Can you imagine grocery shopping and having the supermarket manager tell you that the labels had been removed from all the products on the store’s shelves? Unthinkable! Unimaginable!
So why then is there such intense opposition to the idea that product labels should include disclosure of any genetically engineered ingredients? After all, public opinion overwhelmingly favors GMO labeling. A 2011 New York Times poll found 89 percent of Americans want labeling of GMO products. Separate polls conducted last year by MSNBC and ABC reached similar results: Nine of ten Americans favor mandatory GMO labeling.
Accurate product disclosure allows consumers to make informed choices. When it comes to food, we should be concerned and aware of what we are putting in our bodies and in our children’s bodies. Who could argue with an idea so obviously worthwhile?
Agricultural and chemical company interests and their allies oppose GMO labeling, that’s who. And these companies, led by industry bogeyman Monsanto, have the money, the political and lobbying muscle and the financial interest to fight against the popular will.
Recently, the U.S. Senate voted down an amendment Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had championed, which would have required GMO labeling. Previously, the legislature in Sen. Sanders’ home state had backed off of a plan to implement state-wide GMO labeling after companies like Monsanto threatened to sue the state.
Sue the state? Monsanto is that powerful? A single American company is so big and so scary that the mere threat of suing the state legislature could change a policy overwhelmingly favored by the public? Well, yes.
Now the front line in the fight for GMO has moved to California. This November, California voters will say yea or nay to Proposition 37, which, if passed, would require GMO labeling in the state. Industry opponents and their PR firms and messaging gurus and surrogates are stocking their war chests and preparing to do whatever it takes to defeat the ballot bill.
According to recently updated campaign disclosure reports in California, pesticide and food companies have already amassed about $25 million in cash so far to fight the GMO labeling initiative. Just yesterday, it was revealed that Monsanto has ponied up $4.2 million to defeat Proposition 37, making the food giant the largest single contributor. Other million-dollar-plus donations come from Dupont, Dow Agrosciences and PepsiCo. Nestle, Bayer, Kellogg, Hormel, Ocean Spray, Morton Salt, and Bimbo Bakeries, among many others, have kicked in six-figure donations. California Right to Know, one of the prime movers behind Prop 37 has a list of companies behind the effort to kill the bill. See http://www.carighttoknow.org/monsanto_gives_4_2_million_to_kill_california_gmo_labeling_initiative.
Why? What are Dupont and Monsanto and Pepsi and other big food companies so afraid of? After all, GMO advocates claim that genetically modified crops are safe for animals and for people; that these products are more nutritious; that they lead to higher crop yields; and even that GMO crops hold the key to world hunger. If those lofty claims are true, then why doesn’t Monsanto want the whole world to know? Why wouldn’t Monsanto want “GMO” proudly and prominently part of the label on every product containing genetically-modified materials?
The answer, in a word, is science. The political rhetoric in campaign speeches across the land would have us believe that we live in an overly regulated society and that big government regulations are hampering businesses in developing new markets and creating new jobs. When it comes to genetically modified products, involving new weeds, new seeds, new livestock feeds, and many other new applications for genetic-engineering technology in food, there is barely any regulation that checks the introduction of these products into the food chain, into the environment, and into our stomachs.
As one Monsanto executive infamously told Michael Pollan for a 1998 New York Times Magazine piece: “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” Of course, FDA policy – often implemented by former executives of the food and chemical companies themselves – has long been one of leaving safety up to Monsanto and its kin.
Where can one find the science on GMO and whether these high-tech food products really are safe? Once again, here the big companies have a real advantage. The Monsantos of the world donate millions to the big ag schools where so much primary research is done. (See my prior post on this topic: http://www.aaronfreiwald.com/2012/06/monsanto-goes-to-college-and-buys-the-professor-the-student-center/) Monsanto and Bayer and other multinational agribusiness interests directly fund researchers on GMO studies, with predictably GMO-friendly results. Meanwhile, tere are many impediments to those who would conduct independent GMO research, not the least of which is funding.
Yet there has accumulated a body of scientific work on GMO. The non-profit food safety group, Earth Open Source, this summer issued a report that summarizes the state of the science on GMO foods, called “GMO Myths and Truths: An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops.” Here is a link to the report: www.earthopensource.org/index.php/reports.
The three authors of the report have impressive backgrounds. Michael Antoniou is a reader in molecular genetics and head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College, London School of Medicine. He has a PhD in biochemistry and cell biology from Cornell University. John Fagan, who also has a PhD from Cornell in biochemistry and molecular and cell biology, is the founder and chief scientific officer for one of the first GMO testing and certification companies in the world. Claire Robinson is research director for Earth Open Source and an editor at GMWatch (www.gmwatch.org.)
The authors first tackle the myth that the genetic engineering taking place in agribusiness laboratories today is no different than the sort of breeding and cross-breeding of plants and animals that has long been a key part of agricultural progress. Even so-called marker assisted selection – where certain genetic traits are selected, for example, to speed up conventional breeding – is a non-controversial agri-technology, the authors acknowledge.
What is controversial, the authors clarify, is the process of inserting a genetically-modified gene into the DNA of a plant cell so that a desired trait is passed on generation after generation. This process, the authors warn, “is crude, uncontrolled, and imprecise, and causes mutations – heritable changes – in the plant’s DNA blueprint.”
The unpredictable nature of the genetic changes this technology breeds leads the authors to issue a dire warning: “These unexpected changes are especially dangerous because they are irreversible. Even the worst chemical pollution diminishes over time as the pollutant is degraded by physical and biological mechanisms. But GMOs are living organisms. Once released into the ecosystem, they do not degrade and cannot be recalled, but multiply in the environment and pass on their GM genes to future generations.”
Anyone who saw the movie, Jurassic Park, understands the potential here. As Michael Crichton wrote in the book that became the movie: “What is that, going on out there,” [Dr. Malcolm, the chaos theory scientist, says to Dr. Hammond, the dinosaur-breeding scientist.] “You create new life-forms, about which you know nothing at all. . . . You create many of them in a very short time, you never learn anything about them, yet you expect them to do your bidding, because you made them, and you therefore think you own them; you forget that they are alive, they have an intelligence of their own, and they may not do your bidding . . . .”
Or, as the Dr. Malcolm character says more pithily: “Life finds a way.”
The “GMO Myths and Truths” report does not merely trade one set of assertions for another set of claims. The report thoroughly reviews the existing science on GMO. Health departments in Europe and in other countries have taken a more aggressive approach to GMO research and regulation. The science on GMOs is hardly complete. Many questions remain. But there is a body of science that is cause enough a far more heightened level of concern and scrutiny than the FDA and other government agencies presently allow.
Moreover, the existing body of GMO research is more than sufficient basis for requiring labeling so that consumers can freely make up their own minds.
Included in the report’s findings are the following:
– In 2005, Greenpeace forced release of raw data on Monsanto’s genetically-modified Bt maize variety MON863. Independent scientists at the French research group, CRIIGEN, analyzed the raw data and found that Monsanto’s own feeding trials revealed liver and kidney toxicity in laboratory rats.
– Numerous feed studies on laboratory or farm animals show that GMO foods can produce toxic or allergenic reactions. In one study, rats fed GMO tomatoes developed stomach lesions. In another study, mice fed GM peas, modified to contain an insecticidal protein, developed an allergic inflammatory response. Mice fed GM soy in another study showed signs of disruptions of liver, pancreas and testes function.
– A review of 19 studies of the effects of genetically-modified soy and corn fed to laboratory mammals showed consistent toxic effects on the liver and kidneys.
These are just a few of the studies the report summarizes, describes, analyzes and cites. There are many, many others in this detailed, well-written, 122-page report.
Industry studies, meanwhile, are often short-term in design, meaning that they are not set up to look for long-term health effects. If an industry study does identify a biological anomaly, often this is dismissed as not being “adverse” or as not having “biological relevance. “
The question is: Says who? Who gets to say what is healthy and good to eat? Who controls the information on what is safe or what may be harmful? Who determines the risks involved, the relative pros and cons of assuming those risks, and the costs involved if an adverse outcome does occur?
Right now, all of those decisions are being made and weighed by the companies that profit from the sale and distribution of GMO products. Now, there is nothing wrong with a company making a profit. There is something very wrong, however, with vital information being kept secret and out of the hands of all of the rest of us.
In the end, it really is quite simple. Consumers have the right to know what they are buying, what they are eating, and what they are feeding to their children.
If Proposition 37 passes this November in California, it may well serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the country. Let’s hope it does.