Whether it’s trans fats, salt or genetically modified organisms, people should know what’s in their food, said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm.
Furthermore, until the federal government takes up the issue of labeling products with genetically modified organisms, also called genetically engineered foods, it’s up to the states to lead the way, he told at least 500 people gathered at The Colonial Theatre for “GMOs — What’s in our Food?” in Keene on Sunday.
As early as Wednesday, the N.H. House is expected to take a vote on a bill that would require genetically engineered foods sold in the state to be labeled as such.
Opponents of the bill ask why something should be labeled that isn’t a safety issue, while proponents say people have a right to know what’s in their food.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are plants and animals whose genetic makeup has been altered in a way that doesn’t happen in nature, he said.
“It’s a specific technology of moving genes from one species to another that can’t be done naturally,” he said.
Foods made with genetically modified organisms began appearing on the market in 1996.
The verdict is still out as to whether genetically engineered foods are safe to eat, Hirshberg said. However, until scientists sort things out, consumers should know what they’re buying, he said.
Besides being chairman of Stonyfield Farm in Londonderry, Hirshberg is also a leader in the Just Label It campaign.
One of the issues Just Label It is advocating for is the testing of genetically engineered foods for any health or environmental effects by companies independent of those patenting the organisms. The group is also asking for testing to be done over the long-term.
Hirshberg repeatedly said Sunday that Just Label It isn’t against genetically engineered foods, but is for people knowing what is in the food they eat.
“Neither I nor Just Label It are anti-GE,” he said. “Clearly there is a place for it.”
For example, there are a number of people with diabetes who are alive today because of genetically engineered insulin, he said.
Regardless of whether genetically engineered foods have negative health effects, one hazard that has become evident is the overuse of herbicides on crops that are genetically engineered to withstand the chemicals, he said.
Before genetically engineered crops became widely available, farmers would use herbicides sparingly, and by doing so, the chemicals were effective, he said.
In recent years, herbicides have become less effective due to overuse, and are resulting in “superweed” species, and insects that are resistant to the chemicals, he said. As a result, companies are looking to make crops resistant to stronger herbicides, which can be dangerous.
Hirshberg encouraged those in attendance Sunday to contact their local legislators about the bill seeking to mandate labeling of food that is genetically engineered.
While some legislators have voiced support for the bill, others, including state Rep. Tara Sad, D-Walpole, chairwoman of the Environment and Agriculture Committee, have expressed concerns.
Sad said last week labeling genetically engineered foods should be the responsibility of the federal government because of interstate commerce.
Additionally, there is the potential New Hampshire could be sued for forcing companies to label genetically engineered foods, and that such labeling could scare consumers away from buying products made with the organisms, she said. She added that if she was certain GMOs were harmful, she would vote for the bill.
Hirshberg noted Connecticut and Maine have already passed similar bills, with the enactment of both bills dependent upon other states in the region also establishing labeling laws, to build regional support for the measure. Vermont is also considering a food labeling bill, he said.
His appearance in Keene was presented by the Monadnock Food Co-op.
Distributed by MCT Information Services