You are what you eat! This well known phrase originated over a century ago, but only in recent years have consumers truly been able to make informed decisions about the kinds of foods we choose to eat.
Ingredient labels, calorie counts and sugar contents allow consumers to make smarter nutritional decisions about their food. The next frontier in food labeling is the battle over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and it’s playing out right here in Massachusetts.
Genetic modification involves the altering of an organism’s DNA by introducing genes from one species into another unrelated species. GMOs differ from the kind of conventional cross-breeding we learned about in science class, which involves crossing related species. GMOs are not bound by such natural constraints. They are engineered in a laboratory using precision gene splicing techniques that can introduce desired traits into distinct species of much different origins –– such as a bacteria and a plant, or a fish gene in a tomato.
Herbicide-resistant corn and soy products, rot-free tomatoes and insect-resistant zucchini are some common GMO examples we see in our local supermarkets today. Many GMOs also appear in processed food ingredients, which can be harder to detect.
The relative merits of GMOs are open for debate. In some instances, science may be able to produce genetically modified crops that are superior to what Mother Nature has provided. Some might even help solve the hunger crisis in parts of the world. However the potential impacts and risks of genetically modified foods, both to our environment and our health, are not fully known. That is a debate that should be determined in the scientific and medical arenas -- not the political one -- and certainly not by whomever has the biggest bank account or the best lobbyists.
What is not debatable is our right as consumers to know what is in our foods. This is a decision every individual and every parent should be empowered make on their own – just as today we can read the labels and decide whether to buy organic, sugar-free, low-calorie or gluten-free.
Many other countries have taken steps to regulate, and in some cases even ban GMOs. In Europe, GMOs can only be marketed after passing a strict evaluation and safety assessment, including mandatory labeling. The United States lags behind. Only Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have mandatory GMO labeling laws on the books and none are currently in effect yet. Massachusetts can help lead the way.
A bill I have co-sponsored, the Genetic Engineering Transparency Food and Seed Labeling Act (H. 3242) would change that and ensure that all foods sold in Massachusetts that contain genetically engineered ingredients be clearly labeled. It’s a simple, transparent and low cost way to empower consumers to make educated decisions.
Our legislation has received broad, bi-partisan support. In fact, more than 150 state legislators of both parties and all political stripes have already endorsed the bill. A packed room of supporters testified in support of the legislation during a hearing last month before the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture which I sit on.
Opponents of GMO labeling laws were hard to come by at this recent State House hearing. The few industry lobbyists who did testify offered mostly scare tactics and staked out the farcical position that somehow GMO labels would confuse, rather than educate, consumers!
GMO labeling laws recently passed in Connecticut and Maine both include a trigger clause that require other states to opt in before they take effect. So by passing H. 3242 Massachusetts will not just empower our own residents, we can serve as a regional tipping point to march even closer to a national GMO labeling standard.
It’s time we all knew what we eat!
Rep. Josh Cutler represents the Sixth Plymouth District (Pembroke, Duxbury, Hanson) in the Mass. Legislature. He can be reached at email@example.com.