Letter to the Editor: Labeling GE Foods

By Gary Hirshberg (Chairman, Just Label It)

I appreciate the Times’ encouraging citizens who wish to buy foods free of genetically engineered ingredients to buy Certified Organic foods.  And while it would be completely self-serving for me as an organic foods producer to rest on that conclusion, in fact it misses the point that all citizens have the right to know what’s in all of our foods.

In concluding that there is no reason to label GE ingredients because they have not been proven to pose safety concerns, the Times fell into the same trap that has paralyzed the national debate over labeling GE foods since they were introduced in 1996.

Safety is not the only reason to label. When the FDA determines that labeling is required for additives or processes, it is not because they have been found unsafe.  The FDA’s most important food statute, the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, establishes that the consumer has a right to know when something is added to food that changes it in ways a consumer would likely not recognize. If an ingredient poses a food safety hazard, we don’t label its presence, we take it out of our food.

The FDA did not require labeling of irradiated foods because they were hazardous.  Rather they found that the PROCESS of irradiation caused concern to consumers. The same determination was made with Orange Juice from Concentrate, Country of Origin, Wild vs. Farmed, and many labels.

Yet while the FDA has mandated labeling for these processes, they have held firmly to the view that, even though GE crops are patented, they are not materially different from conventional counterparts. This is despite the fact that 62 other nations around the world including all of the EU, Russia and China and even Syria have required labeling when approving these crops.

So the question is not about safety. It is about what is material to the consumer.  And a lot has changed in 20 years.  Here is what is material today.

First, particularly because of their dominance in soy and corn, over 70% of the processed foods we eat contain genetically engineered material.  The data is clear that the vast majority of Americans do not know that.

Independent polls show that 92% of Americans want to know if our foods contain genetically engineered ingredients, with no meaningful difference between men or women, republicans, democrats or independents. And while the reasons vary from religious concerns to the simple desire to have the same rights granted to 3 billion citizens around the world, I see three primary reasons to bring US policy into line with the rest of the world.

First, these crops have been patented because they add bacterial genes, proteins, and gene fragments never before seen in foods. While it is true that we don’t yet know, and we probably won’t know for a generation, about the health impacts of today’s first-generation-GE crops, there is very strong and growing concern over the lack of independent testing by scientists not funded nor influenced by the patent holders. Our government’s approval of these crops has been based almost exclusively on studies conducted or funded by the chemical companies who own these patented crops to prove that GE food is “substantially equivalent” to its non-GE counterpart.   In fact, last week, the Russian National Genetic Safety Association called for independent public scientific research.

It would be fine to rely on the patent holders claims, but they have been repeatedly shown to be false.

When GE corn was introduced with an insecticide built into its DNA, the patent holders said the insecticide would not survive more than a few seconds in the human GI tract, and that it would be broken down in saliva.  However, a study published two years ago revealed that the insecticide was detected in the umbilical-cord blood of pregnant women.

Several National Academy of Sciences studies have affirmed that genetically engineered crops have the potential to introduce new toxins or allergens into our food and environment. Yet unlike the strict safety evaluations for approval of new drugs, there are no mandatory human clinical trials of genetically engineered crops, no tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, no long-term testing for neurological health risks, no requirement for long-term testing on animals, and limited assessment of the potential to trigger new food allergies.

Because GMOs are not labeled in the U.S., they might be causing acute or chronic effects, but scientists would have a very hard time recognizing the linkages between GE food intake and unexplained problems.

The second argument for labeling that is subject of serious debate in the Ag research community is the explosive increase in herbicide use because of the introduction of these crops.  This is because the primary genes that have been introduced into GE crops enable increased insecticide or herbicide resistance.  Despite assurances to Congress and regulators over the last two decades that crops engineered to be herbicide resistant would lead to less chemical usage, a peer-reviewed paper published last summer by Washington State University professor Dr. Charles Benbrook showed that the three major GE crops in the U.S. – corn, soybeans, and cotton – have increased overall herbicide use by more than 527 million pounds between 1996 – 2011, compared to what it likely would have been in the absence of GE crops.    In 1996, the year GE crops were introduced, about 14 MM pounds of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicides, were sprayed on the three major GE crops, corn, cotton, and soybeans, accounting for about 4% of total pesticide use on these crops.  In 2012, nearly 300 MM pounds were sprayed, a remarkable three-quarters of total pesticide use on these three crops.

Such a grossly excessive level of reliance on a single pesticide is profoundly unsustainable, and is why glyphosate-resistant weeds are spreading across America’s farmland too fast to accurately track, placing farmers in a costly jam.

The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that glyphosate is now a common component of the air and rain in the Midwest during spring and summer, with levels rising in many aquatic ecosystems. New studies are raising serious safety concerns about this level of glyphosate usage.

But it gets worse. At least 23 species of weeds are now resistant to glyphosate.  Called “superweeds,” they are emerging at an alarming rate, and are present in 50-75 million acres where GE soy, corn, and cotton crops grow in 26 states.  Several chemical companies are responding by designing GE seeds that tolerate multiple herbicides.

To combat weeds that have developed resistance to Roundup (glyphosate), Dow is seeking approval of GE crops that are resistant to an older, high-risk phenoxy herbicide known as 2,4-D.  Other companies are working fast to gain approvals for another, even more dangerous phenoxy herbicide, dicamba. Many university weed scientists are speaking out against the dangerous notion that the best way to combat resistant weeds is to spray more herbicides on them – especially herbicides with a proven, negative environmental and human health track record.

Because these chemicals were used previously, weeds resistant to them are already widespread. In the US, there are already eight important weeds resistant to 2,4-D. And 28 species worldwide are resistant to 2,4-D and/or dicamba.  So this strategy is like pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out. By 2019, it could cause enormous increases in herbicide use, including a many-fold increase in the pounds of 2,4-D currently applied to the American corn crop.

Many more GE crops are in the approval pipeline.  And some of them may very well turn out to offer yield or nutritional benefits, like soybeans with higher levels of heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids.  But for now, while the technology is so young and there is apparently so much to learn, consumers need to have the same rights held by citizens around the world, to choose whether or not to buy these foods and indirectly support this cycle of increased overall chemical usage.

Just Label It is not arguing for the elimination or cessation of genetic plant engineering. We are merely arguing that it deserves the same consideration as irradiation or many other processes where labeling is mandated.

The FDA can label. The vast majority of consumers want them to label.

In short, this is more than a fight for federal labeling. It is a question of whether our government is of, for and by the people, or of, for and by a handful of chemical companies.

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