Do You Have the Right to Know What’s in Your Food?

It will have escaped few people’s attention that this Tuesday November 6th, Americans will be voting on who will be their next president. While the outcome of the elections is unlikely to make a real difference, on that same day Californians will be able to vote on something that has much more potential to elicit real change: mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food. Being the 8th largest economy in the world, what happens in California has far-reaching implications on a national and even international scale. The same will likely be true for what is officially known as Proposition 37.

Genetically modified (GM) foods contain genes from other organisms that have been transferred into it by scientists in a laboratory. The technique was discovered in the mid-1970s when scientists inserted spider genes into goat DNA, cow genes into pigs, jellyfish genes into pigs, Arctic fish genes into tomatoes and strawberries and human genes into corn. The aim was to transfer genes from one species that had a specific desirable trait, i.e. tolerance to frost in Arctic fish, into the DNA of another species in hopes that it would develop the same trait(s). In addition, some crops have been genetically altered to be able to survive an otherwise deadly dose of pesticides. Farmers that choose to buy these crops are also required to buy the corresponding herbicide produced by the same company. Finally, there is a variety of GM crops that produce their own pesticide, called Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, internally. So far only corn and cotton have been genetically modified for this end[1].

The GM seed industry is controlled by five companies: Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and Dow. Monsanto is the largest player with 88% of GM acreage planted in 2005. The four major genetically modified food crops in commercial production today are soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. Other crops include zucchini, crookneck squash, papaya and alfalfa. GM tomatoes and potatoes were also introduced but consequently taken off the market[2]. As of last year genetically modified foods were grown in 29 countries with the United States planting by far the most, 69 percent. Other countries in the top ten included Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay, Pakistan, South Africa and Uruguay.

According to the biotech industry – the producers of genetically modified organisms – their crops have various benefits. They even go as far as to claim that GMOs will one day “feed the world” because they “lead to higher yields”, besides delivering “proven economic and environmental benefits”. They back up these claims with scientific research while omitting the fact that this research was either funded or conducted by – you guessed it – the industry itself. Independent studies, such as a 1996 study funded by the UK government[3], have found serious negative effects such as smaller brains and reproductive organs; enlarged pancreases and intestines; liver damage; impaired immune systems[4]; bleeding stomachs, kidney inflammation and increased blood sugar levels and even death. Agricultural laborers in six villages in India reported reactions of the skin, eyes and upper respiratory tract after handling genetically modified Bt cotton. Also, suicide rates among Indian farmers have gone up considerably since the introduction of GMOs in the country. As a result of a host of detrimental health effects, authorities in India are now expected to pull the plug on genetically engineered foods once and for all

Much more remains to be said about the safety of biotechnology. Entire books have been written on the subject, covering the health risks, corruption and pseudo-science surrounding the technology. The lay person should consider this, though: if a company was convinced of the superiority of their products, what would stop it from proudly labeling them to raise awareness among consumers? Given the fact that the biotech industry is fighting tooth and nail to stop Proposition 37, the industry apparently does not want people to know that their food has been created by them. What other industry or company has that kind of relationship with its customers? Imagine Nike removing the “swoosh” from their products, or the new iPhone 5 without an Apple logo. The idea sounds ludicrous yet that’s precisely what the biotech industry is doing. This should be a huge red flag to anyone who is still on the fence about this technology. And speaking of red flags, back in 1999 mainstream media reported that Monsanto’s own employees refuse to eat GMOs in the corporate cafeteria. Meanwhile the industry is throwing tens of millions of dollars at the No on Prop. 37 campaign to block labeling of their so-called “superior” products.

Let’s hope that will not dissuade Californians from voting Yes on Proposition 37 for the right to know what is in our food. .

N.B. For more information visit www.carighttoknow.org.


[1]  Smith, J.M. (2007). Genetic Roulette, The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. Fairfield: Yes! Books. p. 7

[2]  Smith, J.M. (2007). Genetic Roulette, The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. Fairfield: Yes! Books. p. 7

[3] Freese, W., Schubert, D. (2004). Safety Testing and Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods. Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews, 21. Digital version available at http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/BGER-PAPER.pdf

[4] Freese, W., Schubert, D. (2004). Safety Testing and Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods. Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews, 21. Digital version available at http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/BGER-PAPER.pdf

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