In some ways this article is a month late, as last month was Non-GMO month. However, it is that time of year again. Time to head to the polls and exercise our right to vote. Here in Wisconsin our ballot is fairly light but our friends in California have their work cut out for them. Among the slew of propositions that are up for consideration in California is one that would require food producers to label their products if they are Genetically Engineered (GE) or contain GE ingredients. That’s momentous. When you factor in the scale of farming and food production in California, many food-related propositions that pass in California soon become common practice across the nation, if not Federal law. The United States is one of the few remaining industrialized countries that does not require labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
California’s Proposition 37 would require labeling on raw or processed food if it is made from plants or animals with genetic material that has been modified. This proposition would also prohibit GMO producers from labeling their products as “natural.” Supporters of this proposition contend that we as consumers have a right to know what is in our food. Opponents say that this proposition will increase both food and taxpayer costs alike, that GE foods are safe, and that special labeling of GE food will mislead consumers.
Genetically engineered foods have long been heralded by their supporters as one of the greatest advancements in both agricultural and food science. They’ve also been long foretold as the solution to low-yielding crops and insect control, thereby leading to the end of global hunger and malnutrition. These claims, for the most part, have yet to be proven true. Some varieties of corn and other field crops have been genetically engineered to either contain insecticides in their genes or to be resistant to herbicides. The problem is, nature has found ways around these advancements. There are now insects and weeds that are resistant to these genetically engineered herbicides and insecticides, ratcheting up the need for conventional farmers to use stronger chemicals like 2,4-D, a major ingredient in Agent Orange, to combat the invasion on their crops. Now we’re not even back at square one. We’re two steps behind where we started in terms of farming and pest control.
The argument that GMOs will help end world hunger and malnutrition seems to, as of yet at least, hold little merit as well. That said, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that the issue is not clear cut. One of the few scraps of evidence I was able to dig up was related to a report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The IAASTD is an international creation involving 110 countries. It was sponsored in part by the United Nations, World Health Organization, and the World Bank. The IAASTD was tasked with assessing international agricultural knowledge, science, and technology. They concluded that GMOs can have a positive effect in some select parts of the world but the net outcome is not positive on a global scale. Along with that, as of 2010, it was reported that approximately 925 million people globally don’t get enough to eat. My conjecture is that GMOs are not solving world hunger and, like conventional farming practices in general, they are doing much more harm than good to both the environment and consumers.
Countries & Labeling
As I stated earlier, the U.S. is one of the few remaining industrialized countries that does not require labeling of GMOs. The list of countries that do require labeling is quite long and includes some unlikely participants such as Russia and China. Even beyond the issue of labeling, GMOs themselves are banned in the European Union. So, why isn’t the U.S. already labeling GMOs? If we look at who is donating money to prevent Prop 37 from passing in California, we might start to find the answer to that question.
At the time of this writing, big corporate agribusiness has donated over $34 million to fight the passage of Proposition 37. The largest of these contributors is Monsanto, at over $7 million donated alone. Other opponents of Prop 37 include DuPont (almost $5 million) and BASF, the world´s leading chemical company ($2 million). Not only are these the same corporations that create many of the most common GMOs in use today, they are also the ones that create and produce the herbicides and pesticides conventional farmers use on their GMO crops. These are the same corporations that told us that chemicals such as DDT and Agent Orange were safe only a few decades ago. In stark contrast to this monumental opposition, a paltry $4 million has been donated in support of Prop 37. This is an example, in the extreme, of the power behind big agribusiness. It illustrates how disproportionate the economies of scale are between big ag and small producers. It also reinforces the need for vigilant consumers, who will vote to uphold what we value.
Lights at the end of the tunnel
There are a few lights at the end of this seemingly gloomy tunnel though. The first is that 90% of Americans support labeling GMOs. Another is that poll data suggests that Prop 37 will pass, despite the overwhelming negative advertising and fiscal opposition. The last and maybe brightest light at the end of the tunnel is the Non-GMO Project (www.nongmoproject.org). This is a relatively new non-profit organization that aims to standardize GMO labeling for food. Currently the Non-GMO Project is the only third party verification system for labeling non-GMOs in the United States. Their standards are upheld through rigorous product and ingredient traceability, risk assessment, sampling techniques, and quality control management. Their seal, a butterfly on a leaf along with the words “Non-GMO Verified,” is the only regulated seal to indicate non-GMO products. The roots of the Non-GMO Project can be traced back to 2003. The creators were a small group of grocery customers and grocery store employees who were concerned about GMOs and wanted an informed choice. This is the essence of Prop 37, protecting consumers’ right to know what’s in our food.
For the majority of my life, nutritional labeling has always existed on packaged food thanks to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Prior to that, The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906 to protect consumers from adulterated, misbranded, or harmful food. The passing of Prop 37 would be another step in the fight to safeguard the spirit of these laws and offer full disclosure to consumers. Personally, I hope for a future in which our children won’t remember a time before the existence of GMO labeling.