The first of three Illinois Senate subcommittee hearings on the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was held in Normal, Illinois, on June 20th, 2013. Illinois Senate bill SB1666, which is sponsored by Senators Koehler, Martinez, Cunningham, Sandoval, and Cullerton, is currently under consideration. SB1666 would require that GMO ingredients contained in food offered for retail sale in Illinois be labeled as “genetically engineered.” In considering the labeling of GMOs, Illinois joins 26 other states that have recently introduced bills to either label or ban such ingredients in food.1
The hearing in Normal convened two panels of experts, one of supporters of GMO labeling and another of opponents. The supporters of GMO labeling in Illinois included Illinois State University Professor Emeritus and geneticist Herman Brockman, Hailey Golds from Illinois Public Interest Research Group, and Wes King of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, an organization that represents both farmers and consumers. The panel of opponents to GMO labeling included a professor of Microbiology from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), a farmer from Western Illinois, and a representative from the Illinois Manufacturers Association. Several grassroots environmental organizations including Food and Water Watch, Right to Know Illinois, and Organic Consumers Association organized to bring concerned citizens to the hearing.
Of the arguments put forth in favor of labeling GMOs, Prof. Brockman highlighted that labeling would give consumers the freedom to choose whether to buy foods with genetically engineered ingredients. This position is popular with the public; a Huffington Post poll from March 2013 indicates that 82% of Americans support labeling GMOs.2 Brockman also asserted that the safety of GMO crops has not been confirmed scientifically and that GMO foods are not equivalent to non-GMO foods. Despite lack of evidence, the agricultural industry has engaged in a campaign of misinformation about the purported safety of GMOs, Brockman said. When asked by one of the senators present at the hearing, Sen. McCann (Rep.), “How would you grade the federal food safety system?”, Brockman said he would give it an “F,” since, for example, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require that companies test new GMOs for food safety. Brockman further countered the industry claim that GMO crops produce higher yields, citing scientific evidence suggesting that yields are comparable between GMO and non-GMO crops.
Additional arguments in favor of labeling GMOs were brought up by Golds and King. For example, Golds indicated that under World Trade Organization rules, US exports containing or contaminated by GMO products can be blocked by foreign countries such as Japan and the European Union which already have bans in place against GMOs in their food. Golds also argued that labeling would be useful for tracking any possible health effects that GMOs could have on the population; currently, without knowing whether GMOs are contained in a particular food item, tracking is impossible. King added that labeling GMOs would be a positive move for many of the farmers that the ISA represents who want to continue farming using conventional (non-organic) methods, but who desire to use non-GMO seeds and to be able to sell non-GMO foods.
Countering these claims, the three anti-labeling speakers, in turn, argued that labeling GMOs would be costly for manufacturers, would stifle innovation in the biotech industry, and would give the impression that GMO foods are “frankenfoods” and unsafe to consume. The UIUC professor of Microbiology stated that the scientific evidence pointed to there being no difference at the cellular level between GMO and non-GMO foods. The Western Illinois farmer spoke of his experience planting genetically engineered BT corn, saying that it allowed him to use fewer pesticides on his crops, since the GMO corn has a gene inserted into it by scientists that is toxic to insect pests.
The format of the hearing did not permit debate or countering of claims by either side. However, a similar and informative debate on the same issue can be found here: http://www.democracynow.org/2012/10/24/food_fight_debating_prop_37_californias. This debate, hosted in October 2012 by news program Democracy Now!, brought experts from both sides of the GMO labeling issue in the context of the GMO labeling referendum that was voted on in California in November 2012.
Although the hearing in Normal was not a debate format, on several occasions members of the audience countered claims put forth by the anti-labeling speakers in an impromptu fashion. Similar to the national sentiment, it was clear that the vast majority of the approximately 200 people in the crowd at the hearing supported labeling GMOs, showing that a food movement is alive and well in Illinois. To make your own voice heard on the issue of labeling GMOs in Illinois, IL Right To Know GMO Labeling suggests emailing your opinion to Gov. Quinn: http://www2.illinois.gov/gov/Pages/ContacttheGovernor.aspx. You can sign an online petition by Food Democracy Now! here: http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/sign/support_gmo_labeling_in_illinois/. For more information, Right to Know IL has a useful webpage: http://www.righttoknow-gmo.org/states/illinois.
1. Caldwell, Maggie. Maine is second state to pass GMO labeling law. Accessed June 20, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/06/maine-gmo-labeling.
2. Swanson, Emily. GMO poll finds huge majority say foods should be labeled. Accessed June 20, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/04/gmo-poll_n_2807595.html.