|The Fight to Label Genetically Modified Foods Goes National
My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is inspired by Californiaís petition initiative to get labeling of genetically modified foods on the ballot.
I was just handed a petition for a ballot initiative to label
genetically modified foods. I signed it, but how come GM foods arenít
Labeling GM foods should be a no-brainer. Practically everyone wants
them labeled. Thatís why the Committee for the Right to Know is
collecting signatures for a California ballot initiative to require it.
To say that food biotechnology industry supporters oppose this idea
is to understate the matter. They think the future of GM foods is at
stake. They must believe that if the foods were labeled, nobody would
If consumers distrust GM foods, the industry has nobody to blame but itself. It has done little to inspire trust.
Labeling promotes trust. Not labeling is undemocratic; it does not allow choice.
As I discuss in my book, Safe Food, I was a member of the Food
and Drug Administrationís Food Advisory Committee when the agency
approved production of the first GM tomato in 1994. As we learned later,
the FDA was not asking our opinion. It was using us to gather reactions
to decisions already made.
For reasons in part scientific but largely in response to industry
pressures, the FDA decided that GM foods are inherently safe and no
different from foods produced through traditional genetic techniques.
Therefore, the thinking went, labeling would be unnecessary and mislead
people into thinking that the foods are different and somehow inferior.
Some of us strongly advised the FDA to reconsider. We thought the
issue of trust was paramount. If the products had some public benefit,
people would buy them.
Consumers in Great Britain, for example, readily accepted tomato
paste prominently labeled GM, not least because the cans were priced
below those with conventional tomatoes.
But once Monsanto shipped GM corn to England without labeling it, and
placed advertisements in British newspapers hyping the benefits of GM
foods, the British public lost confidence. Sales declined and
supermarket chains no longer were willing to carry GM items.
Today, close to 90 percent of corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in
the United States are GM varieties. You must assume that ingredients
made from these foods are GM -- unless the product is certified organic.
When researching What to Eat, I knew that Hawaiian papayas
engineered to resist ringspot virus were the most likely candidates. I
had some tested. The conventional was GM. The organic was not. Without
labels, you have no way of knowing whether you are buying GM fruits and
Intelligent people can argue about whether GM crops are good, bad, or
indifferent for agriculture, the environment, and market economies, or
whether the products are safe. But one point is clear: The absence of
labeling cannot be good in the long run for business or American
Consumers have a right to know how foods are produced. Polls
consistently report that most people want GM labeling. Lack of labeling
raises uncomfortable questions about what the biotechnology industry and
the FDA are trying to hide.
The FDA already requires labels to identify food that is made from
concentrate or irradiated. At least 50 countries in Europe and elsewhere
require disclosure of GM ingredients. Iíve seen candy bar labels in
England with this statement: "Contains genetically modified sugar, soya,
and corn." We could do this too.
Last year, 14 states, including Oregon, New York, and Vermont,
introduced bills to require GM foods to be labeled. None passed, but the
campaign has now gone national.
If you want a GM-label measure on the California ballot, go to
labelgmos.org. Just Label It is still collecting signatures. Signing
these petitions is an important way to exercise your democratic rights
as a citizen.
(« Go Back)