Gabbard calls for GMO labels

LIHUE — Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard on Thursday went to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to speak against legislation that blocks local attempts to require mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients.

She called on colleagues instead to support a federal law that would require genetically modified foods to be labeled.

Despite urging for its defeat, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” was approved by a wide margin, 275-150, and had bipartisan support: 45 Democrats crossed over to join Republicans in supporting the bill.

But according to Gabbard, the legislation will roll back years of progress in the effort to make sure that people are given information about foods that are made with genetically engineered ingredients.

“This legislation makes a mockery of transparency and leaves U.S. consumers in the dark,” Gabbard said in a press release.

Gabbard urged Congress to instead adopt her own bill, the “Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act,” which she said would give Americans the ability to make educated choices about whether they want to consume food with genetically modified ingredients.

“Why make the labeling of such food just voluntary? Why not require it, as we require basic nutrition information on processed foods now?” she asked.

Mark Phillipson, lead for corporate affairs for seed research company Syngenta, which employs 175 people on Kauai, said there is an added cost to tracking where food sources come from that would drive up food prices, but the larger issue is that genetically modified (GMO) food is safe, and labeling creates an unfair stigma.

“It’s been well-studied, in fact it’s the most well-studied food group ever in the history of mankind, and there are numerous scientific organizations, including our own government’s regulatory agencies such as the FDA and EPA,” Phillipson said. “Every single major scientific entity has said this process and these products are safe. There are long-term studies, they are just as safe as any other food that you eat.”

Kauai’s favorable growing conditions allow plant-research companies to grow three to four crops per year so they can study and hone products on an accelerated timeframe.

In her floor speech, Gabbard also expressed concern that the legislation, if signed into law, would preempt local efforts to regulate pesticide use. But Phillipson said the labeling legislation has nothing to do with pesticide use, and the congresswoman was inappropriately tying the two issues together.

He added Snygenta only uses 20 to 30 percent of its approximately 3,000 acres on Kauai at a time, so pesticide use is lower than what many people may imagine.

But activists such as Fern Rosenstiel of the Ohana O Kauai advocacy group said that for her, the two issues are tied together since crops are being engineered to withstand greater pesticide use, which means there is more pesticide residue that makes its way into the food chain.

“The reality is that this technology (genetic engineering) has been used in conjunction with pesticides,” she said. “I would prefer to have the choice to not participate.”

The issue sparked debate on the congresswoman’s official Facebook page, with many of her fans thanking her for making a stand in favor of requiring labels.

“I think every American or anybody else, has a right to know what exactly is going into their bodies,” Mollene Parker said.

But there were also many commenters who said they believe GMOs are safe, such as Michael Dionne, who wrote, “I don’t support GMO labeling, because the labeling initiative is based on fear and is not backed by science. GMO labeling does not make food choices safer for the consumer.”

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration, where it faces an uncertain future.

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