On the Right to Know What We’re Buying

Here is the text of an op-ed piece I wrote that was published in the Davis Enterprise on September 20, 2012:

Proposition 37, “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” was not written “to authorize a whole new category of shake-down lawsuits” as claimed by Kent J. Bradford in his op-ed piece (Davis Enterprise, Sept. 9, 2012) but to give California consumers the right to know what they are buying, a basic tenet of our American supply-and-demand economy.

Chinese consumers (and those in some 40 other countries) currently have this right regarding genetically engineered foods while Americans do not. But, although government and the agricultural biotechnology industry have failed U.S. citizens on this issue, Californians have the opportunity on Nov. 6 to grant themselves this right via Prop 37.

In poll after poll for more than a decade, some 90 percent of Americans have indicated they want GE foods labeled and yet that voice, supported by such a vast majority, has fallen on deaf government ears. Not only unlabeled, most GE foods need not undergo regulation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at all.

In fact, despite well-documented incidents of commercialized GE products that have posed risks related to human allergenicity or the development of antibiotic resistance or the well-being of non-target insects like Monarch butterflies over the past 18 years, it is still possible to design a GE food crop that could be commercialized in the United States without FDA, USDA or EPA approval. Our government has let us down.

It’s done worse than let us down. By deciding in 1992 that no GE foods (unless the foreign gene had been isolated from an organism known to cause human allergies or the composition of the GE food had been considerably altered) would require its regulation, FDA effectively ignored the advice of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which recommended that every foreign gene, in every different crop plant and in every different environment, should be evaluated for possible risks to the environment and human health. Instead, FDA based its policy on the opinion that genetic engineering is simply an extension of traditional breeding. It is not.

And perhaps the most harmful aspect of the FDA’s unscientific attitude about GE foods is that by not requiring any regulation, it conveys the idea that any product developed using genetic engineering (with the possible exceptions noted above) will be safe, a concept that is completely ludicrous. That’s like saying that any and all uses of nuclear fission will be safe. It’s not true.

Genetic engineering is only as safe as it is used, each time it is used. It can be used carefully or carelessly, or to decrease pesticide use or increase it, or to help poor farmers or to make money, or–in the words of the late, great citizen-scientist-technologist Richard Feynman in reference to any powerful technology–for good or for evil. And we in the United States have experienced multiple incidents related to less-than-careful use of crop genetic engineering.

For example, 20 years ago environmental scientists warned us that, just as over-use of antibiotics led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, developing GE crops that are resistant to herbicides would result in “superweeds” resistant to those herbicides, and that is indeed what has come to pass. As reported in the New York Times more than two years ago (May 3, 2010), it took about half a decade after Roundup Ready soybeans were commercialized before a superweed showed up in a Delaware soybean field.

“Super” versions of pigweed, horseweed and giant ragweed that are glyphosate-resistant (glyphosate being the active ingredient in products like Roundup) have now infested millions of acres in at least 22 U.S. states and are also posing problems in agricultural areas of Brazil, Australia and China.

So, the “expansion of conservation tillage” enabled by Roundup Ready crops, and mentioned by Bradford in his op-ed piece in The Enterprise, was a good thing while it lasted but many of those farmers are now suffering a doozy of a hangover.

“Super bugs” resistant to the insecticides produced in other GE crops are also starting to show up on U.S. farms (PLoS ONE 2011 6: e22629). And production of Monsanto’s new GE sweet corn, unlabeled and on sale at the Walmart near you, could make this “super” situation worse since it is not only “Roundup Ready” but also contains the same insecticide to which Western corn rootworms have developed resistance.

What is the ag biotech industry’s answer to these problems? The hair of the dog. New GE crops, resistant to other, more noxious herbicides, herbicides meant to be sprayed over vast acreages of agricultural land that inevitably would result in more superweeds, are being readied for commercialization.

We can’t afford to make these same mistakes over and over again. We need a regulatory system for the products of GE technology that has more teeth.

And, regardless of the status of the U.S. regulatory system or individual GE food products, members of a capitalist democratic society like ours have the right to know what they’re buying in the grocery store. Lack of labels on GE foods means that current sales do not reflect accurate “demand” for these products; that’s not the way the market is supposed to work here in America. These companies must label their products for the citizens of other countries, and they should label them for us here at home as well.

Fortunately, through the initiative process in California’s Constitution, we can use the “political power (that) is inherent in the people” to ensure our right to know what we’re buying. On this November’s ballot, that right takes the form of Proposition 37. I urge you to vote “yes” on Prop 37.

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3 Responses to On the Right to Know What We’re Buying

  1. Pingback: An Open Letter to Members of the U.S. Congress: Label GMOs | Ban GMOs Now Blog

  2. Pingback: An Open Letter to Members of the U.S. Congress: Label GMOs | Ban GMOs Now

  3. Pingback: An Open Letter to Members of the U.S. Congress: Just Label GMOs | Ban GMOs Now

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