Tricia Farley-Bouvier: Our right to know what's in our food

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PITTSFIELD >> Growing up, I looked forward to the end of August as it meant a visit to my grandfather's garden in Richmond. Rows of fresh, unadulterated, sweet corn were ripe for the picking, and that's exactly what we did. The taste was unforgettable.

But as I reflect on this experience, my thoughts shift to the concerning state of our food today. It is not the food we served up when we were kids, and in the last 10 years the changes have come at an increasingly rapid rate. This is due in part to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated due to genetic engineering. Our food has been changed at the cellular level by Big Agriculture companies like Monsanto in order to be weed resistant.

In the U.S., GMOs are in as much as 80 percent of conventional processed food, according to the NonGMO Project, a nonprofit organization, which provides third party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products in the U.S. The fact there is no scientific consensus on the safety of genetically engineered foods is all the more unnerving.

However, consumers are denied the opportunity to make informed choices about their food selections because of the widespread inclusion of GMOs into the food stream. Considering that some of the most common GMO foods include soy, cotton, canola, corn, sugar beets, yellow squash, and zucchini, it's becoming hard to know what to avoid.

We all have a basic right to know what's in our food, and it starts with H3242, an act establishing the genetic engineering transparency food and seed labeling. I fully support this bipartisan legislation, and it clearly struck a chord among members of both the House and Senate — 153 of my colleagues, including the entire Berkshire delegation — have signed on as co-sponsors.

That rare breadth of support is due to the groundswell of individuals who have contacted their own elected leaders demanding to know what they are eating and serving their families. A 2013 New York Times poll revealed that 93 percent of respondents supported labeling food that has been genetically modified or engineered.

H 3242, modeled after similar legislation in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine, will require all food offered for retail sale in Massachusetts that is entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering to be labeled clearly and conspicuously with the following: "produced or partially produced with genetic engineering." If the product is not individually packaged, this label will be put on the bin or shelf where it is sold. Food produced with genetic engineering shall not be labeled as "natural," "naturally grown," "all natural," "naturally made" or anything similar that would tend to mislead a consumer.

The public will have an opportunity to share its thoughts on this legislation before the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture on Tuesday, Sept. 22. If passed, GMO labeling will equip Massachusetts residents with similar rights that already exists in 64 countries where GMO food has either been banned or requires labeling.

Food labeling is not a new concept, and the steps we have taken in past years have empowered consumers to make informed decisions. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 revealed per-serving nutritional information and the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act has helped vulnerable individuals avoid life-threatening ingredients. GMO labeling is simply another step to maintain transparency to the American food system and to ensure consumer confidence.

The well-funded opposition will argue that this measure will increase grocery costs for families. That is completely false. Food products often have different labels depending on region of sale. For example, some of the same products that we have here in the U.S. are sold in Europe under labels clearly indicating the GMO ingredients.

Big Agri also wants you to believe that what they are doing now is no different than developing hybrid fruits and vegetables. Another falsehood. While the creation of hybrids create a bigger variety, GMO produce exists to have a higher tolerance to herbicides. Therein lies the difference, and it's an important one to understand.

The data clearly show that when people know more about GMOs, their demand for transparency increases. Here in the commonwealth, we are listening, and this legislation will help to create a food system that we can all feel confident about.

Information is truly power when it comes to knowing what's in our food, and I encourage you to learn more. The Massachusetts Right to Know GMOs, a statewide network of safe food advocates, is leading the effort to pass the GMO labeling in the commonwealth. To learn more, please visit marighttoknow.com.

Tricia Farley-Bouvier is a Democratic state representative from Pittsfield.


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