By Jim Riddle and Nancy Brown
The defeat of California’s ballot initiative in 2012 to label genetically engineered foods, known as Prop 37, has strengthened the resolve of citizens, health advocates, and farmers nationwide who are vowing to step up the fight for truth in labeling. Citizen-led campaigns for disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients have formed a 30-state “Coalition of States for Mandatory GMO Labeling” and boycotts of GMO food companies are underway.
Genetic engineering is the process of inserting genes from one species into another (for example, fish genes into tomatoes). It differs from traditional breeding in that it breaches the natural barriers between species, and even kingdoms.
With the recent rise of genetically engineered soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sweet corn, and sugar beets, it is now estimated that a majority of foods in U.S. grocery stores contain genetically engineered ingredients. More than 60 countries require labels on foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. Some European Union countries ban cultivation of GE seeds.
Mandating disclosure of GE ingredients acknowledges the serious concerns that persist about the effects of GMOs on the health of humans and the land. In animal studies, consumption of genetically engineered foods is linked to allergies, immune system disorders, cancers, infertility, and other problems.
Cultivation of GE seeds has led to herbicide- and pesticide-resistant “superweeds” and “superbugs,” forcing farmers to resort to stronger and more toxic chemicals. As a recent report from Washington State University shows, the planting of GMO crops has led to a significant increase in the amount of pesticides applied by farmers in the U.S., with 404 million more pounds of pesticides being applied since GMO crops were first introduced in 1996. (http://news.cahnrs.wsu.edu/2012/10/01/pesticide-use-rises-as-herbicide-resistant-weeds-undermine-performance-of-major-ge-crops-new-wsu-study-shows/)
Since pollen is airborne and uncontrollable, non-GMO fields are vulnerable to contamination by unwanted GMO pollen. This puts U.S. farmers at a competitive disadvantage when exporting to nations that have already rejected GMOs. Shipments of U.S. corn and soy are turned away at European ports when they are found to be contaminated with genetically engineered material.
Despite consistent public support for GMO labeling (upwards of 90 percent) and support for GMO labeling voiced by then-candidate Barack Obama in 2007, the overwhelming influence of the biotech, pesticide and processed food industries at the federal level have thwarted efforts to require labeling nationwide.
Last spring, the “Just Label It” campaign delivered a record-setting 1.3 million public comments to the Food and Drug Administration demanding GMO labeling. The FDA’s failure to act convinced labeling advocates across the nation that change would have to come from the states.
Connecticut, Vermont, and Hawaii are among the 19 states that ran campaigns last year. This year advocates are back with new energy and lessons learned from the Prop 37 campaign. In Washington State, San Juan County recently banned the growth of any GMOs – including crops, animals and other organisms. (www.wakingtimes.com/2012/11/12/washington-county-bans-growing-of-gmos/) Washington State and Michigan are working to have GMO labeling ballot initiatives on the ballot in 2013, and Right to Know legislation is being introduced in Minnesota.(www.righttoknowmn.org/)
Industry opposition remains fierce. In California, the biotech, pesticide, and processed food industries spent more than $50 million to defeat Prop 37, outspending labeling advocates by more than 5 to 1. Yet despite Prop 37’s defeat, California food labeling advocates are rightly claiming victory. They know that the state’s newly informed consumers will vote with their dollars against food containing genetically engineered ingredients. To help in that effort, a non-GMO shopping guide is available at www.nongmoshoppingguide.com.
The Organic Consumers Association and other groups have organized a boycott of organic and “natural” brands whose parent companies donated millions of dollars to defeat Prop 37. To see the companies that are being boycotted, visit the OCA website at www.organicconsumers.org.
Both GMO and non-GMO farmers need to take steps to avoid contamination. The University of Minnesota has released a helpful guide, “GMO Contamination Prevention – What Does it Take?”
In many ways, the Prop 37 campaign was a significant, but early step on the road for the U.S. joining the majority of industrialized nations in allowing its citizens to be informed as to whether or not the foods that are offered for sale contain genetically engineered ingredients. We and many other activists advocate allowing the free market to determine the success or failure of GMO foods.
To learn more about the issues with GMOs, visit these websites:
Jim Riddle is a long-time organic activist and contributor to the Organic Broadcaster. Nancy Brown is a mother and co-founder of Right to Know Minnesota, a coalition working to make labeling of genetically engineered foods the law in Minnesota.