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Battle Brewing Over Labeling of Genetically Modified Food

Submitted by Food Democracy Now on May 25, 2012 - 12:43am

From the The New York Times:

By Amy Harmon and Andrew Pollack,

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — On a recent sunny morning at the Big Y grocery here, Cynthia LaPier parked her cart in the cereal aisle. With a glance over her shoulder and a quick check of the ingredients, she plastered several boxes with hand-designed stickers from a roll in her purse. “Warning,” they read. “May Contain GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms).”

For more than a decade, almost all processed foods in the United States — cereals, snack foods, salad dressings — have contained ingredients from plants whose DNA was manipulated in a laboratory. Regulators and many scientists say these pose no danger. But as Americans ask more pointed questions about what they are eating, popular suspicions about the health and environmental effects of biotechnology are fueling a movement to require that food from genetically modified crops be labeled, if not eliminated.

Labeling bills have been proposed in more than a dozen states over the last year, and an appeal to the Food and Drug Administration last fall to mandate labels nationally drew more than a million signatures. There is an iPhone app: ShopNoGMO.

The most closely watched labeling effort is a proposed ballot initiative in California that cleared a crucial hurdle this month, setting the stage for a probable November vote that could influence not just food packaging but the future of American agriculture.

Tens of millions of dollars are expected to be spent on the election showdown. It pits consumer groups and the organic food industry, both of which support mandatory labeling, against more conventional farmers, agricultural biotechnology companies like Monsanto and many of the nation’s best-known food brands like Kellogg’s and Kraft.

The heightened stakes have added fuel to a long-simmering debate over the merits of genetically engineered crops, which many scientists and farmers believe could be useful in meeting the world’s rapidly expanding food needs.

Supporters of labeling argue that consumers have a right to know when food has been modified with genes from another species, which they say is fundamentally different from the selective breeding process used in nearly all crops.

Almost all the corn and soybeans grown in the United States now contain DNA derived from bacteria. The foreign gene makes the soybeans resistant to an herbicide used in weed control, and causes the corn to produce its own insecticide.

“It just makes me nervous when you take genetic matter from something else that wouldn’t have been done in nature and put it into food,” said Ms. LaPier, 44, a mental health counselor whose guerrilla labeling was inspired by the group Label It Yourself. She worries that her daughter, 5, could one day suffer ill effects like allergies.

The F.D.A. has said that labeling is generally not necessary because the genetic modification does not materially change the food.

Farmers, food and biotech companies and scientists say that labels might lead consumers to reject genetically modified food — and the technology that created it — without understanding its environmental and economic benefits. A national science advisory organization in 2010 termed those benefits “substantial,” noting that existing biotech crops have for years let farmers spray fewer or less harmful chemicals, though the emergence of resistant weeds and insects threatens to blunt that effect.

In a letter circulating on social networks, one Iowa farmer, Tim Burrack, criticized this month’s O, the Oprah Magazine, which cited research linking genetic engineering to health concerns that many scientists have discredited and proposed “5 Ways to Lessen Your Exposure to GMO’s.” Mr. Burrack urged Ms. Winfrey not to “demonize GM crops.”

But some food experts argue that food manufacturers have an obligation to label. Consumers “have a right to take genetic modification into consideration,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “And if the companies think consumer objections are stupid and irrational, they should explain the benefits of their products.”

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Originally published in The New York Times.

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