Next week our country will elect a president. But there are important issues to vote on as well. Californians will vote on an issue that affects us all: food labeling laws. Proposition 37 on the California ballot would require food companies to identify whether or not their food products contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A GMO is an experimental plant or animal that has been genetically engineered in a laboratory with DNA of other plants, animals, bacteria and viruses.
Major GM—or genetically engineered (GE)—crops include corn, soy, and cotton. Over 90 percent of soy and 85 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered. Monsanto, the company that was historically a leading manufacturer of controversial products like the pesticide DDT and the defoliant Agent Orange, is now perhaps best known for their blockbuster pesticide Roundup and GE crops.
Monsanto’s GE crops, known as Roundup Ready crops, have been genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup.
A road trip through the Midwest reveals mile after mile of fields with corn waving gently in the summer breeze, lulling us into a false sense of security.
It appears that there is enough food to feed the world—except this GM corn isn’t edible unless you’re a cow. The only way a human can eat this corn is to first process it beyond recognition. Once made into corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), GM corn is consumed under the disguise of soda, candy, ketchup, crackers and much more. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to avoid food made with this highly processed GM corn.
Meanwhile, companies like Monsanto and DuPont, the leading sellers of GE seed, claim that there is no significant difference between GMO and non-GMOs. However, Monsanto and its allies contradict themselves. On one hand they persuaded the FDA to stamp GM crops as “substantially equivalent,” while on the other hand saying GMOs deserved patent protection. That was 1992. Since then, GM crops or foods that contain GMOs have not been identified on food labels. Interestingly, more than 60 other countries require labeling of GM food, including those in the European Union, Russia, and Japan. Even China does it.
A lack of political leadership on the issue of GMO labeling has motivated concerned Americans to seek an alternative food economy in the organic and local food movement. With more than 7,800 farmers’ markets across America, there is a growing appreciation for something our grandparents and great-grandparents took for granted: food that doesn’t hide behind its label.
At farmers’ markets, consumers can actually talk to the men and women who produce their food. They can inquire about pesticide application, sustainable farming practices, and GM crops and ingredients. It’s called transparency. The food industry’s idea of transparency takes another form. Monsanto boasts that GM crops will combat climate change and solve world hunger. Without nourishment, however, food merely fills the belly—if that.
And if GMO crops and food products are “substantially equivalent” to their traditional counterpart, then why do the companies and organizations responsible for growing, producing, and distributing them fight Prop 37? Perhaps it’s because they know that consumers would choose non-GMOs—given the choice. Whatever the reason, Monsanto, DuPont, Grocery Manufacturers Association, PepsiCo, Nestle, Coca-Cola and General Mills have spent millions fighting this potential labeling law. Undoubtedly, these companies understand that to change food labels in California translates to changing labels for all their GM food products, regardless of shipping destination.
Meantime, 89 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats favor GMO labeling. Obviously, there is bi-partisan support for GMO labeling. But so far, Monsanto lobbyists have won out.
What we eat should be based upon which products pose less risk to consumer health—not a company’s bottom line. While eating GMOs don’t offer any health benefits, the jury is still out when it comes to their potential risk. We just don’t know what the long-term effects will be. But even the FDA’s own scientists objected back in 1992 to GM crops being granted an equivalency status with non-GMOs.
It is time to stop making consumers the guinea pigs when it comes to GM foods. If Proposition 37 passes on November 6, it will mark the beginning of a national food discussion that politicians will finally have to stop ignoring. Californians have the opportunity to speak for America and demand what ought to be a basic consumer right: to know what’s in the food we eat.