By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Like so many David and Goliath fights, the battle over the safety of our staple crops was initially defined by the big chemical companies that moved into the production of seeds — Monsanto and Syngenta, among others.

These Biotech/Chemical/Seed companies claimed that their new genetically engineered or modified (GM or GE) crops would be more productive, have higher yields, require less pesticide and enable farmers to “feed the world.”

Who would oppose feeding the hungry in a world where starvation continues to claim lives every day? What farmer doesn’t want higher yields?

This was brilliant marketing, and like most brilliant marketing, offered shades of the truth.

USDA statistics show that the U.S. corn belt has maintained robust output during the past decade. Corn farmers enjoy yields many times greater than their grandparents did under conventional farming. GM technology helped buoy the markets — or was it simply better hybrid seeds (created without genetic engineering) with GM attributes wrapped around them, as Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology contends? (Genetic modification involves injecting the plant material with genes from a plant, animal or bacteria to create a new trait; as opposed to using traditional cross-breeding techniques to hone certain qualities in crops.)

GM Success! Many crops grown in the US are now genetically modified, and many consumers are concerned. (Graphic: Aidan Kessler)

As of 2012, vast percentages of crops grown in the US are now genetically modified, and many consumers are concerned. CLICK IMAGE TO VIEW FULL SIZE. (Graphic: Aidan Kessler)

But problems surfaced with the GM program. The GM crop makers, which are predominantly and historically pesticide makers, required farmers to buy a certain pesticide. By design, Monsanto-created seeds worked with Monsanto’s RoundUp.  This created a tidy monopoly that drove up the utility and price of RoundUp and tethered farmers to Big Biotech, argue the critics. GM Watch explains:

Today, over 80% of the worldwide area devoted to GM crops carries at least one genetic trait for herbicide tolerance. Herbicides account for about one-third of the global pesticide market. Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant (Roundup Ready) seeds have reigned supreme on the biotech scene for over a decade – creating a near-monopoly for the company’s Roundup herbicide – which is now off patent. Roundup is the world’s biggest selling pesticide and it has helped make Monsanto the world’s fifth largest agrochemical company.

Biotech firms moved to secure their market in other ways, requiring farmers to sign agreements, buy new seeds every year and tow the company line on methodology.

Was this modern farming, or farming fascism? It’s not an extreme question, considering that Monsanto became known for suing farmers who didn’t comply with their rules or inadvertently “benefitted” from the patented seeds when they blew into a field on the wind, uninvited.

Next came the “superweeds”, as nature outfoxed the constant RoundUp applications designed to kill the weeds but not the crops. After a few years, the weeds became resistant to RoundUp and proliferated. Farmers used more herbicides to combat the weeds.

GM Foods, Herbicide use up or the same

The promise that herbicide use would decline with GM crop adoption hasn’t borne out. These graphs, based on USDA figures, show a slight decline or steady use in Illinois, and an increase in herbicide use in Kansas. (Graphic: Aidan Kessler)

The Biotech firms responded with new seed variations, crops that created their own pesticides and “stacked” GM “attributes.” The new seeds could now resist multiple chemicals and a variety of pests.

And it was about this time that many Americans began to notice that:

1) The Biotech marketing message didn’t match the reality.

2) No one had bothered to tell Americans much about the safety of consuming these GM crop foods.

Regulators have required that biotech firms conduct safety experiments and animal studies on the foods they’ve created. But the companies simply report their findings — invariably that these foods they’re selling are safe — in generic terms back to the government. There’s not enough detail, or public funding to replicate the studies or evaluate their efficacy, the critics argue.

Food advocacy groups are beyond uncomfortable with this fox-guarding-the-hen-house model of safety verification; but they, like the government, lack the funds or expertise to conduct their own experiments, and many have complained that the GE foods are not  made available for studies done in the public interest. Some point to the handful of outside studies that have been done as causing infertility, tumors and gastrointestinal problems in lab animals (IRT has a partial rundown of these findings; also GMWatch reports on health effects indicated by lab tests, such as this French study of rats exposed to GM maize and Roundup.

The Food and Drug Administration, the EPA and the US Department of Agriculture all have a hand in approving GM foods, but none of these agencies has sole responsibility. Americans are left with a troika that appears to be less than the sum of its parts, and lenient with its big business associates.

GM Corn as HFCS foods

GM corn used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup (a sweetener and preservative) spreads the GM factor across dozens of foods. (Graphic: Aidan Kessler)

The main gatekeeper, the FDA, decided nearly two decades ago that GM foods were “substantially equivalent” to their conventional counterparts, and thereby seemed satisfied that this would be true for all subsequent variations of GM seeds.

It’s no surprise that this murkiness has created a public backlash. Americans who know that GM corn and soybeans turn up in hundreds of prepared foods, while GM sugar beets and high fructose corn syrup sweeten soft drinks, are asking for more disclosure and details.

Watchdogs like Food & Water Watch, Center for Food Safety, Food Democracy NowOrganic Consumers Association, Cornucopia Institute , Just Label It and the NonGMO Project have been recently joined by online groups like GM Watch, Millions Against Monsanto, Occupy Monsanto and many more in calling for more information.

They have slightly varying agendas, some would favor a moratorium on GM foods, others want labeling (which 64 countries around the world already require). But all the groups flag the unfairness of employing Americans as guinea pigs in what amounts to a vast experiment with newfangled foods.

Last fall, a California referendum on GMO labeling, known as Prop. 37, tested the public’s appetite for labeling, which polls showed had strong public support.

The ballot initiative lost, but barely. Proponents were outspent 5 to 1 by Monsanto and blame a vigorous ad campaign telling the public that labeling would raise their food bills by hundreds of dollars a year (even though the California government group charged with vetting the ballot measure found this to be a false claim). Grocery retailers became fearful that labeling would cost too much and joined in the opposition.

Yes on 522The next battle over labeling

This fall labeling will get a second a public trial, when a Washington state ballot initiative goes before the voters.

Ballot measure I-522 would require labeling for foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. It’s a similar measure to the one in California, but proponents say the public is better informed and they are better prepared, having learned from the California venture.

Washington proponents of labeling are ready with answers for the questions that came up last year and will likely be resurrected by the opposition this fall. For instance, the Yes on 522 campaign says emphatically on its FAQ that labeling should not raise food prices.

Contrary to the opposition’s claims, label updates are a routine part of business for the food industry and should not result in additional costs to shoppers. For example, Food companies re-label soda cans and cereal boxes all the time and it doesn’t affect cost. We already include labels for sugar and fat content, ingredients and numerous other things, so there would be no cost in labeling genetically engineered foods. Labeling genetically engineered foods is about transparency and empowering shoppers.

The Washington group also has taken care to not overstep, to avoid giving labeling opponents a foothold in the cost argument.

[The 522 measure] was modeled on the most common global GE labeling standards. The authors of the initiative intentionally worked to ensure that Washington’s labeling laws would not be stricter than global standards so that it wouldn’t have an adverse economic impact on our farmers and food producers.

Here are some examples of food that, under this initiative, would require labeling if they were genetically engineered or contained genetically engineered ingredients: sweet corn, papaya, cold cereals, corn chips, soy milk, canola oil, soft drinks and candy.

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