State Sens. (from left) Sam McCann, R-Jacksonville; David Koehler, D-Peoria; Linda Holmes, D-Aurora; and Michael Frerichs, D-Champaign, members of the Food Labeling Subcommittee, hear testimony on proposed legislation requiring the labeling of certain genetically engineered foods. The hearing was held at Illinois State University.
State Sens. (from left) Sam McCann, R-Jacksonville; David Koehler, D-Peoria; Linda Holmes, D-Aurora; and Michael Frerichs, D-Champaign, members of the Food Labeling Subcommittee, hear testimony on proposed legislation requiring the labeling of certain genetically engineered foods. The hearing was held at Illinois State University.

NORMAL, Ill. — The first of three legislative hearings on proposed legislation requiring labeling of certain genetically engineered foods was held at Illinois State University.

State Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, introduced the legislation and chaired the agriculture committee’s Food Labeling Subcommittee hearing that allowed for four representatives from each side of the issue to testify. Written testimony also is encouraged.

Other members of the subcommittee present at the June 20 event were state Sens. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora; Sam McCann, R-Jacksonville; and Michael Frerichs, D-Champaign.

Similar hearings will be held at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale from noon to 2 p.m. on Aug. 7 and at the Thompson Center in Chicago from 10 a.m. to noon on Sept. 17.

Proponents of the labeling claim such a regulation would give consumers a choice between genetically engineered food and non-GE food.

Opponents say the law would imply food with GE ingredients is unsafe and result in higher food costs passed down from processors.

There also was the obvious division between the two sides on GE crop production.

With a coin flip, proponents were selected to express their views on the bill.

Herman Brockman, a geneticist and professor emeritus at ISU, said he supports GE food labeling for several reasons.

“No. 1 is the freedom of choice of what I eat and drink is a bedrock and precious freedom. I cannot fully exercise that freedom without transparency in labeling,” he said. “The U.S. government took a giant and progressive step when it required considerable transparency with the labeling of ingredients on processed food such as on a can of tuna or a can of condensed milk.

“Only with this transparency can we have the freedom of choice to eat or not to eat GE food. Americans pride themselves for living in the land of the free. It is the American way to have freedom of choice of our food through maximum transparency.

“This is not a radical idea. By labeling GE foods, we would join some 60 other countries that do so already.

“A second reason I support the labeling of GE foods is that I think they are clearly different from their non-GE counterparts. I maintain this despite the claim of Monsanto and others that GE organisms are substantially equivalent to non-GE organisms.

“Furthermore, the biology of a Roundup Ready and Bt corn strand is clearly not substantially equivalent to the non-GE strain that the GE strain was derived from.

“The GE strain contains the two trans-genes which are producing their unique proteins. Furthermore, procedures used to produce the GE strain introduce hundreds to thousands of mutations in the GE strain.

“The third reason I support the labeling of GE food is the misinformation promulgated by the agriculture industry complex about the supposed safety of GE organisms in foods.”

Brockman disagrees with claims that GE crops undergo “vigorous federal testing procedures.”

“Second, I have not seen ‘proven safe use’ by any of these federal agencies or the National Academy of Sciences,” he said. “I maintain, therefore, that the scientific literature shows that GE organisms are not subjected to rigorous federal testing procedures, and that they have not been proven safe.”

Michael Miller, University of Illinois’ Division of Nutritional Sciences associate professor, who noted his views are his alone, and he was not representing the university, opened the testimony of GM labeling opponents.

Miller said Bt or bacillus thuringiensis used in the GM process is simply a natural organism in the soil that has been used to repel certain agricultural for years.

“Over 100 years ago, people first realized that organism was toxic to certain agriculture pests. It took many years later before they realized that the toxin they produce was the actual active ingredient in those spores that killed those pests,” he said.

“These have been used for many years. Bt was approved by the (Environmental Protection Agency) in 1961 to be used as a pesticide and applied to the surface of the plants as a pesticide. It was used long before that in other parts of the world.

“It wasn’t until 1995 when the Bt gene was put into corn, and since that time, it has been used in other crops. It reduces pesticide use compared to the conventional crops. This is important because of farm worker health.

“We’ve been consuming this Bt for perhaps since the origins of time. This is an organism that lives in the soil. It’s been on our foods and something we’ve been exposed for forever. This is not something new.

“In the last 100 years, we’ve been using it on purpose as a pesticide, and over the last 18 years, we’ve been using as something we incorporate into the genome of various crops.

“There is no evidence that any of this DNA is going to be transmitted to us. We eat DNA every day.

“It’s my sense that the main purpose of the labeling is to devalue this product and make it seem like it’s ‘Frankenfood’ and scare people away from eating something. Every agency that’s ever looked at this says it’s a safe food to consume.”

Labeling proponents and opponents each referred to studies that supported their views, leading Senator McCann to say, “it sounds to me there’s probably a study that says just about anything you want it to say —definitive is what we’re looking for.”

Hailey Golds, advocate for Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a labeling proponent, said, “Based on the scientific ambiguity surrounding genetically engineered crops, as well as the potential for allergenicity, there is enough uncertainty that requiring labeling of genetically engineered food is necessary to identify unintended health effects that may occur after the foods are approved for consumption.”

“If this isn’t the case, it would be almost impossible to determine if health effects are the result of genetically engineered food,” she said.

Biotechnology companies submit their own testing data and independent research, but it is limited because those companies prohibit cultivation for research purposed, according to Golds.

“However, some independent peer-reviewed research does exist and reveals troubling health implications,” she said. “A 90-day study published in the 2009 International Journal of Biological Sciences found that rats consuming Roundup Ready corn developed a deterioration of liver and kidney function.

“Last fall marked the conclusion of a two-year study by independent researchers concluding that 200 rats fed Roundup Ready GE corn developed more mammary tumors and had a higher incidence of premature death.

“Labeling of genetically engineered food can also serve as a risk management measure to deal with scientific uncertainty. If there are unexpected adverse health effects that happen as a result of genetic engineering, then labeling can serve as a risk management mechanism that will allow us to track such health problems if they arose.

“If food with genetically engineered ingredients is not labeled as such and that food causes an adverse health effect, such as an allergic reaction, there would be virtually no way to determine whether the genetic engineering process was linked to the health effect.

“The FDA currently has no effective way to track adverse health effects in people consuming genetically engineered foods.”

After the testimony, McCann asked if study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences was conducted by a group of French scientists. Golds said she “wasn’t 100 percent certain.”

“The only reason I ask is because in preparation for this today I’ve been engaging in some slight research trying to be prepared, and I found where I believe all six scientific academies in France have actually denounced that study,” he said.

“I want a real answer. You have a study that shows one thing, but these six academies from that same nation come out and decries it as inherently untruthful. How can I make a sound decision when I have conflicting evidence?”

Golds said, “Unfortunately, I’m not a scientist, but I do represent a consumer group. So I guess what I would say is this type of uncertainty is exactly the reason we should have labeling of genetically engineered foods, so that consumers can make their own decisions amid so much conflict and uncertainty.”

Ron Moore, corn, soybean and cattle farmer near Roseville, at-large director of the Illinois Soybean Association and member of Illinois Farm Bureau, the Illinois Corn Growers Association and the Illinois Beef Association, explained the benefits of GE crops and its role in meeting the increasing global food demand.

“Farmers like me feel they have a moral obligation to provide food for our community, our state, our country and the world,” he said.

“Farmers are in the food business by producing the raw materials that make up the food supply. We will need to be able to use all available tools to produce food for all the souls that will be living on planet earth by 2050.

“Biotechnology helps combat disease, increase annual yields, keep food prices in check and improve freshness and taste.”

Currently, about 86 percent of corn, 93 percent of soybeans and 93 percent of cotton produced in the U.S. are produced using biotechnology. In addition, Moore said, a record 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries use biotechnology.

“Ag biotechnology can increase crop or animal resistance to pests while reducing the use of pesticides, increase crop or animal tolerance to pesticides that are used to control harmful pests, create disease resistance in crops and animals, develop more drought tolerant or cold-hot tolerant plants, improve the nutritional quality of the food produced by the plant or animal,” he said.

“Biotechnology promises to add another chapter to the revolutionary changes that have shaped U.S. agriculture over the past 100 years. Just like the switch from horses to horsepower, biotechnology will forever change how farmers produce crops.

“But unlike previous breakthroughs, biotechnology may rewrite the book on production agriculture in the entire industry. Efforts in value-added crops are focused on enhancing the value of animal feed. This has led to the development of high oil corn and hybrids with increased levels of amino acid and starch, to name a few.

“Other traits include low phytate corn that increases the digestibility of the phytate nutrient by swine and poultry. As a result, less phosphorous is excreted into the manure, making it more environmentally friendly.”

Moore said the use of biotechnology has had positive contributions to farm sustainability in the state due to environmental benefits and economic benefits.

“Due to the increase in direct and indirect costs, GE labeling will lead to increases in the prices paid by consumers for food in the United States. In this way, GE labeling acts as a tax paid by consumers on food,” he said.

Moore said extensive studies have shown the “increases in food prices leads to increases in food insecurity and hunger in the United States.”

“Thus one of the outcomes of GE labeling in Illinois will increase the number of families suffering from food insecurity and hunger. These effects will be especially manifested in low income urban and rural communities,” he said.

“I believe there are safeguards already in place to ensure GE foods are safe and nutritious. If I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t be producing them nor would I be feeding them to my own family and my livestock.”

Senator Holmes asked if using GE corn benefits yields, contrary to claims by anti-GM groups.

Moore said weeds reduce the crop’s ability to uptake nutrients, resulting in lower yields, and that his experience comparing the same variety with both non-Bt and Bt traits resulted in a 15-bushel or 10-percent increase with the Bt traited corn.

Wes King, Illinois Stewardship Alliance interim executive director and former policy director, said on behalf of labeling proponents that the new legislation concurs with what consumers want.

He referred to a 2010 survey that found 93 percent of consumers are in favor of GE labeling. In 2012, another group study showed 91 percent of voters believed that the Food and Drug Administration should require labeling of GE foods.

“Poll after poll has shown that consumers want to see labeling, and that includes farmers themselves. And when I say farmers, I don’t just mean organic or specialty crop farmers,” he said. “We have farmers that are members of the alliance that are conventional non-organic commodity producers that also support labeling.

“They want the freedom and choice to decide whether or not the food they purchase and eat has GE ingredients. This is not a farmer-versus-consumer issue. GE labeling would help to create fairness in the marketplace for all of agriculture production.”

Testifying with opponents of the legislation, Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, believed food labeling should be an issue at the federal, not the state, level to avoid a myriad of rules in each state.

“Requiring companies to navigate a patchwork of regulations could be confusing, costly, resulting in higher prices for their products,” he said. “We believe the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the proper place for the oversight and regulation of the industry under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

“I would note that no other state at this time has implemented a food labeling requirement. Connecticut passed it but it only takes effect if four other states with a total population of 20 million people in the northeast also pass labeling requirements.

“The statutorily required labeling of food implies that the food is unsafe, that there is something inherently wrong. The use of genetically modified food in ingredients is safe.”