A GMO Knockout?
by Ed Yowell, Regional Governor of Slow Food USA
Know Your GMOs
Genetically Engineered (GE) foods, a.k.a. GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) or GM foods, are foods, meat and plants, modified through genetic engineering. Although we have genetically modified animals for thousands of years, we did it through classical, selective breeding, over decades and even centuries. Now, technology enables the transfer of genetic material from one organism to another to create different, ostensibly desirable, variations. GMO foods are a source of continuing controversy about their long-term effects on; humans, wildlife, and our food chain (http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/genetically-modified-GM-foo...).
GM foods have been entering our food chain for almost two decades, starting with the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato, genetically modified for riper picking and bruiseless transporting, was the first GM crop, and the first GMO crop flop. The tomato was withdrawn from the market by 1997 because of safety concerns (some studies showed the GM tomato potentially caused stomach lesions), low commercial yield, inferior flavor (not better than conventional tomatoes), and tendency to bruise in transport. (http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/campaign/genetically-engineered-food/...). Calgene, the Flavr Savr innovator, was acquired by Monsanto in 1997, despite the commercial failure of the tomato.
According to the February 12, 2012 New York Times article entitled, “Modified Crops Tap a Wellspring of Protest,” by Julia Moskin, “Last year, according to the Department of Agriculture, about 90 percent of all soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets raised in the United States were grown from what scientists now call transgenic seed. Most processed foods (staples like breakfast cereal, granola bars, chicken nuggets and salad dressing) contain one or more transgenic ingredients, according to estimates from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, though the labels don’t reveal that. (Some, like tortilla chips, can contain dozens.) Common ingredients like corn, vegetable oil, maltodextrin, soy protein, lecithin, monosodium glutamate, cornstarch, yeast extract, sugar and corn syrup are almost always produced from transgenic crops."
Moskin continues, “…consumer resistance to transgenic food remains high. In a nationwide telephone poll conducted in October 2010 by Thomson Reuters and National Public Radio, 93 percent said if a food has been genetically engineered or has genetically engineered ingredients, it should say so on its label — a number that has been consistent since genetically modified crops were introduced. F.D.A. guidelines say that food that contains genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.’s, don’t have to say so and can still be labeled “all natural.”
The GMO Fight
Two GMO food fights are brewing, one national, regarding the Food and Farm Bill, and one statewide, in California, but with national implications, regarding GMO food labeling.
In Washington, the House of Representatives FY 2013 Agriculture Appropriations Bill almost contained a rider (Section 733), innocuously entitled the “farmer assurance provision.” According to the Center for Food Safety, the rider, if adopted with the appropriations bill, would, “strip federal courts of the authority to halt the sale and planting of illegal, potentially hazardous genetically engineered (GE) crops while the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) assesses potential hazards. It also would inexplicably force USDA to allow continued planting of a GE crop even if a court of law identifies previously unrecognized risks. In addition, Section 733 targets vital judiciary oversight over USDA approvals by barring courts from compelling USDA to take action against agriculture policies that may harm farmers and the environment.” (http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/2012/06/19/farm-groups-and-public-int...).
While Section 733, called the “Monsanto Rider” by some, did not make it into the Ag Appropriations Bill, kindred provisions are included in the House Agriculture Committee 2012 Food and Farm Bill, which has not been debated nor adopted by the full House.
According to Colin O’Nell, of the Center for Food Safety, “…these (biotech industry-friendly) riders (Sections 10011, 10013, and 10014 of the House Ag Committee of the 2012 Food and Farm Bill) have the potential to completely eliminate the critical role played by our most important environmental laws. They unreasonably pressure USDA with impossible deadlines for analysis and decision, while at the same time withhold funds to conduct necessary environmental reviews and limit the regulatory authority of other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These riders create multiple backdoor approval mechanisms that would allow for the premature commercialization of untested biotech traits to enter our food system. Insulated from pushback, the industry riders also force USDA to adopt a controversial policy that would for the first time set allowable levels of GE contamination in crops and foods. It’s an unprecedented and dangerous path that is being carved out.” (http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/2012/07/17/statement-by-center-for-fo...). NB, the Senate version of the Food and Farm Bill does not contain similar GMO provisions.
With the 2008 Food and Farm bill expired on September 30, 2012 and with no possibility of action until the post-election, lame duck session, some observers speculate that extension of the 2008 bill, through the end of the year or for a full five years, might be possible if achieved by attaching the bill, in either case, to other “must pass” legislation, such as that addressing the coming, end-of-year “fiscal cliff”, “Taxmageddon,” the end of the Bush Era tax cuts, and the mandatory, “default,” budget cuts of sequestration. Many believe that a Food and Farm Bill attached to other legislation would likely be accomplished behind closed doors and fear that the “Monsanto Rider” of the House Ag Committee bill might find its way into the final, adopted, bill.
In California, this November, voters will have opportunity to vote yea or nay on Proposition 37 that would make mandatory GMO food labeling. In an August 22, 2012 Forbes article, entitled “Monsanto, DuPont Spending Millions to Oppose California’s GMO Labeling Law,” Amy Westervelt wrote, “(Proposition 37)…could have broad implications for food producers throughout the country: whether or not to require labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. Other states have tried to pass similar measures and failed, but California is taking the issue directly to voters, who have largely been in favor of labeling.
Currently, the Yes on Proposition 37 folks are polling far ahead of the opposition…but that doesn’t mean the vote is all sewn up. A group called No on 37: Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme is launching a full-court press against the measure beginning this month. The group’s major donors are Monsanto, DuPont, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (a trade group that represents the interest of PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg and several other large food and beverage companies), but most of the large U.S. chemical and food manufacturers have donated, including Dow, BASF, Cargill, ConAgra, PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Hormel, Syngenta, Bayer, and the list goes on (you can view a full list of who’s donating what here), for a grand total of just under $25 million to be spent on ads and other materials aimed at convincing Californians to vote no on Prop 37.
That money could go a long way toward closing the polling gap. The primary arguments against Prop 37 are that it would cost food producers money–both to re-label products and in the form of lost business due to customers who are scared off by the label–and thus raise food prices for consumers, and that it could lead to frivolous lawsuits. The latter charge is pegged to a part of the Proposition that would make it illegal for a food containing GMOs to be marketed as “natural.” The worry is that with such a law on the books, it could open the door for calling into question the legality of marketing various other products as natural.” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/amywestervelt/2012/08/22/monsanto-dupont-spe...).
Despite the deep pockets and big spending of Monsanto and DuPont, according to an August 2012 on-line poll conducted by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University, 64.9% were in favor of Proposition 37 while 23.9% were opposed (http://www.cbrt.org/california-business-roundtable-and-pepperdine-univer...).
Could the passage of Proposition 37 and the adoption of a Food and Farm Bill without Sections 10011, 13, and 14 of the House Ag Committee Food and Farm Bill be the old one, two punch that knocks out GMO foods? No. But they could be the punches that help safeguard our food chain and help farmers maintain their right to produce non-GMO foods and eaters their right to make informed decisions about what they eat.
photo courtesy of Millions Against Monsanto