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Genetically Engineered Food Labeling

Genetically Engineered Food Labeling

How do you know if the food you are eating is genetically engineered? The tomatoes in your salad and the oil in your frying pan are both at risk. Even your soft drink could contain genetically engineered corn syrup. Without labels to tell you if a product is genetically engineered or has genetically engineered ingredients, you simply don’t know what you’re eating.

A great amount of attention has been paid to the issue of labeling because your right to know is at stake. At the heart of the labeling debate is the struggle between a corporation’s right to “commercial speech” and citizens’ fundamental right to know what they are buying and eating.

The decision to allow the public to consumer unlabeled genetically engineered food strikes some people as grossly undemocratic and slanted too far in favor of corporate interests. Should our society allow the purported commercial rights of a corporation to supersede the citizen’s right to make informed decisions in the marketplace?

The responsibility (and liability, when health/environmental problems occur) to prove safety should rest with the agribusiness giants who create genetically engineered food. Instead, we are in the unenviable position of having an untested technology thrust upon us, and we have to take the responsibility to prove safety ourselves. The public should not have to bear this burden or the cost of safety and environmental testing, especially since we never asked for the technology in the first place and do not benefit from it in any way.

Overview of some of the issues

  • Currently, the FDA does not require growers, food manufacturers, or seed sellers to label their products as genetically engineered. It is a purely voluntary system for which, as you can imagine, there have been few takers. Agribusiness corporations know from public opinion polls that demand for genetically engineered food is low and that demand for labels is high. Labeling could translate into commercial failure for genetically engineered foods – precisely the reason that biotechnology companies and agribusiness giants are trying to keep labels off their genetically engineered food products.
  • Because of horizontal gene transfer, organic fields can become contaminated by genetically engineered pollen from nearby fields. Such contamination can occur via the wind, from pollen stuck to bees, or even when neighbor farmers share equipment. Because of this contamination, even a farmer who uses organic seed and follows organic standards perfectly can still be unwittingly growing and selling genetically modified crops. Only expensive, sophisticated tests can reveal the contaminant DNA.
  • Food producers often use soybeans or corn from many different sources and growers. In the United States, genetically engineered crops have not been segregated from normal crops, and therefore many food producers cannot tell consumers or grocery stores if their product contains genetically engineered ingredients.

rBGH-free Labels
As it stands now, dairy producers can label their products as “rBGH-free” but the FDA requires that they also print a qualifier, which weakens the “rBGH-free” label and continues to be a source of controversy. For example, the Ben & Jerry’s label reads:

“We oppose Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. The family farmer’s who supply our milk and cream pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH. The FDA has said no significant difference has been shown and no test can now distinguish between milk fro rBGH treated and untreated cows.”

The Industry’s View
The multibillion-dollar, multinational leaders of the agribusiness industry attempt to defend their anticonsumer, antilabeling stance by claiming that the costs of labeling are too high. Sometimes industry supporters argue that consumers are just hysterical and ill informed. On the contrary, some of biotech’s biggest critics include molecular geneticists, cell biologists, lawyers, doctors, consumer groups, and farmers.

Substantial Equivalence
One of the ways in which the FDA and other regulatory agencies evade labeling is by applying the principle of substantial equivalence to genetically engineered food. The industry has declared that genetically engineered food is “substantially equivalent” to normal food.

Voluntary Labels
The FDA has reluctantly permitted voluntary genfood labeling since 1992. A few companies have opted to label their foods—mostly organic growers or those in the health food industry—but the policy is ineffective for regulating genetically engineered food products because the vast amount of food sold in the United States does not have its genfood content labeled.

A voluntary food-labeling policy is a mild first step, permitting companies to provide information that their customers want. But a voluntary system creates an inequitable food-production system. One party, such as a seed seller, may label its seeds, but until there is an equitable system, information about genetically engineered seeds may never reach growers, processors, sellers, or consumers. Until all parties at ever stage of food production are informed, voluntary labels remain grossly inadequate.

Organic Food is the Best Choice
Eating organically grown foods is currently the best way to avoid genfood. This option is not foolproof, however: Even organic growers and backyard gardeners can be duped into buying genetically engineered seeds because many seed packages are not well labeled either. In fact, in Monsanto’s current New Leaf Product Guide and Seed directory, the term “genetically engineered” never appears. Farmers unfamiliar with genetic engineering may not even realize what they are buying, growing, or putting on supermarket shelves.

Read more: Food, Green Kitchen Tips

Adapted from Genetically Engineered Food, by Martin Teitel, Ph.D. and Kimberly A. Wilson. Copyright (c) 2001 by the Council for Responsible Genetics. Reprinted by permission of Inner Traditions.
Adapted from Genetically Engineered Food, by Martin Teitel, Ph.D. and Kimberly A. Wilson.

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9 comments

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7:36AM PDT on May 27, 2011

Thanks for the article.

10:09PM PST on Jan 16, 2011

I agree that the FDA needs to be taken care of. They seem to never have the interests of our health in mind so what exactly are they doing there?? I mean, in what universe does an administration designed to protect our health and lives make it legal to buy, sell, and manufacture cigarettes when they're proven to kill both the user and people near the smoke?? This isn't an attack on smokers, merely a logical point. They're designed to protect us and yet they allow something harmful to flourish. This is the case with so many substances. People don't realize the effects of genetic engineering, either. How long have they tested these organisms and they're out in the wild now?? Are you mad? What kind of irresponsible b/s is that??? We don't know the effects. They could make normal crops extinct and then their DNA could just break down, leaving us with nothing. They could do crazy things and we'd never know -- why? BECAUSE WE DON'T TEST ANYTHING! We just use it and then figure out later that it kills us. We're so irresponsible and we need to make some changes before we exterminate ourselves and the rest of the innocent beings on this earth.

11:03PM PST on Nov 17, 2010

Get rid of GMOs! But before that happens definitely label them. I don't want to eat something that's organic and not know if it's genetically modified.

Plus, we've really got to take down the FDA.

11:53AM PDT on Mar 22, 2008

It's pretty unlikely that B.t. corn would occur naturally...
It's important to label GMO's. We already label organic produce, and that has not destroyed the market for conventionally grown produce. People have the right to have a choice and to know what they are choosing. Not everyone would choose non-GMO food; some people do not care, others place more weight on other factors, price for example.

1:23PM PDT on Mar 19, 2008

I can see how labeling genetically modified foods is a big issue, especially if you are allergic to any particular species. My friend for example is allergic to coconuts, so she would not want to eat anything that may have been genetically hybridized with genes from a coconut plant. If I were most people, I would not only label it as genetically modified, I would also fight for a label that also lists what genes this product is genetically modified with.

However, the crossing over of genes artificially versus naturally, I'm not sure how different they are. I mean broccoflower comes from the cross-pollintaion of broccoli and cauliflower, and plants horizontally transfer DNA to each other all the time in nature creating "natural" forms of recombinant plants.

A question I would ask is what would happen if these mutations were to happen naturally as it does in nature? Would we destroy it because it looks "unnatural?" Or is the term unnatural only referencing things that are unusual to us?

Naturally speaking, nature is always trying out new and recombined versions of itself to adapt and evolve, that's what sexual reproduction is about too. So what if lab's are trying to recreate this process? Is it really going against nature or are we going with it?
And did you know that insulin is manufactured from recombinant bacteria?

10:55AM PDT on Mar 18, 2008

I'm reminded of a dream I had a few weeks ago -- very creepy! I was cleaning trash that was lying around the house (a generic house, not MY house). The trash was all food-related, like remnants of food thrown out while preparing a meal, or what was tossed after one. Bizarrely, this decaying food waste was morphing into creatures! Creepy black creatures with long tentacles and snapping mouths ~ they were VERY hard to dispose of, they were snapping and biting and fighting me. These were half rotting food and half monstrous creatures forming out of the rot!

I woke up with a full-blown case of The Creeps, because I felt the dream was an omenous warning about disastrous results of frankenfoods *not* recycling back into healthy earthy mulch for future food-growing.

This is not *directly* related to topic today, but I decided to share this dream experience anyway... it gave ME something vivid to ponder!!

10:49AM PDT on Mar 18, 2008

There has been a lot of argument, and lawsuits, from Monsanto and other companies who don't want labeling instituted. Their reasoning (which seems to be holding up in court) is that labeling GMO foods will keep people from buying the GMO foods, and will act as "restraint of trade". Here's a thought for Monsanto and others... if you -don't- label your food, we won't buy it PERIOD... even if it -doesn't- contain GMOs. If you won't tell us what is in it, we won't bring it into our homes and feed it to our families. Shop your local farmer's markets. Buy your seeds from organizations that promote biodiversity, like Seedsavers. Support local farmers that choose sustainable growing habits (though it is often better to buy non-organic products directly from farmers you know and trust than to buy -organic- labeled foods from mass-market grocery warehousing facilities (commercial grocery stores). If grandma (or great grandma) wouldn't have recognized it as food... don't buy it.

10:38AM PDT on Mar 18, 2008

Here's one easy way to learn how to avoid buying GMO produce: http://www.idealbite.com/tiplibrary/archives/supermarket_numbers_game

In terms of seeds...buy seed from seedsavers.org or some other non-profit that saves and exchanges heirloom seeds

6:17AM PDT on Jul 31, 2007

how to avoid the Monsanto dominate the seed market?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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