The Right to Know Where Food Comes From
Starting today, thousands of Americans will march in protest from New York City all the way to Washington D.C. to demand clear, honest labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients.
Genetically modified foods are subject to disclosure and labeling requirements in many countries, but currently, United States law does not require food producers to label genetically modified foods sold to consumers as genetically modified. The only way for consumers who prefer not to eat genetically modified foods to avoid GMOs is to buy produce only from farmers they know, carefully research the origins of the food they purchase, or limit themselves to buying only food that either been certified by the USDA as organic or has been voluntarily labeled by its manufacturer and certified by a third party as non-GMO.
The organizers of the Right 2 Know March hope to change that. In 2010, October was declared Non-GMO Awareness Month by the Non-GMO Project, and this year, from October 1st through October 16th, protesters will march through several cities across the northeast, stopping at key points along the way to hold local rallies with guest speakers. Their goal? To convince the U.S. government to listen to the strong majority of Americans — 89% according to a recent New York Times poll — who want foods that contain genetically modified ingredients labeled.
Food Safety Concerns and Genetically Modified Foods
The creators of genetically modified crops insist that there is no need to label genetically engineered foods because, they claim, GMO foods are just as safe as traditional crops. Monsanto, the biotech giant responsible for the creation of genetically modified Roundup-Ready soybeans and corn, claims on its “food safety” page, “Yes, food derived from authorized genetically-modified (GM) crops is as safe as conventional (non-GM-derived) food.”
But the truth is, genetically modified foods have not been tested in long-term clinical studies on humans. And GM plants do produce substances not contained in the original, non-GMO plants. Some GM crops, like Bt corn, have been engineered to produce insect-killing pesticides inside the plant. Though Bt, a natural pesticide derived from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, has long been considered safe for humans when applied to the outside of crops (where it can presumably be washed off), scientists have not studied the long term effects of eating genetically modified corn with Bt proteins on the inside.
Two weeks ago on the MOMocrats.com Blog Talk Radio show, I interviewed a Right 2 Know March speaker, registered dietician and author Ashley Koff, who shared some of her professional knowledge about the safety of genetically modified foods. “Anyone can speculate whether or not they want to eat a plant that already has pesticides in its genetic makeup,” says Koff, but in her work as a dietician, Koff advises her clients to avoid genetically modified foods. Which, according to Koff, is becoming more and more difficult: “About 95 to 97 percent of soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified,” she says. And more than 70 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is also GMO. With this much unlabeled genetically modified food on the market, it’s nearly impossible for the average American to entirely avoid eating GM foods.
The Environmental Impact of GMOs
Beyond food safety concerns, many environmentalists worry about the potential ecological effects of genetically modified crops. Genetically modified crops have been shown to cross-breed with related wild plants, spreading modified genes through the ecosystem; overuse of Monsanto’s RoundUp, also known as glyphosate, the herbicide RoundUp Ready corn and soy were created to work in synergy with, has caused the evolution of glyphosate-resistant superweeds.
The use of patented, genetically modified food crops also promotes an extreme form of monoculture — the practice of growing vast swaths of nearly genetically identical plants again and again in the same place. Monoculture threatens ecosystems by sharply decreasing a region’s natural biodiversity and removing natural food sources for important crop pollinators like butterflies and bees; it also makes farmers highly susceptible to enormous losses in the event their crops are attacked by a new form of pest or disease.
In fact, the infamous Irish potato famine of the 1840s was caused in large part by widespread adoption of monoculture. At the time, farmers across Ireland overwhelming planted their fields with a single, popular variety of potato — in fact, nearly all the potatoes grown in Ireland in the 1840s were clones of a single original plant. When a new form of potato blight arrived in the country that Irish potatoes had no natural resistance to, the entire nation’s crop was destroyed, and no resistant varieties were readily available to replace it.
Industrial farmers in the United States seem to have forgotten this harsh history lesson.
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Photo of edamame by Kanko, from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license.