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"Everyone deserves a right to know what they're feeding their families and who they're supporting with their food purchases," said Martin Dagoberto, campaign coordinator for MA Right to Know GMOs, which supports the GMO labeling bill. "Consumers have no shortage of legitimate reasons why this information is important to them. There's the health concerns, there's environmental concerns, there's moral, ethical and religious concerns."
But Dave Shepard, president of the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers, said in a prepared statement that farming with genetically engineered seed is environmentally responsible and lets farmers have greater crop yields with less water, herbicide and pesticide.
"This bill will hurt everyone involved in bringing foods from the farm to the table," Shepard said. "For farmers, manufacturers, distributors and grocers, this bill will place a costly burden on those involved in the food chain top to bottom."
The bill, H. 3242, had a hearing before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture on Tuesday. Last session, several bills dealing with GMO labeling did not get a vote.
Western Massachusetts lawmakers State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, and State Rep. Todd Smola, R-Warren, have been sponsoring GMO labeling bills for years without success. But this year, activists from several consumer advocacy groups united behind one bill, which has support from 150 legislators.
Organizations supporting GMO labeling include the consumer advocacy groups MassPIRG and Consumers Union, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and others.
Smola said the amount of support for this year's bill is "unprecedented." "It's not about stopping any industry. It's about giving people in Massachusetts good information so they can make a decision themselves," Smola said.
GMOs are genetically modified organisms, which have been modified in a laboratory. Experts say 70 to 80 percent of processed food in the U.S. contains GMOs. Genetic modification is used, for example, to make crops more resistant to diseases or more tolerant of herbicides.
Supporters of labeling say consumers should have the right to decide whether they want to buy genetically modified food.
"The concept of mandatory labeling of food products containing (GMOs) is misguided and unnecessary," Gregory Costa, Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, the New York-based organization that publishes Consumer Reports, said there has been little research done to determine whether GMOs have long-term health affects or other negative impacts. Until more safety testing is done, he said consumers should have the knowledge to choose whether to buy these products.
"It's not on us to prove they're dangerous, it's on (the food industry) to prove that they're safe, and they haven't done that," Dagoberto added.
Other countries, including many in Europe, already require GMO labeling. In the U.S., Vermont has a GMO labeling law set to go into effect next year.
Connecticut and Maine passed laws that will only go into effect once six states require labeling. A handful of other states have had GMO labeling bills proposed, which never went forward.
"If Brazil can do it, why can't we?" Story asked, holding a package of Brazilian cookies with a GMO label.
Business groups oppose the bill – including the Massachusetts Food Association, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and organizations representing dairy farmers, agribusiness, grocery manufacturers and the biotechnology industry.
They argue that studies have found no risk to health, safety or nutrition from GMOs, so there is no reason to require labeling. They say requiring additional labels will add cost and complexity for food companies that have to look into all of their ingredients to determine whether they have GMOs, then create labels. They say any new rules should be implemented federally so food producers do not have to apply different standards in different states.
Gregory Costa, director of state affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association, said in prepared testimony that the use of genetically modified ingredients "is not only safe for people and our planet, but also has a number of important benefits." He cited studies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association and others that found GMOs to be safe.
"The concept of mandatory labeling of food products containing genetically engineered ingredients is misguided and unnecessary," Costa said, noting that the FDA already regulates the safety and labeling of all food on the market. He added that companies can voluntarily label products as not containing genetically modified ingredients, giving consumers who are worried about GMOs the ability to only buy those products.
Ritchard Engelhardt of the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization said in prepared testimony that food labeling requirements should be reserved for information "where there is a scientifically valid and constitutionally reasonable rationale for protecting the public," such as providing nutrition information or warning about allergens.
Food and crops produced using biotechnology, Engelhardt said, are "among the most reviewed, studied, scrutinized and regulated products in the world," and those foods are indistinguishable from food produced naturally. He cited a 2014 study from Cornell University that found that a New York proposal to require the labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients would increase annual food costs for an average income family by $500.
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