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Should Genetically Engineered Food Be Labeled? Florida Legislators Take Up the Cause

The turkey you ate yesterday was one of millions whose size is more than twice that of the bird your grandparents ate. Poultry farmers made that happen by careful breeding over the course of decades. The birds got so big they couldn't screw, and farmers had to resort to artificial insemination to help the process along.

But agriculture is totally corporate today, and Wall Street wants fast returns on its money. Not content with kinky barnyard sex, Big Food now uses bioscience to transfer genes among species, producing food whose effect on human health is controversial. Since genetic engineering (GE) is not disclosed on product labels, consumers have no idea what kind of scientific tinkering has been done to those apples, oranges, or turkeys they're about to ingest.

The folks behind Food & Water Watch want to change that. Working in five districts throughout the state -- Tampa, Tallahassee, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach -- their "Let Me Decide" campaign calls for legislation that would require labeling of GE foods in Florida.

The Flavr Savr tomato was the first (1994) and most notorious of the so-called Frankenfoods, shot up with flounder genes to extend shelf life. It was withdrawn after three years, though not out of concern for safety. Sweet corn, zucchini, and papaya are among the genetically engineered produce currently marketed in the U.S.

Genetic engineering is particularly pervasive among corn, soybeans, and sugar beets -- roughly 90 percent of U.S. production of these foods comes from GE crops. They make their way into our diets as cooking oils and ingredients in baked and other prepared foods.

GE animals are not yet approved for human consumption, but their dairy and eggs are in circulation. And the feed they're raised on is largely made up of corn and soymeal -- that's been genetically engineered -- so there's concern over secondary effects on humans. Which brings us back to yesterday's turkey.

Big Food's case for the safety of GE has broad scientific support, and the federal government has overseen its introduction into agriculture. But groups like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund question the independence and credibility of the research and the authorities. The European Union has been much more cautious than the U.S., largely banning the importation of GE foods.

Food & Water Watch took a hit earlier this month in California when Proposition 37, a ballot measure that would require GE foods to be labeled, was defeated at the polls after a massive infusion of money and advertising by Monsanto and other agribusiness giants. Now the activists are trying the legislative route here in Florida, where they've been petitioning and lobbying since September.

The campaign claimed its first major Florida victory in October, when Florida House Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee) joined a rally at the Capitol. She's since agreed to sponsor a bill in the coming legislative session.

In Palm Beach, House Rep. Mark Pafford is also on board. "To me it's just common sense," he told New Times. "If there's foreign DNA in your corn, most people would want to know that."

"I expect to hear 'cost saving' and other arguments from opponents," Pafford said. "Big corporations have huge influence here, and our new GOP speaker is already talking about government regulation and business red tape. In this legislature, [GE labeling] may not even get a hearing.

"Truth in advertising is always good, though. Unless I hear it's going to put farms out of business, this is the direction we have to go."

The campaign to support labeling of GE foods in Florida is lead by Jennifer Rubiello, Florida Field Organizer for Food & Water Watch: [email protected] | 818.203.7625.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact [email protected].

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