The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
5 Things Monsanto Doesn't Want You to Know About the GMO Labeling Debate
Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made history when the federal agency approved the first genetically modified (GMO) animal for human consumption: AquaBounty Technologies' GMO salmon. The controversial move has since opened floodgates about the future of food.
Whatever side of the fence you're on about this fish—which has been genetically altered to grow to market size twice as fast as wild salmon—you'll have no idea you're eating it anyway. The FDA has not required the product to carry a label.
As the controversy of GMO labeling enters mainstream dialogue, this issue is quickly becoming a heated one. Here are the big five facts you need to know about the current standings of the debate:
1. The majority of the American public wants a label.
According to a new poll of 800 registered voters commissioned by a coalition of consumer and environmental groups—including Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports—nearly 90 percent of Americans want mandatory labeling on genetically modified foods.
This is compounded by Tuesday's New York Times editorial board in reaction to the FDA's approval of GMO salmon. In a significant reversal of opinion from the newspaper's 2013 editorial board, the board advocated for a label and stated, "consumers deserve to know what they are eating."
"The FDA said there is no reason to mandate labeling because there is no material difference between engineered and natural fish on qualities like nutritional content. But the value of that information should be left to consumers to decide," the board wrote.
Still, it seems consumer concern has fallen on the FDA's deaf ears. After the approval of the fish, the Center for Food Safety announced plans to sue the FDA and submitted a citizen petition requiring GMO foods be labeled. The FDA rejected the petition and stated, "While we appreciate consumer interest in the labeling of food derived from genetically engineered plants, consumer interest alone does not provide a sufficient basis to require labeling disclosing whether a food has been produced with or without the use of such genetic engineering."
2. Monsanto and Big Food are trying very hard to stop state-wide labeling.
Another hurdle in GMO labeling comes from the food industry itself. GMO food is nearly ubiquitous in American diets. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—the world's largest trade association for 300 major food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and ConAgra—says that GMOs have been around for the past 20 years, and today, 70-80 percent of foods in the U.S. contain ingredients that have been genetically modified.
Even though several states such as Vermont have passed laws requiring the labeling of GMOs, the GMA has spent millions and and heavily lobbied to block state labeling mandates. Their concern, basically, is that it will be too expensive and complicated for food companies to make a special label for Vermont but not for the other 49 states.
"A deep concern is that we'll end up with a patchwork quilt of state-by-state regulations where you'll end up in a place where you can't move a can of soup from one state to the other," Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant told CBS News in a new interview.
Grant also said that the cost of the labels would be passed onto the consumer: "The consumer is going to end up paying four or five hundred dollars more a year on their grocery bills."
No other company has been more intertwined with the GMO debate than Monsanto, the genetically modified seed giant and producer of Roundup, an herbicide that's sprayed on "Roundup Ready" crops all over the world.
Read page 1
Grant said that states' adoption of mandatory GMO labels results in "confusion" and "more expenses" rather than transparency. Instead, he favors federal labeling requirements that's similar to the labels you see on organic foods, CBS News reported.
3. A federal law could ban state labeling laws completely.
It’s unclear if we’ll will ever see labels for genetically altered food, period—not just for GMO salmon. The hotly contested Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, dubbed by opponents as the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act or DARK Act, currently languishes in the Senate.
The act, H.R. 1599, which passed the House of Representatives in July, bans states from issuing mandatory labeling laws for foods containing GMOs. The bill gives the FDA the authority to establish national standards and regulations for GMO food. The Department of Agriculture would be granted full discretion over the law’s implementation.
The unsaid deadline for the Senate version is sometime before July 2016, when Vermont's GMO labeling law takes effect. As EcoWatch reported exclusively in October, Big Food is already making some preparations in anticipation of Vermont's labeling law whether or not they are successful in blocking it.
Still, the New York Times editorial pointed out that "industry groups are pressing the Senate to attach similar language as a rider to an omnibus spending bill," but added that "the Senate should rebuff that tactic and allow states to adopt mandatory labeling laws if they wish."
4. What about QR codes?
Some politicians and food industry members have advocated for a QR code as a good alternative to GMO labeling. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that QR codes are a way to provide consumers with the information they’re asking for without signaling there is anything wrong with a product.
This idea however has been met with backlash from several consumer groups. “Not everyone has a smartphone or lives in an area with reliable Internet service,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. "And even for those who do, it’s inconvenient to have to scan every food you put into your grocery cart.”
A new national poll by the Mellman Group has these key findings:
- Almost nine in 10 (88 percent) would prefer a printed GMO label on the food package rather than use a smartphone app to scan a bar code.
- Just 17 percent say they have ever scanned a bar code to get information and only 16 percent say they have ever scanned a QR code.
- If bar codes were used, more than 80 percent say food companies should not be allowed to use the app to gather information about shoppers.
5. This GMO food fight isn't really about the labels.
By the year 2050, the Earth’s population will reach more than 9 billion people. With so many mouths to feed, the food industry argues that GMOs are the answer to global food security, since these plants have been spliced and diced to resist herbicides and pesticides and theoretically yield more crops.
But that's ignoring the fact that the two most widely planted crops in the U.S.—GMO corn and GMO soybeans—are constantly blanketed by chemicals. The U.S. Geological Survey found that farmers have sprayed 2.6 billion pounds of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide on U.S. agricultural land between 1992 and 2012. Not only that, Monsanto's Roundup has been linked to a whole spate of health problems and was infamously classified as "probably carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization’s France-based cancer research arm in March.
The health impacts of glyphosate is still maddeningly unsettled. Last month, the European Food Safety Authority rejected the IARC's classification of glyphosate as a possible carcinogen. Now, DW reports that nearly 100 scientists from around the world have published an open letter calling on the European Commission "to disregard the flawed EFSA finding on glyphosate," and for a "transparent, open and credible review of the scientific literature."
As for GMO animal products, while AquaBounty says that their fish safe to eat and the production of it would put less of a strain on wild and farmed salmon populations, there are a variety of other factors to consider. The FDA’s decision "disregards AquaBounty’s disastrous environmental record, which greatly raises the stakes for an environmentally damaging escape of GMO salmon," Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, wrote. "In recent years, AquaBounty facilities outside the U.S. have dealt with an accidental disease outbreak, an accident that lead to 'lost' salmon, and a $9,500 fine from Panamanian regulators who found the company in breach of that country’s environmental laws."
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Randi Spivak
Slashing two national monuments in Utah may have received the most attention, but Trump's Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America's public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber and livestock interests since the day he took office.
A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.
By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:
Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."
According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.
The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.
But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.
Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.
An Uncertain Future
The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.
Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.
There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.
Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).
Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.
One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).
Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."
Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.
The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.
The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."
Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.
Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr
Alternative Amazon Funding
Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.
In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.
Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."
Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."
Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.
Council of Hemispheric Affairs
Looming International Difficulties
The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.
In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.
But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."
The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."
Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.
Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.
Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY
Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
- Brazil's New President Could Spell Catastrophe for the Amazon ... ›
- Amazon Deforestation Increase Prompts Germany to Cut $39.5M in ... ›
Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.
Gina Lopez, a former Philippine environment secretary, philanthropist and eco-warrior, died on Aug. 19 from brain cancer. She was 65.
Thousands of union members at a multibillion dollar petrochemical plant outside of Pittsburgh were given a choice last week: Stand and wait for a speech by Donald Trump or take the day off without pay.
By Simon Mui
States across the country are stepping up to make clean cars cheaper and easier to find. Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) voted Friday to adopt a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program that will increase the availability of electric vehicles in the state, improve air quality and increase transportation affordability.