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You’ll Eat What We Feed You

Assemblyman Jack McEneny pulls genetically modified foods bill, dashing hopes of enforcing GM moratorium this session

A group of activists stormed Hannaford supermarket in Albany on Saturday, handing out fliers to shoppers to express their opposition to the genetic engineering of food. The group was trying to gain public support for two pieces of state legislation that would require genetically engineered food to be labeled and place a five-year moratorium on the planting of GM crops in New York state.

“People have a right to know what is in their food,” said Ed Kurtick, member of the Nutrition Education Committee. “You and I should know what we are eating, and from there make a choice if we want to eat it or not. There is labeling for sugar and salt, so why not genetically engineered food?”

But their hopes were partly dashed on Tuesday when Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany) pulled his bill, which called for the establishment of the moratorium, before it could go before the agricultural committee for a vote. Meanwhile, the mandatory labeling bill, which would require that any food manufactured with genetically engineered materials acknowledge that on its packaging, doesn’t look like it will see the light of day in this year’s legislative session.

McEneny said that he knew he didn’t have the votes to get his bill out of committee, and that’s why he pulled it.

“It would just make those people [other legislators] who were willing to vote for it vulnerable in their own districts, and particularly with the Farm Bureau,” said McEneny. “You just don’t do that to people when they are willing to give you their vote.”

Chris LaRoe, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said that his organization is against both bills because such legislation is unnecessary. Genetically engineered products, he said, are already regulated by three different government agencies: the Food and Drug Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, all of which, he said, have deemed the products safe for human consumption.

“A five-year hold on planting crops is unnecessary and would put New York state farmers at a huge disadvantage to other states who would not be required to follow suit,” said LaRoe.

He added that mandatory labeling comes across as a warning rather than informative information, and it often confuses consumers.

“Labeling doesn’t say what the product is, just how it got there,” said LaRoe. “We don’t need that because it has already been proven safe.”

But not everyone believes that enough tests have been done to prove the safety of GM foods.

Audrey Thier, pesticide project director for Environmental Advocates, said that little is known about genetically engineered foods, and that at this time, companies are not required to test the products for toxicity or allergic reactions.

She pointed out that just last year soybeans that had been engineered with Brazil nut genes almost made their way to the shelves of supermarkets before it was discovered that the beans would have posed a serious health risk to those who are allergic to nuts.

“Soybeans are engineered into so many different foods and are so widely dispersed, how would we have ever figured out that this was the source of a health hazard?” asked Thier. “You can’t do [testing] after the fact. You must do it beforehand, and we need to do this right now.”

Sarkis Haroutunian, chief of staff for Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffman (R-Syracuse), said that unless mandatory labeling and a five-year moratorium on planting genetically modified crops were first done at the federal level, the bill could drive food processing companies, like Kraft, out of New York state. Hoffman sponsors a Senate bill that would allow voluntary labeling for genetically modified foods.

“Why would these companies stay here when they can go to states that don’t have such strict laws?” he added. “All of these products cross states’ lines, so we need to do this on a federal level if we expect it to make any kind of difference.”

But Their doesn’t buy into this argument.

“That is the argument that is always trotted out when ever somebody is trying to stop something at the state level,” said Thier. “The state governments have to exercise their authority and make progressive state policy that protects its citizens and protects its farmers and protects its ecosystem. They can’t pass the buck all the time.”

Thier also added that powerful corporate interests also have a hand in why it is so tough to get these bills passed in New York state.

“This is an enormous cash enterprise,” she said. “There are huge conglomerates whose livelihoods are based on this. Anything that either casts aspersions or questions the wisdom of people doing this, they have a big fat foot that comes right down on it.”

—Nancy Guerin

Same as it Ever Was

Once again, a permit-parking proposal is drawn up for the city of Albany. And once again, it probably will be squashed by state employee unions

Each morning as Jason Stratton drives home from working the night shift as a security guard, he starts praying to the parking God. Stratton, who gets out of work at 8 AM on weekdays, lives on lower Hudson Avenue between Dove and Swan streets in Albany.

“When I pull around the bend by the dog park, I can just see cars lined up waiting for someone to pull out so that they can have a parking space,” said Stratton. “It is so infuriating to finally get home and then have no place to park because people who work downtown are taking up all the spots.”

Stratton said that some days he drives around for 30 minutes looking for a spot and usually ends up parking in Washington Park.

For anyone who lives in downtown Albany, Stratton’s daily parking dilemma is all too familiar. While each year the notion of a residential permit parking system gets thrown back and forth between the city, the Legislature, the neighborhood associations and the unions, it seems that it always ends up getting thrown out the window. This year has been no exception to the rule.

Last Thursday, a hearing was held before Assemblymen John McEneny (D-Albany) and Ronald Canestrari (D-I-Albany) and Sen. Neil Breslin (D-I-L-Albany) to discuss, once again, a bill that would create a residential parking permit system for the city of Albany.

The bill would give the city the power to implement a residential parking-permit system, which would allow its residents to park full time in their neighborhoods while limiting the amount of time that visitors could park in the area. It would cover a one-mile radius around the Empire State Plaza.

But without the support of the state’s two biggest employee unions, Civil Service Employees Association and Public Employees Union, the bill has a slim chance of ever becoming a law. And once again, just as they have done for the past 10 years, the two groups came out in opposition to the revived permit-parking proposal.

“It simply is the wrong plan at the wrong time,” said Denyce Duncan Lacy, director of public relations for PEF. “The state has just moved thousands more employees to downtown Albany. They have some parking but there is not enough, so where are our workers expected to park?”

In 1999, PEF President Roger Benson said that his union would drop its opposition to a residential parking plan if the city would provide replacement parking for its union members. For each space that the city would create, PEF would trade for a residential parking permit.

Lacy said that Benson still stands by his word. When the city built two parking garages in downtown Albany just last year, many residents were hopeful that this could be the start of the negotiations. But many, like Alice Oldfather, president of the Center Square Neighborhood Association, are giving up hope that the unions will ever accept any version of the legislation.

“They will always make excuses,” said Oldfather. “They haven’t shown any willingness or initiative to address the problem that was emphasized at the hearing. Legislation has got to stop using the unions’ opposition as a fig leaf for their inaction.”

Lacy added that while the two new garages did provide a limited amount of parking spots for state workers, the waiting list to get into them is so long that it’s projected to be nine years before new spots open up. Plus, she said, state workers are expected to pick up the monthly cost of parking in these lots.

“These state employees did not ask to be moved to downtown Albany,” said Lacy. “There was a concerted effort as part of this plan between the city of Albany and the state to try to help revitalize downtown. We don’t think it is fair to be asking our employees to subsidize that move.”

But Oldfather said that a price for parking might be the only incentive that will alleviate the parking problem for those who live in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“If we have parking permit, state employees will pay for parking or they will take public transit,” said Oldfather. “If they don’t have that incentive, then they are just going to keep using our streets as their parking lot.”

McEneny, who sponsors the permit-parking bill in the Assembly, said that the missing equation to the problem is that many people have such strong resistance to sharing rides with each other or taking public transportation.

“We also have a dirty little secret going on,” said McEneny. “People who have permits to park in the garage are choosing on a bright sunny day to park on the streets so that they don’t have to wait in the line to get into the garage, which I think shows very little social conscience.”

Albany is the only state capital in the Northeast form Maine to Maryland that doesn’t have a residential parking system in place.

—N.G.

Protest for Palestine

Joe Putrock

More than 100 protesters gathered in front of the Armory on Washington Avenue in Albany last Wednesday to protest Israeli policies in the Middle East. The protesters, who were gathered by numerous social-action organizations, including Vets for Peace, Jewish Voices for Peace, Campus Action and the Social Justice center, were calling for a peaceful compromise to the ongoing battle over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Israel and Palestine have been fighting for years over who is the rightful owner of that land. The protesters’ message was that they would like to see “the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.” Simultaneously, a group of counterprotesters carried signs of their own.


Joe Putrock

Beyond George, Carl and Andy

In New York State politics, it’s not easy being Green.

Especially when trying to advance the state’s most important issues, according to recently announced Green Party gubernatorial candidate Stanley Aronowitz. Aronowitz, a New York City resident and professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, has participated in the past at speaking engagements with the Democratic candidates vying for a run against Gov. George Pataki this fall, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo. Aronowitz claims the issues he wants to advance this year are simply not engaged in New York’s political forum.

“I see very little difference between the Democrats and Republicans, no startling set of ideas,” Aronowitz said. “If candidates aren’t talking taxes, aren’t talking cessation of the Rockefeller drug laws, aren’t talking about ending the death penalty, they aren’t talking about the future of the state of New York.”

Aronowitz’s main campaign pledge is to reconfigure the state’s tax structure to adequately support New York’s environmental, educational and health-care needs. Though he has yet to work out a detailed program for restructuring the tax system, Aronowitz believes that taxpayers making more than $50,000 a year should pay more taxes on a graduated basis.

Though taking over the governor’s office is ultimately the goal of Aronowitz’s campaign, receiving the 50,000 votes necessary to ensure the Green Party an automatic spot on ballot for the next four years comes in a close second.

“We’re here to stir up the voters,” Aronowitz said. “We’ll get the 50,000.”

—T.D.


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