The biggest problem with genetic modification of food crops isn't the technology.
Gene splicing changes a plant's genome much less than the crude methods used to create commercial seed strains.
We discuss this issue in more depth below … see “GM fear-mongering doesn't help.”
Instead, most independent scientists say that the risks of GM food crops stem from two possibilities.
First, they can introduce genes that produce toxic or allergenic compounds into foods that wouldn't normally contain them, thereby posing risks to wildlife and human consumers.
Why the campaign
needs your financial help
Monsanto, the Farm Bureau, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, along with corporate agribusiness, are all raising millions of dollars to defeat the California Ballot Initiative, as they did a decade ago in Oregon.
At that time, a group of corporate giants, including Monsanto and DuPont, calling themselves The Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law, outspent the pro-labeling group 30-1, and successfully defeated the labeling initiative by scaring voters into believing that labeling genetically engineered foods was unnecessary and would raise food prices.
They did it again in Washington State last month, where campaign contributions may have influenced the bill's demise in committee.
Right now, the biotech industry is also working to defeat similar GE labeling bills in Vermont, Hawaii, Connecticut, and other states.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Monsanto spent $8 million on their lobbying efforts in 2010, and made more than $400,000 in political contributions.
Second, the genome changes produced by gene splicing can “flow” to other food crops or wild plants, causing undesirable changes in their genomes.
(Few people know that the second risk applies even more to the many non-GM crop strains created by making random, chemical- or radiation-induced gene mutations in seeds.)
Both fears are supposed to be allayed by existing U.S. laws and regulations ... but they're notably weak, and regulatory agencies often fail to exercise serious enforcement and oversight.
This brings us to the campaign in California to force more openness about GM foods, and give consumers a real choice … a movement that faces well-heeled opposition and needs financial help.
California ballot initiative would empower consumers
Information is power, and every consumer's right. So we want to let our readers know about this California ballot initiative that could give all Americans the information they deserve.
The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act would require food sold in retail outlets such as grocery stores (not including restaurants) to be labeled if it is produced with genetic engineering.
In addition, products containing genetically engineered foods could not be labeled “natural”.
On May 2, the California Right to Know Campaign filed 971,126 signatures from registered voters in support for the state's first-ever ballot initiative to require labeling of genetically engineered foods.
Gathered in just 10 weeks, the huge signature haul is nearly double the number needed to qualify for the November ballot … and testifies to consumers' desire to know what they are eating.
From now through May 26, a broad coalition of food, farm, health, public interest, and environmental groups all over the country, joined by leading organic food companies, will attempt to raise $1 million to support the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, a citizens' ballot initiative, and other state GMO-labeling campaigns.
The idea is to counter spending by biotech firms, which will certainly contribute millions of dollars to win the vote.
If the goal is reached by May 26, the campaign will receive a matching $1 million gift from Mercola.com, Nature's Path, Lundberg Family Farms, and Eden Foods.
Donations can be made via the Organic Consumers Fund, which accepts them by credit card, PayPal, mail, or phone.
Or, donate online directly to the California Right to Know Campaign.
All donations will support state GMO-labeling campaigns and their defense from lawsuits.
As goes California …
If California voters pass this law, the huge size of that state's food market could force a serious strengthening of the rather weak federal regulations governing genetically engineered foods.
California has the eighth largest economy in the world – and accounts for more food sales than other states – so passing this labeling law there can have the same practical impact as passing a federal law.
serves special interests
About 20 years ago, the FDA – with critical support from Congress – decided to deny consumers the right to know whether their food was genetically altered.
This regulation was spearheaded by Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lawyer who found a powerful spot in the FDA.
Taylor is far from the only ex-biotech or -agribusiness executive to land in a position of power within a federal agency.
Along with Congressional campaign contributions from big biotech and agribusiness, this revolving door between regulatory agencies and businesses helps explain why previous efforts to get genetically engineered foods regulated tightly and labeled appropriately have failed.
Food companies will not want to go to the expense and logistical difficulty of manufacturing and distributing two sets of products – one for California and another for the rest of the country – and would instead remove genetically engineered ingredients from their products.
However, removing all GM ingredients may not be easy, since the majority of corn and soy grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered, and that corn or soy is used in countless packaged and restaurant foods.
And that painful problem could lead major packaged-food firms and takeout chains to bring pressure on the big agribusinesses that grow most of the nation's corn and soy, forcing them to abandon GM versions of those crops altogether.
Talk about a “domino effect”!
This is why it's critical to match or exceed the huge war chest sure to be raised and spent by biotech firms, who will be desperate to stop the first domino from falling.
GM regulation: The motive behind the ballot
We support the ballot initiative, because consumers have the right to know.
And we've declined to carry GM foods for two reasons:
The inadequacy of U.S. regulations to confirm the safety of GM foods for people, livestock, and the environment.
The notably monopolistic, coercive, and generally obnoxious behavior of the big biotech firms that market GM crops and seeds.
We agree with these statements from the California Right to Know campaign:
We All Have a Right to Know What's in Our Food
Consumers have a right to know what's in the food we eat and feed our children, including whether food is genetically engineered. We all should be able to make informed choices, and have the ability to choose whether to buy genetically engineered food or not.
We Currently Eat Genetically Engineered Food, but We Don't Know It
A genetically engineered (GE) food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA artificially altered by genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria, in order to produce foreign compounds in that food. This type of genetic alteration is not found in nature.
Today, the majority of corn and soy grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered to produce pesticide resistance and/or withstand high doses of weed killer. This corn and soy is found in countless processed foods such as cereals, baby foods, breads, chips, and many other products.
Some of our most important staple food crops are being fundamentally altered, but without proper labeling, we have no way of knowing which ones. And the U.S. FDA is currently considering approving a GE salmon that has been altered to promote faster growth.
The Risk of Genetically Engineered Foods
Unlike the strict safety evaluations required for the approval of new drugs, the safety of genetically engineered foods for human consumption is not adequately tested. Studies show that genetically engineering food can create new, unintended toxicants and increase allergens and other health problems. Experts around the world agree that by labeling genetically engineered food, we can help identify any adverse health reactions that these foods may cause.
GM fear-mongering doesn't help
When it comes to genetically modified foods, the public debate often sheds more heat than light.
Sadly, that's true of some supporters of the campaign to place the “Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” on the California ballot.
For example, we agree with the view of biotech firms expressed by Ronnie Cummins, National Director of the Organic Consumers Association:
“For decades, they have controlled the world's food supply by buying off politicians and regulatory agencies, intimidating small farmers, manipulating the outcome of scientific studies, lying to consumers – and threatening to sue states like Vermont if they dare to pass a GMO labeling law.”
However, Ronnie is not correct when he says, “… scientists are clear: genetically engineered food has been linked to a wide range of health hazards, including kidney and liver damage, infertility, auto-immune disorders, allergies and autism, accelerated aging, and birth defects.”
That kind of statement misrepresents the evidence and can harm the credibility of more sober-minded critics.
Although some animal feeding studies show potentially adverse effects from certain GM foods, the available evidence does not suggest that all GM foods – which vary widely in their composition and means of creation – present a risk to animals or people.
In fact, as a panel appointed by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) reported in 2004, “All evidence evaluated to date indicates that unexpected and unintended compositional changes arise with all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering.”
By “all forms of genetic modification”, they meant to include conventional crop breeding.
The NRC panel concluded that the conventional breeding method described above – exposing seeds to gene-mutating radiation or chemicals – poses the greatest likelihood of unintended genetic effects ... greater than any GM technique (NRC 2004).
As we've noted, many of the crops planted by conventional and organic farmers were created by exposing seeds to gene-mutating radiation or chemicals – which creates thousands of random genetic mutations.
Crop breeders then select the resulting plants that display desirable traits.
If these crude, toxin-driven techniques sound much less precise compared with the gene-splicing methods used to make GM crops, that's because they are.
People aren't up in arms over foods crops created by conventional, toxin-driven plant breeding because they are unaware of these common methods, and don't know that the foods produced by them undergo no safety testing.
It's a pretty clear case of ignorance being bliss.
Many people fear GM crops because they don't understand the technology, don't know how the genetic changes induced by GM techniques compare to the far greater ones created by conventional breeding techniques, and are very aware of the secretive and often odious behavior of big biotech firms.
As we've noted, gene splicing usually changes a plant's genome much less than that far cruder technique, and others typically used to create new conventional and organic seed strains.
Readers who want to get a full picture of the GM food controversy would do well to read two books on the subject:
As these books and articles make clear, the devil lies in the details of specific GM technologies … and in the deplorable misuse of those technologies in pursuit of unfair, monopolistic power and profit, heedless of potential harm.
Bertoni G, Marsan PA. Safety risks for animals fed genetic modified (GM) plants. Vet Res Commun. 2005 Aug;29 Suppl 2:13-8. Review.
Celec P et al. Biological and Biomedical Aspects of Genetically Modified Food. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. 59.10 (Dec 2005): 531-40.
Ping-Jian D et al. The Definition, Source, Manifestation and Assessment of Unintended Effects in Genetically Modified Plants. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 88.14 (2008): 2401-2413.
Domingo JL, Giné Bordonaba J. A literature review on the safety assessment of genetically modified plants. Environ Int. 2011 May;37(4):734-42. Epub 2011 Feb 5. Review.
Domingo JL. Toxicity studies of genetically modified plants: a review of the published literature Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2007;47(8):721-33. Review.
Farre G, Twyman RM, Zhu C, Capell T, Christou P. Nutritionally enhanced crops and food security: scientific achievements versus political expediency. Curr Opin Biotechnol. 2011 Apr;22(2):245-51. Epub 2010 Nov 29. Review.
Goodman RE, Tetteh AO. Suggested improvements for the allergenicity assessment of genetically modified plants used in foods. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2011 Aug;11(4):317-24. Review.
Jones JD. Why genetically modified crops? Philos Transact A Math Phys Eng Sci. 2011 May 13;369(1942):1807-16. Review.
König A, Cockburn A, Crevel RW, Debruyne E, Grafstroem R, Hammerling U, Kimber I, Knudsen I, Kuiper HA, Peijnenburg AA, Penninks AH, Poulsen M, Schauzu M, Wal JM. Assessment of the safety of foods derived from genetically modified (GM) crops. Food Chem Toxicol. 2004 Jul;42(7):1047-88. Review.
Magaña-Gómez JA, de la Barca AM. Risk assessment of genetically modified crops for nutrition and health. Nutr Rev. 2009 Jan;67(1):1-16. Review.
National Research Council (NRC). Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (2004). Accessed at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10977&page=8
Sanvido O, Romeis J, Bigler F. Ecological impacts of genetically modified crops: ten years of field research and commercial cultivation. Adv Biochem Eng Biotechnol. 2007;107:235-78. Review.