." Its literature stresses a report by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine citing studies finding "serious health risks associated" with GMO food including "infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging...and changes to major organs and the gastrointestinal system."
Food & Water Watch, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is warning on its website about the Food and Drug Administration now "paving the way for genetically engineered salmon," which it calls "frankenfish." This, furthermore, "would open the floodgates" for genetically modified "cows and pigs which biotech companies are waiting in the wings to finally commercialize after years of research and development."
Just last month, the U.S. Congress passed and President Barack Obama approved what GMO foes call the "Monsanto Protection Act" -- a measure to last initially six months, stripping federal courts of the authority to halt the planting and sale of genetically modified crops if litigation is brought alleging health risks. Ms. Furey calls it "incredibly unconstitutional."
The reach of the biotechnology industry extends into the U.S. Supreme Court. The court had before it in February a case involving Monsanto and genetically engineered seeds, yet Justice Clarence Thomas, formerly a Monsanto attorney, refused to recuse himself. He refused to recuse himself, too, in 2010 in another case involving Monsanto and GMO seeds and joined in the decision favoring Monsanto's position. "It's outrageous," says Ms. Furey.
Overall, the biotechnology industry's drive for GMOs has been incredibly undemocratic and the process is quite likely unhealthy. Labeling is a minimum -- so people can at least know what food is genetically modified and choose what's still GMO-free.