GMO Labeling: Nation's 'Biggest Food Fight' Hits DC
[Editor's note: Since the posting of this article this morning, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) filed legislation in Congress today to prevent states from giving their citizens the right to know whether the food they buy was made with genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs.]
Food products containing genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) are labeled in 64 countries all around the world, including Japan, China, Russia, Australia and the European Union. In many countries, consumers' right to know what they're eating is uncontroversial.
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Not so in the U.S. While a vast majority of American consumers would like this information, industrial-scale food companies and chemical companies like Monsanto and DuPont that developed GMO crops and the pesticides and herbicides they're engineered to resist don't think they need it. While three states—Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island—have passed GMO labeling laws, ballot issues in California, Colorado and Oregon have gone down to defeat, thanks to massive spending by Monsanto, DuPont and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the corporate food business.
Now the battle has shifted to the national level, where the corporations that benefit from GMOs are pushing for the so-called DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act, introduced by Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, which would preempt states from setting up their own GMO labeling systems and bar them from defining "natural" foods as free from GMOs. Food safety advocates and consumer groups are fighting back, supporting a national mandatory labeling bill called the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, re-introduced in February by a group of congressional Democrats.
This morning, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on a national GMO labeling law. Following the hearing, Tom Colicchio, cofounder of Food Policy Action, Just Label It chairman Gary Hirshberg, Environmental Working Group (EWG) president Ken Cook and EWG vice president of governmental affairs Scott Faber held a teleconference to offer their thoughts on the bills, on GMO labeling in general and on the hearing, which Faber called "probably the most biased and unbalanced hearing in history of Congress."
Colicchio rebutted one of the main arguments made by the companies battling against labeling: that it would dramatically increase food costs.
"The opposition would suggest that costs to consumers will skyrocket," he said. "Manufacturers change labels all the time. Also the idea that we have to create a whole new system to track food—that’s already in place. A lot of this is scare tactics to get people to think prices will go through the roof and we don’t see that."
Cook pointed out that it's something people overwhelmingly want—as many as 90 percent, according to one poll.
"More than 1.4 million responded to a petition to label genetically engineered ingredients," he said. "We’re seeing more and more state action. Seventy bills were proposed in 30 states in last two years. The food companies are coming to Washington for a big government solution because of a consumer uprising that caught them off guard. This is designed for one reason and one reason alone—to extinguish this consumer uprising that these companies thought would never happen in the U.S. They thought [GMO labeling] was a European phenomenon."
There's been a push by GMO supporters to declare their safety for consumption a "settled" issue and compare those questioning it to climate deniers, despite the lack of solid evidence either way. Science Guy Bill Nye earned a flurry of attention recently when he appeared to walk back on his skepticism about safety claims following a meeting with Monsanto.
But Hirshberg pointed out that even if that debate WERE settled in favor of GMOs, there's still a big problem.
"There have been all kinds of exaggerations on both sides of the labeling debate—what I think we can call the biggest food fight in America," he said. "But one fact that is not in dispute is that genetically engineered foods have led to enormous increases in herbicide use because crops are engineered to be tolerant of herbicides. In many cases farmers become dependent on an herbicide spiral and more resistant weeds, leading to stronger chemicals."
He cited a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study that found the herbicide glyphosate, sold by Monsanto as Roundup which its "Roundup Ready" crops are engineered to resist, is found in most of the water sources in the Midwest.
"Higher yields [a commonly cited benefit of GMO crops] may come to pass, but 90 percent are engineered to tolerate more chemicals," he said. "So it's no surprise that companies selling these are chemical companies. We’ve been told since 1996, since the first herbicide-tolerant corn was introduced, that glyphosate is safe but as of Friday, we now know that what scientists have been saying for some time: the World Health Organization (WHO) has said glyphosate is probably a carcinogen. And it's in our rainwater, streams and air."
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Hirshberg said he believed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the power now to require GMO labeling, which the DARK Act would block, and brushed aside another common industry claim, that labeling would be equivalent to telling consumers to avoid a product, pointing out that orange juices made from concentrate must be labeled and it's only considered a point of information, not a warning.
"This is economic tyranny being exercised by companies that want to protect status quo," he said. 'The fastest growing segment of the marketplace is organic and non-GMO. Mandatory labeling gives consumers choices. The bill [the DARK Act] is really diabolical and it’s really deceptive. It’s made to look like the sponsors support transparency but it really prevents it. This is really about selling pesticides and herbicides."
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Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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