By TOM KOCAL | Prairie Advocate News 6-28-13NORMAL, IL – A full house of over 250 people heard the first of three Illinois Senate subcommittee hearings on the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Normal, Illinois, on June 20th, 2013 at the Bone Student Center on the campus of Illinois State University.
The hearing was conducted by the Senate Sub-committee on Food Labeling, chaired by Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria). Joining him on the sub-committee were Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora), Sen. Michael Frerichs (D-Champaign), and Sen. Sam McCann (R-Jacksonville).
For the first time, Illinois Senate bill SB1666, sponsored by Senators Koehler, Martinez, Cunningham, Sandoval, and Cullerton, is currently under consideration. The bill would require that GMO ingredients contained in food offered for retail sale in Illinois be labeled as “genetically engineered (GE).” In considering the labeling of GMOs, Illinois joins 26 other states that have recently introduced bills to either label or ban such ingredients in food.
By the flip of a coin, Sen. Koehler announced that the supporters of labeling would be the first to testify. The supporters included Brian Endress, Associate Professor of Agricultural Law at the University of Illinois, and Director of the European Union Center, Illinois State University Professor Emeritus, geneticist, and farmer Herman Brockman, Hailey Golds, advocate with the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, and Wes King of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance (ISA), an organization that represents both farmers and consumers.
Several grassroots environmental organizations including Food and Water Watch, Right to Know Illinois, Weston A. Price Foundation, and Organic Consumers Association organized to bring concerned citizens to the hearing, nearly filling the room.
Pro-labeling testimonyThe first to present testimony was Endress, who was attending the hearing via Skype. Endress pointed out that his comments were based on his personal study of the various legal issues related to genetic engineering, and do nor represent the U of I or any other organization.
“The courts have characterized the difference between the manufacturing process of a food item, as opposed to the characteristics of the end product that is consumed by the public,” Endress stated. “SB1666 does not mandate process labels, but rather indications of compositional differences in the final food product. The DNA of a GMO peach, or any other genetically engineered whole food subject to the labeling regime proposed in SB1666 is compositionally different from a non-GM, conventionally bred peach . . .Scientists can distinguish the two products.”
He cited the recent example of GMO wheat contamination that has impacted U.S. export markets. “The contamination was identified through DNA testing of the end product, not some process-based traceability regime . . .SB1666 is not a mere process-based labeling regime, but imposes the obligation to label based on a difference in the DNA of the final product.”
Prof. Brockman highlighted that labeling would give consumers the freedom to choose whether or not to buy foods with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.
“Freedom of choice of what I eat and drink is a bedrock and precious freedom. But I cannot fully exercise that freedom without transparency in labeling,” Brockman said. He said the US government took a “giant and progressive step” when it required “considerable transparency” with the labeling of the ingredients on processed food.
Brockman also asserted that the safety of GMO crops has not been confirmed scientifically and that GMO foods are not equivalent to non-GMO foods, because they have been altered by the introduction of genes from other organisms. Brockman claimed that despite the lack of evidence, the agricultural industry has engaged in a campaign of misinformation about the purported safety of GMOs.
When Sen. McCann asked, “How would you grade the federal food safety system?”, Brockman answered he would give it an “F,” since, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require that companies test new GMOs for food safety, and that the EPA only checks for affects on GMOs’ altering other species. Brockman likes the European Union system better, and will submit more information for review at the next hearings. Brockman added that ag industry claims that GMO crops produce higher yields is false, citing scientific evidence suggesting that yields are comparable between GMO and non-GMO crops.
In her testimony, Golds indicated that under World Trade Organization rules, US exports containing or contaminated by GMO products can be blocked by foreign countries such as Japan and the European Union which already have bans in place against GMOs in their food. She also argued that labeling would be useful for tracking any possible health effects that GMOs could have on the population.
King added that labeling GMOs would be a positive move for many of the farmers that the ISA represents who want to continue farming using conventional (non-organic) methods, but who desire to use non-GMO seeds and to be able to sell non-GMO foods. As a state, King added, Illinois is missing out on economic opportunity world-wide by not requiring GE labeling.
“ISA is an agriculture organization,” King stressed. “Our objective in the work we do is to support farmers and create new opportunities for farmers in rural Illinois, and to thrive. We support all farmers: conventional, organic, and everything in between. The reason I am here to support GE labeling, is because is is what our members, both farmers and consumers, want.”
Anti-labeling testimonyThe three anti-labeling speakers argued that labeling GMOs would be costly for manufacturers, would stifle innovation in the biotech industry, and would give the impression that GMO foods are “franken-foods” and unsafe to consume.
Professor Miller also clarified that his views were his own, and not the views of UIUC. Miller stated that the scientific evidence pointed to there being no difference at the cellular level between GMO and non-GMO foods. Miller, also a farmer, spoke of his experience planting genetically engineered BT corn, saying that it allowed him to use fewer pesticides on his crops, since the GMO corn has a gene inserted into it by scientists that is toxic to insect pests.
Sen. Holmes wanted clarification from Miller that BT is naturally-occuring in the soil, including her own garden. He stated, “Yes.”
Sen. McCann asked Miller about allergies and nutrition, wondering if there were any studies that definitively answer whether or not there is a negative affect on consumers of GE food. Miller stated that the “preponderance of the evidence suggests that is not the case,” causing an uproar from the audience, who called for investigating independent research, rather than industry research.
Ron Moore, a farmer from Roseville, farms about 2000 acres of corn and soybeans with his brother. They also have a feeder cattle operation with 200 acres of pasture.
“Farmers like me feel they have a moral obligation to provide food for our community, our state, our country, and the world,” Moore said. “Farmers are in the food business by producing raw materials that make up the food supply. We will need to be able to use all of the available tools to produce food for all the souls that will be living on Planet Earth by 2050.
“Biotechnology helps to combat disease, increases annual yields, keeps food prices in check, and improves freshness and taste. Many foods that are common in our diet are obtained from plant varieties that were developed using conventional genetic techniques of breeding and selection. 86% of all the corn grown in the US, 93% of soybeans and cotton, are grown using biotechnology. A record 15.4 million farmers, in 29 countries, are using agricultural biotechnology.”
“To me, GE labeling is unnecessary and sends a message that GE foods are unsafe, or unhealthy. This will only serve to increase the retail cost of food and discourage new advances in biotechnology, that historically have been the hallmark of agricultural research in Illinois, and has contributed to our unparalleled success in providing food, fiber and fuel for a growing world population.”
Mark Denson, president of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, believes that the federal government (FDA) is the proper place for oversight and regulation of the industry, under the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act.
“No other state at this time has implemented a food labeling requirement. I believe Connecticut passed it, but it only takes affect if four other states with a total population of 20 million people in the northeast also passes labeling requirements,” Denson stated.
Format problemsThe hearing in Normal was not a debate format, but several times, members of the audience that were pro-labeling countered claims put forth by the anti-labeling speakers. Clearly, the vast majority of the approximately 250 people in the crowd supported labeling GMOs. Many of the people felt that important issues were not brought up, and were left out of the debate because of the 2-panel format.
One gentleman told Sen. McCann after the hearing that because the drug companies own the FDA, GE labeling will never get done at the federal level. He said that was evident by this hearing. He had driven 146 miles to be there, but never had the chance to speak. Food safety is more important than the cost issue, but it was not discussed.
McCann said because of the passion of both pro- and con-labeling, it will be difficult to sort out. “What we’re looking for is objectivity. I came here being honest in the fact that I am not an expert, and don’t claim to be. But I am looking for facts, the best resources. I want to make an informed, knowledgeable and wise decision, because I understand that the way I vote will impact all of us - I get that.
“I was a little disappointed that the conversation seemed to lean towards the economic direction as opposed to an over-arching direction that included food safety and environmental concerns. We didn’t even touch on those. Maybe at the next hearings we can get into some of that. I am looking forward to the next sub-committee.”
Jessica Fujan, organizer with Food and Water Watch, echoed McCann’s sentiments. “The idea from the manufacturers that labeling would create a lot of costs associated with infrastructure is ridiculous. It’s not surprising to me that the opposition panel wanted to create another kind of labeling. We think it’s appalling that farmers who are creating food without additives, such as genetic modification, are forced to go through the kinds of certification to indicate that their products are natural, while people who are essentially conducting science experiments in a laboratory that have not been tested by independent researchers, are not required to label their products.
“We’re already segregating GE and non-GE crops for labeling and distribution in other countries,” Fujan added. “At Food & Water Watch, we feel there are health concerns about the use of GE food. However, there is not sufficient research for us to be making any widespread claims about GE food and human health risks, aside from those affiliated with pesticides. It is widely accepted that both pesticides and agri-chemicals are both bad for humans and the environment, however, GE foods are hotly debated issue because the companies that wish to sell us their products are the only ones who are currently conducting any large scale testing of their products. They obviously have a vested interest in selling us those products, but their trials are also woefully inadequate to reach conclusive evidence about the safety of their products. Until the government and independent studies are conducted, we won’t have that evidence.”
Kathyrn Pirtle, musician and author, representing the Weston A. Price Foundation, corrected her fragile health condition 25 years ago by altering her diet, eating food from farms with animals on pasture, “Animals eating their natural diets,” Pirtle said. “Those happen to be non-GMO foods. “I returned to the foods of our ancestors, who lived on farms and who had animals raised naturally. These principles completely healed my chronic pain and my digestive system. What I did, without realizing it, was remove all GMO foods from my diet.”
Pirtle believes that GMO foods are destroying the human digestive system, making the gut permeable, attributing to the development of life-long illnesses - autism, cancer, digestive disorders, asthma, and allergies. Pirtle feels that the passage of SB1666 is a step in the right direction, but was not pleased with the results of this first hearing.
“I feel the hearing was misguided. It was not taking into account the numbers of people that were in this audience that represent the millions of people throughout this country that are demanding to know where their food is coming from, and what kind of system it was grown in. They’re demanding the right to know.
“All of this ‘skirting the issue’ is very troubling,” Pirtle continued. “I honestly felt railroaded in this hearing, because they were not addressing the fact that the public is speaking very loud by coming to this hearing, making it a point to travel here, hundreds of miles for some. This is a big deal for the majority of the people in this state and throughout the country. It is our duty to comment. If we come here, yet don’t have a voice, we must continue to be vocal about our right to know.”
Koehler invited the audience to sign a witness slip online, since they “unfortunately ran out of paper slips,” and let the sub-committee know whether you support the initiative or are against GMO labeling. Go to the Illinois General Assembly web page at ilga.gov, click on the dashboard located on the front page; that takes you to a page with House and Senate. Click on Senate, go to Committees, click on Food Labeling Committee, and submit your witness slip and comments. If you do not have internet access, your comments may be submitted by letter directly to The Honorable Sen. Dave Koehler, State Capitol, Springfield, IL 62706.
Two more hearings are scheduled next month, one in Carbondale at SIU on Aug. 7 from 10 am to noon, and another in Chicago on Sept. 17, 10 am to noon at the Thompson Center.