The call to action went out mid-February to Connecticut’s organic farming community and its friends — a bill to require labeling of some genetically modified foods was up in the legislature for a fourth time in recent years.

“We should have a lot of people at the hearing at (the) LOB and as many as possible willing to testify,” wrote Bill Duesing, executive director of CT NOFA, Connecticut’s branch of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, in a strategy email to his top support tier.

And they did. Dozens made their opinions known in person or in writing, many expressing it simply, like Pauline Lord of White Gate Farm in East Lyme:

“Consumers need to know what is in their food so they can choose to buy it or not,” she wrote.

But there’s nothing simple about what is variously called GMOs — genetically modified organisms, GE — genetically engineered — food, or transgenic food.

And that means the little state of Connecticut has now waded into the very big and complicated GMO froth of federal regulation policies, the depths of patent law, states’ rights, local farming, the muscle of agri-giants like Monsanto, international trade, a considerable amount of misinformation and vast quantities of unknowns.

Genetic crop modification involves the insertion or deletion of genetic material to produce a particular effect. It can be used to create properties like drought resistance, browning prevention or higher oil content. But typically it’s used to make crops resistant to pests or pesticides. Most notable is so-called Roundup Ready seed, named for its resistance to Monsanto’s widely used herbicide.

Critics and proponents disagree whether GMO use will lead to more or less need for treatments to kill weeds, bugs and diseases. There is also concern that all of the above will eventually become resistant to whatever treatment is used.

GMO labeling would be costly

There are actually only a dozen or so approved GMO crops. But the main ones among them are ubiquitous in our food system — corn for animal feed or processing such as corn syrup; alfalfa; soybeans; canola; and sugar beets. As much as 90 percent of these grown in the U.S. today are GMO, and one or more of them appear in a huge percentage of mainstream processed foods. Animal feed is almost unavoidably GMO.

Labeling GMO products would be a massive, and likely expensive, undertaking.

“This is not something that a singular state ought to be tackling on its own,” said Steven Reviczky, Connecticut’s agriculture commissioner, echoing a widely held sentiment. “It’s really something that is broader and should be handled in Congress.”

Attempts to do that have failed. Among states, only Alaska has passed a labeling law for all GMO fish and shellfish, although the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any GMO fish — a ruling on GMO salmon has been pending for more than a year. More than a dozen states are considering labeling laws, with Vermont’s closest to approval. Recent efforts in California and Washington have failed.

By contrast, the European Union has required GMO labeling since 1997 and at least six countries in the EU have banned GMO cultivation. Unlabeled GMO imports from the U.S. are not permitted.

While some think state efforts could harm a national one — the Just Label It national campaign has mounted a massive signature drive aimed at the FDA — Duesing, whose CT NOFA was a major force behind the Connecticut bill, disagreed. “What better way to get the federal government to move than if a number of states say ‘this is what we want,’” he said.

The state bill

The legislation has been in the works since last summer and would require labeling of most retail food — so not schools or restaurants — that is entirely or partially GMO. There’s a big exception though: animal products, which covers meat, dairy and eggs. That means farmers who use GMO feed would not have to label their products.

So despite the claims by Reviczky and others like the Connecticut Farm Bureau that GMO labeling would put Connecticut farmers at a competitive disadvantage, it would have little to no effect on them.

While there are approved GMO tomatoes and squash, almost none is grown anywhere (the Flavr Savr tomato was a big flop several years ago). GMO sweet corn, that’s the corn we eat, is set to come into use in a major way this season, but it’s not clear that any Connecticut growers will plant it.

“We’re not going to use it because we’re afraid of this law,” said Tom Baggott, the largest grower of corn, and largest grower — period, in the state. He said the GMO sweet corn would have enabled him to spray fewer pesticides. “So we’re just going to keep spraying.”

Baggott said supermarkets would have to become “the Gestapo,” monitoring whether a product is GMO. But the legislation is unclear about who is responsible for labeling or enforcement.

“The Department of Agriculture is going to have to figure that part out,” said Environment Committee co-chairman Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, the main sponsor of the bill.

But it may not be agriculture’s domain since there are no whole GMO crops for the department to monitor. About the only fresh, whole GMO crop that’s regularly on the market is Hawaiian papaya. The department doesn’t deal with the mayonnaises and salad dressings and myriad other national products that already contain GMOs. It’s not clear who would be responsible, stores or manufacturers, or whether the additional labeling costs would mean price increases for Connecticut customers.

Is it safe?

But by far the biggest issue with GMOs is whether genetically modified foods are safe for humans. The bottom line: we really don’t know if they’re safe, it’s almost impossible to find out under present conditions, and there are many who worry that going for a quick fix with labels will simply forestall figuring it out.

“We’re not in favor of a mandatory labeling,” said Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an organization often referred to as the food police. Jaffe wondered why the emphasis was on genetic modification and not other processes in use like gamma ray irradiation and chemical mutagenesis.

“The FDA should have a mandatory pre-market approval process,” he said. “If we’re worried about the safety of these foods, that’s where we should start.”

Rebecca Spector, West Coast director of the Center for Food Safety, said her organization supports food labeling as one of multiple tactics. “Right now we don’t think GE food is adequately regulated,” she said. “When the federal government is not doing its job, it is up to the states to pass legislation to protect its consumers or its farmers or its environment.”

The FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — APHIS — approve GMO use, but under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act cannot require a pre-market approval process. Instead there’s a voluntary consultation in which the company that developed the GMO submits its own data for review. A fox-guarding-the-henhouse situation, critics charge.

Complicating that, GMO products are considered patented inventions, many of them by Monsanto, which has been particularly vigilant about keeping its formulas under wraps and preventing the scientific community from testing its products. GMO critics point to smatterings of scientific evidence that residues from some GE products are showing up in people’s bloodstreams and that the genetic changes can introduce potential new allergens into products. But long-term independent testing of GMOs does not exist.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” said Margaret Mellon, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who advocates labeling and pre-approval. “Making determinations about the safety of a new technology is always difficult. You only can ask questions that you know to ask.”

She added, “It’s not necessarily a reason to stop. But it should provide a degree of caution about the technology so we move it onto the market more slowly.”

She and others said it’s likely that GE products like high fructose corn syrup that are small parts of other items may pose little risk. And widespread testing could wind up showing that GE products are not harmful. But Mellon said that until that testing is done — which might require the Herculean task of overhauling patent law first — we won’t know.

That’s exactly the point, said Bob Burns of Aiki Farms in Ledyard, a microgreen grower who has pushed for GMO labeling for several years. “Our victory is in the process,” he said. “Let’s turn on the lights. Let’s find out what in the hell is going on here.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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