GMO wars

Proposed ballot initiative and anti-Monsanto rally puts bioengineered foods in the crosshairs

Two peaceful protesters meditate at last week’s Monsanto, anti-GMO protest in Davis.

Two peaceful protesters meditate at last week’s Monsanto, anti-GMO protest in Davis.

Photo By Jenn Walker

At the Capitol: Assembly Bill 88, which would have mandated the labeling of all genetically engineered salmon that enters the state, failed to make it out of appropriations committee this past January.

Fortune 500 corporation Monsanto shut down its local operations last week as protestors, holding signs and taking turns on handheld megaphone, demanded that the GMO giant needs to go.

The Davis rally was in solidarity with a grassroots attempt to shut down Monsanto offices across the globe. Locally, it worked: After catching wind of the planned demonstration, Monsanto employees were directed to avoid work on Friday.

And if the two-day rally is any indicator of a greater phenomenon, as activist Pamm Larry suggested, it’s that there’s an increasing awareness in the country about food production and safety.

Larry leads hundreds of volunteers across the state in collecting 800,000 signatures before April 22 to qualify the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act initiative for this fall’s ballot.

The measure, if passed, would require that any food containing genetically engineered ingredients have a label indicating that the product was derived from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. It would also mandate that foods cannot be labeled “natural” if they have been processed in any way (i.e., canned, cooked, frozen, fermented, etc.).

“People don’t have time to take a college course on what is and isn’t labeled,” she says.

Genetically engineered foods, according to the initiative, are foods in which the genetic makeup has been altered through vitro nucleic acid techniques, cell fusion or hybridization techniques that don’t occur naturally. This includes foods that are genetically engineered to be resistant to pesticides in order to increase crop yields, such as the controversial corn variety created by Dow Chemical that is resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D.

While this initiative will not ban genetically engineered foods, it will allow consumers to make a choice whether or not to buy these foods, Larry says. And, while she did not provide any numbers, she is confident the act will garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Meanwhile, a committee called Stop the Costly Food Labeling Initiative has cropped up to oppose the ballot-measure effort. This group is backed by the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Seed Association, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and the Council for Biotechnology Information.

The committee says regulation would be costly to the state and that it would put California farmers at a competitive disadvantage. Farmers in other states won’t be held to the same standards, they argue, and this would increase the food prices.

The committee cites an analysis released by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, which estimates that regulation of the measure could cost up to $1 million annually. The LAO further predicts a cost burden for the courts to pursue violations.

The committee also emphasizes the fact that the FDA and medical experts have deemed genetically engineered foods safe for consumption.

But Dr. Glayol Sahba, volunteer signature gatherer and Sacramento family physician, noted that the American Academy of Environmental Medicine called for a moratorium on genetically modified foods in 2009, concluding that “GM foods pose a serious health risk.”

The academy cites several animal studies that have shown health risks related to GMO consumption, including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.

“Transgenic foods have only been around 10 years,” Sahba said. “We need to not expose people [to these foods] when we are not sure of the consequences to people and the environment.”

According to a statewide poll conducted by EMC Research in June of last year, 81 percent of California voters said they would support an initiative that required GMO foods to be labeled. The push for GMO labeling is also gaining momentum around the country; as many as 14 states have attempted to pursue similar measures, including Connecticut, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Vermont.

Last week, 55 members of Congress signed off on a bicameral letter to the FDA in support of a petition filed by the Center for Food Safety advocating GMO labeling.

Consumers want to see a change in the food system, Larry says, and are demanding transparency.

“People are fired up,” she says. “Many of us in the country have felt powerless for a long time, [but] when we unite we can get something done.”