GMO LABELING: Do we have a right to know?
By Kristina Sepetys
Illustrations by Otto Thorsen
Genetic engineering promises food crops that can resist drought, insects, and disease; crops that can produce more bountiful yields at lower costs while helping to address hunger across the planet.
But as with many new technologies, there are unknowns and questions. Could genetically altered food organisms pose a threat to human health and the environment? Many argue yes, they could. Some people think consumers should be better informed about the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food and that the best way to communicate this information is through product labeling.
“People should be able to choose whether to purchase food with GMOs or to avoid it,” Chef Tina Ferguson-Riffe says from behind the counter at Smoke Berkeley, a small storefront restaurant that she recently opened on San Pablo Avenue near Dwight Way. Texas-born Ferguson-Riffe, surely among the sweetest food purveyors you’ll find in this town, turns out tea-smoked salmon, tasty hot and smoky BBQ beef and pork, tangy coleslaw, a tart housemade lemonade, and a prize-winning chocolate pecan pie, among other things. She uses organic produce from Catalán Family Farms, and would like to source organics for more of her ingredients: The challenge is finding cost-effective choices. Tina’s husband is the filmmaker Jed Riffe, whose much-decorated 2005 documentary, Ripe for Change, explored the intersection of food and politics in California. Tina and Jed are part of the growing chorus of support for state- and federal-level initiatives calling for labeling of genetically engineered produce and prepared foods made with GE ingredients. (GE is shorthand for both genetic engineering and genetically engineered.)
But is labeling the answer? Can it offer a meaningful, effective way of addressing GMO concerns? And is there even good reason to be concerned?
What exactly is genetic engineering?
Farmers have long practiced breeding of plants and animals by crossing individuals of the same or closely related species in order to select for desirable traits. This cross-breeding does not involve artificial manipulation of genetic material. By contrast, genetic engineering is a laboratory process that involves extracting or synthesizing copies of selected genes from one organism (an animal, plant, insect, bacterium, or virus) and artificially inserting them into another different organism, generally from an entirely different species.
GE farming: cheap and reliable
According to the United Nations, the world will need to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to feed the planet’s growing population. GE has been cheered by some specialists in global food policy for the potential it offers in meeting that demand. Millions of farmers in 29 countries, primarily developing nations, have embraced GE seeds because their use can remove some of the uncertainty and volatility from agricultural production, thereby increasing yields and decreasing costs.
The U.S. is by far the largest GM farmer in the world in terms of acres farmed. (FYI: 1 hectare = 2.47 acres) The largest crops, corn and soybeans, are grown in the Midwest. While organic farming is a significant part of California agriculture, GM crops are not. (Source: ISAAA Brief 43-2011: Executive Summary, “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2011,” International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, Table 1.)
Are GMOs in my food?
If you wonder whether you’ve ever encountered a GMO, the answer is almost certainly yes. Unless you’re eating 100 percent tested and certified organic (which prohibits GMO content), it’s hard to avoid GMOs. That’s because corn and soybeans, approximately 90 percent of which are GMO, are the basis of most processed food additives.
Artificial flavorings, aspartame, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and MSG all typically contain GMOs. If you’re a conscientious eater, you probably try to avoid foods with these ingredients. But you might be surprised to learn that many seemingly “natural” products—flavorings, molasses, vitamins, and yeast products, for instance—also typically contain GMOs. Animal products (milk, meat, eggs, etc.) are likely to contain GMO material because so much GM corn is used in animal feed.
According to the Center for Food Safety, “Upwards of 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves—from soda to soup, crackers to condiments—contain genetically-engineered ingredients.”
If GMOs can feed the world, why are so many people afraid of them?
Many people are worried about the potential environmental and health risks associated with genetically engineered food products. There are also social and ethical considerations. Will GMOs disrupt ecosystems and reduce biodiversity? Result in increased levels of chemical pesticide use? Destroy long-standing farming practices of indigenous peoples? Contaminate organic crops and reduce the prices farmers can get at market for them? Introduce new food allergens? Make us sick?
All of these outcomes are possible and several have been documented. Not much independent GE food testing is done in the U.S., and the government does little in terms of regulation. We rely almost entirely on the biotechnology companies that have developed the products to do the testing to provide quality and safety assurances. But isn’t this like asking the fox to guard the henhouse? After all, the track record of the agribusiness companies in this area isn’t so great. Other products from agrichemical companies, such as DDT, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone, aspartame (NutraSweet), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were introduced to the market as safe, but subsequently have shown damaging effects on human health and the environment. Could similar after-the-fact discoveries occur with GMOs? Many argue yes.
“It’s not fair to people to let them fill their bodies with substances that might in the future turn out to have serious health effects,” contends Hank Herrera, food justice advocate and manager at Dig Deep Farms, a community-supported agriculture project that farms several urban parcels of unincorporated Alameda County land.
“Reducing biodiversity frightens me,” says Minh Tsai, who with his partners at Hodo Soy Beanery produces organic tofu and tofu products in Oakland. “The vast majority of the U.S. soybean crop is GM. There aren’t nearly as many varieties of soybeans available as there were 35 years ago. I’m scared that through the proliferation of GMOs we’ll lose some heirlooms or organics.”
What does the rest of the world know that we don’t?
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t require genetically engineered food to be labeled. “In nearly fifty countries, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs,” says Courtney Pineau, communications manager for the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit based in Bellingham, Washington, that offers North America’s only third-party verification and labeling of non-GMO food and products.
The case for useful technologies
“It frustrates scientists in the field of biology that genetic engineering has become synonymous with conventional agrichemical and agribusiness,” laments Sarah Hake, a plant geneticist, adjunct UC Berkeley professor, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Center Director at the USDA Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany. “Genetic engineering is just a technique. Like welding. There are some very benign, and potentially very good uses of biotechnology. Some important academic research is being stymied by anti-GMO efforts. We may be barricading useful technologies from getting into the hands of third-world farmers who need them most, and that’s a shame.”
Hake is in agreement with Dig Deep Farms’ Hank Herrera that much of the GMO debate turns on the issue of herbicides and pesticides. “Either a farmer is willing to deal with weeds or they’re not,” says Herrera. “Monsanto-produced Roundup Ready corn requires less weed management. Without GMOs, would you have higher labor costs? Sure. But maybe instead your family and neighbors would pitch in to work and you’d contribute to restoring the local economy. The so-called efficiency of the modern farming system has turned everything on its head. We’ve lost some of the benefits of highly efficient small farming methods.”
GMOs aren’t going away
If there’s debate about the effects on human health and the environment or the ethical ramifications of GMOs, this much is indisputable: GMOs are well established in our food-supply chain and growing more pervasive each year. Upon their commercial introduction in 1996, GE soybeans constituted approximately 5 percent of the total U.S. soybean market, and by 2011, they accounted for a whopping 94 percent. During that time, GE corn has grown from 2 percent of the U.S. market to 88 percent. But don’t think about saving any seeds from these crops. They’re all owned and patented by agrichemical companies and only available for one-time use through purchase and license.
As GE crops are proliferating, work on GE animal and fish species continues and those products are finding their way onto store shelves. Add to these factors the ubiquity of corn- and soy-based additives in our diet, and it becomes terribly difficult, if not impossible, to avoid eating GMOs.
This chart provides striking illustration of the growth in U.S. GE corn and soybean crops over the past 15 years.
(Source: USDA, ers.usda.gov/Data/BiotechCrops)
“Raise less corn and more hell!”
—Mary Elizabeth Lease, 1890s American populist
Pamm Larry, a Chico-based organic herb farmer, doesn’t like the situation. Anxious to know definitively what’s in the food she and her grandchildren eat, the former midwife launched LabelGMOs.org, an effort in California to put mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods on the state ballot in November. “Concern to the point of depression about our food supply is what motivated me to take up this cause,” she says. LabelGMOs.org succeded in gathering the 800,000 signatures required to bring the choice before California voters, so look for it on the November 2012 ballot.
Product labeling can educate buyers, raise awareness about ingredients or processing procedures, and create demand for more health and safety studies and regulation. One concern regarding GMOs is their potential to introduce new allergens or antibiotic resistance in food. How would you know if a GMO is making you sick if you don’t know if it’s in your food? “Labeling is important because people don’t know what they don’t know,” says Pamm Larry.
“It’s a great way to raise awareness about what GMOs are. Labeling will empower consumers to make informed choices about the foods they eat,” says Straus Family Creamery president Albert Straus. Brahm Ahmadi food justice advocate and founder of People’s Community Market agrees. “Labeling would definitely help us as a retailer in our food education efforts and in empowering shoppers to make informed food choices.”
How the proposed labeling laws work
As many as a dozen U.S. states are pursuing GMO labeling, though California, Vermont, and Connecticut are generally recognized as those furthest along in their efforts. Justlabelit.org is encouraging people to contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to urge them to require labeling of GM food. Although the various initiatives differ in their wording, label-law proponents generally want all produce and processed food to carry notice on the packing label or above produce displays in retail markets stating “Genetically Engineered” (in the case of produce) or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” (for processed foods). “Retailers will have to change signage. They’ll also be on the front lines explaining changes to customers,” says Rachel Pachivas, the East Bay coordinator for LabelGMOs.org. Producers and manufacturers will be responsible for bearing the majority of the costs to make changes to their labels or undertake testing to certify their products as organic or GMO-free.
Jamie Johansson, owner of Lodestar Olive Oil, the oldest olive oil family farm in the Sacramento Valley, voices his objection to the proposal: “Some products of key concern are exempted from labeling requirements.” Restaurants, alcohol, salad bars, animal feed, and, perhaps most notably, meat, are all exempt. Even meat from animals that have consumed GE feed would not be held to the new standards. Johansson is also concerned about how the law defines “processed” and “natural” foods, and the fact that “family farmers and producers may face nuisance lawsuits under the initiative.”
The law proposed for California stipulates that any food meeting the definition of genetically engineered may not be labeled as “natural.” This pleases Julie Gengo, a marketing and communications specialist from Richmond, who thinks the labeling initiative is “long overdue.” In February of this year, Gengo sued Frito-Lay North America in federal court, accusing the company of fraudulently marketing their Tostitos and SunChip snack products containing GMOs as “all natural.” Gengo is seeking more than $5 million in damages from Frito-Lay, a wholly owned subsidiary of PepsiCo, Inc.
Given the prevalence of GMOs, the law’s enactment would likely require that a majority of food product on supermarket shelves be labeled as
derived from genetic engineering. And all those corn- and soy-based processed food additives like xanthan gum, baking powder, and lecithin, also known as microingredients? In California, producers will have a seven-year phase-in period before labeling is required, to give them time to transition to non-GMO ingredients.
Mandatory labeling, or are voluntary efforts enough?
“There is no sense in mandatory GMO labeling,” the Monsanto Company states on its website. “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees food labeling in the United States. The FDA has found there is no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by biotechnology present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”
But if there’s nothing wrong with GMOs, what’s the harm in indicating their presence on a label and allowing people to choose whether or not to eat them? “People who don’t produce GMO-free don’t like this approach because it exposes them,” says Minh Tsai of Hodo Soy. Moreover, as Claire Hope Cummings, author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, points out, “The big agrochemical corporations that make GMOs don’t want Americans to have informed choice because they’re afraid we’ll reject their products. They’re also concerned with liability, because when GMOs cause harm, labels allow consumers to trace them back to producers.”
With voluntary labeling, producers can choose whether to invest in certification and label their products as “organic,” “kosher,” or “gluten-free.” Producers may pursue certification because it ties in with their product or mission or because the designation carries a positive connotation. Investing in voluntary labeling can be viewed as a marketing expense or good public relations practice.
Mandatory labeling, on the other hand, is imposed and enforced by the government. As such, it’s usually associated with risk and generally viewed by consumers as a negative product attribute. Compulsory labeling of genetically engineered food could lead consumers to discriminate against GMO products, according to the California-based Coalition Against Costly Food Labeling Proposition, “because, it’s scary sounding.” Given the choice, a lot of people probably won’t buy scary-sounding products.
That’s a good thing for Jeffrey Smith, director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, who would like to see a complete ban on GMOs. “Since most Americans say they would avoid GMOs if labeled, we at the Institute believe that companies would likely remove GMOs rather than admit they use them. It was a critical mass of consumers saying no that kicked GMOs out of Europe, and has kicked GM bovine growth hormone out of Wal-mart, Starbucks, Yoplait, Dannon, and most American dairies. We think that as little as 5 percent of U.S. shoppers avoiding GMO brands would do the trick.”
But is it fair to stigmatize products with a negative label or to put them at a competitive disadvantage without government regulation prohibiting their use or establishing a causal link between their use and damage to human health and the environment? “The labeling information is factual and objective and leaves it to the consumer to determine whether to adjust their purchasing behavior,” maintains LabelGMOs.org’s Pachivas.
Labeling opponents argue that the amount of information already available to consumers makes mandatory labeling unnecessary. According to Monsanto, “Individuals who make a personal decision not to consume food containing GM ingredients can easily avoid such products.” Lodestar’s Johansson agrees. “There are avenues for those consumers who truly want to avoid purchasing GE or biotech products: Buy organic or buy products certified by the Non-GMO Project.”
Catch my drift: Is GMO contamination the second-hand smoke of the food world?
But some are concerned that buying organic may not be enough to protect consumers. Seeds and pollen produced by GE plants can travel, resulting in the infiltration of GMOs into non-GE or organic crops. This can be very difficult to detect. “Any crop in commercial production in GMO form is at risk for contamination. Without testing there is no way for people to know if a food contains GMOs,” explains Courtney Pineau. “GMO avoidance is a central tenet of organic. Unfortunately, because of the increased proliferation of GMOs over the past 15 years, there is a growing contamination risk to all non-GMO crops, including organic. What the Non-GMO Project does that the National Organic Program does not do is require testing and set action thresholds.”
The cross-contamination problem is particularly vexing for meat and dairy producers. Straus Family Creamery, an organic milk producer based in Marshall, California, sells milk, cream, yogurt, and other dairy products throughout the Bay Area. In 2006 Straus became the first organic dairy to voluntarily test organic cattle feed for the presence of GMOs. They discovered contamination, which was not the fault of the organic farmers, in feed corn supply. A finding like that can mean the devaluation of all the products up the food chain, which can no longer be sold as “organic.” Even worse, some organic farmers worry it could make them vulnerable to intellectual property lawsuits from agrichemical companies alleging unlicensed use of their seeds.
Pictured: Albert Straus, founder and president of Straus Family Creamery with his 100-percent organic dairy cows. (Photo courtesy of Straus Family Creamery)
Albert Straus is particularly concerned about GM strains of alfalfa, an essential feed for dairy cows. “A perennial crop pollinated by bees, alfalfa is especially prone to contamination through cross-pollination. Because bees routinely fly up to five miles from their hives to pollinate plants, it is impossible for farmers to prevent contamination of organic or conventional alfalfa crops from genetically modified pollen. My concern is that contaminated alfalfa leads to contaminated milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, as well as any other products containing dairy ingredients.” Straus is convinced that labeling “is a first step to educating consumers about the situation. The second step will be getting a testing program in place.”
Consumers want non-GM products and they want them labeled
It doesn’t appear that the first step Straus suggests, mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, will be a hard sell. According to JustLabelIt.org, five recent surveys, including polls conducted by Consumers Union and others, have found more than 90 percent of consumers want GMO labeling. Nielsen research from 2010 found “GMO-free” to be the fastest-growing marketing claim in the U.S.
The Non-GMO Project, which has been in operation since 2005, experienced 219 percent growth in requests for verification last year, according to Pineau. Participation in the Non-GMO Project is voluntary. Currently 80 California companies have received verification, including two East Bay companies: Annie’s Homegrown, the well-known mac ’n cheese maker, and cruncha ma-me, a edamame-based vegetable snack business.
What about the costs?
“As soon as you hear ‘third-party verification,’ ‘certification,’ ‘record keeping,’ and everything else, you think: ‘That’s going to cost me,’” says Jamie Johannson. “If you’re GMO-free, there’s no reason not to participate in voluntary labeling programs except the cost,” says Hodo Soy’s Tsai.
Producers who choose to pursue Non-GMO Project verification “work directly with a third-party verifier to ensure the company has achieved compliance with the Non-GMO Project standard. This includes testing of every single batch of major risk ingredients before use. Once the company has achieved compliance they may then add the Non-GMO Project verification mark to their products,” says Pineau. “The cost,” she explains, “will depend upon a producer’s size and reliance on crops at high risk of containing GMOs. It could be as little as a few hundred dollars a year, or run into the thousands.” Tsai counts all verification and certification expenses, which run on the order of $1000 a month for him, as a cost of doing business.
For some enterprises, even those providing essentially organic or GMO-free products, profit margins may be too thin to make the investment required for certification.
Unlike voluntary labeling, mandated regulation will be less costly for producers to implement because there’s no testing required. According to Pachivas, “Manufacturers should be aware of whether or not their product contains GM ingredients. The law will require that they modify product labels to say so. Manufacturers are constantly changing and reprinting labels, so these costs should not be significant.” However, the indirect costs to GM producers associated with labeling, in terms of lost sales or negative reputational effects, could add up.
East Bay producers and retailers serve up GMO-free options
While some people may be surprised at the widespread presence of GMOs in our food supply, others may be equally surprised at how much some of our local producers and merchants are doing to help consumers make informed choices and avoid food containing GMOs. Consider these Berkeley vendors.
Bob Gerner, founder and general manager of Berkeley Natural Foods and El Cerrito Natural Foods, says he started a non-GMO project in his Berkeley store almost 10 years ago. Today it offers approximately 5,000 non-GMO items, many of which have been verified by the Non-GMO Project. More are being added each month. “We’re not adding any new items with suspect ingredients. Our goal is to become a completely non-GMO store in the future. We would love to see legislation passed in California requiring labeling.”
Berkeley Farmers’ Market, managed by the Ecology Center, was the first farmers’ market to take a stand against GMOs. More than a decade ago they adopted the most comprehensive ban in the nation. Processed food vendors are required to use 80 percent organic and/or ingredients purchased from the Market, which reduces the likelihood of GMOs creeping in.
Even the City of Berkeley has as the goal—stated in its Food and Nutrition Policy—of ensuring that “the food served in City programs shall, within the fiscal resources available, not come from sources that utilize . . . transgenic modification of organisms until such time as the practice is proven to enhance the local food system.” It’s not a concern over a threat to human health as much as the “negative social and ecological consequences of the advancement of such technologies” that prompt their exclusion.
There are probably many restaurateurs and retailers in the East Bay who, like Tina Ferguson-Riffe of Smoke Berkeley, would love to sell more organic or GMO-free products. But many of their customers are only willing to pay so much, which sets limits on what ingredients the sellers can offer and still turn a profit. Our insistence on “cheap food” continues to fuel demand for GMOs and contributes to many other problems besetting our food system.
Russell Moore serves up earnest, rustic fare at his popular Oakland restaurant Camino. The good-natured chef owner and his wife Allison Hopelain work hard to procure every product in their restaurant from organic and GMO-free resources. “Even the cooking oil we use is from organic, non-GMO rice bran. I’m not saying that it’s easy, or inexpensive, or that we don’t mess up. But because I’m selling food I feel like I have a responsibility to try as best I can to do the right thing.”
Russell Moore tending the fire at Camino. (Photo by Nicki Rosario) Click here to read about Camino’s GMO-free cocktail program.
Eleven ways to say no to GMOs
Adapted from the Institute for Technology and Trade Policy, “Useful Tips to Avoid GM Food.”
Buy organic and support strong organic standards.
Read product labels and ingredient lists. Unless they are organic, products containing soy- or corn-based ingredients, such as soy flour, soy oil, vegetable oil, lecithin, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified starch, corn flour, cornstarch, corn oil, polenta, or other corn or soy derivatives are likely to have GMO content.
Know your sources. Inquire about your farmer’s or grocer’s growing and sourcing practices. Let them know GMOs are an issue of concern for you. Do the farmers use GM seeds? Do retailers consider GMOs when they source their products?
Avoid or reduce consumption of fast food and packaged and processed foods. Processed and packaged foods are most likely to contain GMO ingredients.
Bakery Products. When purchasing or even preparing your own baked goods, remember that such seemingly innocuous ingredients as baking powder can contain GM cornstarch.
Restaurant Food and Menus. Ask your server or chef what type of cooking oil they use. (Non-organic soy, cottonseed, canola, or corn oils are likely to be genetically modified.) Ask if they have anything that is cooked without oil, or if olive oil or some other oil can be used. If they have olive oil, be sure it’s not a blend. Since most processed foods contain GM derivatives (corn and soy, for example), ask what foods the chef prepares fresh, and choose those items. Check if packaged sauces are used. Other potential sources of GM foods at restaurants include salad dressings, bread, mayonnaise, and sugar from GM sugar beets.
Avoid margarine, a butter substitute typically made from soybean, corn, or other vegetable oils. Opt instead for organic butter, ghee, olive oil, or coconut oil.
Meat and dairy products from animals fed GM soy and corn are not labeled. Talk to your butcher about the ranchers from whom they buy meat and learn about their farming practices and feed sourcing.
Dried Fruit. Some dried fruits, including raisins, sultanas, currants, and dates, are coated with oil derived from GM soy. Seek out organic dried fruit, or brands that don’t list vegetable oil on the label.
Save seeds and grow your own.
Make it yourself! The easiest way to avoid GMOs is to prepare your own food using whole ingredients from purveyors you know.
For More Information
Coalition Opposed to the Costly Food Labeling Proposition:www.stopcostlyfoodlabeling.com
National organization supporting GMO labeling: www.Justlabelit.org
California state organization supporting GMO labeling: www.labelgmos.org
Writer Kristina Sepetys has consulted and written on economic, environmental, and intellectual property issues for many clients and publications. Her work has appeared in such books and periodicals as the Journal of Environmental Law and Practice, the Los Angeles Business Journal, and various Edible Communities magazines throughout the country. She lives in Berkeley and can be reached at kmsepetys(at)yahoo.com.