Thoughts from a broken mind
You stand in the aisle of your local grocery store to read the labels of foods you’re buying.
You think you know what you’re putting in your cart, paying money for and feeding to your family.
But do you really?
The people behind the It’s Our Right to Know campaign say no and are trying to get a California initiative on the November ballot that would force companies to label foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
GMOs are organisms that have been manipulated in a laboratory to contain foreign genes such as bacteria, viruses, human genes and pesticides.
“The GMO labeling initiative is a grassroots effort to try and get genetically engineered organisms in our food labeled so that we have choices as to whether or not we eat it,” says Stacey Hall, the Southern California director for LabelGMOs.org, the group behind the labeling initiative.
“Right now it’s not labeled in the United States. It’s labeled in almost 40-plus other countries including all of Europe, Japan, China, Russia, Brazil – they require labeling. They won’t let us do it here, so we are taking matters into our own hands and trying to create the right to choose what we feed our families and educate the public so the public can make educated decisions, basically.”
To get the initiative on California’s ballot, the campaign needs to obtain 560,000 qualifying signatures by April 22 – that’s the required 5 percent of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election.
As of a few weeks ago, the group had more than 500,000 signatures, but their real goal is to obtain 850,000 to make up for any signatures the state might not recognize as qualifying.
Currently, many of the crops in the United States are being genetically engineered, including most corn, soy, canola, cotton seeds, sugar beet and papaya, and some crookneck squash, zucchini and alfalfa, says Hall.
“In order to avoid it, you would have to buy products that are certified USDA organic,” Hall says. “That’s the only way and, you know, it could be costly just to buy organic.”
GMOs were first produced in the early ’90s with the idea that they could create traits that would benefit farmers and the consumer of the crops, including increased nutrition, resistance to drought and faster growth. Some crops have been manipulated to be resistant to pesticides, which allows farmers to use them to fight against weeds.
Whether there are any health risks to these GMOs is a topic of controversy and debate.
A study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences determined that a general statement regarding the health risks of genetically modified foods cannot be made. However, researchers found that three varieties of genetically modified corns produced by Monsanto, which they tested on rats, caused organ damage.
The study stated that the effects were mostly concentrated on kidney and liver function, but the details of the effects differed with each variety of corn. It also stated there were additional effects on the heart, adrenal system, spleen and blood cells of the rats.
“As there normally exists sex differences in liver and kidney metabolism, the highly statistically significant disturbances in the function of these organs, seen between male and female rats, cannot be dismissed as biologically insignificant as has been proposed by others,” wrote the authors of the study. “We therefore conclude that our data strongly suggests that these GM maize varieties induce a state of hepatorenal toxicity.”
This goes against what Monsanto found after it conducted its own 90-day study, which concluded the corn was safe for consumption.
Monsanto reacted to the study published by the journal by releasing a 13-page response that can be seen in full here: http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Documents/SpirouxdeVendimois.pdf.
The company said the results of the study that determined their corn caused organ damage were “based on faulty analytical methods and reasoning and do not call
into question the safety findings for these products.”
The government agencies responsible for overseeing products of agricultural modern biotechnology are the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA does not conduct studies on the possible health effects of GMOs because, as FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey says, they don’t have the resources.
“For every application that the FDA considers, whether it involves genetic engineering or is a traditional small-molecule drug application, the company presenting the application is responsible for generating scientific studies and data necessary to establish that the product is safe and effective for use,” DeLancey says. “FDA does not have the necessary resources to perform its own studies, although we do evaluate and make recommendations on study protocols before they begin.”
It is worth noting that the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, Michael Taylor, worked for Monsanto – the largest GMO manufacturer in the country – as vice president of public policy.
Hall, from the California labeling initiative, says Taylor and other former GMO-producing company employees who now hold positions at the FDA, EPA and USDA, are why the United States is behind other countries that are banning or labeling the use of GMOs.
But according to DeLancey, in 2003 Taylor wrote an article for the journal Nature Biotechnology in which he acknowledged the possible benefits of biotechnology, such as helping to reduce hunger in Third World nations, but he also advocated for the U.S. government and biotech industry to support labeling and other approaches that assist consumers in choosing whether they want to consume such products.
DeLancey also had this to say regarding Taylor’s time working with Monsanto, which she says was only 16 months out of his 40-plus years of working in food safety:
“As a vice president for public policy he was responsible for managing an internal think tank and worked on ways to improve the company’s transparency and engagement with stakeholders, culminating in a speech the Monsanto CEO gave to the Greenpeace Business Conference in October 1999 outlining a new basis for open, respectful engagement of people with different point of views,” DeLancey says.
“Mr. Taylor left Monsanto soon after that speech when it became clear that the company’s management was not unified in its commitment to making such a change.”
When contacted regarding the California labeling campaign and allegations that genetically modified foods pose health risks to consumers, Monsanto responded with the following statement:
“Monsanto is part of a growing coalition of California farmers, food producers, grocers, retailers, and others which has been formed to oppose the California measure. As a member of both GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association) and BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization), we support the organizations’ involvement in the California campaign to oppose the costly and extreme measure.”
The group campaigning against the California labeling initiative is the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition. The group is against the initiative for many reasons, because the initiative is poorly drafted and flawed, says the group’s media spokeswoman, Kathy Fairbanks.
Members of the coalition believe that companies would have to specially repackage and relabel foods specifically for California, which would raise costs for farmers and food processors, says Fairbanks.
But also, she says, this initiative is aimed at making lawsuits easier.
“Under this measure, lawyers can sue anyone in the food chain: grocers, manufacturers, processors, farmers, without showing any damages,” Fairbanks says. “We believe this is a major problem with the measure that will impact everyone on the food chain, not just growers/processors/manufacturers/grocers, but also consumers who will pay higher food prices, and for the state, which will be saddled with court costs.”
Currently, 80 percent of the foods on grocery store shelves contain GMOs, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
While that organization may be against the initiative, along with some farmers, not all members of the industry have the same opinion.
Eric Herm is a farmer from Texas and author of “Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth” (Dreamriver, 2010) who used to farm Monsanto’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready Cotton. After researching what kind of seeds he was planting, he decided to stop using the product to become an organic farmer and was eventually inspired to write a book about his experience.
He says farmers initially began using genetically engineered seeds because they were cheaper – though now, he says, chemical companies have patented seeds and raised their prices – but also because it made farming quicker and easier.
“People need to realize what’s happened to our food supply,” Herm says. “They need to realize what’s happened to agriculture and they need to realize not only what we’re doing to ourselves but what we’re doing to all living creatures.”
Some manufacturers are not bothered by the idea of having to label their products. Doug Foreman, chairman and CEO of Beanitos, says the company is a non-GMO verified chip manufacturer located in San Bernardino – though headquarters are in Texas. He says Beanitos conducted independent research on GMOs and officials decided to produce a product free of genetically engineered ingredients.
“When you start to look at all the research out there – and when I say research, I mean independent research – there’s just too much information out there that shows there’s a lot of things to be concerned about,” Foreman says.
Though he says it does take some work to find ingredients that are not genetically engineered, Beanitos has been using beans as a main ingredient for its chips and those have not yet been genetically engineered, he says.
He says everyone should label their products that have GMOs to allow the consumer to make an informed decision.
“We lay everything out on the table about what we do and we think everyone else should too,” Foreman says. “If you’re proud of what you do, why not lay it out there?”