(Host) A Rutland based group concerned about the impact of genetically altered foods is held a food forum Saturday at the Rutland Free Library. Short films highlighted various farming methods.
There were food samples and activities for kids and a panel discussion on genetically modified foods.
As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, organizers hoped the event would help educate consumers on the types of food they eat.
(Keck) There’s been a lot of debate among state lawmakers recently over genetically modified organisms – GMOs for short. These are plants that have been genetically altered for some reason – to resist certain pests or herbicides, or produce higher yields. Proponents say these new plant strains have revolutionized farming and have helped alleviate global food shortages. Opponents worry that the technology is changing too fast and that not enough is known about the long-term ramifications of genetic engineering.
(Ampatiellos) “I’m particularly passionate about this subject because it affects my family.”
(Keck) Jim Ampatiellos is one of the founders of the Committee for the Study of Genetically Modified Food and Food Choice – that’s the Rutland based organization that’s sponsoring the public forum.
(Ampatiellos) “I’m concerned about my children and the foods they eat. And I really felt compelled to get involved on a community level and heighten awareness on this issue with my friends and family.”
(Keck) To do that, Ampatiellos and other local organizers invited lawmakers, organic and traditional farmers, biotechnology and genetic engineering experts, as well as members of the church to discuss various aspects of genetic engineering.
(Ampatiellos) “It’s the first time that such a comprehensive panel of experts is being gathered in Rutland to really hash out this issue.”
(Keck) Organizers say they did not invite any seed manufacturers to be on the panel. Eighty-five percent of the soybeans grown in Vermont and about twenty percent of the corn is genetically modified. Jim Bushey, of Bordeau and Bushey Incorporated, a feed and seed dealer in Middlebury, says GMO seeds have been in the marketplace for almost ten years. And he says their benefits have been tremendous.
(Bushey) “Improved yields, reduced acres, acres that have an opportunity to rotate quicker, so we have less soil loss, less pollution, better water quality, reduced pesticide use. It’s a multi-faceted benefit to modern ag.
(Keck) But Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety in Washington DC, and one of the forum panelists, disagrees.
(Gurian-Sherman) “What we’re seeing now, is they’re pushing the envelope more towards treating our agriculture as an industry. And I’m all for efficiency and for developing ways that save time and effort. But fundamentally farming is biology. It’s not like making cars.”
(Keck) While farmers planting GMO seeds might use less herbicides initially, Gurian-Sherman says that studies show over time they often end up using more.
(Gurian-Sherman) “And what’s happening in consequence is that the biology is biting back and what we’re seeing now is the emergence of weeds which are resistant to herbicide. And they’re spreading like crazy. And then what happens is that farmers have to not only use Round Up to control other weeds, but they have to plow and use other herbicides to control the resistant weeds.”
(Keck) Gurian-Sherman says there have also been reports of certain strains of genetically altered food that could cause allergies in people. What’s troubling, he says is that when reviewing GMOs, the Federal Food and Drug Administration does not conduct their own studies, but instead relies on data collected by the seed manufacturers themselves. Jason Dietz, a consumer safety officer with the FDA, says the federal standards are adequate.
(Dietz) “We do not do our own tests, but it is the responsibility of the manufacturer to make sure their foods are safe and lawful. And were they to submit data to the agency that was not accurate or were intentionally misleading, there are penalties that the companies could face.”
(Keck) Organizers of the Rutland food forum say the issue is complex. Organic and traditional farmers need all the help they can get and the seed companies represent a huge and profitable industry. While organizer, Jim Ampatiellos, says he’s not expecting people to come away with clear answers, he says if consumers are better informed, they’ll make better choices.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.