Ac­tivists gain ground in fight for GMO trans­parency

Santa Fe New Mexican - Healthy Living - - BULLETINS - — SANDY NELSON

It’s a food fight of global pro­por­tions over some­thing mi­cro­scopic: the mod­i­fied genes in the plants and an­i­mals we eat.

In one cor­ner stand the biotech in­dus­try, agribusi­ness, the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence and the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences, among many other sci­ence and in­dus­try go­liaths. Th­ese groups in­sist on the safety of the ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms (GMOs) found in up to 80 per­cent of food crops and al­most all corn and soy­beans grown in the U.S., ex­cept those that are cer­ti­fied or­ganic.

In the other cor­ner are grass­roots ac­tivists who ar­gue pas­sion­ately that tam­per­ing with the DNA of plants and an­i­mals cul­ti­vated for hu­man con­sump­tion could ex­pose peo­ple un­wit­tingly to toxic or al­ler­genic pro­teins. Ma­nip­u­lat­ing the molec­u­lar foun­da­tion of the global food sup­ply could have un­in­tended, long-term con­se­quences, they warn. They as­sert that con­sumers have a right to know what they’re eat­ing and feed­ing their fam­i­lies.

The con­flict over GMO safety is in­ter­na­tional: While the U.S., Brazil, Canada and Ar­gentina grow most of the world’s GM crops, the prod­ucts are banned or se­verely re­stricted in many Euro­pean, African and South Amer­i­can coun­tries.

In the United States, the “food trans­parency” move­ment is find­ing trac­tion at the state level, with sev­eral states con­sid­er­ing or en­act­ing manda­tory la­bel­ing laws, de­spite op­po­si­tion from the Gro­cery Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, Mon­santo, DuPont, Dow AgroS­ciences and other pow­er­ful or­ga­ni­za­tions and com­pa­nies. In Congress, op­po­nents of la­bel­ing want to se­cure fed­eral leg­is­la­tion that would nul­lify state la­bel­ing laws.

Sci­en­tists who sup­port GMOs ex­plain that the crops that are en­gi­neered to re­quire fewer pes­ti­cides, yield larger har­vests and grow in in­hos­pitable con­di­tions, in this way low­er­ing the cost of food and re­duc­ing world hunger, es­pe­cially as cli­mate change shrinks arable land and the world’s pop­u­la­tion swells. Th­ese sci­en­tists ar­gue that to force com­pa­nies to dis­close GMOs sug­gests that the prod­ucts are harm­ful, stig­ma­tizes the biotech in­dus­try and raises food costs.

But food trans­parency ac­tivists and other sci­en­tists ques­tion the neu­tral­ity of re­search funded by busi­nesses with a stake in ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing. They ex­plain that RoundUpready crops, which are en­gi­neered to re­sist her­bi­cides such as glyphosate, ac­tu­ally in­crease chem­i­cal con­tam­i­na­tion of the food sup­ply, as farm­ers feel freer to ap­ply her­bi­cides to elim­i­nate com­pet­i­tive plants. In Oc­to­ber 2015, Con­sumer Re­ports mag­a­zine weighed in on the side of dis­clo­sure and drew a dis­tinc­tion be­tween ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and the types of selec­tive breed­ing that hu­mans have done for mil­len­nia: “Un­like cross-breed­ing, which in­volves the trans­fer of DNA be­tween closely re­lated plants or an­i­mals, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing tech­niques move ge­netic ma­te­rial from any or­gan­ism to any other or­gan­ism.”

The Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion op­poses manda­tory la­bel­ing, but Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Tom Vil­sack has tried — with­out suc­cess — to fa­cil­i­tate a com­pro­mise be­tween op­po­nents and sup­port­ers of GMO dis­clo­sure. At press time, fed­eral leg­is­la­tion that would in­val­i­date state laws re­quir­ing dis­clo­sure — called the DARK Act by op­po­nents — has passed the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives; its fate in the Se­nate is un­clear.

In Jan­uary, Camp­bell Soup Com­pany broke ranks with in­dus­try part­ners and urged other com­pa­nies to fol­low suit — to give con­sumers the in­for­ma­tion they want. The com­pany an­nounced that it would be­gin dis­clos­ing GMO in­gre­di­ents in “a clear and sim­ple state­ment” on prod­uct la­bels and sup­port com­pul­sory la­bel­ing leg­is­la­tion.

While stress­ing her be­lief that GMOs are safe, com­pany pres­i­dent and CEO Denise Mor­ri­son ex­plained Camp­bell’s de­ci­sion: “We put the con­sumer at the cen­ter of ev­ery­thing we do. That’s how we’ve built trust for nearly 150 years. We have al­ways be­lieved that con­sumers have the right to know what’s in their food. GMO has evolved to be a top con­sumer food is­sue reach­ing a crit­i­cal mass of 92 per­cent of con­sumers in fa­vor of putting it on the la­bel.”

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