In November, California voters will decide on a law that requires mandatory labeling of food products made with genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs (the O is for “organism”). It has been framed by its supporters as a right-to-know issue, playing Organic David to GMO’s Goliath. To its detractors, it’s nothing more than a campaign of fear mongering brought on by the organic industry in league with a cadre of alternative medicine crackpots.
One of the biggest misconceptions about GMOs is that it’s seen as a total solution. It’s not a solution, it’s a tool. Sometimes GMOs are warranted, other times not. A farmer should be free to go GMO—if its use is warranted—without fear of being regulated out of the marketplace.
I would argue that the California labeling law will result in an effective ban on GMOs, taking away that choice from farmers. The negative press, based on nonsense that is written about GMOs, is too overwhelming, making the average consumer fearful of GMOs—if they are labeled as such, they will rot on the shelf. No matter what the supporters say, this law will cripple or destroy GMO farming and bolster the organic industry. Monsanto, being a multinational, can survive it, but in the end it will be the average farmer who will suffer. (A good analysis of the law’s economic impact on farmers is by Freakonomics’ Steve Sexton: How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor (Thanks for the link, Stan.)
On the surface, it seems reasonable that consumers should know what their food contains. The FDA requires labeling if products contain known allergens, possibly harmful ingredients, etc. However, when it comes to GMOs, there’s an enormous amount of misinformation and bad science out there. The anti-GMO crowd is depending on this negative association. Since they don’t have the science behind them, they are relying on scare tactics. It’s a variation of an old adage: If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you don’t have the facts, argue the law. If you have neither, pound the table. With its labeling law, the anti-GMO crowd are pounding the table. In fact, to find misinformation and bad science about GMOs, one need not look any further than the text of the proposed law itself:
California consumers have the right to know whether the foods they purchase were produced using genetic engineering. Genetic engineering of plants and animals often causes unintended consequences. Manipulating genes and inserting them into organisms is an imprecise process. The results are not always predictable or controllable, and they can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences.
Right out of the box it’s all wrong. GE of plants is not an “imprecise process”, quite the opposite, and there is less of chance of “unintended consequences” with GE as compared to conventional breeding.
Anastasia Bodnar is doctoral candidate at Iowa State University in genetics and sustainable agriculture. Here is her explanation of the process:
Plants that have been genetically engineered undergo many levels of screening and breeding to remove unwanted mutations.
Genetically engineered crops are tested by event. An event is a single instance of a gene being integrated into the genome of a single embryo or other plant part (depending on the species being genetically engineered). Sometimes the gene will integrate in the middle of an important gene and effectively cause a mutation (those would be removed from the breeding program). Other times the gene will integrate in a place where it isn’t interfering with other genes, which is what we want.
In the process of creating a genetically engineered crop a lot of events are created, and they are tested to see where the gene integrated and if there are any strange characteristics that might indicate an unintended mutation. Any plant that isn’t what the breeders/genetic engineers want is destroyed. The events that pass then go through a breeding process called backcrossing, which essentially replaces all the genetic material from the transformed plant line with genetic material from an untransformed plant line, except for the region around the gene that was inserted. This ensures that any mutations caused by the transformation process are not left in the final line.
Mutations happen all the time. There are natural mutations due to DNA replication errors and due to mutagens like UV light from the sun. There are all sorts of strange chromosomal rearrangements when two related species are crossed. And so on. There are also intentional mutations caused when a plant breeder exposes seeds to a chemical or radioactive mutagen to try (on purpose) to induce mutations that might produce new and valuable traits. What happens if there are harmful mutations? If a plant breeder notices something weird in one of the plants, it’s removed from the breeding population and either destroyed or kept for further study if it is interesting.
Let’s read more from the proposed law:
Government scientists have stated that the artificial insertion of DNA into plants, a technique unique to genetic engineering, can cause a variety of significant problems with plant foods. Such genetic engineering can increase the levels of known toxicants in foods and introduce new toxicants and health concerns.
No. It can’t. See above. Moving on:
No federal or California law requires that food producers identify whether foods were produced using genetic engineering. At the same time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require safety studies of such foods. Unless these foods contain a known allergen, the FDA does not even require developers of genetically engineered crops to consult with the agency.
That first sentence is true. The rest is misleading. Not only do GM foods have to go through the FDA, they also have to go through the USDA, and the EPA depending on intended use(s). From the FDA website:
In the Federal Register of May 29, 1992 (57 FR 22984), FDA published its “Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties” (the 1992 policy). In the 1992 policy, FDA recommended that developers consult with FDA about bioengineered foods under development; since issuance of the 1992 policy, developers have routinely done so…. These procedures describe a process in which a developer who intends to commercialize a bioengineered food meets with the agency to identify and discuss relevant safety, nutritional, or other regulatory issues regarding the bioengineered food and then submits to FDA a summary of its scientific and regulatory assessment of the food; FDA evaluates the submission and responds to the developer by letter.
One last excerpt from the law:
Organic farmers are prohibited from using genetically engineered seeds. Nonetheless, these farmers’ crops are regularly threatened with accidental contamination from neighboring lands where genetically engineered crops abound. This risk of contamination can erode public confidence in California’s organic products, significantly undermining this industry. Californians should have the choice to avoid purchasing foods whose production could harm the state’s organic farmers and its organic foods industry.
Okay. This is disingenuous at best. It’s not just GMOs that can “contaminate” neighboring fields, conventional crops can do the same. That’s why farmers take measures to ensure this doesn’t happen.
In fact, in the 16 years that GMOs have been grown there hasn’t been one reported instance of cross-pollination between a GMO plant and an organic one. I asked Dr. Mark Westgate, Director of the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods at Iowa State Univesity about the “contamination” issue. He responded by email:
Dr. Westgate: First, as a matter of clarity, crops that are domesticated by man have been and continue to be genetically modified from their wild progenitors. Modern gene sequencing technology has revealed today’s hybrid corn contains only about 80% genetic identity with its ancestor teosinte. Mutations occur all the time and DNA is re-arranged every time germ cells are formed. The term GMO has taken on a negative connotation, but biologically speaking genetic modification is a very positive phenomenon and forms the foundation for crop improvement. Literally, every new generation is a GMO. A more accurate and informative terms to use are transgenic or conventional (transgene-free). These terms describe how the specific traits are incorporated into the crop.
Q: The idea of cross-pollination and drift loom large in the anti-GMO campaign. We know that cross pollination can occur in all methods of farming. Is there any difference between cross pollination of GMO vs. conventional crops?
Dr. Westgate: No.
Q: Are organic crops in any more danger from GMOs than conventional crops?
Dr. Westgate: I’m not sure what you mean by danger. Organic production is determined by the methods of crop management, not by the genetic makeup of the crop or the way it reproduces. The USDA does not require crops to be transgene free to be certified as organic. The buyers of these crops do. If “danger” means a greater potential for out-crossing in one or the other, again the answer is no — unless one is inherently sterile or less prolific, which is not necessarily related to the presence or absence of transgenes.
Corn is a wind-pollinated crop. As such, crossing between plants is an inherent and beneficial aspect of seed production. The potential for crossing between such wind-pollinated plants depends on several biological and physical factors. These include timing of flowering, amount of pollen produced, size of pollen grains, distance between plants, weather conditions, topography, etc. These things are fairly well understood and predictable. [emphasis mine]
Crops that are predominately self pollinated (e.g. Beans) are not affected by most of these factors. Crops that rely on insect pollinators, such as fruit trees and many vegetables, have another biological dimension to consider.
Of course there are exemptions in the law. What are they? In a “summary of the chief purpose and points of the proposed measure,” The California Attorney General’s listed them:
- certified organic
- unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves
- processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients
- administered for treatment of medical conditions
- sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant
- alcoholic beverages.
So, basically if, by some infintesimal chance, organic crops accidentally get contaminated, they will not have to be labeled. Wait. I thought GMO was poison and all kinds of other bad things? Why the exemptions? Doesn’t the consumer have the right-to-know if their food is processed with or contains only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients?
It’s also interesting that the same food that needs to be labeled in supermarkets doesn’t have to be if it’s served to you in a restaurant.
To understand what’s at stake in November, I decided to look into the individuals and groups behind the proposed labelling law. One participating support group is labelgmos.org. On their website, they claim “We are the original grassroots group that organized to get the ballot initiative going in California. On September 20, 2011, Pamm Larry, a grandmother from Chico, California woke up and knew that it was her job from then until November 6, 2012 to do everything she could to get an initiative on the California ballot to label genetically engineered foods.” Speaking of transparency, why does labelgmos.org hide its domain registrar information? Who are they? Who owns the domain name? It seems that information is private. It is registered with a domain registrar called Domains by Proxy. Where’s the right to know?
The folks at labelgmos.org say they are members of a coalition called California Right To Know. Now who are they? It was started by Grant Lundberg who runs Lunberg Family Farms in Richville, CA. It is a family run farm that was a pioneer in organic farming.
The farm consists of 14,000 acres and grows both organic and conventional crops. It has an annual revenue (2007) of $48.9 million. The farm is well known for its innovative contributions to sustainable agriculture and treatment of its workforce. Lundberg is no slouch. He has a Master of Science in Agricultural Economics. So, the question is, how did he come to become an ardent supporter of an anti-GMO initiative, donating $200,000? We know that cross pollination can happen in any method of farming. But Lundberg grows 70% organic and 30% conventional crops.
If cross-pollination might occur, how does Lundberg ensure that there is no cross-pollination or drift of pesticides from his conventional to organic crops? I reached out to Lundberg via email to find out the answer to this question and a few others, but through a spokesman, he declined to comment.
Contamination of organic from conventional and GMO is a risk. Both can have a negative impact on organic crops ability to get certification. The question remains, how does Lundberg prevent that from happening? Note: Contamination is a loaded term. What they really mean is cross-pollination, but that doesn’t sound as horrible.
Another group to come on board early was the Institute for Responsible Technology headed by one, Jeffrey Smith. Smith is the media’s go-to-guy for anti-GM information. He even has a blog on the Huffington Post. He isn’t a scientist and has no experience in agriculture, yet he is considered an expert on GM. Not much else is known about Smith. His bio and resume are vague. What is known is he was a member of the Maharishi Natural Law Party in Iowa whose solution to the national crime problem was “yogic flying.”
In 1996, the Daily Illinni wrote, “Smith presented charts with evidence of a correlation between the presence of yogic flyers and an increase in the quality of life and a decrease in crime. Smith cited limited yogic flying programs in Washington D.C. and near the Middle East that resulted in less crime and more harmony.” He has two self-published books on genetic engineering. One of them, Genetic Roulette has been discredited by real scientists. The organization, Academics Review, looked at the book to see how his claims stacked up against current peer-reviewed science and submitted a chapter by chapter take down of the book.
Another early supporter was Dr. Joseph Mercola who runs a very successful website selling health supplements. Yeah, he’s a huckster and a well known fraud. He was issued three cease and desist letters from the FDA for making fraudulent claims about his products. He once said in an interview, “The FDA is an agency that protects major industry and is tragically causing death and disease in this country and across the world.” Steven Salzberg, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine whose bailiwick is bioinformatics and genomics, has called Mercola “the 21st-century equivalent of a snake-oil salesman.”
What about “Pamm Larry, a grandmother from Chico”? I was unable to find very much info about Pamela Larry except I think she has/had an alternative healing business in Chico, CA . I also know that when she started her campaign she caught the eye of The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) whose head honcho is Ronnie Cummins, a guy in the anti-vaccine camp with well-known scientist Jenny McCarthy. I don’t know if Larry started her crusade honestly or not but the fact that her initial backers were a group headed by an anti-vaccine nut and an anti-science fraud selling health supplements should give anyone pause as to the veracity of the claims of the proponents of the measure.
Cummins has appeared in YouTube videos being interviewed by Dr. Mercola. He also has a blog on the Huffington Post where he peddles his lies and misinformation about GMOs. His group led a campaign of harassment against Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee who wrote an editorial about the quackiness of Cummins buddy, Mercola.
After the column appeared, the comment boards were filled with personal attacks and rants against Morain. It got so bad the site has to disable the comment section and remove the offending posts. An example of the offending posts is this one, “I hope you get cancer you corporate sellout scumbag.”
A week after the column appeared, Stuart Leavenworth, editorial page editor of the SacBee felt the need to respond to the campaign. He wrote that the OCA put Morain’s picture on their website and branded him put Morain’s photo on its a “minion of Monsanto.”
The paper offered Mercola multiple opportunities to respond but he declined. Instead Leavnworth got an email from Mercola’s assistant Brian Barth, who according to Leavenworth, “effectively threatened to bombard The Bee with a new round of emails, and insisted that we retract Morain’s column and apologize to Mercola.”
Leavenworth also said the response was a “real eye opener.” Morain has covered the influence of out-of state in California politics for years and they had never received as virulent response as the Mercola editorial.
“As a columnist the last two years, Morain has steadily documented the influence of outside money on California politics – whether it be Texas oil companies attempting to overturn California’s law to reduce greenhouse gases, or an Idaho millionaire who helped finance Proposition 8, California’s law to ban gay marriage. That didn’t matter to most of the lightning responders. All they knew was that the OCA had issued a directive to go after Morain. So, with a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse, they responded to it – from all over the country.”
Last year in Wisconsin, a recall effort was launched to oust anti-union Governor Scott Walker. But, what does this have to do with this ballot measure? Progressive groups complained about the amount of outside the state money that was being funneled in to defeat the recall. The same thing is happening here. A perusal of the California State finance campaign database shows that a significant amount of money is coming in from other states to support the measure. To be fair, the same thing is happening with those who oppose the measure. But there seems to be a hypocritical attitude here among progressives. It could be said, on behalf of supporters that sometimes you have to dance with the devil.
In the first three months of 2012, The Organic Consumers Association Committee for the Right to Know About GMOS had a war chest of $1,644,425.96. The Organic Consumers Association ponied up $40,000, twice. Surprisingly, the opponents of the ballot—the big guys—Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer have only given $625,000 in the same time period to defeat the initiative. The biggest contributor who supports the ballot is Mercola Health Resources. His company donated $800,000.
So, what is the bottom line here? While a campaign to prevent corporations from controlling the food supply is a noble goal, to attempt it through lies and deception is not. This is a bad law, steeped in nonsense, bad science and is heavily funded by crackpots and hucksters. While I think most small, organic farmers are honest, decent people, I think they have been hornswaggled by the “industry” who claim to have their interests at heart.