When you grab a bottle of "all natural" cooking oil at the grocery store or a bag of "all natural" corn chips, you think you're getting an "all natural" product. But like any product advertised as "natural," that all depends on your definition of the word—and that of the people selling it to you.
Considering our corporate-controlled food supply, you might imagine there are many different opinions on what "natural" means, since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate the term. This past December, California resident Julie Gengo brought a class-action lawsuit against Frito-Lay for advertising its Tostitos and Sun Chips as all natural, despite the fact that both are made with genetically modified corn. Her suit follows another, brought by the same New York City law firm, Milberg LLC, against food giant ConAgra for advertising its canola oil as natural, even though it, too, is made from a genetically modified crop.
Neither case has gone to trial, but both bring up one of the most contentious issues in the food movement today: labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods. Ingredients made from genetically modified crops, or GMOs, such as corn, soy, canola, and even cotton exist in approximately 70 percent of the processed foods on store shelves, including nearly all foods advertised as "natural". Public opinion polls conducted by Reuters, Consumers Union, ABC News, and the Washington Post all show that more than 90 percent of Americans want genetically modified foods to be labeled, something that is already required in 40 developing and developed nations. "It's even required in Russia and China, two countries not exactly known for progressive citizen action," says Gary Hirschberg, CEO of the organic dairy Stonyfield Farms and one of the founders of a new campaign to force the FDA to require labeling. "America, a country ruled by the people, has not provided this same right to know."
The Just Label It campaign was launched in the fall of last year with a petition, filed with the FDA in September, asking them to move forward with mandatory labeling laws. Since the campaign filed that petition, it has received more than 540,000 public comments, most of which are in favor of mandatory labeling. "That's more comments than in the history of any regulation at FDA," says Hirschberg.
According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soybeans grown in America are genetically modified. In addition to corn and soy, biotech companies have successfully gained patents for genetically modified sugar beets to make sugar, and alfalfa (hay) to feed to livestock. Nearly all of these wind up on your dinner plate in the form of processed foods or in the meat and dairy products made from animals fed genetically modified grain.
"The contention the FDA uses when the issue of labeling has come up before is that these crops are not materially different from non-genetically modified versions of the same crops," Hirschberg says. "But they're clearly different." All you need to do is look at the definition of GMO biotech giant Monsanto uses on its own website: "Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. In general, genes are taken (copied) from one organism that shows a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism."
So what's the big deal about them? We have no idea, says Robyn O'Brien, a former financial analyst for the food industry-turned-food activist after one of her children had a severe allergic reaction that she believes was caused by genetically modified ingredients. "The biotech industry spouts a lot of claims that there is no evidence of harm," she says, which is partly true—because the studies have never been done. "What little science that has been conducted on GM foods has been industry funded," she adds.
But there is evidence that genetically modified crops are not as benign as biotech firms would like you to believe. The best-documented problem they pose to people is the potential for food allergies. When plants are crossbred with entirely new species, new proteins are introduced into the crop, and food allergies can develop if your immune system attacks those new proteins and treats them like foreign invaders. Similarly, in one high-profile case, a soybean was crossbred with a Brazil nut in the late '90s, but the project was abandoned after the scientists realized that the allergenic proteins in Brazil nuts were transferred to the new crop, which could have been potentially fatal for people with tree-nut allergies.
Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner produced this video in support of the Just Label It Campaign.
While most genetically modified crops are bred to withstand heavy dousings of pesticides, others are bred to create their own pesticides, and a recent study showed that those pesticides can survive in our digestive systems and even wind up in unborn babies. The research, published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, detected Bt-toxin, a bacterium bred into corn and cotton that kills insects when they try to eat the crops, in 93 percent of pregnant women and in 80 percent of their babies. Though the scientists couldn't pinpoint the exact source, they suspected the Bt-toxins came from the corn and soy fed to animals, whose meat products the women were eating. "The FDA was told by the crops' patent owners that the toxin would be broken down by saliva and not show up in the human gut," Hirschberg adds, but they were wrong.
Without independent studies on genetically modified foods, the health effects, if any, may never be revealed, he adds. Complicating the issue, these crops are patented and researchers must get permission from the likes of Monsanto, Bayer, and Syngenta before they're allowed to test them. And those companies have a financial interest in keeping scientists quiet. "The science [on GMO safety] is going to be debated for a long time," Hirschberg says. "Similar to climate change, we may not know for decades what the real impacts are. But people deserve and need the right to know whether they want to participate in this system or not."
The Real Danger of "Agent Orange Corn"
Perhaps the most severe, and well-studied, risk of genetic modification is that posed by the pesticides these crops are designed to withstand. Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, designs nearly all its genetically modified seeds to withstand Roundup, a pesticide so heavily used, researchers recently detected it in rain. Because it's so heavily used, workers and those living in agricultural areas are constantly exposed to low levels that can interfere with hormones and, in this way, lead to endocrine disorders such as obesity, diabetes, infertility and heart problems.
Its heavy overuse has also led to an explosion of pesticide-resistant weeds, which now cover 13 million acres, up from just 2.4 million a few years ago. Not only that, but bugs are becoming resistant to it. Farmers in the Midwest now have to contend with rootworms that are developing resistance to the Bt toxin bacterium.
What's the biotech industry doing to combat this? Encouraging more resistance and use of more potent pesticides, of course! Monsanto just petitioned the USDA for permission to sell a corn resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba, two pesticides that have been found to increase the risk of spontaneous abortions by 50 percent. 2,4-D is one of the chemicals used in the toxic defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and dicamba was sprayed alongside it. Both chemicals have the potential for being contaminated with dioxin, which was responsible for the severe birth defects seen in the children of Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese citizens. "The science is absolutely clear on the problems of 2,4-D and dicamba," says Hirschberg.
And that's why Hirschberg continues to push for GMO labeling. "If the average American understood this is where we're headed, they would feel as we do," he says. "We can't stop these technologies from being developed, but consumers have right to know whether they are participating in it."
What Can You Do?
• Demand labeling for genetically modified foods. Send a message to the FDA at justlabelit.org. The agency will be accepting comments on the Just Label It petition until February 18.
• Support organic farming. The problem with "natural" labeling is that people choose it over organic, so they can buy a cheaper product but still feel good about their purchase, Hirschberg says. But buying certified organic is the only surefire way to avoid genetically modified foods; unregulated labels like "natural," "antibiotic free," and "hormone free" may sound appealing, but none of them means the foods don't contain genetically modified ingredients, or that it didn't come from an animal that ate genetically modified corn or soy.