As consumers, we have the basic right to know what’s in our food and how it’s grown – including the use of genetic engineering. But right now, the U.S. is lagging behind the 64 other countries around the world that require the disclosure of GMO ingredients through labeling, leaving us without the ability to make informed decisions at the grocery store.
What are GMOs?
GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are organisms that have been created through gene-splicing and other biotechnology techniques. This is a relatively new science that allows the DNA of a plant or animal to be altered in a way that could not occur in nature. For example, sweet corn has been genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant and to produce its own insecticide (Bt toxin) – and in fact, it must be registered as a pesticide with the EPA.
While the safety of genetically engineered (GE) food in the U.S. is subject to three federal agencies (the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture), the varying regulations are not only uncoordinated, but are almost entirely voluntary and full of loopholes.
GMO crops have become increasingly prevalent on U.S. store shelves. With over 88% of U.S. corn, 93% of soybeans, and 90% of canola now being produced using genetic engineering, it’s estimated that more than three quarters of processed foods contain GMOs.
Developers of GMOs have claimed that the use of these seeds would decrease the need for herbicides and pesticides, but we are already finding that these claims don’t hold water. Increased chemical usage, negative impacts on soil and plant health, reduced plant and animal biodiversity, and an epidemic of “superweeds” have all been attributed to the widespread use of GE crops in the U.S.
Consumer Right to Know
States across the country are advancing labeling initiatives, with Vermont leading the way with the first GMO labeling law that does not wait for other states to act first. By disclosing if food is produced with genetic engineering, Vermont is providing its citizens with our simple right to know what we eat and feed our families.
Over 60 countries, including all of Europe and China, require the labeling of GMOs – but due to the strength of the huge biotechnology, chemical, and junk food industries, the U.S. is way behind. Americans have overwhelmingly said time and again that they want to see GMO labels, and yet lawmakers are now working to permanently prevent mandatory common-sense labeling.
Research from Environmental Working Group found that just between January-September of 2015, anti-labeling lobbying expenditures topped $75 million – at the federal level alone. Within recent state ballot initiatives, it’s been estimated that food companies and trade associations have spent over $100 million.
Potential Risks to Health
While the U.N., World Health Organization, and American Medical Association have all called for mandatory safety testing of genetically engineered crops, the FDA does not require independent testing before commercial use and instead relies on industry-selected data and conclusions.
Since GE seeds and crops are protected by patents, independent researchers have had difficulty developing studies, and so there is not yet conclusive scientific evidence as to whether GMOs are a significant risk to human health. However, independent studies have shown that GE foods can contain new toxins, allergens and other substances that may pose health-related risks and unexpected effects.
Recently the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, determined that glyphosate (the most common herbicide paired with herbicide tolerant crops) is “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
After years of intense grassroots organizing and advocacy, Vermont passed Act 120, a law requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods. While Maine and Connecticut had previously passed GMO labeling laws, Vermont’s was the first that did not include a “trigger clause” – in other words, we decided to move forward regardless of other states’ action.
As soon as Act 120 was signed into law, corporate food producers and chemical companies sued the State of Vermont for, among other things, violating their “first amendment right” to not tell consumers what’s in their products. The Vermont Food Fight Fund was established for citizens to contribute to the defense of the lawsuit, which you can visit here.
While Vermont works to implement the law starting July 1st, 2016, the anti-labeling special interest groups have been fighting against strong public support and action tooth and nail- both in the courts and in Congress.