By Ed Yowell, Slow Food USA Regional Governor, NY, NJ, CT
GMO foods are a source of continuing controversy about long-term effects on humans, wildlife, and our food chain. GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), GE (Genetically Engineered), GM (Genetically Modified), or “transgenic” foods are meats and plants that are changed through genetic engineering.
Although we have genetically modified animals and plants for thousands of years, we did it through selective breeding over decades and even centuries. Now, technology enables the transfer of genetic material from one organism to another to create different, theoretically desirable, variations.
According to the February 12, 2012 New York Times article, “Modified Crops Tap a Wellspring of Protest,” by Julia Moskin, “…about 90 percent of all soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets raised in the United States were grown from…transgenic seed. Most processed foods (staples like breakfast cereal, granola bars, chicken nuggets and salad dressing) contain one or more transgenic ingredients according to estimates from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, though the labels don’t reveal that. (Some, like tortilla chips, can contain dozens.) Common ingredients like corn, vegetable oil, maltodextrin, soy protein, lecithin, monosodium glutamate, cornstarch, yeast extract, sugar and corn syrup are almost always produced from transgenic crops.”
Moskin continues, “…consumer resistance to transgenic food remains high. In a nationwide telephone poll conducted in October 2010 by Thomson Reuters and National Public Radio, 93 percent said if a food has been genetically engineered or has genetically engineered ingredients, it should say so on its label — a number that has been consistent since genetically modified crops were introduced. F.D.A. guidelines say that food that contains genetically modified organisms, or GMO’s, don’t have to say so and can still be labeled ‘all natural’.”
The GMO Food Fight in DC
The House of Representatives FY 2013 Agriculture Appropriations Bill almost contained a rider (Section 733), innocently and strangely, entitled the “farmer assurance provision.” According to the Center for Food Safety, if adopted, the rider would have stripped “federal courts of the authority to halt the sale and planting of illegal, potentially hazardous genetically engineered (GE) crops while the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) assesses potential hazards. It also would inexplicably force USDA to allow continued planting of a GE crop even if a court of law identifies previously unrecognized risks. In addition, Section 733 (would) target vital judiciary oversight over USDA approvals by barring courts from compelling USDA to take action against agriculture policies that may harm farmers and the environment.”
While Section 733, called the “Monsanto Rider” by some, did not make it into the Ag Appropriations Bill, similar provisions were included in the 2012 Food and Farm Bill, which was not debated nor adopted by the House of Representatives.
According to Colin O’Neill, of the Center for Food Safety, “…these (biotech industry-friendly) riders have the potential to completely eliminate the critical role played by our most important environmental laws. They unreasonably pressure USDA with impossible deadlines for analysis and decision, while at the same time withhold funds to conduct necessary environmental reviews and limit the regulatory authority of other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These riders create multiple backdoor approval mechanisms that would allow for the premature commercialization of untested biotech traits to enter our food system. Insulated from pushback, the industry riders also force USDA to adopt a controversial policy that would for the first time set allowable levels of GE contamination in crops and foods. It’s an unprecedented and dangerous path that is being carved out.”
The GMO Food Fight in CA
In November, 2012, California voters had the opportunity to vote on mandatory GMO food labeling. In an August 22, 2012 Forbes article, “Monsanto, DuPont Spending Millions to Oppose California’s GMO Labeling Law,” Amy Westervelt writes, “(Proposition 37)…could have broad implications for food producers throughout the country: whether or not to require labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. Other states have tried to pass similar measures and failed, but California is taking the issue directly to voters, who have largely been in favor of labeling. Prior to the vote, the supporters of Proposition 37 were polling far ahead of the opposition…but that doesn’t mean the vote is all sewn up.”
Westervelt’s premonition was correct. Despite seemingly overwhelming popular support, Proposition 37 was narrowly defeated.
A group called the “No on 37: Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme,” was formed to stop the measure. The group’s major donors of the $25 million effort included Monsanto, DuPont and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing the interests of PepsiCo, General Mills, and Kellogg and several other large food and beverage companies.
According to the Forbes article, “The primary arguments against Prop 37…(were) that it would cost food producers money – both to re-label products and in the form of lost business due to customers who are scared off by the label – and thus raise food prices for consumers, and that it could lead to frivolous lawsuits.”
Monsanto Rides Again
While the “Monsanto Rider” did not prevail, as many opponents anticipated, it didn’t go away. On March 21, the House adopted the Senate-passed appropriations continuing resolution (CR), which will fund federal programs through the end of the federal 2013 fiscal year.
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), despite efforts to the contrary led by Senators Jon Tester (D-MI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), in addition to other regressive agricultural policy roll-backs, “The bill… (included) a… rider benefiting the biotech industry and undermining judicial review of transgenic (GMO) crops. The rider permits USDA to deregulate genetically modified crops even in the case of a court ruling invalidating or vacating such a deregulation. This is a clear violation of the separation of powers and judicial review. Conventional (non-biotech) and organic farmers have suffered economic losses due to contamination from biotechnology products, and this policy rider likely makes that situation worse in the future.”
It is expected that Congress will get back to the Food and Farm Bill in April or May 2013. Marker Bills and platforms, pointing the way to a 2013 Food and Farm Bill process, are being written and revived. There will be opportunity for us to demand that the “Monsanto Rider” does not ride again, thereby retaining federal courts’ authority to halt the sale or planting of biotechnology products that have not been reviewed adequately for environmental and economic impact.