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Editorial: Pass the food labeling bill

Last modified: 4/16/2013 3:30:09 PM
Harm from consuming genetically modified foods is well down our list of human health concerns. Hard evidence that eating foods whose genes have been manipulated to confer some benefit to farmers, consumers and most of all chemical companies like Monsanto, does not yet exist. But Rep. Maureen Mann, the Deerfield Democrat who sponsored House Bill 660, requiring the labeling of food sold in New Hampshire, got it exactly right when she said, “The bottom line is people have a right to know what they are putting in their bodies.” Lawmakers should pass the bill.

The food industry and grocers warn that rather than go to the expense of complying with a labeling law enacted by such a small state, producers would simply avoid selling their products here. Making the law effective only after passage of labeling laws by a significant number of states would address that problem, while giving New Hampshire the voice it deserves in what has become a national debate.

Gary Hirshberg, a Concord resident and chairman of the organic yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm, co-chairs Just Label It, a national campaign to pass a genetically modified food labeling law at the national level. Hirshberg is right. Labeling legislation should be clear, comprehensive and national. That will happen eventually, despite the massive lobbying power of agribusiness and the chemical industry. But Hirshberg is also right when he says that speaking up at the state level will hasten the day when consumers have the information they need to decide for themselves whether they want to eat a given a product with a genetically-modified ingredient or not.

California voters recently rejected a bill that would require that genetically modified foods be labeled, but only after companies waged a $40 million lobbying effort to defeat the measure. But that battle, unless Congress acts or corporations give in, will be fought over and over again. Legislatures in some 20 states, among them New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Washington, New Mexico and Missouri, are considering labeling laws. The sooner they pass them, the sooner the federal tipping point will be reached.

In the end, however, one player may have more say over the fate of the labeling campaign than any group of states: Walmart, which is now the nation’s leading seller of organic foods. In January, Walmart joined a meeting that included many of the nation’s biggest food companies and labeling proponents. If it decides that its customers want genetically modified food labeled, its suppliers will have no choice but to comply.

More than 50 nations already require some degree of labeling to identify genetically modified foods. The United States should do so as well. Once that’s accomplished, lawmakers at the state and federal level should turn their attention to other problems inherent in becoming ever more reliant on genetically modified crops and the seeds needed to produce them. Because they are protected by patents, they allow chemical companies, which can develop near monopolies when it comes to a foodstuff like corn or soybeans, to control the price. They can come to dominate the market and drive out non-modified strains, which over time leads to a lack of genetic diversity and the risk that a single pest or disease could destroy the lion’s share of a given crop. Such problems, in the end, will probably prove far more worrisome than falling ill from eating a square tomato or one that glows in the dark.


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