This November voters in California will have an opportunity to pass a bill requiring the labeling GMO foods. This legislation, California Proposition 37, will be the first of its kind as currently no U.S. state or federal law requires genetically engineered food to be labeled.
The basis of Prop 37 seems simple enough. If passed, all raw or processed food made from plants or animals that were genetically engineered will be required to disclose this on the label. Genetically engineered foods, also known as GE foods, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetically altered, transgenic or biotech foods, are foods whose DNA has been altered in a laboratory to produce desired effects. One example of this that is commonplace in the United States is corn. The vast majority of corn grown in the U.S. comes from seeds that have been genetically engineered to withstand herbicides. This allows farmers to spray herbicides to combat weeds without killing their corn. If the measure passes, all food that has been genetically engineered or contains genetically engineered ingredients will be required to display “Genetically Engineered,” “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering,” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” on the front package or label (or shelf or bin if the item has no label). The bill also prohibits the term “natural” from appearing on labels or advertisements for food that contains GE ingredients. Exceptions to the bill include food that is made from animals that are fed or injected with GMOs (though not genetically altered themselves), unintentionally made from GE ingredients, made with “small” amounts of genetically engineered materials, or are administered as medical treatment. Also excluded from the bill is food served in restaurants and other prepared food that is intended to be consumed immediately, as well as alcohol and certified organic food (which by federal definition cannot contain genetically modified organisms to obtain organic certification).
The governmental fiscal impact resulting from regulation on labeling GMO foods is estimated to be an increase in annual state costs ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million. The exact cost depends on how and to what extent the Department of Public Health wishes to go about regulating. Additional costs may come from lawsuits taken to court regarding potential violations as the measure allows individuals to sue for any infringement. This is possible but is not expected to have a significant cost on government.
Expectedly, the bill is getting a fair amount of attention from foodies and health gurus as well as food producers. Just as well, citizens all across the country should be honed into the debate, not just Californians, for, as history has shown us, legislation in one state incontestably leads to discussion in others, as was seen from California legalizing medical marijuana, for example. Political reforms do not exist in one place without having an effect elsewhere, even if only in people’s minds and mouths, which is where all movements begin.
Proponents for the bill are rejoicing in the “right to know” (as the proposition is called) what is in our food; a freedom which now stands oh so close. They argue that food already has to be labeled with nutrition facts such as calories, ingredients, and any known allergens contained in the food, so adding whether a food contains GE ingredients would be no big deal. Producers will have 18 months to update their labels, and many manufacturers periodically change their labels anyways. Proponents are also quick to point out that 61 other countries, including the European Union, China, Japan, Russia and India, currently require the labeling of GE foods (which also means that Big Food companies in America disclose GE information when exporting to other countries but deny this same basic information to Americans). Since the jury is still out on the issue of the safety of GE foods, until research is conclusive (or we find out the hard way…) citizens have the right to make informed choices for themselves regarding whether or not to include GE foods in their diets.
Those opposed to the bill seem to be primarily concerned with the cost that may be passed to taxpayers as well as speculations about exemptions from the bill and doubts over whether there is any real issue regarding the safety of GMOs. These are all valid concerns; let’s discuss. With regard to fear of rising costs for consumers and taxpayers, the only research that predicts an economic impact on consumers is funded by the large companies that have something to lose. Independent research analysis estimates that the passing of this bill will not financially impact individuals. When Europe began requiring the labeling of all GMOs fifteen years ago, costs did not increase at all for consumers, in spite of prophecies that it would (similar to those generated in the U.S. now). Did prices change when food producers had to begin listing calorie information on food? Allergen information? No. All independent research and historic examples suggest that food prices will not increase.
What about all of those exemptions to the bill? It looks an awful lot like special interest groups got their hands in constructing the legislation. This is possible; however, further exploration shows these exemptions may be justifiable. California law states that no proposed measure may affect more than one subject area (Cal. Const., art. II, 8(d) & 12). For example, alcohol is regulated under state and federal guidelines that are different from food, thereby placing alcohol under a different subject area, so it cannot be included in the measure. The same is also true for food given as medical treatment. As for restaurants and other prepared foods, no law at present requires restaurants to disclose their ingredients. Requiring these businesses to list GM ingredients would require tracking their ingredients, which they are not currently required to do. Likewise, meat, dairy and eggs are exempt from the bill because there are no laws that require the animal agriculture industry to track what ingredients are fed to their animals. Prop 37’s main campaign site states that these exceptions are common around the world. As far as food only containing “small amounts” of GMs, or “micro-ingredients,” being exempt from the bill, any food in which less than .5% of ingredients include GMOs will be exempt from labeling until 2019. According to the campaign’s site, this is to give manufacturers a chance to ease out of GM ingredients and have time to find alternatives, should they so desire, before 2019.
These exemptions are not ideal, just as the Prop is not flawless. However at this point it will do us no good to focus sourly on the fact we can’t have our GMO-free cake and eat it too. Politics is the art of the possible, so let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The proposition opens the door for new possibilities and progress in consumer rights, and is itself a landmark for those in favor of good health and freedom from corporate control, which is why many support labeling GMO foods.
What about consumers feeling unsure about whether there really is reason to worry about GE foods? What is all the fuss about? After all, we have been told repeatedly since the advent of biotechnology that these transgenic foods are safe. We have been eating them for 18 years and “we don’t seem to be dropping like flies.” In fact, biotech companies as well as the government claim that it is exactly the type of labeling proposed by Prop 37 that will cause misconceptions and breed more confusion about the safety of GE foods. These companies continually tell us that we need not worry; GE foods are “substantially equivalent” to their natural counterparts. Or at least they are adamant about this “fact” when it is beneficial to them. As health food expert and pioneer John Robbins points out, “When it comes to labeling, transgenic foods are ‘substantially equivalent’ and do not need to be labeled or tracked in any way. But when it comes to patenting, they are whole new organisms, and can be patented, owned, and sold for a profit.” So which is it? Are we eating exact replicas of food or original Frankenfoods?
To put it delicately, a novel the size of War and Peace could be written addressing the potential horrors of genetically engineered food. While I wish to focus on the rationality of labeling GMOs rather than dwelling on the dangers of them, I feel the two are intertwined and thus this area cannot be ignored. So, instead of introducing a novel, I have attempted to minimally outline my top disputes with GE foods in what follows.
Clare’s Top 8 Reasons Why GE Foods Cannot be Found on Her Plate
1. Farming GE foods harms the environment. Evidence shows it increases pesticide and herbicide use, and encourages farmers to spray chemicals abundantly that have a lasting effect on the environment, including workers and people around them.
2. The practice of farming GE foods produces “super weeds” and “super bugs.” Since herbicides are sprayed so liberally, weeds are adapting and becoming immune. Nature is fighting back with the emergence of super weeds, larger and stronger weeds than existed before, some of which are beginning to dominate natural lands. Likewise, spraying pesticides so profusely has resulted in bugs, such as rootwarms, becoming resistant to genes that were once known to kill them.
3. GE foods frequently contaminate other crops. Winds blow, carrying GMO seeds from one field to another causing cross-pollination and contamination of organic crops, which contaminate seeds for the next year’s crop and an endless cycle ensues. This issue was made infamous when Monsanto sued a small Canadian farmer who saved and planted Monsanto’s patented GMO seeds after they blew into his farm and took root the year before, contaminating his crop without intention. On this note, GE crops also have the potential to escape and overrun nature. If seeds can easily blow from one farm to another, would they not blow into the wild and take root? This endangers natural plants and animals in the area.
4. Outside factors that are out of our control affect the way genes are expressed in plants. We can test and test GE crops in a special trial lot without finding any problems on the surface. However, external factors, such as climate and soil condition, can affect how a gene is conveyed in plants. So even relentless research is proven ineffective at determining safety when research is done in specific conditions yet plants are grown all over and in diverse environments.
5. No insurance company will insure the biotech industry. Unlike other industries that have insurance to protect them, the biotech industry is not insured, revealing that informed insurance companies recognize the potential the industry holds for irreversible catastrophic damage.
6. Research on the safety of GE foods is funded by and operated by biotech companies themselves. The FDA does not conduct or require testing on GE foods. It simply encourages biotech companies to conduct research themselves and report only if they find a problem. Entrusting a company that stands to profit to determine if its product is safe constitutes a conflict of interest and is not a reliable procedure.
7. GE foods go against thousands of years of evolution. GE foods completely override the barriers between species that have almost never before been broken. Mother Nature has done quite the job thus far of providing humans with everything we need to flourish and coexist in harmony with nature. I say we leave the impeccably important things, like DNA and genes, up to her.
8. There has never been a long-term study conducted on the safety of GMOs… until now. Just within the past few weeks a study was released by French scientists showing a strong correlation between rats being exposed to GMOs and pesticides, and developing serious, sometimes fatal, health problems. (A fun side note: no long-term research had ever been previously conducted because Monsanto owns its GM seeds and does not give them out for research. The limited research that has been conducted has been given a 90-day limit in which scientists must follow Monsanto’s guidelines for testing, and they must sign a contract prior–how equitable). The French study, which is now gaining global attention, showed that rats who were fed GM corn and pesticides over a two-year time span (their entire lives) developed tumors, organ damage and premature death. The tumors in particular looked quite horrific in the photographs released. There is widespread speculation as to the accuracy of the conclusions drawn from the experiment. The French government officially rejected the study’s findings due to objections regarding the control group, the type of rats used, etc. So the study is certainly not conclusive. However, it most certainly is conclusive that there very well may be reason to worry and we must complete accurate, long-term experiments to determine the safety of GMOs. To not do so and to instead continue to release GMOs into the human food chain at substantial rates is reckless behavior that may yield harsh consequences.
These reasons are just the beginning of why I avoid GM foods and am in favor of Prop 37. And I’m not the only one. Polls consistently show that 90% of Americans want labeling. It is only the large companies like Nestle, General Mills, and PepsiCo, who together are spending millions of dollars a day to confuse voters, who want to conceal the truthfulness of their products. Evidently some companies believe they have a lot to lose here. You might think if companies were so confident in their products they would be proud to print “contains genetically modified ingredients” on the label. Instead, they are fighting ruthlessly to keep this from happening.
This leads to the greater issue at stake here, the issue of transparency and the dominance of Big Food. Yes, the health and environmental effects of GE foods are of great importance and should not be underestimated. However, I believe the outcome of the elections this November will have an effect far transcending the labeling of GMOs in California. What we the people decide next month will send a significant message to Big Ag businesses one way or another. What message will we send? Are we going to tell them that we will continue to subject ourselves to the irresponsible choices they make for us? Are we going to continue to allow the truth about the food we eat and build our lives on to be skewed and kept from us? Are we going to say that we don’t value our bodies, our health, and our world enough to challenge the unforgivable norm that has been set in place? Or are we going to tell them that it is not okay for them to keep basic information about our food supply from us? Are we going to tell them that their hunger for global food dominance has finally been met by our hunger for clean, healthy food? Are we going to tell them that we have the right to know?
I will leave you with two great proverbs that you already know by heart. “You are what you eat,” and “know thyself.” Do you know what you’re eating? Do you know what you are? See you at the polls.