September 11, 2013

Natural Foodie: It's been a bumper year for anti-GMO action

By AVERY YALE KAMILA

After last year's narrow defeat of a citizen-initiated referendum in California that would have required genetically engineered foods to be labeled, the issue of GMO food has done anything but disappear from the spotlight.

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This summer, non-GMO labels sprouted up everywhere, from the farmers market to the grocery store. Recent laws passed by Maine and Connecticut, and under consideration in a number of other states, would require foods containing GMOs to be labeled.

Avery Yale Kamila photos

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UPCOMING GMO RALLY

ACTIVISTS AROUND THE GLOBE plan to hold a second March Against Monsanto on Oct. 12. The event is intended to draw attention to Monsanto's global push for farmers to grow its patented GMO seeds. In Maine, organizers plan to meet in Portland's Monument Square at 2 p.m. Attendees are encouraged to bring a GMO-free picnic to enjoy before the march.

Instead, the debate over GMOs (genetically modified organisms) gained visibility during the summer, particularly with consumers but also with policy makers, regulators and food producers. In May, millions of protesters in more than 50 countries took to the streets to draw attention to agribusiness giant Monsanto's role in promoting GMO food. The Millions Against Monsanto protest organizers in Portland estimated more than 700 people turned out for the rally in Monument Square.

In July, the New York Times released the results of a poll about GMO food, which found 93 percent of respondents want transgenic food to be labeled. These results mirror similar national polls conducted by other organizations.

Such strong consumer sentiment is prompting food makers to take notice. In May, the New York Times reported on skyrocketing prices for non-GMO crops due to increased demand from food producers. Over two years, the paper reported, the price premium for non-GMO soybeans doubled from $1 to $2 per bushel.

Here's a recap of some of this season's other news about gene-altered food: 

STATE LABELING LAWS

This summer, Maine shot to the forefront of a state-based effort to enact GMO labeling laws. In June, first the Maine House (in a 141-4 vote) and then the Senate (in a 35-0 vote) passed a GMO labeling bill set to take effect when five other contiguous states enact similar legislation. In July, Gov. Paul LePage announced his intention to sign the bill when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

In addition to mandating disclosures on packaged foods, the bill would require transgenic seeds to be labeled. It would exempt from labeling restaurant meals, alcoholic beverages and meat- and dairy-fed GMO grain. Under the terms of the bill, foods containing genetically engineered ingredients couldn't be labeled "natural."

The labeling bill passed despite a warning from Attorney General Janet Mills that the legislation would likely prompt a lawsuit from Monsanto or other biotech firms. Lawmakers also turned back an attempt by industry groups to exempt baby formula, much of which is made from GMO soybeans, from labeling.

Other states working on similar legislation include Connecticut, which became the first state to enact a comprehensive labeling law when Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the bill June 25; Washington, where voters will decide in November whether or not they want GMO foods labeled; Vermont, where the House passed a labeling bill that will be taken up by the Senate next year; and New Hampshire, where lawmakers are debating similar legislation. GMO labeling legislation has been submitted in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon and Hawaii. In 2005, Alaska passed a law requiring gene-altered fish and shellfish to be labeled. 

FEDERAL LABELING LAWS

Marking a first for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency in June approved the use of a non-GMO label for two types of foods it regulates. Food producers can now label meat and liquid eggs as free from genetic engineering if the animals weren't fed a diet of gene-altered grain.

Also in June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a Farm Bill amendment requiring labels on GMO salmon. Under the terms of the amendment, the USDA would have $150,000 to set up a labeling program. The amendment needs additional approval by the full Senate before it's added to the contentious Farm Bill.

But when it came to another GMO bill, the full U.S. Senate said nay. It voted down another Farm Bill amendment in May proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which would have given states the right to require labels on transgenic food. The vote was 71-27 against the amendment. Sen. Angus King voted in favor of the amendment, and Sen. Susan Collins voted against it.

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