By Sophie Wenzlau
Courts, councils, and voters across North America are weighing in on genetically modified (GM) crops this month.
In Washington state, voters are beginning to cast ballots in favor of or opposing Initiative 522, which would mandate that all GM food products, seeds, and seed stocks carry labels in the state. According to the initiative, polls consistently show that the vast majority of the public, typically more than 90 percent, would like to know whether or not the food they buy has been produced using genetic modification.
Initiative 522 is making big headlines. On October 16, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the initiative’s top opponent—the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—for allegedly violating campaign disclosure laws by concealing the identities of its donors. The lawsuit accuses the GMA, a D.C.-based food industry group, of infringing the law by soliciting and receiving contributions and making expenditures to oppose Initiative 522 without properly registering and reporting as a political committee, and of concealing the true source of the contributions received.
Days after Ferguson sued the group, the GMA agreed to name the companies that contributed to the $17.1 million campaign to defeat the initiative. High on the list are Pepsico, Coca-Cola, and NestleUSA, each having contributed more than $1 million. A more extensive list of donors, published by the Seattle Times, names General Mills, ConAgra Foods, Campbell Soup, The Hershey Co., and J.M. Smucker Co. as additional donors.
The fight to require labels on GM foods in Washington state is reminiscent of last year’s fight over Proposition 37—which also proposed mandatory GM labels—in California. According to California Watch, food and agribusiness companies, including The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA, Mars Inc., and Monsanto, contributed $44 million in opposition of Prop 37, while those in favor contributed $7.3 million. Although 47 percent of Californians voted in favor of Prop 37, it ultimately failed to pass.
Opponents of GM labeling have argued that the labels would imply a warning about the health effects of eating those foods, although no significant differences between GM and non-GM foods have been officially established. They also argue that consumers who do not want to buy GM foods already have the option of purchasing certified organic foods, which by definition cannot be produced using GM ingredients.
The initiative’s proponents, on the other hand, argue that GM labeling is about people’s right to know what is in the food they eat and feed their families. These groups argue that U.S. companies, which are already required to label GM foods in 64 countries around the world, should be required to provide the same information to shoppers back home.
“As things stand, you can find out whether your salmon is wild or farm-raised, and where it’s from, but under existing legislation you won’t be able to find out whether it contains the gene of an eel. That has to change,” wrote Mark Bittman, a food columnist for the New York Times. “We have a right to know what’s in the food we eat and a right to know how it’s produced. This is true even if food containing or produced using GMOs were the greatest thing since crusty bread.”
Although no significant differences between the health effects of GM and non-GM foods have been established, the body of research on the topic is woefully inadequate.
Of the health-related research that has been conducted, the evidence, on measure, seems to weigh against GM foods. The first independent, peer-reviewed study of GM food safety, published in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, found that rats fed low-levels of Monsanto’s maize NK603 for a period of two years (a rat’s average lifespan) suffered from mammary tumors and severe kidney and liver damage. Although the science is not yet conclusive, GM critics argue that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should urge consumers to familiarize themselves with the potential health risks of GM food consumption, and should conduct additional studies.
Just this week, an international group of over 85 scientists, academics, and physicians released a statement arguing that there is no scientific consensus that GM foods and crops are safe. The statement was made in response to recent claims from the biotech industry and some scientists and commentators that there is a “scientific consensus” that GM foods and crops are safe for human and animal health and the environment. The statement calls these claims “misleading” and states that “the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist.”
There is also evidence that the cultivation of GM foods can harm the environment. According to an article published by the Harvard School of Public Health, the production of GM foods may damage biodiversity by promoting greater use of certain pesticides that are particularly toxic to many species, and by introducing exotic genes and organisms into the environment that may disrupt natural plant communities and other ecosystems.
Concern over GM crops is not unique to Washington and California. Last week, a ruling by a judge in Mexico City suspended new plantings of transgenic maize—GM corn—citing the risk of imminent harm to the environment. Although a relatively narrow legal opinion, groups against GM crops considered the ruling a victory because it was the first time a Mexican court had weighed in on the ongoing debate on the crops. The opinion bolstered hope that further reforms may be within reach.
Also last week, council members in Hawaii’s Kaua’i County voted to approve a controversial GMO disclosure bill that will require farms to disclose pesticide use and the presence of GM crops if they use more than a specified amount of restricted-use pesticides annually.
If individuals and groups continue to cause a stir about GM crops, which appears to be the direction we are headed, it may not be long before the FDA, and others, acknowledge the need for additional research and undertake serious reevaluation of these “miracle” crops.
Do you think GM foods should carry labels? Let us know in the comments section below.
Sophie Wenzlau is a senior fellow with the Worldwatch Institute.