Hawaii consumers have right to know if their food is GE
Eighty-five percent of Hawaii residents think it's important that genetically engineered fruit be labeled. That was the shocking statistic that I read in a study by Sabry Shehata, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.
If you're not familiar, genetic engineering, producing what are known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is a relatively new technology whereby scientists take the genetic material of one organism -- the basic blueprint or building blocks of life -- and insert it into the genome of another, different species of plant or animal. According to the latest information available, approximately 70 percent of the processed foods on store shelves contain GE ingredients.
After meeting with Shehata, I was convinced that we needed to do something at the state Legislature to carry out the people's will. I researched and found study after study on the mainland that also showed that people want GE foods to be labeled.
You might be surprised to learn that the U.S. government doesn't require these foods to be labeled. In 2005, Alaska became the first state to require mandatory labeling of GE foods when they passed a law to label GE fish.
The main thing that hit me about this issue is that we live in a democracy where people have the right to know what we put in our bodies. We should be able to choose whether we want to eat GE fruit or not. So I worked with organic farmers and several local and national consumer advocacy groups and introduced Senate Bill 3232, that requires all GE whole foods sold in the state to be labeled. By whole foods, I'm referring to all GE crops that are in their raw or natural state. Right now, the bill would apply to whole foods such as papaya, sweet corn, squash, and soybeans. But in the near future, it might also include tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries, which have been tested by the biotech companies.
At the national level, the labeling of GE food has become an issue in the presidential campaign. Both leading Democratic candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, are on record in support of labeling. The nations of the European Union, Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand are some of the countries that have mandatory labeling of foods with GE ingredients.
The other day, someone asked if the reason that I introduced SB 3232 is because I have something against GE foods and biotech in general. The answer is no! As Americans and consumers, we have a right to information and labeling is the only way to provide that option. Some of us want to eat organics, kosher and halal food while others do their best to stay away from those high in fat. Many of us have allergies which force us to be particularly careful with our food options.
I've been told by many in the biotech industry that putting a label on their foods will give the public a negative impression of their products. This is not true. Actually, the label doesn't give people a negative impression; it simply gives them a choice. The label itself is neutral.
A good example is organics. You can go into every store in the country and you'll find labels on hundreds of organic food products. If you ask most people, they don't have a negative impression of organics. So my question is, why can't biotech companies be required to follow the organic industry's lead?
I've been told that people in Hawaii aren't educated enough to make an informed decision if GE foods were to be labeled. This is another way of saying that the people of Hawaii are stupid and that they don't deserve a choice. Biotech companies should step up to the plate and realize that it's their responsibility to convince us that their products should be chosen over their organic or conventional counterparts. Biotech companies have the financial resources and know-how to compete as equals in the marketplace. If GE foods are healthier and taste better, it's obvious that people will buy them.
I've also introduced a second bill, SB 3233, directed at giving people more information on what's happening on our lands. The bill sets up a notification process for farmers, requiring those producing and researching GE crops to report the locations of their farms and research sites to the Department of Agriculture. This information would be posted on the DOA Web site and would be readily available to the public.
For several decades, it's been a common practice of farmers to consult with their neighbors, letting them know what they're planting in order to protect the purity of their seed. This legislation uses the latest technology to make it easier for that communication to take place. Additionally, knowing the location of GE test plots is of particular concern to organic and conventional farmers worried about the potential for GE contamination of their crops. Their concern is understandable given the fact that more than 5,000 field tests of GE crops have been authorized in Hawaii. This is simply a "good neighbor" bill allowing people to know if a company is testing GE crops next door.
SB 3232 and SB 3233 are really about democracy and letting the public know that our political leaders are listening to them. Shehata's study and many others conducted on the mainland have made it clear that people want GE foods to be labeled. People also want to know what's happening in our environment. It's the Legislature's responsibility to do what's in the people's best interests and to give them what they want. Let's pass SB 3232 and SB 3233 into law!
Mike Gabbard represents state Senate District 19 (Waikele, Village Park, Royal Kunia, Makakilo, Kapolei, Kalaeloa, Honokai Hale, and portions of Waipahu and Ko Olina).