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Controversial GMO bill to be scrutinized by ag committee this summer

Last modified: 3/3/2013 11:37:37 PM
When Susan Ulin’s miniature horse, Sunshine, started experiencing intestinal problems a few years back, she cycled through a series of dead-end remedies for nearly two years before finally uncovering a viable solution. The cure, according to Ulin: ridding Sunshine’s diet of genetically engineered food.

Genetically engineered foods are those derived from living organisms whose genetic material has been altered, changing one or more of their characteristics in order to, for instance, make them resilient to diseases or pesticides.

Ulin, who lives in Deerfield, admits she is no scientist, and she doesn’t pretend to have hard proof that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, were the cause of Sunshine’s maladies. But she said that her horse, as well as her family, demonstrate generally improved health when they consume non-genetically modified foods.

She’s not alone in her belief. Since genetically engineered foods were first introduced in the United States nearly two decades ago, a number of individuals and groups have voiced concerns over what they claim to be associated heath and environmental dangers.

“While no one can claim that these crops cause adverse health impacts, there are mounting concerns about the lack of independently funded research on whether these crops are introducing allergens or toxins into our foods,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm, the organic yogurt company.

Ulin said she would like to see genetically modified foods eliminated from the American diet, but for now she is satisfied with a bill making its way through the Legislature that would require labels to be placed on any food items produced entirely or partly through genetic engineering.

The national debate over labeling has heated up in recent months, and dozens of states are weighing initiatives similar to New Hampshire’s. A highly publicized case last year, involving a similar bill that narrowly failed in California, raised widespread attention. Washington is now considering a labeling bill, while Hawaii passed legislation last month that requires imported genetically engineered produce to be clearly marked. Alaska has enacted legislation that requires genetically engineered fish and shellfish to be labeled. And 60 other countries already have labeling laws in place, including Russia, China and the European Union nations.

Proponents of the New Hampshire bill contend that consumers have a right to know when their food has been scientifically altered. Opponents, including food corporations, grocers and some farm advocates, argue that there is no conclusive evidence of any health or environmental risks linked to genetically engineered foods and warn that the measure will bump up food costs and deter producers outside the state from importing their goods.

Both camps came out in full force last week to make their cases during a nearly five-hour hearing convened by the House Agriculture Committee, which is analyzing the bill before providing a final recommendation on it to the full House by this fall.

Rep. Maureen Mann, a Deerfield Democrat who co-sponsored the measure, said she did so after hearing repeated concerns from constituents about the potential risks associated with genetically engineered foods, including changes to a food’s nutrient profile, the loss of crop variety and the weakening of crops’ ability to adapt to unexpected environmental threats.

“The more research I do, the more concerns I have about GMOs, but the bottom line is people have a right to know what they are putting in their bodies,” Mann said.

But John Dumais, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers’ Association, warned that labeling foods just in New Hampshire would drive up food costs and sour relations with out-of-state producers, as well as create an overall logistics nightmare for distributors.

Rep. Tara Sad, a Democrat from Walpole who chairs the agriculture committee, acknowledged those risks, noting that, “if it came down to a manufacturer retooling their distribution for our state or saying we just won’t sell Campbell soup in New Hampshire, what do you think they will say?”

Still, she and the bill’s authors have begun to address the fiscal concerns by moving to amend the measure’s original language so that it would go into effect only once other states have adopted similar bills. That would make it more financially viable for large out-of-state producers, Mann said, because by then they wouldn’t be catering specifically to New Hampshire.

But Dumais said he was skeptical that, even if every state in New England were to adopt nearly identical laws, prices would not rise and commerce would not take an overall hit.

“The only way this would work is if this was done at a federal level,” he said.

Congress, though, doesn’t appear poised to enact oversight anytime soon, Sad said. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration maintains that genetically engineered foods pose no threat, and the agency may soon approve the first scientifically engineered animal – a rapid-growing salmon – for human consumption.

Hirshberg said a national solution is necessary, but noted that it is “also important that we speak up for our liberties at the state level here in New Hampshire and in all of the other states deliberating this issue.”

The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, which would have the task of implementing the labeling changes, has expressed concerns about the fiscal impact of the bill. Commissioner Lorraine Merrill was not available to comment for this story.

This is not the first time the House has considered legislation concerning genetically engineered foods or labeling, though the bill is the most specific to date. But past measures, including a bill considered last year to establish a commission to study labeling, have ultimately failed, mostly due to concerns over their costs, Sad said.

She said that none of those previous actions would preclude her committee from taking the time to study and improve this measure.

“It’s an important issue. It’s timely,” Sad said. “The fact that so many other states are looking into this is reason enough that we owe it to the citizens of this state to really vet (the bill) out and make sure we are doing the right thing.”

By examining specific issues, such as the language of other states’ bills or the impact of labeling laws in Europe, the committee hopes to avoid reverting to common arguments that might stall a bill, Sad said.

“This is how we have to approach it, because otherwise it ends up being either ‘I want it’ or ‘I don’t,’ ” she said. “That doesn’t do the topic any good.”

She said the committee would start working on the measure in August, which would provide time for officials to see what backlash or legal repercussions might arise should other states implement their own labeling laws.

“By the time we’re done with all the amendments, this bill will look nothing like it does now,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or jblackman@cmonitor.com.)


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