May 24, 2012
Brewing Over Labeling of Genetically Modified Food Battle
By AMY HARMON and ANDREW POLLACK
For more than a decade, almost all processed foods in the
Labeling bills have been proposed in more than a dozen states over the last year, and an appeal to the Food and Drug Administration last fall to mandate labels nationally drew more than a million signatures. There is an iPhone app: ShopNoGMO.
The most closely watched labeling effort is a proposed ballot initiative in
Tens of millions of dollars are expected to be spent on the election showdown. It pits consumer groups and the organic food industry, both of which support mandatory labeling, against more conventional farmers, agricultural biotechnology companies like Monsanto and many of the nation’s best-known food brands like Kellogg’s and Kraft.
The heightened stakes have added fuel to a long-simmering debate over the merits of genetically engineered crops, which many scientists and farmers believe could be useful in meeting the world’s rapidly expanding food needs.
Supporters of labeling argue that consumers have a right to know when food has been modified with genes from another species, which they say is fundamentally different from the selective breeding process used in nearly all crops.
Almost all the corn and soybeans grown in the
“It just makes me nervous when you take genetic matter from something else that wouldn’t have been done in nature and put it into food,” said Ms. LaPier, 44, a mental health counselor whose guerrilla labeling was inspired by the group Label It Yourself. She worries that her daughter, 5, could one day suffer ill effects like allergies.
The F.D.A. has said that labeling is generally not necessary because the genetic modification does not materially change the food.
Farmers, food and biotech companies and scientists say that labels might lead consumers to reject genetically modified food — and the technology that created it — without understanding its environmental and economic benefits. A national science advisory organization in 2010 termed those benefits “substantial,” noting that existing biotech crops have for years let farmers spray fewer or less harmful chemicals, though the emergence of resistant weeds and insects threatens to blunt that effect.
In a letter circulating on social networks, one Iowa farmer, Tim Burrack, criticized this month’s O, the Oprah Magazine, which cited research linking genetic engineering to health concerns that many scientists have discredited and proposed “5 Ways to Lessen Your Exposure to GMO’s.” Mr. Burrack urged Ms. Winfrey not to “demonize GM crops.”
But some food experts argue that food manufacturers have an obligation to label. Consumers “have a right to take genetic modification into consideration,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at
Until now, Americans have made little fuss about genetically modified crops on the market compared with Europeans, who require that such foods be labeled. Demonstrators in Britain are threatening to destroy some genetically modified wheat being grown in a research trial near
The current push for labeling in this country stems in part from a broadening of the genetically modified menu to include herbicide-resistant alfalfa and the possible approval this year of a fast-growing salmon, which would be the first genetically engineered animal in the food supply.
Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farms, the organic yogurt company, has raised more than $1 million for the Just Label It campaign to influence the F.D.A. after fighting approval of engineered alfalfa, arguing that cross-pollination would contaminate organic crops fed to cows.
“This is an issue of transparency, truth and trust in the food system,” Mr. Hirshberg said.
Biotechnology companies say that the California labeling initiative, while portrayed as promoting consumer choice, is really an effort by some consumer and environmental groups and organic food growers to drive genetically modified foods off the market.
“These folks are trying to use politics to do what they can’t accomplish at the supermarket, which is increase market share,” said Cathleen Enright, an executive vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents Monsanto and DuPont.
Rather than label food with what consumers might regard as a skull and crossbones, the companies say food producers may ultimately switch to ingredients that are not genetically modified, as they did in
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food brands, declined to comment on what members would do if the
When asked if they wanted genetically engineered foods to be labeled, about 9 in 10 Americans said that they did, according to a 2010 Thomson Reuters-NPR poll.
The current call for transparency has resonated among some Americans upset by reports of BPA (a chemical used in plastics) in food packaging and pink slime (an ammonia-treated additive) in meat. Ms. LaPier has made an effort to label Kashi cereals, which advertise themselves as natural, since learning they contain genetically modified soy. Since discovering the Label It Yourself Facebook page in March, she has added several of her own pictures to its gallery of handmade labels on grocery store shelves across the nation.
Depending on the jurisdiction, such labeling could constitute a trademark violation against the manufacturer or a trespass against the store. No one has been prosecuted, but also, no one has been caught, according to a spokesman for the group.
So far, the F.D.A. has said only that it is studying the labeling petition; none of the state-level labeling bills proposed over the last year have passed.
For labeling proponents,
A decade ago in
Donations can be sent to the
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs