When it comes to GMOs, what’s in a label?

Are corporations afraid consumers will abandon GMOs if they know they're eating them? The Latitude News Op-Ed

R. Kiplin Pastor By R. Kiplin Pastor

The Latitude News Op-Ed column is a space where people from all walks of life can share their opinions on the links and parallels between the U.S. and the rest of the world. 

An environmentalist dressed as a giant eggplant demonstrates against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in Quezon City in Metro Manila in June 2012. (Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo)

Nowadays, Americans don’t agree on very much. They are divided on abortion, gun control and same sex marriage. But a recent ABC News poll suggests that 93 percent agree that food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be labeled.

But there are no GMO labels in the United States.

Now, California may become the first state to require labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients. On November 6th, voters will decide on Proposition 37 — the “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” — which would mandate listing GMO ingredients on food products. The proposition enjoys substantial support. More than 500,000 people signed a petition to put it on the ballot and, in March, more than one million people wrote to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) demanding the right to know what’s in our food. Seems like a slam-dunk at the ballot box, right?

Yet 19 state legislatures, including California, have failed to pass similar laws, and most politicians on both sides of the aisle throughout the country are quiet on the subject.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the top contributors against Prop 37 are GMO seed manufacturers — Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer and BASF — as well as the GMO food processors — Pepsico, Coke, Nestle and ConAgra. These companies have substantial political weight. The streak of defeats for GMO-related legislation is a testament to their heft and resolve.

President John F. Kennedy once said: “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” So why is everyone so afraid of identifying GMOs? What, after all, is a genetically modified or engineered organism?  Is a Cockapoo dog — a cross-breed between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle — a GMO? No. How about grafting two different trees together? Nope. Crossbreeding and hybridization bring together two closely related species. Scientists have been doing these procedures for centuries. Their benefits are proven.

Crossbreeding has been so successful in developing new and better crops that biotech firms took the technique a step further. Genetic modification combines genes from totally different species that were never crossbred — wheat genes injected into soybeans, for example. The World Health Organization defines a GMO as having altered DNA that doesn’t occur naturally. Sometimes, genes are transferred not just from another species, but from a whole different natural kingdom, such as fish cells injected into tomato cells, or genes that have been created in labs.

So what’s the big deal about putting a label on a box? GMO producers are afraid that if Americans know what’s in their food, they will stop eating it. And their fears may be justified. Roughly 80 percent of conventional processed foods in the U.S. contain GMOs. A CBS Poll found that 53 percent of Americans, if given a choice, would eschew foods that contain them.

Given that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of cotton, 88 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified, it’s easy to understand why opponents of Prop 37 have already raised more than $25 million to defeat it.

Fifty countries have banned or greatly restricted GMOs, including Brazil, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Japan, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. Although China is the world’s largest producer of GMO cotton, even there the government has curtailed imports of products containing GMOs — not only for food safety reasons but for fear of contaminating their own soils. Until long-term studies are done, China is backing off from GMOs in food production, as evinced by their recent rejection of GMO rice. Japan and South Korea now import most of their soybeans from China rather than the U.S. because Chinese soy is GMO-free.

The fight over Prop 37 is a microcosm of what’s right and what’s wrong with American democracy. What’s right: people are clamoring for more information, and they want to make their own choices on the food they eat. What’s wrong: $25 million dollars talks louder than a million people, and politicians need special-interest cash to get elected.

But there’s hope. In the United States, ordinary citizens are standing up for their beliefs and affecting change. JFK would be proud of our citizens and disgusted by our politicians and corporations. Whether or not you believe that GMOs are dangerous, labeling gives the consumer a choice, a choice that they overwhelmingly want. If companies fear that they’ll lose their customers with a new label, they might do a better job testing their products, and they might encourage — not seek to prevent — independent research to assess the long-term health implications of GMOs. The burden of proof is on them and also on the government. The FDA already requires labeling roughly 3,000 ingredients. Why not label synthetically created ingredients too?

The results in November are going to be closer than many expect. Right now, three times as many registered voters back Proposition 37 as oppose it, but the big corporate marketing machines are getting into full swing. Will corporate driven advertisements convince people to vote “no” on 37? Or will grass-roots efforts prevail? Will people have a chance to know what GMO means, or will they remain three confusing letters?

R. Kip Pastor is the producer, director and writer of “In Organic We Trust,” an international award-winning documentary on the meaning of the organic brand and solutions beyond the label. You can find the film’s website here. For the 93 percent of you who want to know whether GMO ingredients are in your food, check out The Center for Food Safety’s Shopper Guide or The Cornucopia Institute’s List of Brands.

If you are interested in contributing to the Latitude News Op-Ed, get in touch with us at contact@latitudenews.com.