Quantcast
Food

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.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
The turkey ranch in Sonora is where Diestel keeps its pasture-raised birds. Jeanne Cooper

Popular Diestel Turkey Sold at Whole Foods Tests Positive for FDA-Prohibited Drugs

Diestel Turkey, sold by Whole Foods and other retailers at premium prices, says on its website that its "animals are never given hormones, antibiotics or growth stimulants."

But Diestel Turkey samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest otherwise, leading consumers to wonder: Can these companies be trusted?

Keep reading... Show less

Slaughter of 90,000 Wild Horses Could Proceed Despite 80% Objection From American Public

The American Wild Horse Campaign on Thursday harshly criticized Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke's appointment of Brian Steed, the former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), as the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as dangerous and out of step with the wishes of the vast majority of Americans.

"Rep. Stewart is leading the charge to slaughter America's wild horses and burros over the opposition of 80 percent of Americans," said Suzanne Roy, AWHC Executive Director. "Putting his deputy at the helm of the agency charged with protecting these national icons is like putting the wolf in charge of the chicken coop."

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy

Bright Idea: This Lamp Harvests Its Own Energy From Plants

Now that's green energy. Dutch product designer Ermi van Oers and her team are working on the first atmospheric lamp powered by living plants.

The Living Light does not require an electric socket. It can harvest its own energy through the photosynthetic process of the encased plant, which means the potential of this off-grid light source could be "huge," as Van Oers told Dezeen.

Keep reading... Show less

Landmark Youth Climate Lawsuit Heads to Federal Appeals Court

There has been a significant development in the constitutional climate change lawsuit so far successfully prosecuted by 21 youth plaintiffs: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to hear oral argument over whether the Trump administration can evade trial currently set for Feb. 5, 2018. Oral arguments will be heard before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Dec. 11 and can be watched on a live stream beginning at 10 a.m. PST.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Martin Schulz / Flickr

Pope Francis: These 4 'Perverse Attitudes' Could Push Earth to Its Brink

Pope Francis issued a strong message to negotiators at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany on Thursday, warning them not to fall into "four perverse attitudes" regarding the future of the planet—"denial, indifference, resignation and trust in inadequate solutions."

Francis, who has long pressed for strong climate action and wrote his 2015 encyclical on the environment, renewed his "urgent call" for renewed dialogue "on how we are building the future of the planet."

Keep reading... Show less
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza sits near the Statoil contracted oil rig Transocean Spitsbergen. Greenpeacce

Groups Sue Norway Over Failure to Protect Environment for Future Generations

By David Leestma

Greenpeace and the Nature and Youth environmental group opened a lawsuit this week over Norway's failure to abide by its constitutional obligation to safeguard the environment for future generations.

The lawsuit, which focuses on local environmental damage and the contribution that oil extraction will make to climate change, challenges 10 licenses issued by the Norwegian government for exploration in the Barents Sea. Given to Statoil, Chevron and other oil companies, the licenses violate Norway's constitution and the Paris agreement, according to the plaintiffs. Government lawyers claim the case is a publicity stunt that risks valuable jobs.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Lia Heifetz of Barnacle Foods hauls kelp for salsa. Bethany Sonsini Goodrich

A Plea for Kelp: These Farmers and Chefs Want to Make Seaweed the Next Superfood

By Sarah Bedolfe

Summer in southeast Alaska is kelp season for the cofounders of Barnacle Foods, Lia Heifetz and Matt Kern. Each week, the pair watches the tides and weather, waiting for the right moment to cruise out to the abundant kelp beds offshore. They lean over the side of the boat and pull up the fronds and stalks, one piece at a time. As soon as they get back to shore, they start processing the day's harvest into a local delicacy: kelp salsa.

Salsa and Alaskan algae might seem like odd bedfellows, but for Barnacle Foods, it's a calculated decision. The kelp's savory notes make the salsa's flavor "a little more explosive," according to Kern. And the pairing is also a practical one. "Salsa is such a familiar food item," Heifetz said. It's "a gateway to getting more people to eat seaweed."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Lorie Shaull / Flickr

Massive Pipeline Leak Shows Why Nebraska Should Reject Keystone XL

About 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of oil leaked Thursday from TransCanada's Keystone oil pipeline near Amherst, South Dakota, drawing fierce outcry from pipeline opponents.

The leak, the largest spill to date in South Dakota, comes just days before Nebraska regulators decide on whether its controversial sister project—the Keystone XL (KXL) Pipeline—will go forward.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!