I don’t know about you, but I like “choice,” and so do an increasing number of Rhode Islanders who care deeply about what they eat. Whether it is parents looking for the best food for their children or our top chefs interested in the freshest ingredients, “buy local” appears to be gaining traction. Great organizations like Farm Fresh RI and the RI Food Policy Council are working to make local food sources more prevalent, more sustainable and more affordable. We are proud of our reputation as a leader in this area.
I feel strongly that “you are what you eat.” Knowing this truism, people across Rhode Island are telling us they want more information about the food they put in their shopping carts. One of the most spirited issues right now surrounds genetically modified foods. Are they good for us or bad for us? The problem is that we really don’t know.
In an average grocery store, roughly 75 percent of processed foods contain “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs. Unfortunately, Rhode Islanders shopping at their neighborhood Shaw’s or Stop & Shop or Dave’s don’t know if the food they are buying contains GMOs, because there is no labeling requirement. This needs to change. In the spirit of Roger Williams, Rhode Islanders have a “right to know” what we are eating, and we, as a state, should join the growing coalition of states requiring labeling of GMO foods. Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have already passed GMO labeling legislation, and a similar bill in Massachusetts has the support of 75 percent of the legislature. Additionally, over 60 countries, from Russia to Italy (and almost all of the developed world) have enacted similar legislation. The European Union has required GMO labeling since 1997.
Genetically engineered food is prevalent in grocery stores, yet the U.S. government does not perform or require independent safety testing. Perhaps this is because the biotech industry allegedly, according to the Food and Water Watch, has spent $547 Million lobbying Congress from 1999-2009. To make matters worse, according to the same organization, over 300 former Congressional and White House staff members are now employed by biotech firms as lobbyists. This doesn’t smell right, alongside a growing body of evidence linking GMOs to personal health risks and environmental impacts. While further research is needed, public opinion polls repeatedly show more than 90% of Americans want to be able to make informed decisions about whether or not they purchase and consume GMOs.
Despite the overwhelming support of the American people, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, representing the largest chemical and food processing companies, are fighting labeling requirements here and in other states, because they would prefer to keep consumers in the dark about what they are eating. So much for “you are what you eat” and “the customer is always right.” They claim that providing factual information about our food will confuse consumers and raise food prices.
Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on industry-funded assertions of impossibility and impracticality. Dozens of countries have labeled GMOs without increasing food costs, and state after state is considering jumping on the bandwagon. I believe that every Rhode Islander deserves to know whether food contains GMOs, and the time is now for our state government to step in.
I have filed legislation in the Senate that would create a GMO labeling requirement in Rhode Island, and I thank Representatives Raymond Hull, Dennis Canario and Blake Fillippi who have also filed GMO bills in the House. There are differences in the various pieces of legislation, but the point is to require that products containing GMOs be plainly labeled, so that consumers can simply decide for themselves whether or not to buy them and eat them. I have nothing personally “against” GMOs, I just think people have a right to know if they are eating them.
Let’s make Rhode Island the next state to join the trend toward a transparent food supply for all Rhode Islanders where the ingredients are not masked by the huge corporations that, not surprisingly, may be motivated more by money than by health.
Donna M. Nesselbush is a Democratic Rhode Island state senator representing District 15, which includes portions of Pawtucket and North Providence. She introduced legislation this week to require labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms.