No one spoke up for GMO foods Tuesday night when the Berkeley City Council was deciding whether to proceed with exploring a local ordinance to require labels on fresh produce that has been genetically modified.
The reservations expressed by some council members centered on the feasibility of doing it on the local level rather than on the desirability of food made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
In the end, the council voted 8-0, with one abstention, to approve, with modifications, a proposal by Councilman Jesse Arreguin to refer the proposed local labeling law to city staff and two city commissions for review.
Arreguin said he was seeking a more limited, local version of state Proposition 37, which was narrowly defeated by California voters last November. Prop 37 would have applied more broadly to food in general, while Arreguin's proposal applies only to fresh produce.
"I fundamentally believe that people of the city of Berkeley and people of California should have the right to know whether the produce that they are buying was grown using GMOs," Arreguin said before the vote. "And people who want to buy non-GMO produce shouldn't have to pay a higher premium to buy organic produce. I think this is essential information people should know."
Councilman Gordon Wozniak, who abstained on the vote, said the proposal is not feasible, in part because it puts the responsibility for labeling GMO produce on the grocer who's selling the produce, not the company that supplied the produce.
Detecting whether food has been made with GMOs requires DNA analysis through genetic testing that would be burdensome and prohibitively expensive for a grocer to perform and for a city to enforce, he said.
"I don't see how you can do enforcement," he said. "... I don't see how you can make it work. It really should be done at the state or federal level."
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf also questioned the ability of local grocers to comply with the labeling responsibility.
Mayor Tom Bates said Berkeley played a pioneering role decades ago in requiring grocers to post the price per ounce and that it can play a role in GMO labeling too.
"I think this issue is a big issue, and I think it's good that Berkeley takes it on," Bates said.
Arreguin said Berkeley voters supported Prop 37 with a 74.6 percent yes vote, adding, "We're a community that's really been on the cutting edge, and I think that once again we can lead the way by looking at this issue."
Eight members of the public spoke during the public comment period, all in support of the proposal. Some pointed to the many other nations that require GMO labels on food. These include the European Union, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand and others, according to Arreguin's report to the council on his proposal.
Councilman Max Anderson assailed producers of GMO food like Monsanto.
"They're only interested in the money and the profits," Anderson said. "They stack the regulatory commissions and they buy off people in Congress."
Arreguin agreed to amend the proposal to include suggestions from Councilwoman Linda Maio, who asked that food and seed exchanges be considered in the review, and Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who asked for a city attorney analysis of Berkeley's legal right to adopt such a law and for assessments of the impact on grocers, people in low-income communities and the cost of the produce.
Arreguin also said he had been in contact with the California Growers Association and was amending his proposal to include also the association's request that the review include existing labeling requirements for organic produce and country of origin.
The proposal next goes to city staff and to the Community Environmental Advisory Commission and the Community Health Commission to review the issue and return to the council with recommendations.
Arreguin's chief of staff, Anthony Sanchez, told Patch that the review is expected to take a minimum of six to eight months.
Honor for Berkeley 12-year-old
In other action, the council unanimously approved a proclamation honoring Zeke Gerwein, a 12-year-old Berkeley resident who rode 1,851 miles by bike from the Mexico border to Seattle this summer to raise funds for climate work by the Sierra Club.
The proclamation was proposed by Councilman Kriss Worthington.
We'd like to know if our readers think it's feasible or desirable for Berkeley to adopt a GMO labeling requirement for fresh produce. You can put your views in the comments.
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