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Lawmakers raise tribal concerns in genetic foods controversy

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, at the U.S. Capitol on August 5, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Tribal authority over GMOs rejected in House vote
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow joined lawmakers and food advocates on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to call for mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods.

Tribes and Native activists have opposed the spread of genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs, saying they are dangerous to their communities and threaten to undermine subsistence and naturally raised foods. Despite these fears, the House voted 275 to 150 -- mainly along party lines -- last month to pass H.R.1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.

The controversial bill creates federal guidelines for companies that wish to voluntarily disclose their genetically modified foods. At the same time, it bars states from developing and enacting their own labeling laws.

“There’s a train coming down the track in our food industry that will change agriculture forever," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), a third-generation farmer who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "It will change the food we eat and not in a good way."

"The fact that we have a House bill that will deny American consumers the ability to know if their food contains GMOs is just wrong," Tester added.

Gwyneth Paltrow speaks at the press conference at the U.S. Capitol on August 5, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Paltrow has been actively campaigning against the bill, which she and other critics are calling the "Denying Americans the Right to Know" or the DARK Act. The food writer and her mother, Blythe Danner, who also is an actress, appeared at the press conference with the lawmakers.

“I'm not here as an expert," Paltrow said. "I'm here as a mother, an American mother, that honestly believes I have the right to know what's in the food I feed my family.”

Tester is one of 14 co-sponsors of S.511, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. The bill, which has not yet received a hearing, requires the Food and Drug Administration to establish labeling standards for modified foods. It also bars companies from marketing genetically engineered products as "natural."

A primary concern in Indian Country has been the potential for GMOs to affect salmon and other fish that form the basis of tribal economies and represent a key exercise of treaty rights. The National Congress of American Indians, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and tribes in Alaska have all called on the federal government to reject genetically engineered foods.

A salmon prepared for meals at the Muckleshoot Indian School in Washington. Photo from NWIFC

“Creating genetically engineered salmon would mean that our traditional knowledge and relationship with salmon would pass out of our hands to a transnational corporation,” Valerie Segrest, a traditional foods educator from the Muckleshoot Tribe of Washington, said on the blog of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California) raised these concerns when he brought up an amendment to H.R.1599 that would have recognized tribal authority over genetically engineered foods. His proposal, though, failed by a vote of 196 to 227.

"With the significant concerns over GE foods and proactive steps tribes are taking on their land and resources, we should make it clear that this bill would not affect tribes’ authorities to prohibit or restrict the cultivation of genetically engineered plants on or near tribal lands," Huffman said after the vote.

YouTube: Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California) speaks out for GMO Labeling

Another Indian Country ally on the issue is Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs has introduced a bill that would effectively ban the sale and import of any genetically modified salmon and another to require labeling for genetically engineered salmon.

“As lawmakers, we must do everything in our power to protect the public and one of the finest products in the world,” Young said in a statement after introducing H.R.394, the Prevention of Escapement of Genetically Altered Salmon in the United States Act, and H.R.393, the labeling bill.

Young, however, said he made a mistake when he voted in favor of H.R.1599 last month. He opposes the bill because he believes it will hurt Alaska's salmon industry.

"The so-called Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act was sold as a bill that would eliminate a patchwork of labeling requirements for GE foods, but I believe this legislation would significantly jeopardize states’ rights and the efforts made to protect wild Alaskan salmon," Young said on Facebook after the vote. "I have been very clear in my opposition to this legislation, but today on the House floor I incorrectly voted in favor of it. Unfortunately, by the time I realized my error, the vote had closed and I was unable to change my vote to no."

The controversy over H.R.1599 weakens its chances of consideration in the Senate. There is no companion version of the bill in that chamber.

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