It seems like every day the food movement is gaining more power in the fight for the consumers' right to know what is in our food. Two weeks ago 200 businesses and organizations sent a letter to President Obama asking him to fulfill his 2007 campaign promise to label foods made with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. Just last week, Hawaiians rallied together to defeat a legislative maneuver designed to strip local control over agriculture. And states like Vermont and Maryland are advancing state bills to mandate that big food manufacturers label products made with GE ingredients (sometimes called GMOs).
This is great news for consumers, but there is one group that doesn't like what they are reading: the big agrichemical and food manufacturing firms that make billions selling GE products. To push back against the growing power of the food movement, one such group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, formed a new coalition last week to bring together some of the biggest players in GE food production. TheCoalition for Safe Affordable Food will use their deep pockets to push back against the food movement's successes.
Comprising the biggest food, chemical, and biotechnology lobbying groups, the new coalition has three goals to underscore support for genetic engineering and the GMO crops and products containing them:
Prevent states from passing commonsense legislation mandating information about genetically engineered GMO food products.
Persuade the Food and Drug Administration to allow GMO ingredients to be marketed as "natural" (which they already do).
Confuse consumers by continuing to promote a failed "voluntary" GMO labeling program rather than a mandatory one.
It's not hard to see what they are doing if you are willing to look. Andrew Kimbrell, the executive director of Center for Food Safety, summed it up:
These companies spent nearly $70 million in California and Washington State to defeat GE labeling initiatives. They know that the food movement's power is growing and that labeling is not a matter of if but when. These companies have failed to win over consumers who overwhelmingly support the mandatory labeling of GMOs and now they're trying to steal away consumer choice in Congress.
These companies use messaging techniques to reassure a skeptical public, but it's all just public relations (PR). Chipotle has launched a satirical series, Farmed and Dangerous, exposing the role of PR firms in the marketing war over "Big Food."
A PR firm doesn't care what it says as long as the public perception is moved in favor of their client. Smoke-and-mirrors tactics are enlisted to confuse and propagandize the public -- and that is just what this new coalition of Big Food lobbyists will do.
In order to clear away some of the smoke, I've taken a tiny sampling of the industry's talking points and looked a little deeper. The following claims come from the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. The arguments they are propagating are beyond flawed and incomplete: They are downright wrong. Much of the research used below can be found at centerforfoodsafety.org.
The Claim: "Many of the most influential regulatory agencies and organizations that study the safety of the food supply ... have found genetically modified food ingredients (GMOs) are safe and there are no negative health effects associated with their use."
The Facts: In the early '90s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled, without scientific evidence, that genetically engineered foods present no risks that traditional foods don't. Scientists working for the agency were surprised by the declaration. "What happened to the scientific elements in [the] document?" one asked. These FDA scientists argued that "[t]here is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering. ... [T]his difference should be and is not addressed." They specifically warned that the genetic engineering of foods could result in "increased levels of known naturally occurring toxicants, appearance of new, not previously identified toxicants, and increased capability of concentrating toxic substances from the environment (e.g., pesticides or heavy metals)." They recommended that long-term toxicological tests be required prior to the marketing of GE foods.
And this risk is not hypothetical. A study by the New England Journal of Medicineshowed that when a gene from a Brazil nut was engineered into soybeans, people allergic to nuts had serious reactions to the engineered product. At least one food, a Pioneer Hi-Bred International soybean, was abandoned because of this problem.
The Claim: "GM technology adds desirable traits from nature, without introducing anything unnatural or using chemicals, so that food is more plentiful."
The Facts: When the biotech industry removes genetic material from one organism and inserts it into another, they create new organisms not produced by nature -- organisms that have certainly never been ingested by humans. These new creations include corn that produces insecticidal proteins from a soil bacterium, pigs containing human genes, salmon with anti-freeze DNA, and tomatoes with fish genes. These are novel products.
Genetically engineered crops do not necessarily require using chemicals, but farmers who grow GE crops use more herbicides. For example, Monsanto created Roundup-Ready (RR) crops like soy, corn, and cotton. These GE products are designed to withstand the application of Monsanto's herbicide, Roundup. The result of the genetic engineering is that herbicides can be used on the plant. One study of more than 8,000 university-based field trials "suggested that farmers who plant RR soy use two to five times more herbicide than non-GE farmers who use integrated weed-control methods."
And according to the Union of Concerned Scientists' landmark April 2009 report "Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops," GE crops have failed to significantly increase crop yields.
The Claim: "Ingredients grown using GM technology require fewer pesticides, less water and keep production costs down. In fact, GM technology helps reduce the price of crops used for food, such as corn, soybeans and sugar beets by as much as 15-30%."
The Facts: Herbicide-resistant GM crops have led to a 527-million-pound increase in herbicide use in the U.S. between 1996 and 2011. Overall, since 1996, pesticide use has increased 7 percent (404 million pounds). USDA data shows that in 2008 alone, 26-percent more pesticides were used on GM crops than on non-GM, traditional crops.
GM crops have caused seed prices of major U.S. commodity crops to rise significantly,hurting America's family farms. Since 1995, soybean, corn, and cotton seeds haverisen in price by 325 percent, 259 percent, and 526 percent, respectively.
The Claim: "GE technology, can help us feed the hungry and malnourished in developing nations around the world."
The Facts: GM crops are not a silver bullet for global hunger. The UN general comment on the right to food agrees that "the roots of the problem of hunger and malnutrition are not lack of food but lack of access to available food."
Further, companies like Monsanto have license agreements that prevent farmers from saving seeds. That means they are forced to return to Monsanto to buy expensive seeds every year. If a farmer can't afford new seeds, he could lose everything. This increases food instability for 1.4 billion people.