Words and photos by Matt Kelly
Editor's note: This is part one in a weeklong series about GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) Labeling in NYS.
It's National Cereal Day - but before you dig into a heaping bowl of marshmallows and puffed wheat, it might be time to consider what's in your food.
On February 9, bill A617 was approved in the New York State Assembly Committee of Consumer Affairs and Protection when nine of the sixteen members cast affirmative votes. The effective title of bill A617 is “An act to amend the general business law and the agriculture and markets law, in relation to the labeling of genetically modified foods.” The bill has moved on to the Codes Committee for consideration and then, if passed, will move to the floor of the Assembly itself.
If A617 is passed by the full Assembly (and if its sister bill, S485, is passed by the Senate), New York will become the most recent and most influential state in the Union to require genetically modified food to be labeled for consumers.
But this legislation is part of a bigger game. What happens in the chambers of Albany is both driving - and being driven - by much bigger forces.
On March 1, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry approved the National Voluntary Bioengineered Food Labeling Standard bill. As the name implies, this bill would establish voluntary standards for labeling GM foods and – in the process – prevent states from deciding that such labels should be mandatory:
No State or a political subdivision of a State may directly or indirectly establish under any authority or continue in effect as to any food or seed in interstate commerce any requirement relating to the labeling of whether a food… or seed is genetically engineered.
“This is really a conversation about a few states dictating to every state the way food moves from farmers to consumers in the value chain,” says Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), sponsor of the bill and chairman of the committee, in reference to state-level efforts to require labeling. “This patchwork approach of mandates adds costs to national food prices.”
But on March 2, a competing bill was introduced to the full Senate: The Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act. It would set mandatory standards for labeling for the entire country and require manufacturers to disclose the presence of GM ingredients on the Nutrition Fact Panel.
“Citizens have a right to know in a free society what is in their food,” said Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), sponsor of the bill. “This is really a debate about whether you believe that, in a democracy, citizens have a right to know.”
Both bills come on the heels of HR 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, also known as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act. This bill also sought to create voluntary standards for labeling GM foods and to keep states from establishing their own. HR 1599 was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but never taken up in the Senate. It also failed to be included as a legislative rider in the must-pass omnibus spending bill at the end of the year.
Proponents and opponents of mandatory labeling are now in a race to decide how consumers should be informed about the presence of genetically modified ingredients in the food they eat. On July 1, Vermont’s law requiring GM foods to be clearly labeled for consumers will go into effect. Once this happens, both the legal and political realities of labeling will change dramatically; one side will win, the other will lose.
"We are out of time,” said Sen. Roberts in announcing his bill. “The time to act is now.”
New York is poised to make a very big difference. When our state takes action, others pay attention. And in this current fight over how best to keep consumers informed, it all starts with A617.
The New York Bill
Assembly member Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) is the sponsor of A617. She is no newcomer to the issue of GM foods. During the 2013–14 legislative session, she sponsored a similar bill that made it all the way to the Ways and Means Committee but was never taken up.
“I heard from my constituents,” she says. “It’s a good piece of legislation and it’s responding to what people want.”
A617 has the support of 70 other members in the Assembly (S485 has the support 28 Senators) and is crafted around a simple idea:
Any food for human consumption offered for retail sale in New York is misbranded if it is entirely genetically engineered or partially produced with genetic engineering and that fact is not disclosed.
It seems like a straightforward proposition: label food that is genetically modified and let consumers make informed choices about what they eat. But nothing in politics is ever straightforward. The opposition to mandatory labeling in New York is ardent and entrenched.
But to understand the disagreement, you first need to understand a bit about what genetically modified foods are.
The GMOs in our Food
Let’s start with a definition of GM food – also known as genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) – that comes from two sources on different sides of the issue.
Monsanto, far and away the largest manufacturer of genetically modified seeds and the chemicals used with them, gives us this explanation:
Genetically modified crops – also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), GE crops or biotech crops – include one or more genes from another organism, such as a bacterium or other microbe or other plant species. For plants, the inserted gene results in a beneficial characteristic in the plant, such as the ability to tolerate environmental pressures from damaging insects or drought. GMO is commonly used to refer to GM plants, as well as the food or ingredients from GM plants.
Consumer Reports – the nonprofit organization we trust to provide accurate and unbiased analysis of products and guide our purchasing decisions – provides the following explanation:
Genetically modified organisms are created by deliberately changing the genetic makeup of a plant or animal in ways that could never occur in nature. The majority of GMO crops currently on the market have been genetically engineered to produce their own pesticides and/or withstand herbicides that normally would kill them. Farmers use the herbicides to control weeds.
Taken together, we can understand GMOs to be crops that have been modified in ways and with techniques that circumvent the natural process of reproduction by inserting genetic information from one organism into another. This is done to produce a variety of traits in our food that might not otherwise be possible under natural circumstances.
What GM crops exist?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – the government agency responsible for protecting American farms and regulating the introduction of genetically engineered crops into the agricultural system – there are currently seventeen types of GE crops that have been granted non-regulated status and can be sold and grown commercially in the United States: alfalfa, apple, beet, corn, cotton, flax, papaya, plum, potato, rapeseed, rice, rose, soybean, squash, sugar beet, sweet corn, tobacco, and tomato.
Crops are being genetically modified for a variety of reasons: product quality, agronomic properties, marker genes, resistance to pests and pathogens, and herbicide tolerance. Some crop types are modified in multiple different ways and by different companies. For example, there have been 36 non-regulated GM corn varieties released by thirteen different companies since 1995; different companies might have developed GM corn for the same trait (resistance to glyphosate) or the same company might have developed GM corn for different traits (producing its own pesticide or increased nutritional value). Most of the GM crops being grown in the United States are engineered to be herbicide resistant (HT) or to produce their own insecticides (Bt). GM corn and GM soybeans are most common.
Corn covers 94 million acres - and 88 percent of that is engineered to be used with the herbicide glyphosate; soybeans cover 76 million acres and 95 percent of that is engineered to be used with glyphosate. In New York, the acreage planted in corn and soy is 1.2 million acres and 310,000 acres, respectively.
What GM crops are in our food?
Just because a GM variety exists doesn’t mean you’re currently eating it.
According to the Non-GMO Project, the genetically engineered crops we’re most likely to find in our food right now are corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola, cotton (as cottonseed oil), alfalfa, summer squash, and papaya.
This list is similar to information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
The majority of GE plants are used to make ingredients that are then used in other food products. Such ingredients include:
- Corn starch in soups and sauces
- Corn syrup used as a sweetener
- Corn oil, canola oil and soybean oil in mayonnaise, salad dressings, breads, and snack foods
- Sugar from sugar beets in various foods
Other major crops with GE varieties include potatoes, squash, apples, and papayas.
Currently, if you’re going to find GM ingredients in your groceries, it will most likely be in something you buy off a shelf in a box, bag, can or other type of container.
For people who want GM ingredients labeled, the issue is simple: consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. There are concerns about the safety of eating genetically engineered food. There are concerns about whether or not glyphosate and other pesticides used to grow GM crops are safe for both people and the planet.
But, regardless of these issues, consumers simply have the right to choose.
“I don’t know if they’re safe or not. I’m not saying they cause any particular syndrome or disease,” says Stacie Orell, director of GMO Free NY and coordinator for the NY GMO Labeling Coalition. “What we’re arguing is that we should all be able to go down the aisle and make decisions about what we want to buy.”
For those opposed to mandatory labeling, the decision involves issues other than a consumer’s right to know: the body of scientific research shows genetically modified foods are safe to eat; mandatory labeling will require consumers to pay more for their groceries; and states should not act alone and create a patchwork of different labeling laws for the food industry.
On the face of things, these points of opposition seem reasonable. But how valid are they? Do they outweigh a consumer’s right to know?
And are they important enough to stop New York from requiring that GM foods be labeled?