GreenSpace: Labeling the Modified Foods

(Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist)

Ninety percent of the corn, canola, soybeans, and sugar beets grown in the United States today have been fiddled with.

Genes have been inserted that will help the crops grow better, resist the onslaughts of insects, or not be harmed by slatherings of herbicide intended to kill weeds.

These genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are the way farming can provide for the future of the planet, the industry tells us.

Since GMOs are now in much of the food we eat, some people want to see that information on a label.

In October, the nonprofit Center for Food Safety filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seeking to require such disclosure.

Timed to that, a consortium of about 450 groups, including health, agriculture, faith, parenting, and environmental organizations, launched a “Just Label It” campaign and website,

“Right2Know” marchers walked from Brooklyn to Washington.

There’s a book – Label It Now: What You Need to Know About Genetically Engineered Foods – by Gary Hirshberg, president of the organic yogurt company Stonyfield, and others.

There’s a video, Labels Matter, by Robert Kenner, who produced the Emmy-winning documentary Food, Inc., which excoriated the ag industry.

The common theme of all this: Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food.

Our labels are already crammed with information about sugars, carbs, vitamins, fiber, fat, protein, calories, cholesterol, and salt.

They specify if food is organic or juice is “made from concentrate.”

Checking my own kitchen cabinets, I see my oatmeal meets American Heart Association criteria. My rice was “grown in the USA.” My peanut butter contains “natural protein.” My honey is “fair trade.”

According to the label campaign, more than half of foods at U.S. grocery stores are likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients. And about 40 countries, including those in the European Union, Japan, China, and Brazil, require labels.

The industry says GMO foods have been proved to be safe. But not everyone is convinced.

Other problems have tarnished the GMO companies’ shiny image of their creations. Organic farmers worry about contamination of their crops via pollen blown from GMO crops growing nearby. Some critics object to corporate ownership of genetic traits. So-called superweeds have developed a resistance to a weed killer that many crops have been genetically modified to safely withstand.
But Stonyfield’s Hirshberg insists that’s not the issue. “This is not an anti-GMO campaign.”

The industry counters that’s precisely what the campaign is about, that it’s little more than a ruse to pump up interest in organic food and cast doubt on GMO food.

“It’s all about marketing share,” scoffs Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents 1,100 biotech companies.

The FDA has concluded labeling isn’t necessary because the food is not substantially different from non-GMO food, which Hirshberg says is using 19th-century ideas to regulate 21st-century food.

Monsanto, a GMO industry leader, contends that adding information to labels would suggest a health and safety issue where none exists, undermining “both our laws and consumer confidence.”

Batra says adding GMO information to labels is too complicated, a point echoed by Jim Greenwood, the president of Batra’s organization, in a news release this year. “Consumers don’t want confusing debates about food politics,” he said. “Consumers want wholesome food at an affordable price.”

True. I’d rather not launch an investigation into the food I buy. I just want to cook it.

But do we have that luxury? We live in a complex world.

We have, of course, been tinkering with food – advancing the science – since we started domesticating chickens and crossbreeding seed crops. So we should be good at tackling the issues by now.

But I’m sick at heart from watching industry’s latest, greatest advances erode before added scrutiny. We’re told bisphenol A is fine for baby bottles – until the studies mount, suggesting it’s not. Flame retardants, nonstick surfaces, and other “breakthroughs” have revealed their downsides.

The regulatory system seems to require little proof to allow substances onto the market, and substantial proof to take them off.

Labels may or may not be the answer to a central problem, which is that despite industry claims about the benefits of GMOs, many people aren’t convinced. The issue has high stakes on many levels. If the industry is right that GMOs hold enormous promise, then we have to get it right.

In production, or headed that way, are vitamin-fortified rice and cassava to provide better nutrition for people in developing countries (if they can afford the seed) and soybeans that have more heart-friendly omega oils.

In development are plants that will survive frost, use fertilizer more efficiently, and grow faster for biofuel use, potentially lessening the time it will take to wean our nation off foreign oil.

The industry now has approval for a drought-tolerant trait that will enable corn to be grown in more places and to better withstand what scientists expect climate change to dish out.

“It’s truly exciting,” says Batra.

The FDA has 180 days from the submission of the petition – March 27 – to act. It could approve the petition, deny it, postpone a decision because of other priorities, or provide a “tentative response” that might include a request for more information, a spokeswoman said.

The campaign is encouraging people to write the FDA, adding to about 750,000 comments that advocates say the agency has received so far.

Meanwhile, both the industry and the critics say there are ways that people who don’t want GMO products can avoid them:

Buy fresh. Most fruits and vegetables have not yet had genetic modifications.

Buy organic. Labeling rules do not allow foods with GMO ingredients to be labeled organic.

Look for voluntary labels, which some companies are using to specify that the contents do not contain GMO ingredients.

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