GMOs: Ban Them or Label Them?

Since the controversial introduction in the mid-nineties of genetically engineered (GE) food and crops, and the subsequent fast-tracking of those crops by the federal government—with no independent safety-testing or labeling required—there has been a lively debate among activists, both inside and outside the U.S., about how to drive these unhealthy and environmentally destructive “Frankenfoods” off the market. 

Some campaigners have called for an outright ban of GE crops. In fact, several dozen nations, thousands of local governments in the EU and six counties in the U.S. (in California, Washington and Hawaii) have created GMO-free zones by passing bans.

But food labeling alone cannot protect the environment, or non-GMO and organic farmers from GE drift and seed contamination. This is why county and regional bans on GMO cultivation and the creation of regional GMO-free zones are important.

Other activists argue that strict mandatory labeling laws, similar to those in the EU, are all we need in order to rid the world of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Activists in this camp point out that very few products in countries that have mandatory GMO labeling laws contain GMOs, because once companies are required to label GMO ingredients, they reformulate their products to be GMO-free, rather than risk rejection by consumers. 

Who’s right? 

A review of two decades of anti-GMO campaigning in North America and Europe suggests that mandatory labeling and bans, or GMO-free zones, should be seen as complementary, rather than contradictory. And recent news about increased contamination of non-GMO crops by the growing number of USDA-approved GMO crops suggests that if we don’t implement labeling laws and bans sooner rather than later, we may run out of time to preserve organic and non-GMO farmers and their fields. 

Bans and Mandatory Labeling Laws: Lessons from the EU

In the EU in the late-1990s, in what was the largest agricultural market in the world, anti-GMO campaigners, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, at first tried to establish a sweeping production and import ban on all GMOs. They were unsuccessful, largely because politicians and bureaucrats argued that an outright ban of GMOs in the EU would violate World Trade Organization agreements and bring on serious economic retaliation from the U.S. government. 

Leading consumer, environmental and farm groups pushing for a ban were successful, however, in forcing EU authorities to adopt significant GMO safety-testing regulations. All GMOs, under EU law, are considered "novel foods" and are subject to extensive, case-by-case, science-based food evaluation by European regulatory officials. These regulations, much to the chagrin of Monsanto and the Gene Giants, have kept most GMOs, with the exception of animal feeds, out of the country. 

EU regulations also permit member nations to establish GMO-free zones. As of 2012 there are 169 regions and 4,713 municipalities that have declared themselves GMO-free zones in the EU. In addition to these GMO-free zones in the EU, at least 26 nations, including Switzerland, Australia, Austria, China, India, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Italy, Mexico and Russia have banned GMOs entirely. Significant labeling and safety-testing procedures on GMOs have been put in place in approximately 60 countries

Mandatory Labeling in the EU: The Crucial Blow to GMOs 

Although EU grassroots forces failed to gain a continent-wide ban on the cultivation or import of GMOs, they were successful in pushing authorities to impose mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered foods, feeds and food ingredients in 1997. This, combined with strict pre-market safety-testing regulations, has marginalized or eliminated GMOs throughout the EU.

EU foods derived from animals raised on GMO feed, however—meat, eggs and dairy products—do not have to be labeled in the EU. As a consequence, billions of dollars of GMO-tainted animal feeds, including corn, soybeans and canola, continue to be imported every year into the EU from the U.S., Canada, Brazil and Argentina. EU activists, in Germany and elsewhere, have now begun campaigning to eliminate this strategic loophole.

As the EU’s GMO food labeling law came into effect in 1997-98, activists switched gears, successfully pressuring many large supermarket chains, including Carrefour, Co-Op, Tesco, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, and food manufacturers, including Unilever and Nestlé, to pledge to remain GMO-free. Feeling the heat from grassroots campaigners and realizing that mandatory GMO labeling would be the “kiss of death” for their brand-name products and their reputations, every major EU supermarket, food manufacturing and restaurant chain, including U.S.-based multinationals such as General Mills, Kellogg’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Walmart, eliminated GMOs from their supply chains. As a consequence almost no GMO-derived foods, with the exception of meat and animal products, have been sold in EU retail stores or restaurants from 1997 until now.

With no real market for GMOs, EU farmers have refused to grow them. EU activists point out that if meat, eggs and dairy products derived from animals fed GMO grains had to be labeled, there would be no GMOs in Europe. Period. 

Frankenfoods Fight Heats Up in the U.S.

In the U.S., the battle against GE foods and crops has been markedly more difficult. Since 1994, government regulatory agencies have refused to require labels on GMOs, or to require independent safety testing beyond the obviously biased research carried out by Monsanto and other genetic engineering companies themselves.

Despite government and industry opposition, and limited funding, a growing number of pro-organic and anti-GMO campaigners carried out a variety of public education, marketplace pressure and boycotts between 1994 and 2012 designed to either ban or label GMOs. Although GMO labeling bills, which according to numerous polls are supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans, were introduced in Congress over and over again during the past two decades, none have gathered more than nominal support from lawmakers And media coverage, at least until the California GMO labeling ballot initiative in 2012 (Proposition 37) and the Washington State ballot initiative in 2013 (I-522), has been generally sparse, with reporters routinely spouting industry propaganda that GMOs are safe, environmentally sustainable and necessary to feed a growing global population. 

But the tide is beginning to turn. More farmers are rejecting GMO seeds, more consumers are demanding non-GMO foods, or at the least, labels on GMO foods. And the media is beginning to give the anti-GMO movement if not its fair share, at least substantially more ink than we’ve seen in decades.

Farmers Sound the Alarm about GMO Contamination

Between 1994-2012, the number of acres in the U.S. planted in GMO crops has grown significantly. Today, 169 million acres—almost half of all cultivated U.S. farmlands—are now growing GMO crops. 

But despite the proliferation of GMO crops, we’re now seeing increased demand for non-GMO seeds. This is partly because farmers are growing frustrated with having to buy more and more pesticides and herbicides for GMO crops, as weeds and pests grow increasingly resistant to products like Monsanto’s Roundup.

But it’s also because organic and non-GMO farmers are speaking out about contamination of their crops by nearby GMO crops. Just this week, a new survey published by Food & Water Watch revealed that a third of U.S. organic farmers report problems with contamination from nearby GMO crops, and over half of the farmers surveyed said they’ve had grain shipments rejected because of contamination. 

Consumers Demand non-GMO

Increasing demand for non-GMO crops also stems from consumers’ heightened concerns about health, which in turn is increasing demand for non-GMO and organic crops and foods. The turning point in the anti-GMO Movement in the U.S. came in 2012-13 when organic and anti-GE organizations, led by the Organic Consumers Association, Food Democracy Now, Center for Food Safety, Alliance for Natural Health and others, joined by a number of organic and natural health companies including Mercola.com, Dr. Bronner’s Soaps, Nature’s Path, Lundberg Family Farms, Natural News and Nutiva, decided to bypass the federal government and launch high-profile, multi-million dollar state ballot initiative campaigns for mandatory labeling of GMOs in California and Washington State

Although anti-GMO campaigners narrowly lost 51-49 percent in both states, large genetic engineering and food corporations were forced to spend more than $70 million ($12 million of which was illegally laundered by the Grocery Manufacturers Association in Washington). In addition Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) members, most of whom are high-profile food manufacturers, seriously damaged their brands and reputations by carrying out a misleading, dirty tricks advertising campaign that flooded the airwaves in California and Washington and antagonized millions of consumers—many of whom began boycotting their products and assailing their Facebook pages.

By 2012, thanks to the massive media coverage of the California GMO labeling initiative, organic foods and products reached $35 billion in sales, representing almost 5 percent of all grocery store sales, with non-GMO “natural” food sales reaching another $15 billion.

This growth in sales has not gone unnoticed by food manufacturers and retailers. Although 75-80 percent of all non-organic processed foods contain GMOs, General Mills, Kraft General Foods, Chipotle, Ben and Jerry’s and Whole Foods Market, responding to public concern and marketplace pressure, are now moving to eliminate GMOs from some or all of their brand name products.

Push for GMO Labeling Laws Continues

In the meantime, grassroots activists continue to push for mandatory labeling laws. In 2012-13, they lobbied legislators in 30 states, achieving partial success in Maine and Connecticut. In 2014 Vermont, Oregon and several others states appear poised to pass GMO labeling laws, while voters in five Oregon and California counties will attempt to pass GMO bans.

Frantically trying to head off the inevitable, the GMA and a powerful coalition of genetic engineering, industrial agriculture, restaurant, supermarket and junk food manufacturers have begun lobbying Congress to take away states’ rights to pass laws requiring GMO food labels. The GMA has also lobbied the FDA and Congress to allow the obviously fraudulent, though routine, industry practice of labeling or marketing GE-tainted foods as “natural.”

At the state level the GE Lobby, Big Food and the Farm Bureau are sponsoring bills to take away the right of counties and municipalities to pass laws banning GMOs or restricting hazardous industrial agriculture practices. 

On the international front, genetic engineering, pharmaceutical and Big Food companies are attempting to subvert GMO labels or bans by “fast-tracking,” with no public input or discussion, transnational trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA). These so-called Free Trade agreements would allow multinational corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer and Dupont to sue local, state or even national governments that interfere with their profits, by passing laws regulating or banning GMOs or other controversial agricultural practices.

Although these profoundly pro-corporate and anti-consumer and anti-environmental trade agreements in theory can stop GMO labeling laws and bans from coming into effect, in political terms they are perceived by the majority of the body politic and even many state and local officials as highly authoritarian and anti-democratic. Similarly TPP and TAFTA are correctly perceived by many national political, environmental and labor leaders as undermining national sovereignty, sustainability and economic justice.

Why Both Labeling and Bans Are Necessary

Once GMOs foods are labeled, informed consumers will move to protect themselves and their families by not buying them. Once enough consumers shun GMO-tainted and labeled foods, stores will stop selling them and food manufacturers will stop putting GMO food ingredients in their products. However as the EU experience shows, labeling must eventually be comprehensive, with a requirement for meat, eggs and dairy products to be labeled if the animals have been fed GMO feed.

But food labeling alone cannot protect the environment, or non-GMO and organic farmers from GE drift and seed contamination. This is why county and regional bans on GMO cultivation and the creation of regional GMO-free zones are important. More than 80 percent of farmers surveyed by Food & Water Watch said they were “concerned” about contamination, while 60 percent said they were “very concerned.” Farmers said a lax U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been excessively influenced by the biotech industry. 

The Food & Water Watch report comes just as the USDA has extended its public comment period on “coexistence” between GMO and non-GMO agriculture.

In the U.S. the largest food fight in history will soon intensify. Throwing gasoline on the fire, GE companies are arrogantly and foolhardily attempting to introduce genetically engineered fish, apples and “Agent Orange” (2,4 D) herbicide-resistant corn and soy on the market, just at the time when human health and environmental concerns are escalating. These new Frankenfoods and crops will survive in the marketplace only if there are no mandatory labeling laws and no legitimate safety testing. 

But this “no labels” scenario is unlikely to continue. State legislative battles in Vermont, Oregon and other states will likely reach critical mass in 2014, forcing industry and the federal government to finally adopt EU-type regulations and practices on GMOs. Once labeling is in place (including labels on meat, fish dairy, and eggs) genetic engineering companies, led by Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, Syngenta, Bayer and BASF will have no choice but to abandon GMOs and gene-splicing, in favor of less controversial hybrid seed/cross-breeding practices (which do not require labels) such as “marker assisted breeding.”

If industry and government on the other hand dig in their heels, stomping on consumer, state, municipal and community rights, telling us to “shut up and eat your Frankenfoods,” America’s food revolution may turn into a full-scale rebellion. 

Visit EcoWatch’s GE FOOD page for more related news on this topic.

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