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July 12, 2014
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editorial

Consumers’ choice? Food labeling matters


The food fight over genetically engineered (GE) agricultural products in what we eat is heating up again.

Last week, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. It would require food manufacturers to clearly label any product containing genetically modified organisms (GMO), also called GE organisms, or risk having that product classified “misbranded” by the Food and Drug Administration. Senator Kirsten Gellibrand (D/NY) is one of nine co-sponsors of the Senate bill. There are 22 co-sponsors of the House version.

You can expect Big Ag and Big Biotech to fight back.

Last November, California’s ballot initiative Prop 37, which required GMO labeling, failed to pass after the industry spent more than $40 million to help defeat it. Now comes a similar ballot initiative in Washington State. In total, two dozen states are taking up the issue. On April 3, a GMO labeling law was introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate and, earlier this year, two different bills were introduced in the New York State House and Senate (www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/state-labeling-i...).

On the other side, in Missouri, home of biotech giant Monsanto, a bill has been introduced to add a new section to the Missouri Constitution with language about protecting the “right of farmers and ranchers to employ modern agricultural technology.” What the language really addresses are genetically modified seeds and animals. Anti-GMO groups are calling this the “Missouri Monsanto Protection Act.”

Recently, President Obama signed a federal version of a “Monsanto Protection Act,” as it is called by opponents. (It was attached as a rider to a spending bill aimed at preventing a government shutdown.) As the International Business Times reports (www.ibtimes.com/monsanto-protection-act-5-terrifying-things-know-about-h...), the law “effectively bars federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of GMO or GE crops and seeds, no matter what health consequences from the consumption of these products may come to light in the future.”

Consider this: agricultural biotechnology has been around commercially only since 1996 when Monsanto began to market a soybean resistant to herbicide. Since then, many more GMO agricultural crops have been developed. The past 17 years have seen an unprecedented 100-fold increase in land planted in biotech crops (www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/44/pressrelease/). GMO opponents worry, however, that not enough is known about GMOs’ effects on humans, other living species or on the environment, despite assurances from the biotech industry that experts generally regard GE foods and crops as safe.

In our opinion, there is good reason to proceed far more carefully with GMO commodities than their agribusiness/biotech creators want. We worry that this is all a grand experiment, with the end result still unknown, led by companies whose chief interest is in making a quarterly profit for their shareholders and big profits for themselves. We believe that 17 years is not enough to measure long-term health and environmental consequences; more long-term studies are needed. We are offended that the federal “Monsanto Protection Act” will deprive future Americans of due judicial process if later studies show health problems or risks.

Finally, we believe that knowing what is in our food is a right of every eater and that labeling products containing GMO ingredients is the minimum protection that consumers deserve. Americans want to know more, not less, about the food they eat.

If the industry is so sure GMO ingredients are safe, why are they afraid to list them on a label?


What is GMO, also called GE?

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), or Genetically Engineered (GE) plants and animals are those whose genes have been modified by inserting genetic material from another organism.

Biotech is big business

The primary biotech crops grown in the U.S. are soybeans, corn, cotton, and sugar beets; others include canola, squash, papaya, and alfalfa. Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow Chemical are among the world’s largest developers of biotech crops.

You’re already eating GE foods

An estimated 80% of corn and 90% of our soybean crop is GE.

Over 50% of canola is estimated to be GE.

According to California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, 70% of processed foods in American supermarkets now contain GE ingredients.

One example: Bt corn

Corn (with its derivative byproducts used in countless processed food products including high-fructose corn syrup) is modified with genetic material from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) allowing the corn to produce its own pesticide; when pests eat the corn, the BT toxin kills them. How it works: Bt toxin dissolves in the insect’s gut, punching holes in its lining. Bt bacteria spores spill out of the gut and germinate in the insect causing death.

Other GMO crops resist weed-killing herbicides allowing farmers to spray more pesticides.

Other countries that already label

China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, countries in the European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, India and Chile are just a few of the nations that already require GMO foods to be labeled.