BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Some of the North Fork’s corn crops are known to be grown from genetically modified seeds.
New York could become the first state in the nation to require that genetically modified foods be labeled as such, a move farmers say could put locally grown produce at a disadvantage.
State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) have sponsored legislation to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified food. The bills follow years of debate over the safety of genetically modified foods, which were introduced in the early l990s. Legislation has been proposed in several states, including California, where it was put before voters in 2012 as Proposition 37 and failed by a slim margin. Bills have been introduced more recently in Connecticut and Maine.
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is produced when genes from one species are extracted and artificially introduced into the genes of another, according to the American Heritage Medical Dictionary.
The practical applications of this process include giving a plant the ability to produce its own pesticide to deter insects, thereby saving farmers having to apply costly and potentially dangerous pesticides, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology, which investigates the risks and impacts of GMO foods.
Major GMO food crops include soy, cotton and corn, said Dale Moyer, associate executive director of agriculture for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk. It’s not employed on fresh fruits and vegetables such as oranges or peppers.
Varieties of sweet corn are the only GMO crops grown on the North Fork intended for human consumption, but they’re very limited, Mr. Moyer said. Some area farmers also grow field corn, used primarily as animal feed, he added.
Under the pending legislation sweet corn varieties grown from genetically modified seeds would fall under the mandatory labeling requirement.
“Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food,” said Mr. LaValle. “Essentially, if a foodstuff is produced using genetic engineering, this must be indicated on its label.”
But Steve Ammerman, spokesperson for the NYS Farm Bureau, said mandatory labeling is unnecessary.
“We believe the policies should be based on sound science, and the science so far is that GMO foods are safe,” Mr. Ammerman said. “Labeling would imply that GMO foods are not.”
He argues that labeling will put GMO-grown products at a disadvantage when placed next to other produce. “If a consumer walked up and saw a label that said ‘Contains GMO,’ it misleads the consumer,” he said.
Kathleen Furey, director of GMO Free New York, said genetically modified foods have not been proven safe. There have not been any long-term, independent, peer-reviewed human consumption studies to support that claim, she said. The longest study to date on GMO foods ran about two years and involved rats, not humans, she said.
The study, led by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini, found that mice fed a diet of genetically modified corn experienced increased mortality, tumors and organ damage compared to a control group that was fed non-modified corn, said Ms. Furey.
“We deserve the right to know what were eating,” she said.
About 80 percent of what shoppers see on supermarket shelves contain GMOs, said Ms. Furey. Many of the products are processed foods, including infant formulas.
Consumers do have one way of spotting GMO-free foods. Certified organic foods do not contain genetically modified products, Mr. Ammerman said.
If labeling is mandated, farmers would rather see labeling say something like “GMO free” as compared to “contains GMO,” said Joe Gergela, director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
The legislation is expected to come up for a vote before the current legislative session ends June 20.