If there's one thing that stands out for me during my 25 years in Connecticut, it was the quiet but delicious return of good food and local farms.
For readers who are less than 40 years old, please remember, there were no farmers markets in the state until 1978. Today, according to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, there are 118. There were also no community supported agriculture farms. Today, according to the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, there are 70.
Throughout the latter decades of the 20th century, subdivisions consumed the state's farmland faster than you could eat a Glastonbury peach. Today, between the state's farmland preservation program and the Connecticut Farmland Trust, more than 325 farms and 40,000 acres are permanently protected. Overall, the number of farms is no longer on the decline but rising. And with equal importance, residents living in lower-income neighborhoods are witnessing a return of supermarkets to some of the state's worst food deserts.
Progress like this cannot be taken for granted, nor can the force of the public will, meaning the actions of thousands of informed Connecticut citizens, policy-makers and concerned organizations who thoughtfully reshaped the direction of the state's then-atrophying food system.
Connecticut has another such destiny-making moment before it. The General Assembly is considering passage of "An Act Concerning the Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food." This bill would not only make Connecticut the first state to require such labeling, it would also give the state's citizens a chance to chart the direction of their food system. Labeling food products composed of ingredients grown or raised by genetically modified means will grant every Connecticut consumer the opportunity to make an informed choice, just as they have done for local food, farmland protection and access to healthy food for all.
The efficacy and safety of genetic modification is still in doubt and will continue to be debated. Clearly, the public must engage in this debate and not concede its outcome to a small number of profit-driven biotechnology corporations, scientists and federal officials.
Given the pit-bull determination of the food industry to fight every attempt to rein it in — a fight financed with bottomless coffers — genetically engineered ingredients will remain on grocery store shelves for some time. That doesn't mean that we have to consume them if we don't want to. Hence the need for information, which is why savvy marketers like Whole Foods will soon be labeling genetically engineered food.
It is prudent to beware of food and farm corporations bearing gifts. Like a Trojan horse that appears one morning on the town common, genetically engineered food proponents claim that it poses no harm to humans or the environment, and that we need the technology to feed the 9 billion people expected by 2050. Consider the claims and the source. Already, genetically engineered crops have been associated with the decline of monarch butterfly populations as well as a greater degree of herbicide tolerance — requiring more herbicides instead of fewer. Yields from genetically engineered seeds have shown mixed results, not always exceeding those of conventional or hybridized seeds. And United Nations' bodies have not embraced genetically modified organisms as a way to feed a hungry world, proposing instead more sustainable agriculture methods and a greater emphasis on small-scale farming and social equity in developing nations.
When entering uncharted territory where risk is prevalent, we should employ the precautionary principle. This means that the introduction of new technologies require a much higher level of certainty and scientific consensus than we currently have with genetically modified organisms. As my mother taught me when I learned to cross busy streets, look both ways, look again and again, and then proceed with caution.
I've always been proud of Connecticut's independent streak. A tenacious refusal to accept pat solutions and the mediocrity of market-driven events has served it well. Information is power because it gives people the power to choose and to act. Labeling genetically engineered food will give the state's consumers the information they need to make their own choice and allow citizens to choose the food system that reflects their needs and values.
Mark Winne was the executive director of the Hartford Food System from 1979 to 2003. He currently consults and writes on food system issues in Santa Fe, N.M.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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