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Legislative sponsors hopeful of advancing GMO labeling bill

Wikimedia Commons/Lindsay Eyink

Sponsors of a bill to require the labeling of genetically modified foods, or GMOs, say they hope they have better luck this year advancing the legislation, after it died in committee late last session.

The bill would require that all genetically engineered food sold in New York be clearly labeled. Assembly Sponsor Linda Rosenthal,  a Democrat, says  the measure would give consumers the choice of whether they want to buy genetically altered food, or not.

“We have the right to know what is in the food we buy and the food we consume,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a consumer protection effort”.

Rosenthal does have questions about whether genetically altered food is potentially harmful, though she says the bill is not about that.

“The evidence is not in, but I’ve heard some disturbing reports about GMOs,” said Rosenthal, who says her concerns include the need to use more pesticides on genetically modified foods.

“Who wants to ingest that?” she asked.

Rosenthal was joined by a state lawmaker from neighboring Connecticut. Representative Tony Hwang sponsored a law that would eventually require that GMO food be clearly labeled in his state.  Hwang, a Republican, says he’s not against genetically engineered foods, and is not convinced that they are harmful. He also views it as a right to know issue.

“It’s an issue that crosses partisan lines,” Hwang said.

A similar law to require GMO labeling has passed in Maine, but both laws are contingent upon several contiguous states also approving the legislation, so that food manufacturers would only have to alter their labels for one large Northeastern market.

The New York bill has a sponsor in the GOP-led state Senate, Senator Ken LaValle. The bill has not yet made it out of committee in either house. It was voted down in the Consumer Protection Committee in the waning days of last year’s session. Rosenthal says she thought she had the votes for passage, but at the last minute some on the committee changed their minds. She blames big agricultural companies like Monsanto and their lobbyists.

“Monsantos of the word are spending millions upon millions of dollars trying to prevent passage of labeling laws around the country,” Rosenthal said.

Rick Zimmerman, with the Northeast Agriculture and Feed Alliance, which represents larger farms, seed distributors and other parts of the agricultural industry,  says Monsanto is getting a bad rap.  He says the organic food industry, which includes some large conglomerates, is also spending millions of dollars to help see the labeling bills passed in the Northeast.

“The organic food industry is funding a lot of this initiative to disparage commercial agriculture,” Zimmerman said. “It’s all about increasing market share, purely and simply”.

Zimmerman says the bill’s supporters are trying to simplify the issue into a consumer rights matter, but he says it’s far more complex than that.

“It’s a complicated truth versus a simple lie,” said Zimmerman, who says it’s not simply a right-to-know issue.

“This is a right to confuse and a right to scare consumers,” he said “ It’s a right to disparage mainstream agriculture.”

He says no major studies have proved harm from genetically modified foods. He says the pesticide most commonly used, Round Up, is far less dangerous than the pesticides of prior decades, and the residue largely evaporates before the crops are harvested.

Zimmerman says there is a way to use existing labels to avoid genetically engineered food, buy organic.

Assemblywoman Rosenthal is persevering; she’s trying to win more support for her measure this year and already has 46 co –sponsors from both major political parties.

“I’m looking forward to passing it,” Rosenthal said.

The Assembly Consumer Protection Committee could hold a vote on the bill to label genetically engineered food by the end of the month.

Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio.