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GMO Labeling Potentially Headed to Florida Legislature

Alicia Mandigo

GMO’s, Genetically Modified Organisms, are coming before the Florida House and Senate for a second time when the legislative session opens this spring.At issue is whether Florida should require GMO’s to be labeled.

As WMFE’s Alicia Mandigo reports—it’s an argument over whether consumers deserve to know vs. whether they need to know that GMO’s are in their food.

University of Florida Horticultural Sciences Department Chair Kevin Folta is a surprisingly outspoken advocate for GMO’s. He says science has not only proven that GMO’s are safe, but that they can save lives.

Golden Rice, for instance, is a genetically engineered rice that’s a source of beta carotene—a vital nutrient that is absent from the diets of impoverished populations in India and Africa.

Folta says the fight against GMO’s is keeping Golden Rice from getting to the people who need it.

“Economists and people who study epidemiology have examined what are the costs of not deploying this technology, and they’re talking about in India alone, 1.4 million life years lost,” he said.

Florida House Bill 1 and companion Senate Bill 558 aren’t about banning GMO’s. They would require that foods produced or grown with GMO’s be labeled.

But for farmers like DeLeon Springs dairyman Gerald Fieser, GMO labeling could increase feed and production costs.

He says he was initially suspicious of GMO’s, but now he thinks they’re a good thing.

“I think they have helped to reduce the carbon footprint, I think they’ve been able to help us reduce insecticides and herbicides in the production of food, you know we’ve reached a system in the world today where you don’t need 50-percent of the people or more growing food for the other 50 percent,” Fieser said.

Not all farmers agree.

Paul Tomazin is a fourth generation produce farmer in Samsula in Volusia county. He doesn’t buy the argument that farmers have been engineering our food since the beginning of time.

"I don’t believe that’s accurate," he said. "I believe that maybe hybrids have been in place for thousands of years, not GMO’s.”

Tomazin frequently conducts farm tours for chefs, food and beverage managers and other members of the food industry so they can get an up close look at how the produce they’re buying is grown.

Trish Strawn participated in this recent farm tour. She comes from a family of cattle ranchers, and ran a cattle operation herself before becoming a wholesale/retail food distributor.

She says it’s hard for people to understand that GMO labeling could make things really difficult for farmers, but at the same time- she says the public demand to know what’s in our food is now undeniable:

“Before we didn’t have to ask, we made sure our farms did it the way we wanted to, that they raised the plants and the animals in the proper way like mother nature did, I never had to ask, are your seeds GMO? What kind of grass do you have? But over the last year I’ve had to call and ask almost every farm because someone has called and asked me that,” she said.

Tomazin agrees that GMO labeling is likely to increase the cost of farming—and that’s tough for an industry that doesn’t have strong profit margins to begin with.

“People need to know what they’re getting and what they’re eating and we’re in 100-percent support of that and we have been from the beginning,” he said.

Kevin Folta says GMO labeling is unnecessary and is being driven by disdain for a particular seed company and a suspicion of science.

“If this is something that’s artificial or something that’s done in a laboratory then it must be evil. So there’s a number of very strange layers that are not scientific that are backing this kind of thinking,” he said.

House and Senate GMO labeling bills failed to make it through committee last year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 70 percent of food products sold in supermarkets contain GMO’s.

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