A small contingent of pro-GMO labeling supporters demonstrated outside State Sen. Donne E. Trotter's South Side office Thursday, urging him to support a bill requiring food products that contain genetically-engineered ingredients be labeled as such.
Activists from Food and Water Watch Illinois say Trotter has been unresponsive to calls and letters inquiring about his position on Senate Bill 734. The bill would require manufacturers to label any genetically-modified food sold in retail stores as a GMO food, regardless of whether it has been entirely or partially produced by genetic engineering. The bill, however, does not require the listing of specific ingredients that are genetically engineered.
"We have been doing a ton of lobbying work and have gotten a response one way or the other from most of the people we needed to, and he (Trotter) is one of the last folks who hasn't come out on this. ... He has not made a statement yet one way or the other," said Alyssa Hartman, of Food & Water Watch Illinois, which lead the demonstration outside of Trotter's district office, located at 8658 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
Even though Trotter has not been responsive to the group, they want him as ally due to his clout in the Senate. The bill has already 18 co-sponsors in the state Senate, but needs 30 votes to pass.
"He is the majority leader and his vote impacts the way a lot of other people vote," Hartman said. "He's been in the Senate for a long time and his opinion is well respected. A lot of his constituents care about this issue, so we think it is just as important for him to respond to their concerns."
To drive the point home, the demonstrators dropped off 700 petitions supporting SB 734. The activists also presented a list of nearly 100 local businesses, organizations and faith groups that support the measure. Trotter was not in the office at the time of the demonstration. A staffer came out questioning the group's motives, but otherwise left them alone. Attempts to reach Trotter for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
A grassroots movement to label foods that have genetically modified organisms (GMO) or genetically engineered seeds (GE) has been picking up steam. Nationwide, nearly 70 bills have been introduced in over 30 states to require GE labeling or prohibiting genetically-engineered foods. A December poll by Associated Press/GFK showed that 66 percent of Americans favor the labeling of food products that have been genetically altered.
Genetically modified foods are foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been changed in a way that does not occur naturally. Genetically engineered foods have had genes from other plants or animals inserted into their genetic codes.
Food advocacy groups and consumers who say it's their right to know what's in the food they eat have been fueling the GMO labeling effort. South Shore resident Kenneth Varner is one of those consumers. As a pescetarian, someone who does not eat meat with the exception of fish, Varner is concerned about what he puts in body.
"I am trying to live a healthier lifestyle, but I feel like my choices are being undermined," the 35-year-old said.
Varner does not eat red meat, which he said is often pumped with hormones. Instead, he prefers vegetables, but they too can be "genetically modified to the point that they wouldn't exist in nature," Varner said.
"I don't think that there are very many things that are more intimate than putting something into your body. If I put something into my body I want to know what it is," he added.
Here's more from the rally:
Erik Malone, a West Chesterfield resident who is an avid runner, is also concerned about what his puts into his body. He says he eats healthy, natural whole foods, but without the labeling "there could be chances where I am eating genetically-modified foods which I do not care to do."
LaMar Jones, 27, added that he is concerned about the long-term health effects of eating GMO-laden food products. He said the black community already suffers from high incidences of hypertension and diabetes. Jones wonders if there is a connection, but added that there is no research to prove or disprove that.
"If you catch an illness or something you really don't know where it comes from. The main thing you can think of is the food that you put in your body and if the food is really healthy for you," the Chatham resident said.
While support for GMO labeling is growing, Varner, said the Black community should be concerned about the issue. GMO labeling, he said, impacts low-income minorities who often shop at cheaper food stores that may stock their shelves with GMO foods.
"We have the most to lose ... because we are going to be the main consumers," Varner said. "Not a lot of people in this neighborhood are going to take the bus downtown to go to Whole Foods to buy their organic produce. They are gonna go to Food-4-Less or Aldi's."
If Illinois passes SB 734, it will be the fourth state in the nation to do so. In 2013, Connecticut and Maine became two of three states to pass laws requiring such labeling. Last year, Vermont passed its GMO labeling law, which takes effect in 2016. A previous Illinois GMO labeling bill, sponsored by State Sen. David Koehler (D-Peoria), died in committee during the last legislative session.
"I think if Illinois would pass this, it would be huge because of our being so important as an agriculture state," said Koehler who introduced the current bill this February.
Koehler said that the labeling would be specific for processed food, not feed for livestock. He expects lobbying efforts "to line up on both sides of the issues."
The measure's goal, he added, is not to prove whose science is right.
"I'm just saying that people have a right to know and then they can make their decision," Koehler said, noting that support for labeling is growing among diverse communities.
"We are all consumers ... and we all are concerned about what's in the food products we eat," he added.