By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
There’s plenty of evidence that Americans favor requiring labels for genetically modified (GM) foods. They’ve gathered support for labeling in several state legislatures, contacted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the millions and told pollsters they want to know if their food’s been genetically modified.
One oft-cited poll found that about 90 percent of American voters favor labeling for GM foods.
Responding to this public concern, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced a bill in April that would require labeling of GM foods, also known as genetically engineered (GE) foods or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“At the very least, the FDA should require genetically engineered foods be properly labeled. There’s no consumer choice when people cannot determine what’s in their food. Mandatory labeling would bring the U.S. in line with nearly 50 other countries including China and Russia,” DeFazio said.
And it’s not just other large industrial nations. Belarus has labeling. So do Bulgaria, Bolivia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to The Center for Food Safety.
In the U.S., GE foods have been rising on the public radar, amid periodic reports that they could raise the risk of illness among consumers. Food safety groups worry that GE crops also foster excessive applications of pesticides because many are engineered to work in tandem with a certain pesticide or produce their own pesticide.
Boxer and DeFazio’s bill, The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, attracted 39 co-sponsors in the House and 13 co-sponsors in the Senate and laid out a detailed definition of GM and GE foods that wades fearlessly into the science.
GE and GM foods are created by “in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles,” and are made with techniques that “overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombinant barriers” and “are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection,” the bill declared.
Getting the definition right is critical, so that food and seed manufacturers would know exactly which foods would need labeling.
The bill elaborated on the rationale for labeling:
“The process of genetically engineering food organisms results in material changes to food derived from those organisms . . .individuals in the United States have a right to know if their food was produced with genetic engineering for a variety of reasons, including health, economic, environmental, religious, and ethical.”
The right to know aspect of food labeling has resonated strongly with voters. According to a 2012 survey of 1,000 Americans by the Mellman Group, 93 percent of Democrats, 90 percent of Independents and 89 percent of Republicans favor food labeling for GMOs.
So why has the Boxer/DeFazio bill not moved out of committee in the House or the Senate?
Roadblock Number One: Congress
Like many bills, the GE Food Right-to-Know Act, has been a victim of the general inertia of bills in Congress. The website Gov.track, which follows legislation, gives the U.S. labeling bill just a 6 percent chance of getting past committee in the House and 2 percent in the Senate.
That’s partly based on general statistics. Only 11 percent of bills overall made it past the committee stage in Congress in the past two years.
And in fairness, in a world facing crises over Syria, the U.S. budget, healthcare and a host of other issues, one can see why food labeling might end up on the wait list.
But inertia isn’t the whole story. Many in Congress lean toward helping big companies like Monsanto, the creator of the majority of the world’s genetically modified seeds.
Just this year, Congress twice enacted a widely derided bill nicknamed “The Monsanto Protection Act,” which shields giant seed and chemical companies from lawsuits over genetically modified foods. The measure has been attached to the continuing budget resolution as a “rider”; but that hasn’t appeased groups that see this as one more sign that Monsanto wields more power in the Capitol than the American public.
Critics of the Monsanto Protection Act also say it may even violate the U.S. Constitution by protecting companies that should, like everyone else, be subject to judicial review.
Roadblock Number Two: There’s no smoking gun
Even though many people support labeling, it’s easy to see how the GE food issue drifts along defying decisive action.
The potential dangers from GMOs aren’t well understood. GE foods may not be dangerous, or they could be exacting long-term health costs that we’ll deeply regret a decade from now. As one food safety critic pointed out, it stands to reason that a corn variety that produces it’s own insect-killing toxin might have health effects on whomever eats it.
A few independent studies with lab animals or studying livestock that have been fed GE crops have shown that these foods may contribute to gastrointestinal disorders or even trigger tumors. There’s a hint of a problem with fertility in some of the farm animals. But this work is far from having reached any scientific consensus.
Exacerbating the lack of public information is the process of approving GE foods in which the companies creating them perform the majority of the experiments testing their safety. Manufacturers submit reports summarizing their results to the FDA and the USDA and EPA, the other agencies involved in approving GE crops. (The USDA oversees livestock feed, the EPA, pesticides.) The government itself does only a smattering of original research and the details of industry’s self-administered testing are considered proprietary because of the patents involved.
Paradoxically, this dearth of independent research and transparency, which critics read as a sure sign that more research is needed, has left the issue in limbo. If there are health threats that demand an urgent response — like perhaps labeling? — we Americans have inadequate information.
By contrast, the countries around the world that have demanded labeling operate on the precautionary principle, which contends that what we don’t know could hurt us. They label it because they don’t know enough about these foods.
Roadblock Number Three: The seed/chemical/food juggernaut
In the absence of an obvious immediate threat to Americans’ health, which would make them look as if they were pushing something toxic, an alliance of seed/chemical and food companies has erected a well-funded wall of opposition to labeling that buttresses the status quo.
Even though these same food companies already have to meet labeling or special regulatory requirements in more than 60 other countries, they fear labeling requirements in the U.S. would unfairly single them out.
Here’s the argument they made when California voters petitioned for labeling last year: Labeling would cause consumers to be concerned about genetically modified foods, and this would be unfair because genetically modified foods are substantially the same as conventionally grown foods.
Roadblock Number Four: The FDA
Technically, the big food and chemical companies are right. In the early 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration declared GMOs to be “substantially” the same as their unmodified counterparts.
So officially GMOs — transgenic, pesticide-infused or pesticide-resistant — are no different than other foods. No label needed. End of story.
Except, the critics note, that the FDA reached this conclusion by relying on industry studies (see Roadblock #2), and hasn’t done due diligence to assure the safety of GMOs. (Here’s one academic report about that.)
This adoption of the “substantial equivalence” test (or non-test) has endured, apparently, because it serves the interests of the big seed and chemical companies, and they in turn assure its continuation by serving at the FDA in a government/business revolving door phenomenon that seems impervious to periodic scathing public criticism.
Substantial equivalence has enabled the FDA to approve a growing inventory of GMO foods over the decades, including a handful of fruits and vegetables in addition to many varieties of GE corn, soy, sugar beets and newer genetically modified crops, like alfalfa, that seemed to be doing just fine without pesticides and genetic modification.
Labeling would stab at the heart of the FDA’s core reason support of GMOs, by calling these foods out as different, not “equivalent.”
Yet foods have many other labels that set them apart from competitors, say labeling proponents, including the USDA Organic certification, and a host of voluntary labels, like Humanely Raised, Rainforest Alliance Certified and, as it happens, a GMO-free label.
The nascent, voluntary NonGMO label assists consumers in making decisions. Still, food advocates want a government-sanctioned program in place to label GM foods, erasing the gray areas. They have challenged biotech, chemical and food companies to step out from behind the opacity, taunting them to label their products if they’re proud of them.
Roadblock Number Five: The seed/chemical/food juggernaut’s massive wallet
In 2012, Californians launched a voter referendum, Prop 37, for labeling. But they narrowly lost after an alliance of biotech, food and grocery groups campaigned vigorously against the measure, arguing that it would raise the price of groceries by $400 per person annually and that it would trigger lawsuits and a costly vast bureaucracy.
Pro-labeling forces promised none of that was true, noting that food companies already label them for export to the countries that mandate labeling.
Each side accused the other of fear-mongering. But the “No” group had deeper pockets and generated more TV advertising.
Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsico, BASF CropScience, Bayer CropScience, Dow, Syngenta, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg’s, ConAgra, Campbell’s Soup and others — spent $45.6 million to defeat Prop 37 in November 2012, compared with $8.7 million spent by the labeling proponents.
It’s part of a pattern. Oregon’s DeFazio, who’s pushed for labeling and better evaluation of GE foods for several years, says “nothing has changed at the policy level because Monsanto, Kellogg’s, and other major companies spent over $40 million fighting the California ballot initiative and spend millions each year lobbying lawmakers in Congress to block the labeling of genetically engineered foods.” (Monsanto alone spent nearly $6 million lobbying Congress in 2012.)
Together, these global food corporations produce hundreds of cereals, snack foods, frozen dinners, dressings, sodas and baked goods that are made with GM corn, soy and sugar beet crops that have been engineered by the biotech firms (Monsanto, DuPont and others).
About 90 percent of the corn and 95 percent of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, so food products are full of GMOs.
Check almost any processed food label and you’re likely to see corn meal, corn solids, corn syrup or High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) or soy, soy protein and soybean oil. Unless they’re organic, they’re mostly likely genetically modified and the foods containing them would require a label if states or the federal government required disclosure.
The change might not be costly in terms of printing a new label, but it could be profound.
If food companies wanted to offer GE-free foods they’ve have to reconfigure many recipes and seek out non-GE suppliers who might not exist.
Labeling could push the seed/chemical/food/Big Ag juggernaut to reconfigure how it makes the sausage (or rather, the toaster pastries).
It could even give ground to GE-free, pesticide-shunning organic production.
The tectonic plates known as “market share” could shift. Oh my.
And so it’s not surprising to see this alliance lining up to oppose another major food labeling referendum, this one to be decided by Washington state voters this November.
Monsanto, Dupont and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have already contributed about $12 million to defeat that law, known as I-522.
But the pro-labeling forces may be better situated this time too.
They’ve already hit back against the expected barrage of claims from opponents that labeling will make groceries cost more, releasing a report showing it won’t.
“Food manufacturers are constantly refreshing their labels to highlight new innovations, so simply adding the words “may contain genetically engineered ingredients” to the back of the package will not add to the cost of making food,” said Scott Faber, executive director for Just Label It and formerly vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The Yes on 522 forces also are emphasizing how the measure will help Washington businesses such as the wheat, salmon and apple industry. Noting that exports of these foods depend upon them remaining GE-free, information gets ahead of the tactic used by anti-labeling forces in California that pitted consumers against growers.
“There are hundreds of businesses in Washington state and throughout the country that are very supportive of labeling and their customers right to know,” said Elizabeth Larter, communications director for the Yes on 522 campaign. She noted that while the California measure narrowly failed (51-49 percent), it also raised the profile for labeling.
An incident earlier this year in Oregon underscored that point. When Monsanto’s GE wheat turned up in an Oregon field unbeckoned, major U.S. wheat importers (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) suspended their wheat buys fearing additional contamination.
That incident aside, the anti-labeling No on 522 campaign is arguing that labeling will hurt farmers and food producers, hitting them with “more red tape” and higher production costs. They paint I-522 as costly and full of “special interest exemptions” that would make it hard to determine which foods contain GE ingredients.
The battle in Washington will be well watched. If the labeling groups win it could provide the tipping point that politicians need to institute labels more broadly. Several state legislatures have pending labeling laws, and a win would surely embolden advocates.
Washington, in other words, could send a signal to Washington.
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