On The Path Ahead For Genetically Modified Foods In Florida

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More consumers are accepting of controversial genetically modified food, according to a new study by University of Florida’s IFAS Extension on consumer attitudes towards genetically modified food.

The study comes at a pivotal time as House Bill 1 is up for consideration during Florida’s next legislative session. Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D) of Leon County has sponsored the bill, which requires any food sold in Florida to be labeled as having genetically modified ingredients. If the bill passes, Florida will be the first state in the nation to require labeling of GM foods.

“House Bill 1 is the first bill assigned,” Rehwinkel Vasilinda said. “When you have a bill like this that may have great opposition, you want to put it front and center. We made sure that we had it as bill number 1 to make it important for the state of Florida.”

“If the bill doesn’t get a hearing, if it is not heard in committee, that’s one way to figure out how big ‘big ag’ is. Another way to figure out how big ‘Ag’ is, is to see who is contributing to whose campaign,” she said.

Dr. Kevin Folta, University of Florida associate professor of horticultural sciences, disagrees with her assessment.

He believes the debate over labeling centers around the idea there’s something wrong with the food and he says science does not support that assertion.

“The activists will tell you this is a way to attach fear to a product without scientific backing. The idea is to retaliate against ‘big ag’ and the farmers that grow big ag seed,” Folta said.

He’s referring to a recent retraction to a now infamous report known in food circles as the “rat study.” Dr. Folta believes the proliferation of genetically modified food is a potential benefit to farmers and consumers.

“Farmers benefit from genetic modification of crops by reducing the amount of time required to work with each harvest and treat each crop. Consumers see a net benefit in terms of cost reductions in final production,” Folta said.

Noah Shitama, owner of Swallowtail Farm in Alachua, believes genetic modification is not accepted by consumers, and given the choice, consumers want foods labeled.

“I think the only reason the voice is as loud as it is, is because of the power of the agricultural companies that are pushing for it,” Shitama said. “If you look at the billions of dollars they are spending to fight labeling, for example Prop. 37 in California, they have a clear interest in it and they have a business interest.”

Similar bills in California and Washington were recently defeated. If Florida’s bill is scheduled and passes, all genetically modified foods in Florida will be labeled by 2016.

Dr. Folta said society has not yet seen the full benefits of genetic modification, including for the needy and the environment.

The University of Florida study on consumer attitudes found increasing support for this type of food:

While it is true that consumer attitudes toward GM foods vary widely across the world, it is also fair to note that public opinion is moving slowly toward acceptance of biotech foods. With a global population nearing 9 billion people, biotech crops offer a tremendous potential to mitigate threats of hunger and some of the adverse impacts of climate changes.

The organic food sector continues to grow as well. According to the most recent report from the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales continue to increase each year, as a percent of overall food sales.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda filed the same bill as HB1 in the 2013 legislature and it did not make it to a hearing or to a committee. This year, she is working for a legislative committee and a discussion on the bill. The bill is currently in the Agriculture and Natural Resources subcommittee, and has been there since Oct. 7.

The 2014 legislative session begins March 4. North central Florida representatives Clovis Watson, Jr. (D) and Elizabeth W. Porter (R), members of the subcommittee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, did not respond to WUFT News requests to comment on the bill.

About Heather van Blokland

Heather is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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