New York state environmental groups are taking the black villain hats off drilling companies like Chesapeake Energy Corp. and placing them on Monsanto Co. and other sellers of genetically modified seed.
After beating back an attempt by energy companies to get Governor Andrew Cuomo to allow fracking in December, groups that only a few months ago were studying seismic activity in Ohio and Pennsylvania have pivoted to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Food & Water Watch, the New York Public Interest Research Group and Catskill Mountainkeeper, all of which were part of New Yorkers Against Fracking, have helped form a new group called the New York GMO Labeling Coalition.
“They have to have a cause to sustain their business model,” said Rick Zimmerman, an Albany lobbyist who represents farmers and companies opposed to the coalition’s efforts. “If they don’t have a bogeyman out there, they cease to exist, and GMOs are an attractive issue from their standpoint.”
Thanks to newly energized efforts by environmental groups, a bill requiring food distributed in New York to carry a label if it contains GMOs has more sponsors than ever, said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat and the measure’s lead backer. After languishing for two years, it’s advancing through the state Assembly, she said.
“Now that fracking is taken care of for the moment, they’ve been very enthusiastic,” Rosenthal said in an interview.
GMOs were introduced to the U.S. food supply in the 1990s and are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Environmentalists say they reduce crop diversity and increase the use of chemicals to eradicate weeds and pests. The public has a right to know when they’re used in food, they say.
Manufacturers and farmers opposed to GMO labeling say it will increase food costs. In their view, the movement is nothing more than an attempt by organic farmers to increase their market share and activists to dictate agricultural practices.
In December, after a six-year moratorium, Cuomo banned hydraulic fracturing for natural gas when health officials in his administration determined that it couldn’t be done safely. The decision was a blow to energy companies that said drilling was being done without harm in neighboring Pennsylvania, and Southern Tier residents who were counting on fracking to boost the area’s stagnant economy.
If New York, home to 19.5 million residents, approves the GMO-labeling bill, it could set off a chain reaction in other states in the region. Connecticut and Maine have passed GMO-labeling laws, but they go into effect only when states in the Northeast with at least 20 million residents are covered by similar laws.
In genetic modification, companies including Monsanto, Dow Chemical Co. and Syngenta AG splice DNA in seeds so corn, soybeans, beets and other crops become resistant to things such as drought and herbicides, including Monsanto-made Roundup. Since 2012, opponents have spent more than $68 million to defeat labeling measures on ballots in California, Washington and Oregon.
The fight in New York will be different. It will take place in the legislature rather than at the ballot box, so instead of companies influencing voters with television and radio ads, industry lobbyists are quietly leading the charge in Albany. Conventional agriculture is also facing a well-entrenched foe, one that strengthened during the fight against fracking.
It started in 2008, when Governor David Paterson said he wouldn’t allow fracking until New York had time to study it, even as it was making farmers into millionaires from North Dakota to Pennsylvania. The move made the Empire State the front line in the national debate on fracking as opponents including celebrities Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono joined the fray.
In the years that followed, groups such as Food & Water Watch expanded their presence in New York and led education campaigns that helped give rise to dozens of local organizations that are now taking on new causes, including GMO-labeling.
“Since the fracking decision, our capacity was freed up,” said Alex Beauchamp, head of Washington-based Food & Water Watch’s New York-based branch. “We’ll win by having people active and in the streets. The GMO campaign will play out the same as fracking, with a sustained grassroots effort.”
The use of social media to spread information about genetic modification is already frustrating the New York Farm Bureau, which opposes the labeling bill, said Steve Ammerman, a spokesman. Inaccurate articles and other postings on Twitter and Facebook are designed to spread fear and show little understanding of the science, he said.
Farmers need to highlight how modified seeds reduce pesticide use and increase crops per acre, which can help feed a fast-growing world population, Ammerman said.
“We have to do better jobs of getting out there and telling that story,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation being spread.”