Connecticut lawmakers push for clearer rules about genetically modified foods

State Rep. Dick Roy (left) proposed legislation to require genetically modified foods to be labeled (photo courtesy housedems.ct.gov)

Recent federal court rulings on genetically modified foods have left Connecticut activists more than a bit baffled about what sort of legislation they can propose to ensure that consumers know whether their food has been altered through genetic engineering.

State Rep. Dick Roy last year proposed legislation to require GM foods to be labeled, but that bill went nowhere, despite the fact that Roy is co-chairman of the Environment Committee.

The food industry and agri-business giants like Monsanto (the king of genetically modified seeds in the U.S.) are adamantly opposed, and theU.S. Department of Agriculturesees no need for such labeling because it agrees that GM foods are safe and GM crops can be grown more cheaply.

A recent federal court ruling is being interpreted as prohibiting states from requiring labels to include information about genetic engineering or modification, Roy says.

Roy believes the effect of the ruling is that, "You cannot mandate a business to do any labeling."

At the same time, Roy adds, a separate court decision rejected Monsanto's claim that organic producers shouldn't be allowed to label their products as "not genetically modified."

Roy says that ruling indicates that any producers of non-genetically altered products are free to put on a "No GM" label.

Those dual rulings would seem to leave state lawmakers without much to do on this issue. They can't force GM foods to be labeled and non-GM producers can do what they want.

But Roy says growing concerns about potential health problems from genetically altered foods could offer an opening for organic food activists.

A recent article in The Atlantic examined recent research that shows genetic information can apparently be transmitted to humans through the foods they eat.

Scientists in China reported finding tiny strands of ribonucleic acid, called microRNA, in the tissues of humans who ate rice. The study appears to indicate that eating plant material can influence human cell function — something that would contradict Monsanto's claims that GM foods can't possibly affect us.

According to Monsanto's website, there's no need to test the safety of GM foods for humans because they're essentially the same as non-GM foods.

Monsanto's big moneymaker in the world of GM crops is what's known as "Roundup Ready" seeds. If you plant Roundup Ready seeds, you can grow crops that won't be hurt by Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, which effectively kills everything but those Roundup Ready plants.

(Of course, that includes a lot of "weeds" like milkweed, which is apparently disappearing from huge swaths of Midwestern Roundup Ready corn and soybean regions. Worried entomologists warn eradication of milkweed could threaten the monarch butterfly, which depends on milkweed during its long migrations to and from its wintering grounds in Mexico.)

Roy believes this sort of research about the potential genetic health-related problems could open the door to state action from a health-safety standpoint.

The problem with that is that the federal courts have long upheld the federal government's policy that GM products don't need to be tested for human safety.

According to Roy, the difficulty with changing federal policy on this issue is the huge influence that current and former Monsanto executives and employees have on the USDA because of a classic "revolving door" between agency and company.

"The problem is that the USDA and Monsanto are almost one and the same," Roy argues.

Roy says a Connecticut working group on the GM issue met last week and plan to discuss various options in the near future, and he acknowledges they still don't know for sure what they'll propose when the General Assembly opens next month.

"We're going to tackle this issue one way or another, but I can't tell you exactly what path we're going to take," Roy says.

 

ghladky@hartfordadvocate.com

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