It’s almost no fun any more to pick apart the foibles of our public officials—it’s become just too easy to find examples of dysfunction and idiocy. Yet, a funny thing happened on the way to sign another petition—in conversation we realized there are ample reasons to feel good about living in New York State at the current time (and not just because Chris Christie is governor of another state). Over the past several years, the state has enacted, rescinded and modified laws—and thrown its weight behind significant PR campaigns—that have had a direct, positive effect on the state’s agricultural resources and economics, as well as on related interests like tourism, travel and lodging, brewing and distilling, and, of course, restaurants.
The recognition and acknowledgment of the true value of the state’s agricultural economy, the lowering of the minimum number of acres required for agricultural district designation and, more recently, the state’s initiatives to get more local and seasonal products into the public school systems all underscore the role local agriculture plays not only in the state’s overall economic health but also in the health of its citizens. With significant input from Hudson Valley interests, a jigger of hopelessly antiquated (Depression era) liquor laws were brought up to date or eliminated from the books, opening the way for legislation aimed at making it easier for on-farm production and sale of wine, spirits and beer. Consequently, the explosion in the number of farm-to-bottle distilleries and breweries in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere is breathing new life into some marginalized farms and stimulating interest and cultivation of forgotten crops like hops and barley. The word agriculture can now legitimately and positively be included in the same sentence as economic development, along with vodka, bourbon and beer.
To top it off, Governor Cuomo’s proposed 2015 budget includes $20 million earmarked specifically for Hudson Valley farmland protection. It’s not a done deal—the budget has not yet been approved and the item has some upstate senators in particular grumbling that the money should be spread statewide—but it is an indication that the state may be willing to ante up some public money in support of all the private food- and agriculture-related investments in the region. Realistically, $20 million spread across the state won’t go very far, but it could have significant impact in this region and provide incentive for more activity.
The environment of New York also got a break recently when hydraulic fracturing (fracking) was banned within the state’s borders, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to emphasize enough the significance of this judgment: While some municipalities already have passed local laws forbidding the transport of highly toxic fracking byproducts through their jurisdictions, the move to ban the practice from the state is an acknowledgment that the potentially permanent destruction of our natural resources—specifically our water supplies—is not worth the short-term (and highly questionable, if not fictional) economic gains the big-business operations would bring. Chalk one up for the good guys.
There is one more feather waiting to be displayed in the state’s cap, so to speak. Now that the issue of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or GE (genetically engineered) products has been brought to the fore in venues as diverse as Consumer Reports and Real Time with Bill Maher, the whole idea of GMOs is being examined more closely. In fact, unanswered questions about GMO testing and approval procedures led Costa Rica’s Supreme Court recently to declare the GMO-approval process unconstitutional, adding that its ruling will guarantee “the procedures to authorize GMOs from now on will be accessible to all individuals, which will allow opposition that guarantees the cultivation of [GMO] crops will not disrupt the balance of ecosystems or the public health.”
We’re not in a position to declare GMOs bad—they’ve been around for years in a surprising number of products imbibed by humans and animals, and in some applications may be beneficial. Nor at this point does it make sense to call for their outright ban, considering the economic investment at stake both domestically and worldwide. Those issues aside, what the big companies are telling the public via multi-million dollar legal actions is that consumers do not have the right to know what they’re eating. The general basis of their defense is, “There’s no proof that GMOs are harmful, but if people know they are in a product they won’t buy it and we’ll suffer an economic loss.” Period. (Imagine a product manufacturer saying, “We knew the machine could blow up, but if we told people that they wouldn’t buy it.”)
Despite the fact that a 2013 New York Times poll found 93 percent of Americans favor GMO labeling, almost any domestic labeling initiative is met with a swift, well-funded and effective counterattack. So far, 64 countries have GMO labeling laws (though there’s little chance any national legislation would pass here); three states (Vermont, Maine and Connecticut) have enacted labeling laws; and 30 states, including New York, currently have bills pending. (New York Assembly bill A.617 and Senate bill S.485 didn’t make it to the floor last year, but proponents are hoping for a better result in the 2015 session.)
What would happen if New York State got its considerable legal, political and economic powers in sync and passed a GMO labeling law that worked? What if it acknowledged that its citizens have a basic, fundamental right to know what is in the food they eat? What would happen if our lawmakers demonstrated that they care more about what their constituents want than about corporate profits and campaign contributions? There’s only one way to find out.
PS: Don’t forget: Hudson Valley Restaurant Week starts March 9 with a roster of more than 210 restaurants—the most ever. Make a statement. Eat out . Walk, run, take the train. Do lunch or do dinner, or do lunch AND dinner. That’s what Restaurant Week is all about, and it’s all in the special section in this issue.