The result of the ballot about “Proposition 37” in California was released on November 7th. Voters refused to compel companies, supermarkets chains and sellers to label all foods containing any genetically modified organism, as demanded by the main promoter of the campaign, “Yes to Proposition 37” (http://www.carighttoknow.org/ ).
Should labeling be required on foods containing genetically modified ingredients when such foods (whether raw or processed, plant or animal) are offered for sale to consumers in California ?
Only 47% of voters supported the proposition, while a remaining 53% declared their opposition to the labelling, following what provided by the opponent, “No on 37: Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labelling Scheme” (http://www.noprop37.com/).
The people of California are known to be very sensitive about environmental and social issues. Routinely, “new waves” of consumer awareness develop there, and later reach Europe. But this was not the case this time.
In recent times, the GMO labelling issue has been at the top of the European public opinion’s agenda for months. Every time that a EU spokesperson envisione a reconsideration of the issue, or that EFTA attempted to promote a neutral, science-based approach towards genetically modified crops, a roaring social protest would show how sensitive European voters can be when it comes to genetic intervention on living organisms.
This was the case when a new variety of corn was approuved, such as in the case of the troubled Monsanto’s MON810 corn, seen as a threat by consumers. EU policy on GMOs traditionally followed a “zero tolerance” approach, until a contamination of up to 0.1% of unapproved and untested GMOs in animal feed was allowed in 2011. Current EU labelling regulations require any food containing GM ingredient or derivative in the amount more than 0.9% to be labelled, while products coming from animals fed with GM feed are not required to be labelled.
Consumers’ safety entrusted to the producers
Meanwhile, approximately 80% of current U.S. processed food items to be found in grocery stores contains GMOs, primarily due to ingredients made from GM soy, corn, canola and sugar beet. But they remain unlabelled, since “labelling will be required if the composition of the genetically modified food differs significantly from what is expected for that food, or if the genetically modified food contains potential allergens” (http://www.fda.gov/newsevents/testimony/ucm115032.htm ).
What this adds up is that there is no provision in US legislation requiring any food containing GMOs ingredients to be labelled. The substantial equivalence policy on GMOs is in general understood in terms equal nutritional value, and was established by the Food and Drug Administration in 1992.
FDA evaluates the safety of GM products based on the producers’ own evaluation (developers can submit a summary of the safety and nutritional assessment they conduct and all the testing can be submitted in electronic format). They suggest that the developer properly inform FDA about GMOs intended to be sold for commercial use, and for companies to collaborate with the agency in order to resolve any issue within the products prior to marketing. No other third party testing is required for a GM product. FDA regulation guidelines on GMOs can be found at http://www.fda.gov/Food/ GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/Biotechnology/ucm096126.htm
A few, simple slogans and tactics have been deployed again and again by the NO lobbyist hired by the big GMO companies, trying to spread preconceived distrust in worried scientists, presenting environmentalism as a refusal of the new and of progress, stressing the inevitability of a Green Revolution, and so on. The aim has clearly been that of creating a blind, almost religious trust in the food industry and in its concern for public health
Aside from public agencies, many consumer groups emerged in the US, aiming to make the American legislation reach those 61 countries in which labelling measures already exist, such as the EU, Australia, Japan, Korea, Egypt, China, Russia ). The issue has received nationwide attention: campaigners in Michigan, California, Vermont, Washington, Maine, Connecticut, Oregon are trying to put the issue on the political agenda, but only California succeeded. Oregon voters rejected a similar measure 10 years ago. (http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/blog/2012/nov/7/ food_activists_look_to_other_states_after_prop_37/ ).
A ban on cultivation of genetically modified crops has been just approved in San Juan County, Washington, making it unlawful to propagate or grow GM plants or animals on its territory ( http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/336431 ).
In the meantime, a number of politicians are willing to push federal government towards a Nation-wide GMO labelling policy reform, as President Obama had promised in 2007, before his election, in order to avoid costly trade barriers between “labeller” and “not labeller” States.
Do Americans want to know what’s in the foods they eat?
The issue and the actors
At stake in the California ballot was the issue whether a label should be required on foods containing genetically modified ingredients when such foods (whether raw or processed, plant or animal) are offered for sale to consumers in California.
“Yes to Proposition 37” was endorsed by a long list of groups. A number of environmental organizations, public health associations, consumer groups, organic farming companies together with the California Democratic party, calling for transparency and consumers’ freedom of choice to decide between GMOs and conventional crops.
The whole campaign focused on the right to be informed about the content of food, mainly claiming that FDA requirements on labels are inaccurate and misguide people by suggesting there is no difference between GM and non GM foods.
Since biotech foods are virtually everywhere in the US and no evidence of their long-term safety on human health has been established (instead, many independent studies, whose Séralini’s is the newest, show that GMOs’ consumption can cause major health problems in human and animal bodies), let people choose if to take part to the experiment or not. Since some doctors found GMOs to cause allergies, families have the right to know what to avoid in order to keep their loved ones healthy, given that labels indicating the presence of common allergens like wheat, milk, peanuts already exist. Also, the proposal required the abolition of misleading words – like “natural” – on the label of products containing GMOs.
A very common-sense regulation, since 61 countries throughout the world label GMOs ingredients in their products – because of controversial positions over biotech crops. Why should US companies not give their citizens the same information on their products they give to foreigners? Moreover, if the companies really believe in the safety of what they produce, they should be in favour of GMO labelling and provide third-party scientific data in order to make consumers believe in the superiority of the foods they sell.
Instead, they violently oppose any labelling measure because don’t want people to be able to distinguish between good food and GMOs, the committee says.
It is specified that the measure would cost zero to the public, because companies periodically re-print labels without affecting the pricing of the products, while no country which already introduced a labelling policy has never experienced a rise in food costs because of the measure. “Yes on Proposition 37” raised 9.2 million dollars in total.
On the other hand, “No on 37: Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labelling Scheme” raised 46 million dollars in total and was endorsed by food, agriculture, chemical and pharmaceutical companies involved in the genetic modification of living beings, grocery manufacturers associations, conservative think-tanks, taxpayers advocates, chambers of commerce, trade associations.
The people of California are known to be quite sophisticated voters and very sensitive about environmental and social issues. Routinely, “new waves” of consumer awareness develop there, and later reach Europe.
But this was not the case this time.
The NO campaign efforts (mainly TV ads and articles on local newspapers) were interestingly focused on the financial issue: prices.
Family farmers, companies, groceries, sellers would have to spend huge amount of money to modify packaging, introduce different types of labels for the Californian market and for the other states and face lawsuits because of confusing regulations, while state bureaucrats would be forced to administer a complex monitoring requirement using millions of dollars which taxpayers could have happily saved.
The need for non-GM, more expensive ingredients could have made prices of common packed foods higher (the average family should have paid 400 dollars more per year), by provoking a disaster especially among seniors and low-income families. So much money spent for nothing really important: GMOs have been used for human consumption for nearly two decades and products containing them are perfectly safe.
According to the NO committee, no scientific evidence exists to charge GMOs with worries and dangers for consumers, therefore a scary labelling on foods containing them would mislead people without any sound reason.
GMOs have been authorised because are safe and substantially equivalent to conventional crops. Proposition 37 would have only enriched trial lawyers and made people to misunderstand their priorities.
Nothing has changed, after 6 November. But what is at stake?
GMOs have become a hot topic all over the world. After 20 years of corporate promises, doubts and protests by consumers and associations, trade wars between EU and USA, GMOs grow in many developing and developed countries and are exported virtually everywhere. Industrial meat and dairies are obtained with GMOs, Amazon is being cleared to produce GM soybeans, the American corn belt has become a GM belt. Does the public opinion trust Monsanto & Co.’s leaflets and TV ads?
It seems not: 47% of Californian voters failed to reach their goal, but the same initiative will take place somewhere else soon. Even if each contender is able to defend it own position with a number of scientific studies, it’s true that, until now, no long-term study has been conducted on human beings in order to test GMO safety. Instead, consumers involved in similar campaigns throughout the US and the world feel like companies were testing GMOs on them.
The precautionary principle, so important in EU legislation to make the safest choices in the marketing of new products, is frankly ignored: the big agricultural-chemical companies are not able (nobody could be) to declare GMOs safety but cannot accept a denial on the point and classify as “not scientific”/”partial” any study highlighting GMOs threats.
In order to push voters to say NO to labeling, the usual slogans and tactics are being deplyed again and again: preconceived distrust in science, refusal of the new, inevitable Green Revolution…but it seems the real issue is different, and, of course, is merely about business. Companies want to place their goods because they earn a lot from them and the blind trust in GMOs they would like people to share almost religiously helps them a lot. So, how can allow them influence the future of the planet?
Should we trust agri-corporations?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that. GMOs threaten biodiversity, something we will really need in the future (let’s just take a look at the many projects about “seeds banks”), and encourage the appearance of “superweeds” and “superbugs”. GMOs usually need more pesticides, that is exactly something we don’t need more of (30 years and more after the international ban on DDT, young mothers in 2012 feel obliged to test their own milk).
Agrochemicals and intensive use of the ground make it less productive over time, while arable land becomes increasingly precious and scarce in an overpopulated world whose need of basic resources grows dramatically year after year.
GMOs are not proven to produce higher yields and need monocultures – the least sustainable system in agriculture – while a growing number of organisations, farmers associations and experts endorse the application of organic agriculture and polyculture methods in order to get the highest sustainable harvests possible.
The GMO story is shady: FlavrSavr tomato ended up in a failure; StarLink corn, intended for use in animal feed, was found in tacos and caused severe allergic reactions; the introduction of GM cotton seeds in India has provoked a tragic, on-going wave of suicide among farmers, because of the debt they accumulated in order to buy expensive seeds; Bt toxins From GM corn have been found in human blood as a result of years of uncontrolled presence of GMOs into the food chain in the US.
Whatever political party you vote for, the ground your food grows in, the water you drink, the air you breathe, the meal on your plate is a fundamental pre-condition to democracy. If a danger exists to our environment, if science does not reach a consensus on a contested technology and is polluted by private interests, if corporate-driven high-level officials even suggest retaliating against EU for resistance against GMOs selling (as a cable released by Wikileaks reveals: http://wikileaks.org/cable/2007/12/07PARIS4723.html ), ignoring such a big issue would be a severe moral failure for politics.
“When those with a vested interest attempt to sow unreasonable doubt around inconvenient results, or when governments exploit political opportunities by picking and choosing from scientific evidence, they jeopardize public confidence in scientific methods and institutions, and also put their own citizenry at risk. Safety testing, science-based regulation, and the scientific process itself, depend crucially on widespread trust in a body of scientists devoted to the public interest and professional integrity.
If instead, the starting point of a scientific product assessment is an approval process rigged in favour of the applicant, backed up by systematic suppression of independent scientists working in the public interest, then there can never be an honest, rational or scientific debate”.
Séralini and science – An open letter (http://independentsciencenews.org/health/seralini-and-science-nk603-rat-study-roundup/print/ )