Genetically engineered (GE) foods have been heralded as the solution to food shortages in the future, as biotech companies modify the DNA of crops in an effort to make them more robust. Certain GE crops can now withstand freezing temperatures or are resilient to heavy applications of pesticides and herbicides.
GE crops are widespread in the United States. Nationwide, 93 percent of the soybean crop is genetically modified to resist the large volumes of herbicides used to combat weeds that compete with the soybeans. Although these DNA modifications aim to improve a crop’s vitality on one hand, genetic engineering also can have many unintended consequences for both the environment and human health.
A former employee of Monsanto, which is a leading producer of both herbicides and biotech seeds, stated that genetically engineering crops and foods changes the DNA of the plant or organism, but alters the cell “in such a way that it’s unknown what the effects are going to be” in the long and short term.
With such uncertainty, and the prevalence of GE crops, it is critical that the full effects of genetically engineered foods be investigated. Studies have found that mice that were fed GE corn showed an increase in their overall body weight of more than 3.7 percent, and an increase in their liver size of up to 11 percent. In addition to triggering weight gain and metabolic consequences, GE crops have been shown to affect the organ function of test subjects, causing liver and kidney disruption. Although studies like these are pulling back the veil on GE crops, further testing is needed to understand the broader consequences of genetic engineering on our food, bodies, and environment.
Yet the U.S. government appears to be moving in the opposite direction, reducing transparency and accountability by adopting new laws that heavily favor the biotech industry. On July 12, the House of Representatives’ agriculture committee passed its own version of the proposed Farm Bill, rolling back the Senate’s more progressive proposal, which would have defended sustainable agriculture and emboldened the “Know your Farmer, Know your Food” initiative promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under President Obama.
The House’s decision, if adopted into law, will lead to greatly reduced regulation of GE crops in the future. Among other measures, the decision so weakens the USDA’s oversight of genetic engineering that biotech companies would no longer be required to submit proposed GE crops for environmental review or be exposed to litigation from organic farmers whose crops may have been contaminated by genetic drift.
Furthermore, the House’s regressive legislation would undermine the National Environmental Policy Act and the U.S. Endangered Species Act, as the decision exempts genetically modified organisms from meeting the requirements of these policies. It would enable GE organisms to be cultivated and used, even if they may harm an endangered species.
In order for the Farm Bill and its proposed changes to GE crop oversight to take effect, the full House of Representatives must vote to pass the Bill. The Bill must then be reconciled with the Senate’s version. However, it appears unlikely that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will put the Farm Bill up for a vote before the August recess. This may postpone decisions about the Bill until the next Congress arrives, after the November elections.
But even as national policy governing GE crops threatens to regress, states such as Vermont and California have been working to implement legislation that will require the disclosure of information about GE crops to the public.
California’s draft ballot initiative, Label GMO, aims to bolster the state’s Proposition 65 initiative passed in 1986. Label GMO is distinct from Prop 65 in several key ways. Namely, it targets disclosure around GE foods sold at retail establishments, exempting medical foods and food sold for immediate consumption, and it also establishes threshold standards for GE foods. The threshold standards ensure that businesses can operate in compliance with the law and knowingly produce GE or non-GE foods, thereby reducing their exposure to abusive private litigation.
In the absence of strong federal action on genetic engineering, ballot initiatives such as Label GMO are critical steps that regional and local governments can take to improve government oversight of GE crops, thus protecting consumers and the environment. State governments and citizens must continue pushing for increased oversight through proactive legislation to defend consumer rights, improve access to GE crop information, and pressure the federal government to pass progressive policies at the national level.