Public Good vs. Corporate Greed: The Case for Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods

Pro-GMO-Labeling sign: "Honk if you want your food labeled"Growing numbers of US consumers seek mandatory labeling of genetically modified food — and this time, it just might work. Due to increasing consumer awareness and demand, the push for GMO labeling in the United States is gaining momentum.

Recent initiatives in California and Washington will attempt to (finally!) require labels identifying food containing genetically modified ingredients. California volunteers will collect signatures this February through April, to get the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act on the ballot in November 2012. Washington legislators have introduced two bipartisan bills to require the labeling of GM foods by 2014, with support from the state’s wheat farmers as well as consumers.

The United States produces more than half of the GM foods grown worldwide today; about 75% of the food on US grocery store shelves contains genetically modified ingredients. But the United States is a global straggler when it comes to labeling transgenic foods.

The European Union, Japan, Ireland, Egypt and other countries have been proactive in labeling (and sometimes banning) genetically engineered food, based on consumer demand and the potential for unintended  health or environmental impacts. But in the US, labeling of GM food is not required — largely because the biotechnology industry knows perfectly well that many consumers don’t want it, and has engineered the crafting of FDA and USDA policies to match its own goals.

Sign: "We deserve to know/ Label GMOs"Genetically engineered foods flooded the US market, unlabeled, back in the 1990s. In 2005, Alaska passed a law requiring fish and mollusks raised in that state to be labeled if they were genetically engineered. Last year, 14 states considered bills dealing with banning or requiring labeling for genetically modified foods. Recent initiatives in California and Washington may finally get the legislative ball rolling on what growing numbers of Americans want: accurately labeled GM food products.

There is no question that American consumers want to know if they’re eating GMOs. Depending on which poll you read, 93% to 96% of Americans want the right to know whether they’re eating genetically modified food.

US consumers expect fair and accurate food labeling. Consider some highlights from FDA history:

1906 The original Food and Drugs Act is passed. It prohibits interstate commerce in mis-branded and adulterated foods, drinks and drugs…

1924 The Supreme Court rules that the Food and Drugs Act condemns every statement, design, or device on a product’s label that may mislead or deceive, even if technically true

1938 A revised and expanded Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FDC) Act of 1938 is passed. Highlights include: safe tolerances to be set for unavoidable poisonous substances, standards of identity, quality, and fill-of-container to be set for foods, and authorization of factory inspections…

1958Food Additives Amendment enacted, requiring manufacturers of new food additives to establish safety. Going forward, manufacturers were required to declare all additives in a product

1962 President Kennedy proclaims the Consumer Bill of Rights. Included are the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard

1965 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires all consumer products in interstate commerce to be honestly and informatively labeled, including food.

Given this set of guidelines supposedly in place for US food, the ongoing lack of GM labeling is a tribute to the biotechnology industry’s resourcefulness and determination to avoid it.

Protest sign against unlabeled GMOs: "I am not a science experiment!"

Reasons to Label GM Foods

Informed consumers seek mandatory GM food labeling for many reasons.

1. People have the right to choose what to buy, what to eat, and what to feed their families. It doesn’t matter whether GMO producers agree with consumers’ decisions or not. For whatever reasons, many people simply don’t want to buy genetically modified food — and shouldn’t be forced through deceptive labeling to do so, solely for the benefit of the biotechnology industry.

The right to choose what food goes into your own body is a fundamental freedom, one that corporate interests simply do not have the right to supersede.

2. Despite claims by GE proponents, many consumers find existing GM food safety research inadequate and inconclusive.

To be clear, existing research does not prove GMO foods to be harmful; the problem is that neither does it prove them to be safe for long term production and consumption.

Bias Guaranteed, Results Uninspiring

The biotechnology industry itself is in charge of all safety research for GM foods and farming techniques, and has fought tooth and nail to prevent non-industry researchers from studying potential health risks related to transgenic food crops. In some cases industry has actively attempted to keep consumers from hearing about GM problems, by trying to bribe public officials or suppress media reports when harmful effects of genetically engineered food products were identified.

Biotechnology proponents like to frame GM labeling advocates as ‘anti-science‘– but industry’s deliberate experiment manipulation and data suppression is the very antithesis of good science, making any kind of meaningful GMO risk assessment difficult if not impossible.

In one 2010 report on health concerns surrounding Roundup-Ready soybeans and glyphosphates, authors also point out that:

Contrary to claims by the GM industry and its supporters, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never approved any GM food as safe. Instead, it de-regulated GM foods in the early1990s, ruling that they are “substantially equivalent” to non-GM foods and do not need any special safety tesing. The ruling was widely recognized as a political decision with no basis in science.

Inadequate Toxicity Testing for GM Foods

Standard toxicity testing considers several types of physiological response, including acute, subchronic, chronic, reproductive, and developmental toxicities. The procedures and study durations vary, depending on which type of potential toxic effects researchers are evaluating. Acute toxicity can be assessed in two weeks, in rodent subjects; subchronic toxicity in 90 days. This is where industry research seems to call it a day, reach for its coat, and start patting pockets in search of the car keys.

Chronic, reproductive, and developmental toxicity studies take as long as two years to study in rodents, and can involve multiple generations; these studies are notably lacking, in current (industry) safety research on GM foods. Considering the prevalence of GMOs in our food supply at present, many consumers find this emphasis on only acute and subchronic toxicity irresponsible and disturbing.

According to a 2011 analysis of Monsanto’s data from 19 GM food studies– which is what we have to settle for, since independent researchers are prevented from conducting independent testing or reporting un-GMO-flattering conclusions– results raised what should have been further research questions:

Several convergent data appear to indicate liver and kidney problems as end points of GMO diet effects in the above-mentioned experiments. This was confirmed by our meta-analysis of all the in vivo studies published, which revealed that the kidneys were particularly affected, concentrating 43.5% of all disrupted parameters in males, whereas the liver was more specifically disrupted in females (30.8% of all disrupted parameters)…

The 90-day-long tests are insufficient to evaluate chronic toxicity, and the signs highlighted in the kidneys and livers could be the onset of chronic diseases. However, no minimal length for the tests is yet obligatory for any of the GMOs cultivated on a large scale, and this is socially unacceptable in terms of consumer health protection.

The limitations of existing toxicity studies, in concert with the ongoing lack of unbiased peer-reviewed research, raise the specter of potential GM food toxicity that hasn’t been found yet because it hasn’t been sought.

GE Crops and Glyphosate Health Risks

Man in field, wearing biohazard maskAnother potential health concern related to GM food production involves Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant GE crops, marketed under the Roundup Ready label. Despite stated goals of reducing the need for herbicides, the rise of Roundup Ready GM crops has in fact dramatically increased the use of glyphosate-based pesticides in American agriculture.

Glyphosates are known to cause birth defects in frog and chicken embryos, at exposure levels much lower than those related to modern agricultural use. Multiple research studies indicate increasing glyphosate-related health concerns directly linked to the production of crops with genetically engineered pesticide resistance, especially in farming communities. Runoff from Roundup Ready GM fields puts glyphosate in our waterways, potentially causing significant damage to human health as well as environmental integrity.

Industry’s unscientific response to glyphosate health concerns, related to GM crops? To paraphrase, “Nuh-UH!” Unsurprisingly, Monsanto chose to  deny the problem, deny their own data, and dismiss concerns without further ado. That is not good science, and does not inspire consumer confidence regarding industry’s ability (or willingness) to accurately assess health and safety risks of GM crops.

Fox Runs the Henhouse: Bad Science Inevitable

The biotechnology industry– Monsanto especially– has systematically and consistently attempted to suppress, omit, and avoid research data that paints anything but the rosiest possible picture of their products, and those who benefit most from GM foods’ approval are themselves in charge of health and safety testing.

Even if the biotechnology industry believes this system of carefully limited in-house safety testing to be adequate, lack of labeling should not impede consumers’ right to avoid GM foods if they disagree.Bee, to flower with an eyeball: 'Monsanto, I presume?!'

3. Despite claims by GE proponents, there’s reason for concern about the environmental impact of genetically modified crops.

Transgenic crops have the potential to impact complex ecosystems in ways that laboratory models cannot predict. Once a new gene or gene combination is released, there is no way to call it back to the lab if problems emerge.

Case Study: Blind Luck Saves the Monarch

In 2000, after the approval, release, and widespread planting of Bt corn, researchers discovered potentially devastating effects of this crop on populations of Monarch butterflies:

The storm of publicity eventually forced the government to do a thorough risk assessment of the threat…

The major conclusion of the research was that only one of several Bt-corn varieties (Event 176) approved and planted for use in the United States produced high enough levels of Bt toxin in pollen to be lethal to butterfly larvae. Fortunately, that variety of genetically modified corn did not sell well and was not widely planted. Pollen from the two types of Bt corn which account for most of the Bt-corn acreage (Mon 810 and Bt 11) produce relatively low amounts of toxin and pose negligible risk to monarchs. Had Event 176 turned out to be popular, however, monarchs could have been in serious jeopardy. It was just a lucky break—not government vigilance—that protected the monarch butterfly.

Other incidents of known unintended environmental impact — after approval and release into the ecosystem — include: GM crops transferring herbicide resistance to wild relatives; contamination of cultivated non-GM crops with trangenic material; decreased numbers of wild bees in glycophosphate-resistant fields; by-products from GM maize entering waterways and affecting stream insects…

Monarch butterflyThe list of potential environmental problems from genetic manipulation of food crops is nearly infinite, and largely unpredictable.

Precautionary Principle, Anyone?

These unintended environmental effects occur after GE crops are already approved and marketed and sold and planted. And here’s the thing: once genes are released into the ecoweb, there is no ‘clean-up on aisle five.’  At that point, it’s a permanent environmental problem.

For this reason, in 2009 a federal judge in Missouri ruled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service should not have allowed GE crops to be planted in a national wildlife refuge. In his decision, the judge chastised the Fish and Wildlife service for failing to conduct thorough environmental impact research before planting GE crops in the refuge; and for ignoring the data submitted by their own biologists regarding potential problems related to the GM plantings.

Unfortunately that’s the norm rather than the exception, regarding GM crops and environmental impact studies. As with health and safety research, the biotech industry is in charge of evaluating their own products for environmental risks– what could possibly go wrong?!

Many consumers would prefer not to find out, and would choose non-GM food for environmental reasons if given a fair choice.

GM Labeling and Global Trade

4. For the US to be financially competitive in the global market, we need to move out of the dark ages of GM non-labeling.

The reality of the world food market is that GM food products are often either not welcome as imports, or else required to be accurately labeled. By supporting mandatory GM labeling, for example, Washington wheat farmers protect their ability to export to Japan.

Responding to this trend, a minority Monsanto stockholder recently requested a risk assessment of GM issues, especially related to financial risk from negative environmental impacts of GM crops. According to AP coverage of Monsanto’s shareholder meeting last week,

Harrington Investments CEO John Harrington said in a statement that he is concerned about the possible environmental and economic impacts of Monsanto’s engineered crops. The plants have patented genes inside them, and some countries, particularly in Europe, block U.S. crop exports if traces of those genes are present.

Harrington said he is concerned that “genetic drift” from engineered crops could contaminate farmers’ organic crops and prohibit those crops from being sold to markets in Europe, China and Japan.

“The potential legal implications… are staggering,” Harrington said.

Just see if you can guess Monsanto’s response.

Whether or not you personally embrace GM foods, it just makes sense to label US-produced food in such a way as to preserve optimal global trade options, and reduce economic risk for farmers who count on a stable export market.Art: child salutes, w/ Monsanto flag and armband

Reasons Not to Label GM Foods

1. Biotechnology corporations don’t wish to do so. They know that many consumers don’t want GMO products, and wouldn’t buy them if given a choice.

GE proponents claim that labels would imply a safety concern that has not been proven, causing consumers not to buy genetically modified food products. If the relevant research were conducted in an open, unbiased, and thorough manner, instead of being limited to only in-house non-peer-reviewed safety data carefully managed by those with a strong interest in positive results, this might be a valid argument.

Instead, that’s exactly the reason so many consumers are clamoring for GM labels: the biotechnology industry has made it impossible to prove harmfulness or safety of GE foods, one way or the other. So if consumers don’t want to buy your products for that reason, Monsanto, don’t blame GM labels– blame your own shady behavior regarding scientific integrity and safety testing for your products.

2. Biotechnology companies don’t want to spend the money it would take to add an extra line to their nutrition labels.

I know times are hard, for multi-billion-dollar global megacorporations, but let’s all just buckle down and live with our consequences, shall we? If you guys hadn’t slipped GMOs into our food supply unlabeled in the first place — to trick us into buying something you know we didn’t want and wouldn’t voluntarily buy — then there wouldn’t be any expenses from adding GM labels at this late date, now would there?!

Sympathy will not be forthcoming. I think the biotech industry just needs to view this as a character-building experience, and move on.

What Next?

SIgn: 'Label GMOs'If you think people have the right to know what they’re buying and eating, get involved to support the mandatory labeling of GM foods.

Buy food labeled ‘organic’ or ‘GMO free’ every chance you get, until GM labeling initiatives come to fruition — at present, this is the only way to avoid buying GE food products in the US.

If you live in California, volunteer to gather signatures; in Washington, tell legislators you support GM labeling. In other states, contact your own representatives and tell them the same thing– it can’t hurt. The Occupy movement hosts periodic events supporting GM labeling; watch for events in your area, and participate!

Follow legal news involving biotechnology companies, especially as related to GM labeling and impacts on organic farming — and share what you find with people you know. Read everything you can about GE and biotechnology issues, from multiple sources; consider and share what you find.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: informed consumers are the solution!

This is a money-driven, consumer-driven issue: don’t pay the biotech guys until they label genetically modified food products; then if you choose that food it will actually be a choice. Supposing there’s a way for GMO foods to do more good than harm in the world, consumer ignorance is not part of that path.

Make the biotechnology industry compete fairly in the marketplace. Mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food doesn’t have to be biotechnology’s enemy– current industry practices alienate consumers more than required package labels ever could. Required labeling could push industry to improve research integrity, transparency, and proactive environmental responsibility, until conscientious consumers might actually buy GM foods deliberately. Insisting on consumer ignorance wins no confidence in genetically modified food products.

People have a right to know what they’re buying, and to choose whether to eat it or not. That’s the bottom line, equally true whether you’re an avid GMO supporter or fiercely organic-only.

So good luck, Washington and California. Accurate labeling of GMO foods is an excellent idea, far too long delayed for US consumers — but 2012 is looking like a very good year!

Sign: Demand Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods

Image credit: Creative Commons photos by MillionsAgainstMonsanto(1), (2), (3), (4), (5)Avesha Michael; Peter Blanchard, Abode of Chaos, thetXm, Suzan Marie.

Written by tanyas


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  1. It’s crazy there’s so much controversy just about labeling. Everyone should be suspect of food suppliers who don’t want people to know about their food.

    • Right?! Seems obvious, unless you’re Monsanto… Surely with increasing demand/ awareness of the problem, we can finally see some progress!

  2. The debate over labeling reminds me of the ag-gag bills popping up around the country. It is disturbingly suspicious that the people providing our food don’t want the public to know or see exactly what they’re doing or how.

    • When a used car salesman says ‘just take my word for it, it’s fine! DON’T LOOK UNDER THE HOOD!!!!’ you’re suspicious, right?!… funny how we put up with it, when we’re talking about OUR FOOD! 😛

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