I am often asked about why GE ingredients should be present on our food labels, as well as whether the government actually has the power and responsibility to label.
In a recent presentation at TEDxManhattan, I tried to address these questions, and have highlighted many of them here.
What are GE crops? Haven't we been genetically engineering crops since the first seed breeders thousands of years ago?
GE plants or animals have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.
In other words, these are organisms created by the transfer and introduction of genetic material from other species in ways that could not occur in nature or through traditional breeding methods. Monsanto is one of the leading firms in this space. Their website draws a clear distinction between genetically engineered and conventionally bred crops.
Interestingly, the U.S. Commerce Department and specifically the U.S. Patent Office clearly sees these organisms as something unique and new, for they have granted the seed-chemical companies hundreds of patents for these new life forms. And these companies have spent many millions of dollars vigorously and successfully defending their patents from infringement.
Yet over at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is general presumption that these foods are essentially the same as non-GE foods. In fact, the policy at FDA is that as long as GE crops are "substantially equivalent" to non-GE crops in terms of nutritional parameters like calories, carbohydrates, fiber, and protein, they are ALSO presumably safe, and therefore do not necessitate labels to make consumers aware of when they are buying and eating these foods.
How common are GE foods?
Since 1996, when the first GE crops were approved for commercial use and introduction, they have been extraordinarily successful in penetrating the marketplace. Today, GE soy makes up 90 percent-plus of the soybeans grown in the US, GE corn is roughly 85 percent of all corn, and several other GE crops including sugar beets and cotton are equally dominant in the market place.
Particularly because of their dominance in soy and corn, this means that over 70 percent of the processed foods we eat contain genetically engineered material. The data is clear that the vast majority of Americans do not know that.
Who else labels GE foods?
It is worth noting that 62 other nations around the world including all of the EU, Russia and China have required labeling when approving these crops. Even war-torn Syria requires labeling of these ingredients.
Are they safe?
Because it has only been 16 years since the introduction of GE crops and they have been grown particularly fast in only the last 8 years, we don't yet know, and we probably won't know for a generation, about the impacts of today's first-generation-GE crops. In short, no one can credibly claim whether they are or aren't safe from a long-term perspective. However, there are some bases for concern.
During the 1990's many of the FDA's own scientists warned that genetic engineering was different than traditional breeding and posed special risks of introducing new toxins or allergens, but these warnings were not heeded. Since that time, 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.
There is also growing concern about the lack of independent testing by scientists not funded nor influenced by the companies who own these new patented organisms. 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.
This is especially troubling because many of the original claims by these companies that led to their approval have subsequently turned out to be false.
One of the very first genetically engineered crops allowed into the commercial market for human consumption was corn and it came with an assurance regarding the insecticide built into its DNA. Chemical companies 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.
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. Studying GE food-human health linkages without labeling is like searching for a needle in a haystack with gloves on.
Doesn't there have to be a compelling safety argument for the FDA to require that GE foods and ingredients be labeled?
In a word, no. While safety is an important question, it is actually not the reason these ingredients and foods need to be labeled. Virtually all of the food and ingredient labeling we see today have no relation to food safety.
If an ingredient poses a food safety hazard, we don't label its presence. We ban it from our food. When the FDA determines that labeling is required for additives like food colorings, dyes or various byproducts, it is not because they have found they are 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, and thus labeling is required.
For example, 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. So they decided that they should be labeled. The same determination was made with Orange Juice from Concentrate, Country of Origin, Wild vs Farmed, and many other mandatory components of food labels. Simply put, the FDA found that these processes were relevant and therefore material to the consumer.
So, I am not saying GMOs should be labeled because they are a proven health risk, rather it is because they add bacterial genes, proteins, and gene fragments never before seen in foods. And we simply don't yet have enough data or experience to know what are the long terms impacts of these unprecedented changes to our foods.
Does the FDA actually have the authority to require GE food labeling?
The determination that GE crops are "substantially equivalent" to their conventionally grown or bred counterparts is a completely voluntary and discretionary 20-year old internal guideline. This guideline did not result from criteria set forth in legislation passed by Congress to address the unique food safety issues associated with GE foods. Rather these guidelines were recommended by the President's Council on Competitiveness, a panel comprised of government bureaucrats and chemical industry giants under the leadership of VP Dan Quayle in 1992, just a few years before the first GE crops were approved for commercial use.
Putting it simply, the Quayle-led Commission recommended that an ingredient would be deemed "material" for labeling if it possessed nutritional or organoleptic (taste, smell, etc.) differences from their conventional counterparts. And since GE crops look and smell similar and possess similar nutritional qualities, they were found to be not "material" to the consumer.
These guidelines have remained in place for over 20 years, despite countless changes in the US food system and the enormous proliferation of GE crops beyond what anyone expected back in 1992.
The FDA voluntarily adopted these guidelines back then. They have the precedent and the authority to modify those guidelines today.
Why is your biggest concern about GE ingredients and why do you think they are "material"?
As someone who has spent my entire adult life advocating for reduced use of toxic chemicals in our foods, agriculture and environment, I am deeply concerned about the proliferation of herbicides and pesticides resulting from GE crop development and the increase in resistance that we are seeing with weeds and insects due to their overuse. Consider these three arguments:
1. Skyrocketing herbicide use
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 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. 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.
It's important to note that increased herbicide is just the beginning of the problem.
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 these resistant weeds, companies are seeking approval of GE crops that are resistant to higher-risk herbicides, such as 2,4-D and 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.
And while insecticide use, specifically to prevent corn and cotton insects, actually dropped by 123 million pounds in this same time period, an alarming paper came out in the fall showing that corn borers are now becoming resistant to one of the BT insecticides that was bred into corn since 1996. We, and the biotech industry, continue to ignore this bitter lesson -- when farmers press their luck by over-reliance on any single pest control tactic or chemical, resistance is usually just a few years down the road.
So, GE crops have been primarily engineered not for any increased nutritional value or consumer benefit, but to make it easier to control certain insects and spray herbicides on growing crops, killing weeds but leaving the genetically transformed crops unharmed. The technology is a real moneymaker for the industry, which charges much more for the GE seeds, and then sells more herbicide to the farmers planting the seeds.
2. Patent holders are making claims that are subsequently proven false
As mentioned above, despite the industry's claims that herbicide resistant crops would lead to less chemical usage, the opposite has happened. Herbicide use has increased 11 percent in the past 16 years.
Corn, one of the first genetically engineered crops, came with an assurance regarding the insecticide built into its DNA. Chemical companies 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.
One of the industry's most common arguments is the promise of higher yields from GE crops, which could aid in solving the world's food shortages. Yet field trials of soybeans found a 50 percent drop in the yield of GE varieties because of gene disruption. And hybrid corn varieties engineered with the Bt bacterium to produce a pest-killing protein were slower to develop and ultimately had a 12 percent lower yield than non-GE varieties.
All of these are cases in which the patent holder's claims have not held up. At what point, and at what cost, will we learn to ignore these empty promises, and rely instead on adequate environmental and health assessments?
3. Lack of independent testing
When it comes to the safety of today's first-generation GE crops, we don't yet know, and we probably won't know their impact for a generation. But the concern over the lack of independent testing by scientists not funded nor influenced by the patent holders is growing. 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.
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.
In 2010, the Presidents Cancer Panel reported that 41 percent of Americans would be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetimes. The primary culprit that this prestigious panel of senior oncologists identified was the inadvertent daily exposure to numerous chemicals in our air, water and food. Later that same summer, the Journal Pediatrics reported a direct correlation between pesticide usage and increased ADHD diagnoses.
No one can now definitively prove that the genetic engineering of food does or does not pose a health or safety threat to any of us. But there is no question that the use of today's GE crops is increasing our exposure to herbicides and BT toxins. I believe that this is highly material to the average consumer.
Our government's failure to require labeling, and to be engaged in developing the science supporting GE food risk assessment is an absolute breach of its responsibility to the American public.
There are in fact lots of reasons to label these foods: health and environmental concerns, ethical/religious views or just because people want to know. In fact, Mellman research shows 92 percent of citizens want the right to know with no meaningful statistical difference between men and women, Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural communities, education level or any demographic.
The bottom line is: without labeling, consumers are completely in the dark. The FDA can label GE foods. And the vast majority of consumers want them to be labeled.
As I always say, 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.