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Will CT Be the First State to Label GMOs?

Mark Winne was the executive director of the Hartford Food System from 1979 to 2003. He currently consults and writes on food system issues from Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the author of Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture and Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty.

A version of this essay appeared in the Hartford Courant.

StrawberryIf there’s one thing that stands out for me during my 25 years in Connecticut, it was the quiet but delicious return of good food and local farms.

For readers who are less than 40 years old, please remember, there were no farmers’ markets in the state until 1978. Today, according to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, there are 118. There were also no community supported agriculture farms. Today, according to Connecticut NOFA, there are 70.

Throughout the latter decades of the 20th century, subdivisions were consuming the state’s farmland faster than you could eat a Glastonbury peach. Today, between the state’s farmland preservation program and the Connecticut Farmland Trust, over 325 farms and 40,000 acres have been permanently protected. Overall, the number of farms is no longer on the decline but actually on the rise. And with equal importance, residents living in lower income neighborhoods are witnessing a return of supermarkets to some of the state’s worst food deserts.

Progress like this cannot be taken for granted, nor can it go unattributed. It was due to the public will, meaning the actions of thousands of informed Connecticut citizens, policymakers, and concerned organizations who thoughtfully reshaped the direction of the state’s then atrophying food system.

4737I sense such a destiny-making moment is before Connecticut again. The passage of House Bill 6519, “An Act Concerning the Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food,” would not only make Connecticut the first state to require such labeling, it would also give the state’s citizens a chance to chart the direction of their food system. Labeling food products comprised of ingredients grown or raised by genetically modified means will grant every Connecticut consumer the opportunity to make an informed choice, just as they have done for local food, farmland protection, and access to healthy food for all.

The efficacy and safety of genetic modification is still in doubt and will be debated for some time to come. Clearly, the public must engage in this debate and not concede its outcome to a small number of profit-driven biotechnology corporations, scientists, and federal officials. But given the pit-bull determination of the food industry to fight every attempt to rein it in – a fight financed with bottomless coffers – genetically engineered ingredients will remain on grocery store shelves for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean that we have to consume them if we don’t want to. Hence, the need for information, which is why savvy marketers like Whole Foods will soon be labeling GE food.

It is prudent to beware of food and farm corporations bearing gifts. Like a Trojan horse that appears one morning on the town common, genetically engineered food proponents claim that it poses no harm to humans or the environment, and that we need the technology to feed the nine billion people expected by 2050.  Consider the claims and the source. Already, genetically engineered crops have been associated with the decline of monarch butterfly populations as well as a greater degree of herbicide tolerance – requiring more herbicides instead of less. Yields from GE seeds have shown mixed results, not always exceeding those of conventional or hybridized seeds. And United Nation’s bodies have not embraced GMOs as a way to feed a hungry world, proposing instead more sustainable agriculture methods and a greater emphasis on small-scale farming and social equity in developing nations.

When entering uncharted territory where risk is prevalent, we should employ the precautionary principle. This means that the introduction of new technologies require a much higher level of certainty and scientific consensus than we currently have with GMOs. As my mother taught me when I first learned to cross busy streets, look both ways, look again and again, and then proceed with caution.

I’ve always been proud of Connecticut’s independent streak. A tenacious refusal to accept pat solutions and the mediocrity of market-driven events has served it well over the years. Information is power because it gives people the power to choose and to act. Labeling genetically engineered food will give the state’s consumers the information they need to make their own choice while allowing its citizens to choose the food system that reflects their needs and values.

Photo by Jessie Bennett