The first bill filed in the Florida House for the 2014 session is a duplicate of a bill that died last year before lawmakers could vote on the controversial proposal: Requiring labels on foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Genetically engineered foods, often referred to as GEs or GMOs — genetically modified organisms — contain genetic material that has been altered for a specific result. Proponents of genetically modified crops, such as Monsanto, claim genetically modified crops have more nutritional value, can be grown in hostile environments and are resistant to pests and herbicides.
Critics claim the possible risks of GMOs have not been adequately and independently studied and identified. Critics also question the objectivity and rigor of government regulators and the motives of companies that make and sell GMO plants.
Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Leon County, filed the bill on Aug. 15, and said that this year that GMO labeling will be her “number-one priority.” She said she made sure her bill was the first filed of the upcoming session to highlight the importance of the issue, she said.
“People have a right to know where their food is coming from and what’s in it,” Rehwinkel Vasilinda said. “You can’t tell people, ‘You can only have so much information, but you can’t have all of it.’ “
Her co-sponsors include Republican Rep. Kathleen Peters of Pinellas County and Democrat Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach. On Dec. 20, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Broward County, filed a companion bill.
“Clearly it’s a challenging issue and I wouldn’t guarantee its passage,” Ring said. “I certainly hope it gets a fair hearing and debate.”
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates foods and ingredients, including foods made from GE plants, has taken no position on GMOs. However, the agency does endorse voluntary labelling of GE foods.
How prevalent are GMOs in the food supply? According to the USDA, 88 percent of corn, 94 percent of cotton and 93 percent of soybeans grown in 2012 were genetically modified.
Ring, whose family avoids gluten and dairy products, said he is not “evangelizing” about GMOs but wants to “give parents the ability to look at what is in the food they are purchasing for their children and make a choice.”
Pafford views the bill as “simple” and “consumer friendly” but doubts the bill will pass.
“To me it’s the most simple kind of bill you can put together,” Pafford said. “I would hope ag would embrace the bill and not fight it.”
That is not likely. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which would be required to annually produce of list of genetically engineered crops in Florida, opposes labeling genetically engineered foods.
“Enhancements allow us to grow more food to meet the demands of the world population, improve the nutritional value of the food we grow, and mitigate our impact on the environment,”according to a statement released by department spokesperson Amanda Bevis. “Imposing additional labeling requirements on Florida farmers would increase their cost of doing business, increase the cost for consumers and yield little benefit.”
Only two states have passed GMO labeling legislation: Connecticut and Maine. Voters rejected GMO labeling in California and Washington state.
Whole Foods, the national grocery chain, is requiring manufacturers of foods on its shelves to label products with GMOs by 2018. Food companies, such as General Mills, do not oppose a national GMO food labeling standard but worry that state-based labeling laws, such as Florida’s proposed law, “would result in a patchwork of different labels in different states that would increase the cost of products for companies and consumers alike,” according to the company’s website.
Ring said he expects the bills will be controversial and that agriculture interests will oppose it. He hopes this year there will at least be hearings on the bills.
“I understand the environment up there,” Ring said. “Anybody has to understand that it’s a legitimate issue to discuss.”