This November, Californians will vote on a historic proposal that would require genetically modified foods in supermarkets to be labeled. For some reason, Proposition 37, or The Right to Know Genetically Engineered Foods Act, has the food, biotech and pesticide industries shaking in their fancy, fat-cat boots. They've already spent $25 million in opposition as they try to stifle the voices of a bunch of tree-hugging, kale-loving moms, farmers, nutritionists, scientists, non-profits and meddlesome eaters who want to know the ingredients in the food they eat and feed their children. "What are these food and agriculture companies so afraid of?" asks soil scientist and professor of environmental science, Stephen Andrews. Andrews has been teaching college students to respect the soil for over two decades and follows the research on 'dirt' closely. "If GMOs are so great and wonderful for us to eat, be upfront about it and declare your GMO greatness on the label. It's label up, or go crawl back into your plasmid!"
First introduced into the U.S. food system in the late 1990s, genetically altered ingredients are now found in 70 percent of processed foods. Eighty-five percent of the corn and 91 percent of the soy grown in the U.S. are also genetically altered. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration does not require labeling or health and safety studies for these foods, even though recent independent studies show links to allergies and other health risks. Some other unintended problems from growing these crops are an increase in pesticide use, weed resistance, the development of super-weeds, harm to bees and animals, and contamination of non-GMO fields.
I asked Professor Andrews if we should finish our lunch or run for the hills.
How is the process of inserting a gene from a bacterium or virus into a seed in a biotech lab different from traditional breeding of plants?
Selective breeding of plants and animals has been occurring for centuries. You may recall the name of Gregor Mendel, and his experiments on plant hybridization using peas, from your high school biology days. Like Mendel, many plant breeders create new hybrid varieties of vegetables and flowers from established lines via cross-pollination. Cross-pollination also occurs naturally among plants.
What separates hybridization and cross-pollination from genetically engineered varieties is the introduction of a gene or set of genes unrelated to the genetic material of the parent organism (species). Simplified, hybrid zucchini are produced by crossing the pollen of different zucchini plants possessing the characteristics desired (crossed within the same species). Genetically engineered zucchini on the other hand have incorporated into their genetic code DNA snippets from other species. For example, genes from a strawberry or a bacterium. Plants bearing the genetic material of a different species within its DNA are called transgenic. Genetically engineering or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not occur "naturally." Creation of these organisms requires the use of genetic engineering techniques like recombinant DNA technologies.
We have centuries of knowledge based on plant hybridization, much less on genetically modified organisms or transgenic plants. Cutting-edge or creepy?
The GloFish was one of the first genetically modified animals to be sold as a pet. GloFish is a patented and trademarked "brand" of genetically modified fluorescent fish. Similarly, seed produced from transgenic plants is patented and trademarked.
Now common in agriculture are two general categories of transgenic seed engineered to influence crop input and output. Input traits refer to engineered plant performance characteristics that influence yield. This includes herbicide (Ht) resistance and insect (Bt) resistance. Transgenic corn, soybean and cottonseed are ubiquitous within U.S. agribusiness. Output traits are engineered to affect the value of the crop, for example high oleic soybeans.
Within "traditional" plant breeding we can statistically predict the outcomes of each pollen cross. When it comes to genetically modified organisms, predicted outcomes may be less certain. Do we know enough about genetically modified organisms to make them the rule rather than the exception? Fifty years ago Rachel Carson warned us about the dangers of better living through chemistry in Silent Spring. Might we not be on the verge of another Silent Spring via better living through GMOs? Could we be opening an evolutionary Pandora's box?
Fifty countries including Japan, Australia, Russia, China and the EU have either banned or labeled GMOs. Why didn't those countries drink the Kool-Aid?
From my viewpoint, I see labeling and banning of GMOs as the prudent application of the precautionary principle to both assess and manage risks. In spite of industry claims that GMO products are no different in terms of nutrition, quality, safety and healthfulness -- do we really know? We don't have the long-term studies that are really necessary to assess and manage the risks associated with GMOs. Our bodies are already hosts to chemical cocktails that we are only just beginning to investigate in depth. Is it not wiser to engage in long-term studies of GMOs and their potential interactions before we unleash them all over the planet?
Why have companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Coca-Cola and Nestle poured $25 million into opposing food labeling? Seems like they want Californians to just shut up and eat.
You'd have to ask the industry folks why they're so hell-bent on spending millions to defeat a straightforward labeling initiative. From where I stand, the only "real" explanation is corporate greed and control. Quite simply, the agri-corps want to monopolize food production, your diet, your health and your well-being to get what's in your wallet. In the eyes of agri-business a person is no different than a hog or a steer.
If I were entrusted with the management of one of these agri-giants, I would be welcoming a ballot measure to include GMO labeling on products. Heck, I'd be jumping up and down at the opportunity to toot my horn about the accomplishments of my company's GMO research. Better yet, I'd open the petri dishes to transparent review and analysis. I'd seek opportunities to have my company's GMO products subjected to cumulative-impact testing, and long-term studies to demonstrate that we did the right things, and things right.
We keep being told that we need GMOs to "feed the world," but Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, writes, "GMOs may pose serious health and environmental risks and their benefits may be overstated." Your thoughts?
The GMO debate is complex, nuanced and universal. To reasonably make decisions about GMO products, use and regulation requires that we each become engaged in the debate. We must collectively educate each other, and mandate that the GMO industry be transparent via labeling and product licensing.
I think that all of your readers should listen to the PandoHouse Rock -- The GMO Song: "OMG GMOs!" Find it at pandodaily.com
Here's a tease from it:
"It's a challenge to feed 7 billion and counting
Droughts and food prices are causing world hunger
So what's the big deal if we make the crops stronger?
But with GMOs you can patent the breeds
And sue the farmers if they replant the seeds
The idea is to help developing nations
But who benefits: communities or corporations?
There are also ecological risks involved
You can make a new problem like the one you've just solved
Like corn that's bred with a built-in pesticide
The pests evolved and now superbugs thrive"
For more information on Prop. 37, the campaign to label GM foods, visit www.carighttoknow.org
For more about GM health risks, visit Jeffrey's Smith's informative Institute for Responsible Technology at www.responsibletechnology.org and www.geneticroulettemovie.org
Visit Annie at: