Label Genetically Engineered Foods (an appeal to democracy and common sense)

Signature gathering to label genetically modified foods in California ended last week. So far it looks like enough signatures were gathered to get the initiative on the 2012 California ballot. 500,000+ signatures were needed, and Label GMOs gathered nearly one million just to make sure challenged signatures don’t destroy the initiative (remember ACORN, the 2008 election, and the Republicans’ smear campaign?).

Quick definition of genetically engineered crops: new seeds made with recombinant DNA technology, which involves splicing genes from other organisms or species into crops at the molecular level to introduce desired traits. Note: This is not your dad’s selective breeding. We’re talking scientists using virus vectors in labs to cobble Frankenstein-crops together. Biotech corporations make claims of improved drought resistance and nutrition, but so far they’ve only created pesticide-producing and weed-killer-resistant traits. Unfortunately, I’m not weed-killer-resistant, last time I checked.

Grandmother Pamm Larry calls herself the initial instigator of the Genetically Engineered Labeling Act. When I spoke with her in September, she told me that “what made me decide to get involved with it was that I had been studying about studying about genetically engineered stuff for quite a few years, 6, 7, 8 years, and I was getting kind of depressed about the situation, almost catatonic, nervous and crying – I’m a grandma and a mom and wondering what kind of a world we’re leaving our children.”

So what exactly is the radical initiative these California soccer moms are proposing? Labeling genetically engineered foods so consumers know what they’re eating and feeding their families. Larry says “We don’t try to convince anybody because it isn’t any of our business what they want to do. This initiative is about choice – it’s about informed consumer choice, so if they want to eat genetically engineered food they’re more than entitled to. We do not. And we want to know which foods are and which aren’t.”

Heretics all, burn them at the stake! Why would I need to know what this food is that the FDA guarantees is ‘substantially equivalent’ to conventional crops? Sounds like they’re just creating problems because they’re irrational and uninformed. Get those women back in the kitchen already before they get their hands on the nuclear codes! Why would I want to know whether I’m eating pesticide-producing and weed-killer-resistant crops?

Monsanto promises to feed a growing global population with limited resources in a climate insecure future – an altruistic environmentalist’s wet dream. And sadly, the mainstream media is buying their bullshit at retail prices, although there are occasional good articles such as the recent SF Gate article Genetically modified crops’ results raise concern. So why did I spend time and energy collecting signatures and promoting what I think is a watershed issue for human health, the environment, and democracy?

Newsflash: the promises of biotechnology and agribusiness are disingenuous lies. Don’t take my word for it, read Food & Water Watch’s report, where they highlight that “despite all the hype, genetically engineered plants and animals do not perform better than their traditional counterparts, and they raise a slew of health, environmental and ethical concerns.” And as Dr. Vandana Shiva wrote in Occupy our food supply, “The biggest corporate takeover on the planet is the hijacking of the food system, the cost of which has had huge and irreversible consequences for the Earth and people everywhere.” Even the Union of Concerned Scientists thinks they’re full of it. Although they’ve said it better than I can, I find catharsis in my rants, feel free to follow along if you can handle it.

Despite promises of drought-resistant, nutrient-rich and otherwise preferable strains, the only two genetically engineered traits that are commercially available are an herbicide-resistant gene (Roundup-Ready corn/soy/etc if you’ve heard of it), and a pesticide-producing gene (Bacillus thuringiensis, known as Bt). Not only do these traits only allow us to spew more herbicides into the environment, killing everything except the engineered crops, the Bt gene has been found to kill beneficial insects as well as target species, leak into the soil and watersheds, and self-perpetuate in peoples’ stomachs. There is no Vitamin A super-rice saving blind people in developing nations, because let’s face it, there’s no profit margin in poor people.

But wait, there’s more! In the 15 years these super-seeds have been on the market, they’ve managed to breed super-weeds and super-insects that are already immune to the GE traits. But hey, at least Bt is still decimating honeybee populations – we don’t need bees to pollinate 80% of human consumed crops, right?  As for myself, I’m eating as many GMOs as I can, maybe I’ll grow a superpower like Spiderman!

For those homo sapiens disinterested in the fate of the natural world, GMOs have never been tested for human health risks. The USDA didn’t demand any studies before introducing these crops to the market, and to this day 95% of research is industry-funded. Farmers using GMO seeds have to sign non-disclosure agreements that they won’t give any seed to independent researchers, and the government has been less than supportive of pursuing these scientific studies.

So why did the FDA decide that these crops are ‘substantially equivalent’ to conventional seeds? Other than clear regulatory capture, that is? I can’t really come up with an answer, especially considering Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready and Bt seeds have patents that are stringently enforced. That’s right, our government allowed corporations to patent life! And now those genes are in 80-90% of all corn and soy grown in the United States, and 60-80% of all packaged foods. America grows 50% of the genetically engineered crops worldwide, and aggressively pushes GMOs overseas – tying their acceptance to aid packages for countries. Wikileaks reported on how deeply entangled the U.S. government is with these biotech bullies.

To build on that WTF dystopic reality, Monsanto now aggressively enforces their patents. This multinational monolith has already collected $160 million in patent lawsuits across the country, bankrupting farmers with GMO seeds on their land. It doesn’t matter whether the contamination was from uncontrollable transgenic pollution or ‘illegal’ seed saving, the justice system has a strong sense of irony as they allow this predatory monolith to bankrupt America’s farmers.

Seed saving, which has been the basis of our agrarian society for thousands of years, has become practically illegal in the United States through new agribusiness legislation, and their continued harassment of small farmers. And as they sue our food growers, these transgenic crops are polluting the ‘natural world’ as well – there’s no ‘conventional’ canola in North America, and corn and soy are soon to follow. Thanks to the Obama Administration, we probably won’t have unmodified sugar beets and alfalfa much longer either.

How is it possible that something can be ‘substantially equivalent’, and not require labeling, while simultaneously enjoying stringently enforced patents? The definition of a patent is something that’s substantially different. The basis of free market economics is that consumer access to information. Am I the only one not taking crazy pills here? As the Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety told me last September, “Substantial equivalence is out the window – no one believes that they’re substantially equivalent, GMOs to anything else. I mean, that argument was silly to begin with – you’ve got novel genetic material from a different species, from a bacteria in the plant, viruses people have never seen, you’ve got antibiotic marker genes that resist catamiacin and ambecillin. They’re all patented as being completely novel, how could this be substantially equivalent? Ludicrous, ludicrous.” Listen to my radio feature on GMOs here.

It’s like America has given up even pretending to believe in common sense, with this kind of irrational rationale. So what does the ‘peoples’ government have to say? A fat load of nothing, considering the lawyer who helped write the Monsanto’s patent law, Michael Taylor, is now running the FDA. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up – we resemble a kleptocratic dictatorship more than a representative democracy at this stage. Why even bother to have a hen house if you’re going to put the fox in charge?

Personally, I see no justification for having GMOs in their current incarnation on the market in any way. They have proven environmental costs, possibly severe impacts on humans if animal testing is any indicator, and the only clear benefit is enabling Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and the rest of the chemical companies force-feeding America genetically engineered food to sell more chemicals and pesticides.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend there’s some theoretical reason why we might want to eat these Frankenfoods. Why not label them? We label orange juice made from concentrate, why don’t we label crops that have been modified in laboratories using novel technologies to play God? Corporations will tell you that it’s too expensive to label. If that’s true, maybe there’s no real benefit to growing these freak-seeds. Either way, depriving citizens of access to this level of basic information is only acceptable in a corrupt corporate state. That might explain why more than 40 countries, including the European Union and Japan, require labeling, while America continues to keep its citizens in the dark (despite the fact that 93% of consumers want labeling!).

I could rant about the plethora of economic environmental and human health hazards this unproven and unsafe ‘technology’ until the election in November (don’t forget to vote!), but I’ll let academic Jessy make the final pitch. Here’s a presentation I did last semester to the FDA to Label Genetically Engineered Food. I’m sure they’ll watch my video and see the light any day now… or maybe they’ll realize they have a million signatures in their email inbox to Just Label It!

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