It’s time to require the labeling of genetically modified foods.
Polls show that more than 90 percent of the public want to know if their food was produced using genetic engineering — potatoes altered with bacteria genes, corn altered to produce pesticide, “super” pigs altered with human growth genes, tomatoes altered with fish genes, fish altered with cattle growth genes, etc.
But in the near future, you may suddenly start hearing arguments against your right to know what you’re eating.
That’s because the Committee for the Right to Know, a grassroots coalition of consumer, public health and environmental organizations and food companies in California, has submitted the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act to the State Attorney General for circulation as an initiative measure. Proponents have until April 12 to obtain the 504,760 valid signatures needed to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.
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Of course, the industrybacked groups that will be making arguments against informing consumers and in favor of ignorance won’t put it that way. Locally, we may see an attempt to refight the battle over Measure Q, the 2004 ballot initiative that sought to ban the cultivation of genetically engineered crops in San Luis Obispo County. But this initiative simply seeks the labeling of genetically engineered foods, aka genetically modified organisms (GMOs), so pulling out old arguments about taking away the right of farmers to choose to plant genetically engineered corn or soybeans won’t apply. This is about your right to choose what you put in your body.
You may hear arguments about the burdensome costs to industry of labeling (probably referred to as a “tax.”) Because consumer labeling is a well-established, nonburdensome practice, this, too, won’t be much of an argument.
You’ll hear the argument that there is simply no need to label GMOs because they are perfectly safe. But 50 countries, including China and the entire European Union, require the labeling of genetically engineered food. The United States continues to allow GMOs to be sold unlabeled, with the determination of their safety left up to the manufacturer and no toxicology testing by the Food and Drug Administration required — essentially the largest ongoing science experiment in history, one that’s being conducted without the consent of the experimental subjects and despite the efforts of industry to suppress the mounting evidence of adverse environmental and health effects and to discredit scientists who report such effects.
That experiment is being conducted despite sharp dissent with the FDA’s position that there is essentially no difference between GMOs and conventional crops and therefore no need for extensive testing — a dissent coming from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the UK Medical Research Council, the Royal Society of Canada, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the FDA’s own scientists.
Action at the federal level on labeling genetically engineered food is unlikely. Federal labeling legislation has been before Congress since 1999. It has failed to pass. State governments have likewise failed. GMO labeling bills launched in Sacramento and in 14 other states have died, testimony to the power of the ag biotech industry and its lobbyists.
California’s ballot initiative was designed for situations just like this -— to be used as a tool that allows the voters to implement the will of the people and go around the entrenched money interests when those interests have paralyzed our Legislature.
In the last year, the USDA approved five new GMO crops from Monsanto. In December, the Obama administration quietly approved two brand new Monsanto GMO seeds. That’s why, when you are approached by a person with a clipboard at a farmers market or outside a grocery store and asked if you would like to sign a petition to put the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act on the ballot, you should say yes. We don’t have time to wait to ensure the safety of food for California families.
Petitions will also be available at the Sierra Club office at 974 Santa Rosa St. in San Luis Obispo any weekday between 1 and 5 p.m. from Feb. 13 through April 6. You can also volunteer for signature gatherer training by contacting jeannegmo@gmail .com . Get more information and read the initiative at www.labelgmos.org .
Now is the time to send a strong, direct message to those who govern us, that we want genetically engineered foods labeled.
The authors serve on the executive committee of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club.