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As Fla. Activists Call For GMO Labeling, Scientists Say Danger Is Overhyped

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Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU News
Grapes grow on vines at the FAMU Center for Viticulture and Small Fruit Research

Food containing genetically modified ingredients would have to be labeled as such if a bill filed this month passes the Florida Legislature. The bill’s sponsor says people should have the right to refuse genetically modified foods. But food biotechnologists say supporters of the bill overstate the dangers of genetic engineering.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee) is sponsoring the food-labeling bill. Sitting on her front porch, she says she grew up in a farming community and she’s always felt close to the land.

“And my husband’s got a garden back there that doesn’t have genetically engineered food that I know of,” she says.

U.S. laws don’t require such labeling, although other countries, including the European Union members and Japan, do. Rehwinkel Vasilinda first filed the bill last year after she heard from a group of activists who had collected more than 1,200 petitions from Floridians.

“It’s an amazing group of diverse—I mean you have African American, you have white—I mean it just doesn’t matter. People are concerned with what they want to put in their bodies,” she says.

Lynna Kaucheck is a South Florida-based organizer with the national Food and Water Watch, the group that approached Rehwinkel Vasilinda.

She says, “You know, there haven’t been any long-term health studies done on humans.  The foods are unlabeled and they’re largely untested. And the tests that are done are oftentimes done by the companies that are working to get them approved.”

But some scientists say the activists are inflating the threat. Florida A&M University Professor Violetka Colova says she supports people’s right to choose what they eat but points out farmers have been modifying genes for thousands of years. The difference, she says, is the technology is now more precise and allows people to combine genetic material from a wider variety of species. Scientists can make crops resistant to pests or to cold weather, for example.

“That means we use piece of life to improve piece of life,” she says.

Outside FAMU’s viticulture center, acres of grapes grow in the hot Florida sun. But inside the growing room, different kinds of grapes are forming. Colova says it’s like a nursery for cell lines and in vitro plants.

Petrie dishes with various colors of grape cells grow under bright lights on large metal carts.

“We just make them regenerate,” Colova says. “When we move those cells to a specific media, they start producing these tiny plantlets.”

Researcher Anthony Ananga says, “We want to look at specific proteins that we see have the real medicinal components and see how we can increase the productivity of those proteins in grapes…making healthier grapes.”

The scientists reject the claim that genetically modified foods are unsafe because the federal government regulates them just like other foods. But Colova says only a multigenerational study of people eating nothing but genetically engineered food would yield scientifically significant results. And there just hasn’t been time for that.

She says, “The opportunities are so big. Many breakthrough research in this area; these are multi-million, multi-billion impacts.”>>

In the U.S., the food biotechnology industry has exploded over the past 15 years. Today, the USDA says about 70 percent of processed foods contain some genetically modified ingredient.

And the industry’s profitability leads many in the anti-genetically modified organism, or GMO, movement to be suspicious. Tallahassee gardener Priscilla Hudson has been meeting with Rep. Rehwinkel Vasilinda in support of the labeling bill.

“When I read the deal with the GMOs, I decided to cut them out of my diet, and within three months, my health has improved considerably,” she says as she waters her flowers.

Hudson says she and other campaigners will be pushing conservative church leaders to join the labeling movement by getting them to oppose what they see as unnatural foods.