Labeling Our Future
Is the GMO experiment already too big to fail?
Currently, 64 countries around the world have labeling requirements for genetically engineered foods but the U.S is not one of them. According to The Center For Food Safety, 80% of the processed foods sold in the U.S. contain genetically engineered ingredients, and although scientists have warned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that genetically engineered foods may introduce risks to our food supply, warnings are being ignored. The FDA currently views genetically engineered foods the same as non-engineered foods based on outdated regulations and a material assessment stating that if foods taste and smell the same, they are the same.1
How is food genetically engineered? In short, the genetic engineering of a plant, animal, bacteria, virus or any living organism or microorganism involves using biotechnology to transfer DNA from one species to another to make new life forms. These new living things would never be found in nature. For example, corn DNA might be crossed with a virus or goat DNA crossed with a spider – these are actual examples. Food products produced in this way through biotechnology are referred to as GMOs (genetically modified organisms.) The term, popularized by the media, is now the default term used by most everyone even though it is scientifically incorrect in some cases.
Labeling proponents point out that agribusinesses have gotten away with hiding GMOs in our food supply for decades. They hold that organic food and irradiated foods are labeled, and it follows that GMO foods should be labeled as well. Although polls and studies have shown that 90% of Americans want GMO foods labeled, industry continues to vehemently oppose such labeling.2
Historically, the first GMO plant — antibiotic resistant tobacco — was introduced in the U.S. in 1983.3 It is surprising how many crops are now GMOs, but these items cannot be identified by us at the market, i.e., corn, soybeans, cotton, potato, tomato, wheat, canola, rice, papaya, squash and melon. USDA statistics show that in 2014 over 90% of corn and soy production was genetically engineered, and that in the U.S., farmers planted about half of the total land available with GMO crops.
Large food and chemical corporations have invested heavily in biotechnology and the genetic engineering of food because this new science can increase profits in a number of ways. Proponents say that genetic engineering of crops can increase crop yields by controlling pests and diseases during food production, reduce the need for insecticides and herbicides, allow foods to be grown in unfavorable climates, hasten maturation of growing food and extend shelf life of a product. That is all well and good but what about errors that might contaminate or kill off a natural species? What about the effects of GMOs on people who are allergic or sensitive? From a nutrition and wellness point of view, it seems like it would be better for consumers to know where these GMOs are so we can have the option to avoid them.
Large agribusinesses are marketing GMO foods without labeling, while the FDA makes no determination of safety. The FDA has guidelines but these do not include the compositional, nutritional, toxicological or metabolic effects of these products nor the differences between conventional foods and GMO foods. Corporations meet with the FDA only on a volunteer basis as each new engineered species is released.4 Shouldn’t a formal review be required to determine whether these experimental and largely untested foods are dangerous for consumption first?
The pro-labeling movement tells us that scientific studies show there is a definite cause for concern around human and animal consumption of GMOs involving toxins, allergens, antibiotic resistance and immune suppression.5 Of great concern are animal studies showing low dose exposure over a long period causing tumors and organ damage as well as negative effects on gut microbiota.6,7 Why have companies been able to include GMO products in our food supply without labeling or formal tracking? The short answer is that Congress and the FDA has allowed it even though many corporations and members of Congress do support GMO labeling.
Since the FDA has failed to take action to require labeling at the federal level, states have taken the lead in promoting GMO labeling. In 2013, Connecticut and Maine passed labeling laws, and Vermont's law will go into effect in 2016. According to JustLabelIt.org, as of December 2015, 54 bills have been introduced across 26 states.
In response, large chemical corporations have teamed up with agricultural firms to pour millions of dollars into defeating federal efforts to pass labeling requirement laws. Lobbying and campaign spending in Washington by corporate anti-labeling groups have made pro-labeling efforts fail by narrow margins. The anti-labeling lobby, backed by industry, recently introduced a bill that would prevent states from crafting their own labeling requirement bills as well as prevent any future federal laws, but it was defeated in Congress in December 2015. It was being called the DARK (Deny Americans their Right to Know) Act by the pro-label movement. Labeling proponents expect more opposition from industry going forward.
What can you do as a citizen and a consumer in regard to labeling of GMO foods? You can voice your opinion to your congressional representatives. If you believe that genetically engineered foods should be labeled, groups such as JustLabelIt.org, The Environmental Working Group and the Center for Food Safety have quick links on their websites to immediately send your views to your representatives.
You can also choose to speak with your wallet and purchase only from local farmers and avoid items like farmed salmon that was approved as a new GMO species by the FDA in November 2015. Buying USDA certified organic products comes with a guarantee that your food won’t contain GMOs; this is the only certification, by law, that prohibits GMOs in products. Some products have been labeled “Non-GMO” by various food organizations but these designations are not guaranteed by law to be a standard of purity.
Looking at the big picture, labeling GMOs seems worthy of attention because it is a global issue that affects us all. Seeds, seafood products, farmed crops and animals are imported and exported globally and any of these might be genetically engineered. In the U.S., the absence of labeling and formal traceability systems is worrisome since there is no method of tracking GMOs in case of contamination or error.
Mark Spitznagel and N.M. Taleb of the New York Times point out in the article “Another Too Big To Fail System in GMOs” that, “The GMO experiment, carried out in real time and with our entire food and ecological system as its laboratory, is perhaps the greatest case of human hubris ever.” Labeling GMOs would at least be a starting point to give consumers more information and a choice about the food we are eating. In addition, agricultural firms, chemical corporations and food producers would be forced to abide by lawful accountability practices in regard to GMOs in our food supply.
1. Center for Food Safety.
3. Bawa, A.S., Anilakumar, K.R. “Geneticaly modified foods: safety, risks and public concerns – a review.” J Food Sci Technol. Nov-Dec. 2013. 50(6):1035-1046
4. Ref. 1
5. Ref. 2
6. Seralini et al., “Long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize.” Environmental Sciences Europe, 2014.
7. Ref. 3
Beth Colon, M.S., is a holistic nutrition and wellness counselor and owner of Holistic Nutrition Services LLC. She practices at The Healing and Wellness Center in Westborough, MA. Beth specializes in digestive health and is a certified GAPS practitioner. Contact Beth at (978) 340-0448 or visit www.HolisticNutritionServices.com.
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