Shouldn’t we all have the right to make informed decisions about the foods we may wish — or, more significantly, not wish — to consume? The US is one of the only industrialized nations that does not require the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). More than 40 other countries recognize the consumers’ basic right to such information and have made the labeling of GMOs mandatory. European Union countries led the way and introduced a standard; since 1998, all products with more than .9 percent GMOs are labeled as such. In the US there is no such standard — but California voters may be about to change that.
In November, with Proposition 37 on the California ballot, we will have the opportunity to vote for a law requiring the labeling of all GMO ingredients in raw and processed foods for sale to consumers. This law would finally do away with the misleading labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients as ‘natural.’
Is there anything natural about genetically modified foods? If so, who would want to prevent them from being properly labeled? By what other means can consumers make informed choices?
So what exactly is at stake with GMO labeling?
Let’s look at the basics of GMOs. Here’s a brief explanation from Wikipedia:
“A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques, generally known as recombinant DNA technology, use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GMOs, are organisms which have inserted DNA that originated in a different species.”
Scientists, farmers, and gardeners may attempt to bring out the best traits in — let’s say a tomato — by cross breeding. But, cross breeding is nearly always done within the same species — to bring together those features in one type of fruit or vegetable that improve yield, pest and disease resistance, flavors, textures, etc., within a single variety. This is not genetically modifying or genetically engineering a tomato, but cross-breeding tomatoes with tomatoes.
However, in taking the genetic material from one organism and inserting it into the permanent genetic code of another, biotechnologists have engineered some novel, if not frightening, creations — for example, “super” pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes, tomatoes with flounder genes (for resistance to cold temperatures). These are combinations that simply can’t occur in nature. This is literally altering a species, even if slightly. There are thousands of genetically altered plants, animals and insects; and, these artificial creations are now being patented at alarming rates. A realistic danger is weakening the gene pool and destroying the integrity of a particular species from unintended interbreeding with genetically altered individuals accidentally released into the wild.
California is poised to be the first state to require the labeling of GMO in foods, which could activate a veritable revolution of better agricultural practices. Since California is the 8th largest economy in the world, as the Organic Consumer Association has observed, mandatory labeling of GMO foods could affect packaging and ingredient decisions nation-wide. A win for the California Initiative could also put into effect a serious check on the biotechnology industry. Consequently, such corporations as Monsanto and Dupont, who have billions invested in GMOs, are spending millions to defeat it. Try googling “Proposition 37,” and the first in the line-up of search engine results from that query will be a site that opposes mandatory GMO labeling, referring to it as a “deceptive food labeling scheme.”
It takes a lot to remain in that top position, and it’s achieved by costly search engine optimization methods deployed all over the Internet by high-power public relation firms. The site opposing labeling, http://www.noprop37.com, claims to be paid for by a coalition with “major funding by Monsanto Company, E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co”. (Check out kcet.org for a breakdown of who is supporting and opposing Proposition 37, and with how much funding. Aside from the two biotech giants, you’ll find Pepsico Inc., Nestle USA Inc. Coca-Cola North America, General Mills Inc., Delmonte Foods Company, Kellogg Company, Kraft Foods Global Inc. and many other big food manufacturers.) As of October 3, 2012, Monsanto and DuPont alone spent $12,500,00 opposing mandatory labeling with the argument that it will cost both consumers and producers — costs that will ultimately be passed on to the consumer. They claim that mandatory labeling would add more government bureaucracy as well as increase taxpayer costs because of the need to monitor “tens of thousands of food labels.” Yet, the big food manufacturers already label their products for most of the world. Ironically, the opposition to the California Initiative, sponsored by these high-power corporations, claims that the proposed law would lead to frivolous lawsuits and create “a new class of ‘headhunter lawsuits’ allowing lawyers to sue family farmers and grocers without any proof of harm.”
The irony, of course, is that Monsanto alone, which has spent upwards of $7,000,000 funding the opposition, has a formidable litigation team — and several front men behind the so-called “grassroots” organizations lobbying against Proposition 37. Tom Hiltachk, the PR top gun behind the “Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition,” (an anti-labeling front group), is a partner at the Sacramento-based lobbying firm, Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk LLP, which “specializes in campaign, election and administrative law and litigation at all levels of government.” Hiltachk also has ties to Big Oil and California’s Proposition 23. That Initiative, supported by big oil companies, would have repealed California’s clean energy and climate laws.
At the very heart of the matter, crucial to all of agriculture, is the question of seeds; control over them means control over the growth and production of our foods, feed, and other products, as Monsanto has demonstrated. After being forced to stop manufacturing DDT in the 1970’s, Monsanto shifted the focus from chemical to biological technology. Modifying and then patenting seed genes, Monsanto uses laws to criminalize farmers for patent infringement, or “seed piracy” — rationalized as a “technology protection system.” And, now they have created seeds genetically modified so that they will not germinate unless exposed to a chemical, either applied to a maturing plant, or in a seed coating. This chemical inducer permits germination of the single generation of seed, thwarting even small-time farmers (not worth litigating against) from collecting and using “free” farm-saved seeds. These aptly dubbed “terminator seeds” force the poorest, rain-dependent farmers to buy seed every year — seeds that make them dependent on Monsanto’s fertilizers and pesticides not needed with conventional seed. And though they were developed for “untapped” third-world markets, Monsanto now claims that these seeds (officially referred to as Genetic Use Restriction Technology seeds) will prevent unintended spread and contamination. They would have to be 100% sterile to prevent contamination, however — which is not proving to be the case, as many alarmed scientists are cautioning.
Intentionally phasing out the conventional seed supply in parts of rural India, Monsanto has gained a stranglehold over the availability of any seed. And, farmers there, born into traditional agriculture communities, have killed themselves in the tens of thousands out of shame and despair when they can’t keep up with Monsanto’s package as their debts mount, lenders gouge, and they lose their families’ land because of this “technology protection system.” (Bitter Seeds, a feature documentary by Micha X. Peled, “explores the controversy — from a village in India that uses genetically modified seeds to US government agencies that promote them”. The film is now screening in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater until October 13.)
Columnist Roger Cohen, in his New York Times Op Ed “Return of the Organic Fable,” of September 27, argues dismissively against the warnings of the “organic bourgeoisie.” In Cohen’s view, the unnatural creations by corporations such as Monsanto can help solve “the problem of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century”. Cohen suggests that without fertilizers and GM crops made more resilient to drought and disease, higher yields cannot be met to satisfy demand. He concludes his editorial with, “Elitist freakouts spurred by the organic ideology are no answer to the world’s food problems. In fact they are a distraction.”
A federal judge recently ordered that 258 acres of Monsanto GM sugar beets in Oregon’s Willamette Valley be destroyed, (95 percent of sugar beets in the US are grown from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds). Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the crops be destroyed because the danger of gene contamination was so great, and herbicide resistant crops like these have been shown to result in more toxic chemicals in our soil and water. Is this also an “elitist freakout”? What about the 1.2 million people who have contacted the USDA to tell them we have the right to know what’s in our food? (Join in at: justlabelit.org — or — carighttoknow.org.) Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds are genetically modified to resist the weed killer Roundup, and the crop strips the soil of vital nutrients; the soil erosion they cause is a realistic problem, and they spread without our knowing. Organic corn, for instance, is nearly impossible to find because it has been completely tainted by GM seeds.
In 1985 Demeter Association Inc. was formed in the US as a non-profit — seventeen years before the USDA established the National Organic Program. Demeter’s long-established biodynamic practices and principles are an apparent alternative to the high cost of USDA organic certification. Demeter Association Inc. (the US representative of Demeter International) promotes biodiversity and helps enable people to farm successfully and create self-contained and self-sustaining farms. Asked for her response to Cohen’s suggestion that GMOs can feed the world, Elizabeth Candelario of Demeter Association Inc, makes several important points.
“It’s important for folks to realize that GMOs were not developed to feed the world, but to increase profits of agri-business by hampering efforts by farmers to save their own seed. Their solution to the ‘problem’ of farmers saving seeds was the introduction of patents and intellectual property rights on seed, which make saving seeds an illegal act. Instead of protecting seed diversity and farmers’ rights to save, cultivate and share seed freely, we now have a system where seeds are seen as commodities owned by private companies and traded on the open market. The true costs of this system are not factored into the equation, but the public is starting to wake up and realize that the environment, peoples’ health, and even the future of our food system is at risk. Even if we allow that reasonable people can disagree on the safety and efficacy of GMO seed, it will be a zero sum wager because co-existence of heirloom seed and GMOs has already proven to be impossible.”
As Candelario aptly notes, “Bees will be bees and the wind will blow.”
Regarding safety and human health, Cohen quotes the World Health Organization (WHO) on GM foods: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” But WHO can account for only immediate effects. There are no long-term studies of GM products on human health. Science may be capable of transplanting a gene from one species into that of another, but cannot as yet predict or contain the results. Can we simply ignore these facts?
There has been an explosion of works coming from chefs, writers, filmmakers, and food-conscious organizations on the problems with corporate controlled foods. These folks are collaborating, networking, creating platforms through which people can take action, and raising consciousness about the damaging effects of monoculture crops. A great example of this is what has happened in the wake of Robert Kenner’s Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning documentary, Food Inc. While giving talks around the country, Kenner found that people repeatedly asked, “What can I do? How can I get more involved?” FixFood was launched as a result, a website that uses videos, links to information and petitions, and social media to raise consciousness and “empower Americans to take immediate action” on specific issues regarding our food system. “FixFood helps answer these questions by leveraging the latest social media tools and collaborating with leading nonprofit organizations and values-based businesses.”
Slow Food, another successful grassroots membership organization, is now a huge international movement that remains firmly against the commercial planting of genetically modified crops and promotes GMO-free food and feed. Slow Food, deriving its name as “an ironic way of saying no to fast foods,” describes itself as standing “at the crossroads of ecology and gastronomy, ethics and pleasure.” They oppose “the standardization of taste and culture, and the unrestrained power of the food industry multinationals and industrial agriculture.” Their simple yet powerful vision is “a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet”.
Addressing the world’s food problems, Slow Food President Carlo Petrini states: “When it comes to hunger, the United Nations says that family agriculture will protect the sectors of the population at risk of malnutrition. Multinationals instead promise that GMOs will feed the world, but since they began to be marketed around 15 years ago, the number of starving people in the world has only grown, just like the profits of the companies that produce the seeds.” (Ten Reasons to Say No to GMOs.)
The plain fact is that corporations, such as Monsanto and DuPont, rely on our ignorance. As we begin to understand more about what’s in our foods, our entire food system, and the supply chain itself, consumer demands are changing.
When asked what’s at stake in voting for Proposition 37, Robert Kenner said, “I believe in truth, transparency and trust in the food system, which includes mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. All Americans in every state should enjoy the same right to know what’s in their food. Supporting the California initiative is an important step on the path towards a national policy that will address this issue for us all. A win in California on Proposition 37 is a win for the whole nation.”
With this initiative, Californians have the chance to create a very direct change in our food system. It’s one of those rare opportunities to make a real difference. Now all we have to do is show up and vote.
(This piece was printed in Anderson Valley Advertiser, a Mendocino County newspaper, on Oct. 10, 2012.)