post-template-default single single-post postid-304 single-format-standard

GMO – The Referendum, the Propaganda, its Backers & their Lies

Alex Constantine - October 16, 2012

 By Laetitia Mailhes

Care 2, October 15, 2012

1204210 large1 300x181 - GMO - The Referendum, the Propaganda, its Backers & their LiesUnless you’ve been living under a rock, or outside of the USA, you can’t  ignore by now that the hottest campaign leading up to the November ballot is  actually taking place in California. Yep, forget about the swing states. It’s  safe to say that no presidential election will have as much impact on this  country’s food system than the referendum that’s currently brewing in  California.

If Proposition 37 (The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food  Act) passes on November 6, all raw or processed food sold through retail in  California, that is genetically engineered or contains at least 0.5 percent of  GMO (genetically modified organisms), will have to be labeled as such starting  July 1, 2014. Exemptions include food sold for immediate consumption, alcohol,  and meat or milk from GMO-fed animals.

It is expected that GMO labeling would spread nationwide since many vendors  wouldn’t want to go through the trouble of issuing two kinds of labels  (California v. the rest of the country). Furthermore, if GMO labels are met with  consumers’ disaffection and a consequent drop in sales, food producers and  processors may be incentivized to redesign their products and source non-GMO  ingredients. In turn, this trend would impact the kind of crops favored by  farmers. In short, GMO, which make up over 90 percent of corn and soy crops in  the US today, may lose some of their grip on the American agricultural land  (bear in mind that most of GE crops today are used for animal feed and biofuel,  so the impact would be real although not dramatic).

Pamm Larry, the self-described “grandmother from Chico” who jump-started the  initiative last year, successfully rallied a coalition of consumer groups behind  the Label GMOs campaign (LabelGMOs.org), including the Organic Consumers Association  and Food & Water Watch. Businesses offered their support early on, including  long-time practitioners of healthy food such as Nature’s Path and Lundberg  Family Farms. A few celebrity activists in the alternative health and  non-GMO arenas, such as Jeffrey Smith and Dr. Mercola jumped on the bandwagon. Through a decentralized  structure of local chapters staffed with volunteers, the 560,000 required  signatures (and some) were gathered on time for the California Right to Know  Initiative to qualify last June for the November ballot. This week, several  Hollywood celebrities endorsed Prop 37 in this video:

About 9 Americans out of 10 are in favor of labeling GMO-containing foods,  according to a 2010 poll conducted by Reuters Thompson (see also this poll conducted by MSNBC last year: 96 percent of over 45,000  respondents answered “yes” to the question “Do you believe genetically modified  foods should be labeled?”).

In 2007, candidate Obama had spoken in favor of it “because Americans have a right to  know what they’re buying.” That was before President Obama appointed Monsanto’s  ex-VP of public policy Michael Taylor as the deputy commissioner for foods (read:  food safety czar) at the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

Some 50 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and the  European Union, already have strict GMO labeling requirements.

So what’s with the heated debate? For the sake of making sense of the  confusing whirl of opinions, I stepped back and took on the reasonable  assumption that truth is never black and white, and that no side has an absolute  monopoly on truth and light. Here’s what I’ve come to understand:

In case you still doubt that this local initiative can have a significant  impact on the food industry as we know it in America, consider this: the  anti-Prop 37 campaign has received over $34.5 million, or 8.5 times more than  the paltry $4.1 million collected by the backers of Prop 37. Its donors list  reads like a Who’s Who of the biotech and food industry: Monsanto,  Dupont, BASF, Dow, Bayer, Pepsico, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Conagra, Syngenta, General  Mills, Del Monte, etc. Their arguments are the regular fare of the corporate  bottom-line agenda posing as a defense of small farmers, mom-and-pop businesses  and consumers: Prop 37 will bankrupt the former, and slap huge price hikes on  the latter, they claim. Moreover, GMO labeling will scare off innocent  bystanders, thereby enrolling them in the anti-GMO ploy to hold back The Science  that we depend on to prevent mass starvation by 2050. Now, you tell me, who’s  brandishing the scare tactics?!

Nevermind that the anticipated impact on costs is denounced by Joanna M.  Shepherd-Bailey of the Emory University School of Law in her economic assessment of Prop. 37. Her analysis shows “little or no change in consumer food prices as a result of these relabeling.  She asserts that “the relabeling expenses resulting from the Right To Know Act  represent a trivial expense for food sellers, and expects a “negligible  increase in administrative costs resulting from the new regulations to be  adopted by the California Department of Public Health.”

If all the scary predictions are too confusing for you, the name-calling and  reputation-smearing strategy wielded by the anti-Prop 37 campaign will surely  have you see the light. While expunging “the grandmother from Chico” from the  narrative, it solely and repeatedly credits two allegedly greedy individuals for  Prop 37: James Wheaton, the Oakland lawyer (“ambulance chasing attorney“) who helped pen it, and Dr.  Mercola, the Illinois-based alternative health guru (“snake oil salesman“) whose $1.1 million campaign  contribution clearly betrays the dubious motivation (“Why else would someone  from Chicago invest $1,100,000 (and counting) to create a law in California?” asks Science 2.0 blog founder Hank Cambell. Eh, let’s see… because he supports the values and principles that his career rests on?)

Now, that’s creative propaganda. Hilarious too. You’d swear Dr. Mercola and  James Wheaton have Monsanto & Co. shaking in their boots! And maybe they  do.

More seriously, however, there are three anti-Prop 37 arguments that are  worth considering closely.

One, the wording of the text is such that lawsuits to prevent natural,  non-GMO foods from being labeled “natural” could be expensively fought and won  in court. Here is the contentious text:

In addition to  any disclosure required by Section 110809, if a food meets any of the  definitions in subdivision (c) or (d) of Section 110808, and is not otherwise  exempted from labeling under Section 110809.2, the food may not in California,  on its label, accompanying signage in a retail establishment, or in any  advertising or promotional materials, state or imply that the food is “natural,”  “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or any words of similar  import that would have any tendency to mislead any consumer.

Here are the definitions in subdivision (c) and (d) of Section 110808:

c) Genetically engineered. (1) “Genetically  engineered” means any food that is produced from an organism or organisms in which the genetic material has been changed through the application of:

(A) In vitro  nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)  techniques and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles,  or
(B) Fusion of  cells, including protoplast fusion, or hybridization techniques that overcome  natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers, where the  donor cells/protoplasts do not fall within the same taxonomic family, in a way  that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural  recombination.
(2) For purposes of this  subdivision:
(A) “Organism” means any biological  entity capable of replication, reproduction, or transferring genetic  material. (B) “In vitro nucleic acid techniques” include, but are not limited to, recombinant DNA or RNA techniques that use vector systems  and techniques involving the direct introduction into the organisms of  hereditary materials prepared outside the organisms such as micro-injection,  macro-injection, chemoporation, electroporation, micro-encapsulation, and  liposome fusion.

(d)  Processed food. “Processed food” means any food other than a raw agricultural  commodity, and includes any food produced from a raw agricultural commodity  that has been subject to processing such as canning, smoking, pressing,  cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation, or milling.

Finally, consider the headline of the controversial section 110809.1:

110809.1. Misbranding of Genetically Engineered Foods as “Natural” [emphasis added)

This seemingly leaves no wiggle room for ambiguity. Legal opinions on the  matter differ widely, however. On the other hand, the California Legislative  Analyst’s Office (LAO), a non-partisan entity of the California Legislature, has  opined it’s possible the courts would interpret the natural labeling prohibition  as pertaining “to some processed foods regardless of whether they are  genetically engineered,” according to the official title and summary prepared by the California Attorney  General. On the other hand, Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Joe Sandler of the  law firm Sandler Reiff Young & Lamb, and a legal advisor to the Yes on 37  campaign, declared in a memorandum “there is simply not even a remote  possibility that the new law would ever be interpreted or applied to bar the  labeling as ‘natural’ of processed foods that do not have any genetically  engineered ingredients.” The plain language of Proposition 37 and purpose of the  initiative support his conclusion, he wrote.

His view is seemingly shared by Joanna M. Shepherd-Bailey of the Emory  University School of Law. “Only a negligible increase in litigation is predicted  to result from the Right to Know Act,” she writes in her economic assessment of Prop. 37.

For a bit of added context, “Natural” is an unregulated “label” that has  been denounced as a marketing ploy used by many food companies to lure consumers  into buying food that contain ingredients that are anything but natural.  Segments of the market will certainly not mourn its disappearance from the  shelves, should food companies shun its use out of fear of a lawsuit. If need  be, the natural food and supplements industry will surely come out with a new  terminology to grab consumers’ attention. And why not launch its very own  third-party verified labeling program?

Which segues into a second interesting argument: why push for law-mandated  GMO-labeling when voluntary “non-GMO” labeling is available? Two such  initiatives already exist indeed, thanks to the American Non-GMO Project, whose certification program follows the guidelines set by the  European regulations and the international ProTerra Foundation. Producers, processors and vendors who  pride themselves on selling non-GMO food would certainly do well to embark on  the third-party-verified certification process that warrants a label that  consumers can trust. In fact, the debate spurred by Prop 37 may fuel just such a  trend, in and outside of California.

The caveat is twofold, however. One, “non-GMO” labeling is currently  unregulated in the US, and may fall prey at any moment to an FDA decision  against it (as was threatened in 2001). Two, many consumers won’t make the  distinction between a certified seal earned through extensive, rigorous, due  process, and marketing tricks–if the proven marketing success of “Natural” is  any indication. Moreover, although most consumers claim, when asked, to care  about GMO and to favor GMO labeling, many will not actively search for non-GMO  labels. By contrast, having 70 percent to 80 percent of food sold in  supermarkets (according to current estimates) display a GMO label, is an  education opportunity that’s not lost on Prop 37 backers. In the end, voluntary “non-GMO” labeling, although a boon to food businesses who earn the label, may  not yield the same game-changing impact on our current food system.

Thirdly, let’s look into the threshold argument. Prop. 37 puts the threshold  of GMO-labeling exemptions at 0.5 percent of the weight of the food item. By  contrast, the stringent European GMO-label regulation has established that threshold  at 0.9 percent. This is to account “ for adventitious and technically unavoidable presence of GE  components in raw materials,” as in the contamination of conventional  fields by GM crops. In fact, this threshold has been and remains a controversial  and debated issue. Many stakeholders argue it is too permissive of GMO  contamination, especially when contrasted with the 0.1 percent threshold  established for the organic food label by European certification agencies.

Interestingly enough, the 0.5 percent threshold may offer an even better  guarantee than the USDA “organic” label that your food has minimum GMO content.  Although the National Organic Standards Board clearly “prohibits the use  of GMO as ‘excluded methods’ in organic production and handling (…), the NOP regulations do not establish GMO tolerance  levels [read: threshold].” (emphasis  added)

In other words, the actual level of presence of GMO in your certified organic  food is anyone’s guess.

Where does this discussion leave us? Each side, in the end, brings the whole  argument back to one crucial bone of contention: science has/hasn’t demonstrated  that GMO are safe.

I doubt I’m the only out there to be confused by the conflicting conclusions  brought forward by reputable scientists with studies to boot on both sides of  the debate. I’m not more of a microbiologist than the average consumer and  citizen, so who am I to evaluate what The Science has established as fact?

What I know is this: there is a whole lot we don’t know. That’s precisely why  the European Union, for instance, decided in 1998 to apply the precautionary  principle. This states that “if an action or policy has a suspected risk of  causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific  consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action” (Wikipedia). The consequent moratorium on GM crops is still effectively in  place in the EU despite many attempts to overturn it.

A similar conclusion was reached by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and  Technology for Development (IAASTD), a four-year international research  program funded by the World Bank and six U.N. Agencies. It’s report was endorsed  by 59 nations in 2008. It states that “there is a wide range of perspectives on  the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern  biotechnology; many of these risks are as yet unknown.”

So much for the “anti-science” accusations brandished by the anti-Prop 37  side against anyone who dares question the safety of GMO.

Much to the pro-GMO camp’s dismay, some of the public instinctively errs on  the side of the precautionary principle. It should be only fair that the onus be  on those who truly are to reap the financial rewards of GMO to offer the  irrefutable proof of what they claim: that GMO are beneficial to mankind.

Related: How to Win a GMO Debate Anti-GMO: European Victory 8 Ways Monsanto is Destroying Our Health


No comments yet.

  1. When I buy produce at my local organic grocery cooperative, there’s a label on the shelf that tells me where the produce was grown (how many miles from the store), the name of the farm, and that it is either organic or sustainably grown, so I trust that what I’m buying is non-GMO.

    When I see a USDA organic label in the grocery section, I don’t trust it. Just because somebody in a federal agency which is probably headed by a former Monsanto executive says something is organic, doesn’t give me a sense of confidence that it really is. And the same would be true of GMO labeling.

    I’d like labeling, sure, but I’d want it done by people I trust, not by a state or government agency. Every food product or pharmaceutical that has been recalled for making people sick or even killing them, was first approved for sale by a government agency.

    The idea of truth in labeling is a good one, but the idea of allowing a state or federal government agency to regulate or approve labeling is not. A few big campaign donations and any corporation could get anything labeled any way they want.

    I don’t vote because our corrupt electoral system is an integral part of our corrupt capitalist imperialist system. This initiative is asking the fox to guard the henhouse, and foxes have never been particularly adept at that task.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *