For years, polls have shown that about 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms. That’s about as close to a consensus as you’re going to get in this country. But amazingly, in this supposed bastion of freedom and democracy, we’re denied the fundamental right to know what’s in our food. It’s a right that more than 50 other nations, including China and Russia, offer their citizens.
That’s China and Russia, as in the big scary authoritarian countries known for communism, corruption and rampant human rights violations. They’re at least doing a better job of trying to look like they care about protecting the freedom to choose what you put in your body. This glaring disconnect between America’s purported democratic ideals and the reality of how public agencies like the FDA can knowingly fail its citizens might be about to crumble, says Andrew Kimbrell of the Center For Food Safety.
His organization is part of a broad coalition of groups petitioning the FDA for mandatory labels on foods that contain GMO. Hundreds of other organizations have joined the effort, including consumer advocates, farmers, concerned parents, businesses, environmentalists, food and farming organizations, and members of health care and faith-based communities. The goal of the coalition, called Just Label It (justlabelit.org), is to collect enough citizen signatures on its petition to force the FDA to accept it. Or force President Obama to force the FDA to do so.
There are three reasons why Kimbrell believes that now, despite decades of the biotech industry’s undue influence on FDA policy, the agency’s GMO armor will crack.
“First of all, Obama promised, when he was a candidate, to impose labels,” Kimbrell says, referring to a stump speech in 2007 recorded by Food Democracy Now, when the Junior Senator from Illinois promised to "let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified, because Americans should know what they're buying."
“Second,” says Kimbrell, “the coalition behind this campaign is uniquely broad-based. We’ve got the Organic Trade commission, food companies, big consumer representation, environmental and agriculture organizations. It’s not unrealistic that we’ll get millions of people signing the petition.”
“And finally,” he says, “we have extra leverage because it’s an election year. With 90 percent of Americans wanting this, and millions of comments coming his way, Obama can do the math.”
Kimbrell blames a decades-long revolving door between the FDA and the biotech industry for the agency’s unresponsiveness to consumer concerns. “The FDA is composed of people who will soon be back in the industry.”
It’s been stuck this way since the early ’90s. That’s when the FDA hired former Monsanto lawyer Michael Taylor to write the regulation for the use of a Monsanto product called recombinant bovine growth hormone, which is injected in cows to boost their milk production.
Initial fears of GMO in food were based on the possibility of “what if?” And for the last 20 years, we’ve all been guinea pigs in an experiment to find out.
Consumer backlash was strong against these GMO hormone injections, detectable amounts of which had made it into the milk. So marketers of non-rBGH milk understandably chose to label their milk as such. Monsanto fought for 10 years to stop this labeling effort, using a litany of crafty strategies, to take away the milkman’s right to point out their product does not contain injected hormones that contain recombinant DNA. Kimbrell says the company threw in the towel last year after taking the battle to the state level in Ohio and failing.
Kimbrell argues that bovine growth hormone, like every GMO crop, has failed to provide the consumer anything to the consumer besides risk. “If you’re a consumer, why would you buy a product that offers no benefits and potential harm? A product that only helps biotech corporations and industrial farmers, not consumers,” he says. “If they came out with a product with less cholesterol, or more nutrition, greater yield, or lower cost, that would be one thing. But the whole, ‘We’re going to feed the world and the blind shall see and the lame shall walk’ isn’t panning out.”
Initial fears of GMO in food were based on the possibility of “what if?” And for the last 20 years, we’ve all been guinea pigs in an experiment to find out. Meanwhile, the FDA’s own scientists have been ignored, much like the vast majority of consumers, by the agency’s higher-ups. In GMO-related litigation with the FDA in the late 1990s, the Center for Food Safety obtained some 80,000 pages of discovery, where its lawyers found the FDA’s own scientists had raised numerous, serious concerns about the possibility of toxicity, allergenicity and other health risks posed by GMO in foods. And with good reason, says Kimbrell.
“We know that if certain peanut genes are spliced into foods like soy, it can trigger a peanut allergy in someone who eats it,” he says. Allergic reactions are caused by proteins that confuse the body’s immune system, Kimbrell says. “And the whole purpose of GM is to make new proteins.”
The FDA, meanwhile, relies largely on an archaic “organoleptic” standard for determining if there are material differences among similar foods that would necessitate labels to distinguish them. The organoleptic standard means, in essence, that if a food doesn’t look, taste, smell, feel or behave any different, then they’re for all intents and purposes the same and no labeling is required.
“Remember,” says Kimbrell. “They’ve patented all these novel genes and proteins. You don’t get to patent something unless it’s new. So they’re telling the patent office these things are new, and they’re telling the FDA there’s nothing new.”
While definitive proof that GMO food can cause health problems has yet to be widely acknowledged, red flags and bits of circumstantial evidence are adding up.
Without labels, meanwhile, health officials are at a disadvantage when it comes to tracing potential GMO-related toxicity or allergic reactions. If GMO foods were labeled as such, public health workers would potentially have access to more data points with which to look for patterns and correlations. In the U.K. for example, where labeling is mandatory, soy allergy rates shot up after GMO soy was introduced there.
Products shouldn’t have to be proven dangerous before they should be labeled, says Kimbrell, citing an industry position he often confronts. “That’s not the criteria for labeling. If there’s a novel product in the food it should be labeled. But we don’t label things that are dangerous or potentially dangerous. We take them off the market.”
Today, as protesters occupying Wall Street are demanding economic rights for the 99 percent of the population left to divide the table scraps of the rich, the 90 percent of Americans who want to know what’s in their food are bringing the pressure as well. And if the perfect storm Kimbrell is predicting comes to fruition, that 90 percent will actually get its wish: public food policy that reflects the will of the general public.