Do you have a right to know about GMOs?

By | February 11th, 2016

Do you have a right to know what’s on your dinner plate? Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) thinks so. And I do, too.

The food industry wants to keep you in the dark and has strenuously challenged a 2014 Vermont law requiring labeling of all food and beverages containing GMOs sold in the state by July 2016.

Known as the Vermont Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act, the law requires that labels disclose the presence of GMOs in food products. So the issue here is not whether GMOs should be banned, as they have been in 64 countries, but whether their inclusion in a food product should be disclosed in the product labeling.

What are GMOs? Genetically Modified Organisms are engineered by inserting genes into the genetic material — DNA — of plants or animals. Why do this? Inserting genes into seeds transmits certain traits, such as resistance to herbicides.

Opposing the will of consumers (I’ll get to that in a minute), the food industry is attempting to get Congress to overturn Vermont’s law before it goes into effect. The industry argues that GMOs are safe, and a patchwork of state laws isn’t practical.

Labeling advocates have been fighting state-by-state to enact laws, such as the one in Vermont, with the eventual goal of a national standard.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack brought the opponents and proponents together recently to see if they could work out a compromise. Agreement is unlikely. Legislators on Capitol Hill are divided on this issue, but agree that a compromise needs to be worked out before this summer. The Vermont case will be critical for Connecticut and Maine, which have GMO labeling laws that will go into effect when nearby states pass similar laws. Massachusetts and New York also have labeling bills going through the legislative process.

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In 2014, 35 bills were introduced in 20 states on the issue. Unfortunately, in recent years labeling ballot initiatives have been narrowly defeated in California, Washington and Oregon. Proponents were significantly outspent by opponents, which included major agribusiness and biotechnology companies, such as Monsanto and DuPont, as well as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an anti-labeling trade group.

As a backdrop to this drama, in the fall of 2015 the House of Representatives passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599). Opponents of this legislation call it the DARK Act — Deny Americans the Right to Know — since federal law would prohibit mandatory GMO labeling and nullify existing state labeling laws. The bill was sent to the Senate and referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

Again, the issue here is consumers’ right to know what is in their food and beverages so that they can make informed choices about what to buy. The larger issue: Should GMOs be ingested at all?

Tips for avoiding GMOs. If you want to avoid GMOs altogether, the Center For Food Safety’s True Food Shopper’s Guide suggests that you:

  • Buy organic. Products labeled 100 percent organic do not contain GMOs.
  • Look for voluntary “Non-GMO” or “made Without Genetically Modified Ingredients” labels.
  • Avoid at-risk ingredients. Products made from the “Big Five” usually contain genetically engineered crops: corn (and products), soybeans, canola oil (or grapeseed oil), cottonseed and sugar beets.

Most (85-90 percent) of the “Big Five” grown in this country contain Monsanto’s patented genetically altered genes, and were grown using conventional agricultural practices that may contain GMOs.This means that you must buy organic or GMO-free corn products, soybeans and the remaining “Big Five” to avoid ingesting pesticides or herbicides.

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The food industry admits that 75 percent to 80 percent of foods contain GMOs, which were introduced into the U.S. food supply 20 years ago.

Although there is no documented health risk to eating genetically engineered foods, the public is outraged. Most people do not want GMOs in their food. Specifically, a recent nationally representative poll from Consumer Reports found that 92 percent of people said they want GMO foods labeled.

Advocates for labeling say not enough is known about their risks. According to the World Health Organization, there are three main issues of concern for GMOs:

Allergenicity: The potential to provoke allergic reaction by transferring genes from allergenic to non-allergenic organisms.

Gene transfer: Transferring genetically engineered genes from GMO foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health.

Outcrossing: The migration of genes from genetically modified plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild, as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with GMO crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security.

Where can you find GMO-free food? Whole Foods now offers more than 25,000 certified organic products and about 11,500 Non-GMO Project Verified products in their stores. The company is confident that it will meet their goal of carrying only non-GMO food by 2018. The market chain strongly supports mandatory labeling of GMO-derived food.

The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, offers North America’s only third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products. The Non-GMO Project currently has nearly 35,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products from more than 1,900 brands, representing well over $13.5 billion in annual sales.

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There are organic or health food stores in many parts of the country that sell non-GMO products only. In Sacramento, my city, the Sacramento Natural Food Cooperative offers a great deal of organic and non-GMO food, and supports federally mandated labeling and Non-GMO Project labeling.

Chipotle became the first fast-food chain to serve all GMO-free food. Their slogan is “Food With Integrity, G-M-Over It.” Fortunately, we have three Chipotle restaurants within a few miles of our home, as well as five Asian restaurants offering organic tofu (a vegan protein source and substitute for meat, derived from organic soybeans). What’s available in your city?

As someone who has avoided pesticides and herbicides just about my entire adult life, I support federally mandated labeling. Yet, I am pessimistic. Chances look bleak for establishing nationwide labeling as the Vermont law is under attack, and the DARK Act would nullify existing state labeling laws. And banning GMOs entirely does not seem to be even a remote possibility.

Should consumers have the right to know if their food contains GMOs?

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