Labeling of genetically modified foods draws a packed house to committee

Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
New Hampshire consumers deserve to know what’s in their food, but there is considerable disagreement over how well this would be accomplished by a proposed GMO labeling bill.

The bill says that food sold for retail use “that is genetically engineered shall be accompanied by a conspicuous disclosure that states Produced with Genetic Engineering or Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”

It is at least the fourth attempt to create some sort of GMO-related food labeling system in New Hampshire in the past decade.

Bills similar to the current one, HB 1674, have been introduced or exist in many Northeastern states, part of a push to create a regional market that would spur labeling of foods that have bioengineered ingredients. The decision earlier this month by Campbell Soup Co. to put such labels on its products with no increase in price has given more momentum to the push.

Supporters at a packed, all-day committee hearing Tuesday said the proposed law would provide necessary information to consumers, some drawing parallels to the state’s Right-to-Know Law regarding government records and meetings.

“People have a right to know what is in their food,” said Rep. Suzanne Smith, a Hebron Democrat, speaking in favor of the bill at Tuesday’s hearing before the House Environment and Agriculture Committee.

Tuesday’s hearing drew an overflow crowd, with more than 40 speakers giving testimony all day. Most supported the bill, including many who wore green stickers saying “Label GMOs,” and many testified about their concerns that the technology of directly modifying genes could harm consumers, now or in the future. The proposed bill warns of “unintended consequences” of genetic engineering.

But not everybody Tuesday supported labeling. Two farmers, including the president of the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation, argued that it would not accomplish anything useful while harming state agriculture.

Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat, described the bill as “throwing out the baby with bathwater,” and cited her experience in poor countries in Africa where genetically modified plants can provide needed nutrition or save crops from devastation from disease.

Almy described the GMO-labeling movement as a “ideological campaign” which has taken concerns about misdirection in the food supply system and the way that genetic modification is used by firms like agricultural giant Monsanto, and mistakenly targeted the technology.

“They should go after what is being done, not go after the tool being used,” she said.

Committee member Rep. Rebecca Brown, a Sugar Hill Democrat, raised a similar issue in some questions, wondering how the GMO label would help consumers differentiate “golden rice,” a strain of rice genetically modified to produce Vitamin A, a nutrient sorely lacking in some third world countries, from corn that has been modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup. The latter was cited by several speakers as an example of genetic modification’s perils, because it can lead to more use of synthetic chemical weed killers.

New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture Lorraine Merrill said the anti-GMO movement has tainted the whole idea of genetic engineering and stopped research into potentially useful work, such as efforts to preserve the Florida orange crop from a devastating outbreak of a disease called citrus-greening.

“No one is concerned about the use of genetically modified and genetic engineering in medicine and pharmacology,” Merrill said. “It’s only agriculture that would be restricted to using 100-year-old tools and science.”

The bill would exempt restaurants, schools and hospitals from the requirement, and would not cover alcohol. It would not require labeling if the food contains less than one percent of genetically engineered material, nor if it involves meat from an animal that ate genetically engineered feed.

The need for such labeling, many argued Tuesday, is made greater by the widespread use of genetically modified corn and soybean in processed foods. More than 90 percent of both crops grown in this country contain some genes that have been inserted through biotechnology rather than through breeding.

“People should do due diligence about their food, but you can’t have due diligence if you have no idea that something is included,” said Maureen Mann, a former state representative who supported past GMO-labeling bills.

The most unusual argument in favor of the bill came from Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, who discussed concern that eating genetically modified foods might violate the Talmudic prohibition known as kilayim, which forbids the mixing of wool and linen in clothing, as well as some cross-breeding of plants and animals.

Jewish people who seek to follow this interpretation of kilayim can’t avoid genetically engineered foods without labels, she said.

“In order to know if there is violation . . . we have to know if the food we seek to eat has been genetically modified,” she said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.
com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)