By Ronnie Cummins
It has been a year since the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) joined with Mercola.com, National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), Fluoride Action Network (FAN), Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), and Consumers for Dental Choice to form a new non-profit coalition, Health Liberty.
Over the past 12 months this alliance has proven to be a brilliant merging of talent, networks, resources and passion around consumer rights and protection.
Each of us in this coalition brings the knowledge gleaned from years of research on health and environmental issues, combined with strong track records of activism and successful campaigning for consumers' right to know what the potential risks are – to their health and to their communities – of food and other products they buy.
And each of us is committed to fighting on behalf of consumers everywhere for the right to make an informed choice about whether or not to avoid those risks. When it comes to genetically engineered foods, the risks to your health come from multiple angles. The genetic alteration itself can cause significant problems in animals and humans consuming the food, but the potential hazards of the chemicals sprayed in large quantities on such crops are just as great...
Genetically Engineered Foods: The Right to Know
With the help of our new coalition partners, and many other concerned organizations and individuals, the OCA has focused this past year on what we believe is the most critical threat to the health of consumers and our planet: genetically modified organisms (GMOs), also referred to as genetically engineered (GE) seeds and food.
With little or no regulatory restraints, labeling requirements, or scientific protocol, bio-engineers since the 1990s have been creating hundreds of new genetically engineered "Frankenfoods" and crops. The research is done with little concern for the human and environmental hazards and the negative socioeconomic impacts on the world's several billion farmers and rural villagers.
Since the advent of GMO testing, the OCA has relentlessly gone to bat against the biotech and agribusiness industries, Food Inc., and the FDA and the USDA, in an effort to protect human health and the environment from the potential hazards of these genetically modified organisms.
Over the years, we have fought the battle on numerous fronts, using every tactic in the book. Our latest and potentially most successful strategy has been to fight for consumers' basic right to know what is in their food – and to take that battle directly to voters, through citizens' initiatives.
This two-pronged strategy – demanding the basic right to know through the use of direct democracy tools - is our best chance at winning the fight against genetically engineered foods.
We believe that once food manufacturers are required to label any and all genetically modified ingredients in their food products – which will finally give consumers the ability to choose whether or not to buy those products – consumers will stop buying them, and manufacturers will stop making them.
That strategy has been successful in Europe and more than 20 other countries that require labeling of genetically engineered foods. Consumers in those countries have spoken clearly: We don't want those products. And manufacturers have responded by reformulating their products to be GMO-free.
Using Direct Democracy to Force GMO Labeling
The notion that consumers have the right to know about genetically engineered foods has gathered steam, culminating this year in an unprecedented number of state – and one federal – campaigns to require GMO labeling. The OCA has supported individual legislative efforts this past year in Washington State, Vermont, Hawaii, and Connecticut.
In all, 18 states tried and failed to pass popular GMO labeling legislation this year, watching cowardly Governors and state legislatures back down under the weight of massive lobbying efforts on the part of Big Biotech and in some states, threats of lawsuits from Monsanto.
But now we are on the verge of what we believe will be our first major victory – a citizens' ballot initiative in California that, if passed, will mark the single biggest victory in the GMO right to know battle, and will finally change the direction of food and farming in our country. Forever.
On May 2, campaign volunteers representing a broad and unprecedented health, environmental, and consumer coalition, spearheaded by the Organic Consumers Association, Mercola.com, Food Democracy Now LabelGMOs, Natural News, and scores of other groups, filed ballot petition papers signed by almost a million California registered voters to place a Citizens Initiative on the Ballot in November 2012 that will require labeling of genetically engineered foods and food ingredients, and ban the routine industry practice of labeling and marketing such foods as "natural."
This battle has not yet been won – we are stepping up efforts to educate California's voters on the dangers of genetically engineered foods, mobilize them to spread the word, and get out the vote.
To fund the campaign OCA, the Organic Consumers Fund (our grassroots lobbying ally), Mercola.com, and our allies have been forced to raise over $4 million dollars thus far, with another $4-6 million needed before November, to counter the anticipated $50 million dollar war chest of Monsanto, the biotech industry, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The good news is that although we may be outspent 10 to one, polls show that 80-90 percent of California voters support labeling of genetically engineered foods. In other words we are confident that we can win.
Scientists Warn about the Potential Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods
An increasing number of scientists are warning that current gene-splicing techniques are crude, inexact, and unpredictable—and therefore inherently dangerous. Yet, pro-biotech governments and regulatory agencies maintain that genetically engineered foods and crops are "substantially equivalent" to conventional foods, and therefore require neither labeling nor pre–market safety-testing.
This Brave New World of Frankenfoods is frightening. Today, nearly 80 percent of all processed foods containing corn, soy, or canola oil contain unlabeled genetically altered ingredients. This, despite a long list of potential health hazards, including:
- Toxins and poisons: GE products clearly have the potential to be toxic and a threat to human health. In 1989, a GE brand of L-tryptophan, a common dietary supplement, killed 37 Americans. More than 5,000 others were permanently disabled or afflicted with a potentially fatal and painful blood disorder, eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS), before it was recalled by the FDA.
- Increased cancer risks: In 1994, the FDA approved the sale of Monsanto's controversial recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). This genetically engineered hormone is injected into dairy cows to force them to produce more milk.
Scientists have warned that significantly higher levels (400-500 percent or more) of a potent chemical hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor (igf-1), in the milk and dairy products of rBGH injected cows, could pose serious hazards such as human breast, prostate, and colon cancer. A number of studies have shown that humans with elevated levels of igf-1 in their bodies are much more likely to get cancer.
- Food allergies: The alarming rise in childhood allergies in the past two decades has been linked by scientists to the arrival of genetically engineered foods in the 1990s. In 1996, a major GE food disaster was narrowly averted when Nebraska researchers learned that a Brazil nut gene spliced into soybeans could induce potentially fatal allergies in people sensitive to Brazil nuts. Animal tests of these Brazil nut-spliced soybeans had turned up negative.
People with food allergies whose symptoms can range from mild unpleasantness to sudden death, may likely be harmed by exposure to foreign proteins spliced into common food products. Since humans have never before eaten most of the foreign proteins now being gene-spliced into foods, stringent pre-market safety-testing (including long-term animal feeding and volunteer human feeding studies) is necessary in order to prevent a future public health disaster.
- Antibiotic resistance: When gene engineers splice a foreign gene into a plant or microbe, they often link it to another gene, called an antibiotic resistance marker gene (arm), that helps determine if the first gene was successfully spliced into the host organism.
Some researchers warn that these arm genes might unexpectedly recombine with disease-causing bacteria or microbes in the environment or in the guts of animals or people who eat genetically engineered food. These new combinations may be contributing to the growing public health danger of antibiotic resistance—of infections that cannot be cured with traditional antibiotics, for example new strains of salmonella, e-coli, campylobacter, and enterococci
- Damage to food quality and nutrition: A 1999 study by Dr. Marc Lappe published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that concentrations of the beneficial phytoestrogen compounds thought to protect against heart disease and cancer were lower in GE soybeans than in traditional strains. These and other studies, including Dr. Pusztai's, indicate that GE food will likely result in foods lower in quality and nutrition. For example, the milk from cows injected with rBGH contains higher levels of pus, bacteria, and fat.
GE Crops and Farming Techniques Threaten the Planet
From the decimation of the planet's critical honeybee and monarch butterfly populations, to the creation of superweeds and superinsects, to the depletion of valuable nutrient-rich farming soil, genetic engineering poses a dangerous, and potentially irreversible threat, to planet Earth.
Among the dangers of GE crops, are:
- Increased Pesticide Residues: Contrary to biotech industry propaganda, recent studies have found that US farmers growing GE crops are using just as many toxic pesticides and herbicides as conventional farmers and in some cases more. The "benefits" of these herbicide-resistant crops are that farmers can spray as much of a particular herbicide on their crops as they want-killing the weeds without damaging their crop.
Scientists estimate that herbicide-resistant crops planted around the globe will triple the amount of toxic broad-spectrum herbicides used in agriculture. These broad-spectrum herbicides are designed to literally kill everything green.
- Damage to Beneficial Insects and Soil Fertility: In 1999, Cornell University researchers made a startling discovery. They found that pollen from genetically engineered bt corn was poisonous to Monarch butterflies. The study adds to a growing body of evidence that GE crops are adversely affecting a number of beneficial insects, including ladybugs and lacewings, as well as beneficial soil microorganisms, bees, and possibly birds.
- Creation of GE "Superweeds" and "Superpests": Genetically engineering crops to be herbicide-resistant or to produce their own pesticide presents dangerous problems. Pests and weeds will inevitably emerge that are pesticide or herbicide-resistant, which means that stronger, more toxic chemicals will be needed to get rid of the pests.
Herbicide resistant "superweeds" are already emerging. GE crops such as rapeseed (canola) have spread their herbicide-resistance traits to related weeds such as wild mustard plants. Lab and field tests also indicate that common plant pests such as cotton bollworms, living under constant pressure from GE crops, are evolving into "superpests" completely immune to bt sprays and other environmentally sustainable bio-pesticides.
This will present a serious danger for organic and sustainable farmers whose biological pest management practices will be unable to cope with increasing numbers of superpests and superweeds.
- Genetic Pollution: "Genetic pollution" and collateral damage from GE field crops already have begun to wreak environmental havoc. Wind, rain, birds, bees, and insect pollinators have begun carrying genetically-altered pollen into adjoining fields, polluting the DNA of crops of organic and non-GE farmers. An organic farm in Texas has been contaminated with genetic drift from GE crops grown on a nearby farm.
Because they are alive, gene-altered crops are inherently more unpredictable than chemical pollutants-they can reproduce, migrate, and mutate. Once released, it is virtually impossible to recall GE organisms back to the laboratory or the field.
- Genetic "Bio-Invasion": By virtue of their "superior" genes, some GE plants and animals will inevitably run amok, overpowering wild species in the same way that exotic species, such as kudzu vine and Dutch elm disease have created problems when introduced in North America. What will happen to wild fish and marine species, for example, when scientists release into the environment carp, salmon, and trout that are twice as large, and eat twice as much food, as their wild counterparts?
Most Commonly Used Herbicide Found to be Carcinogenic
As if the health hazards of genetically altered food crops weren't bad enough, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has also been deemed a major health hazard both to the environment, and to animal and human health. It is toxic to human cells, and according to a French research team, it is also carcinogenic. The team has studied the herbicide extensively, and published at least five articles on glysphosate's potential for wide-ranging environmental and human harmi. Their research shows that glyphosate:
- Causes cell cycle dysregulation, which is a hallmark of tumor cells and human cancers
- Inhibits DNA synthesis in certain parts of the cell cycle—the process by which cells reproduce that underlies the growth and development of all living organisms
- Impedes the hatchings of sea urchins. (Sea urchins were used because they constitute an appropriate model for the identification of undesirable cellular and molecular targets of pollutants.) The delay was found to be dose dependent on the concentration of Roundup. The surfactant polyoxyethylene amine (POEA), another major component of Roundup, was also found to be highly toxic to the embryos when tested alone, and could therefore be a contributing factor
It doesn't matter that the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health recently published "research" to the contraryii, the French team says―the world needs to know the truth about who did that "safety-finding" research. It was funded by none other than Monsanto itself! Is it any wonder they came to the conclusion that:
"[T]he available literature shows no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects at environmentally realistic exposure concentrations."
The new Monsanto-funded safety research actually used the French team's original research to debunk the evidence that Roundup could have human or environmental safety issues. And that didn't sit well with the French team, which was so angered they wrote a detailed response to Monsanto's article, accusing the researchers of minimalizing the French group's work and publishing misleading information.
About the Author
Ronnie Cummins is the founder and Director of the Organic Consumers Association. He has been a writer and activist since the 1960s, with massive expertise in human rights, anti-war, anti-nuclear, consumer, labor, environmental, and sustainable agricultural areas. He is the author of several published articles, a children's book series called Children of the World, and Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.
About the Organic Consumers Association
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is an online and grassroots 501(c)3 public interest organization promoting health, justice, and sustainability. It prides itself as the only organization in the United States focused on promoting the views and interests of the country's estimated 76 million organic and socially responsible consumers.
The OCA participates in the important issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability, and other key topics. The Organic Consumers Fund, a 501(c)4, is the OCA's grassroots action and lobbying arm.
Keep Fighting for Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods
While California Prop. 37 failed to pass last November, by a very narrow margin, the fight for GMO labeling is far from over. The field-of-play has now moved to the state of Washington, where the people's initiative 522, "The People's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act," will require food sold in retail outlets to be labeled if it contains genetically engineered ingredients. As stated on LabelitWA.org:
"Calorie and nutritional information were not always required on food labels. But since 1990 it has been required and most consumers use this information every day. Country-of-origin labeling wasn't required until 2002. The trans fat content of foods didn't have to be labeled until 2006. Now, all of these labeling requirements are accepted as important for consumers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also says we must know with labeling if our orange juice is from fresh oranges or frozen concentrate.
Doesn't it make sense that genetically engineered foods containing experimental viral, bacterial, insect, plant or animal genes should be labeled, too? Genetically engineered foods do not have to be tested for safety before entering the market. No long-term human feeding studies have been done. The research we have is raising serious questions about the impact to human health and the environment.
I-522 provides the transparency people deserve. I-522 will not raise costs to consumers or food producers. It simply would add more information to food labels, which manufacturers change routinely anyway, all the time. I-522 does not impose any significant cost on our state. It does not require the state to conduct label surveillance, or to initiate or pursue enforcement. The state may choose to do so, as a policy choice, but I-522 was written to avoid raising costs to the state or consumers."
Remember, as with CA Prop. 37, they need support of people like YOU to succeed. Prop. 37 failed with a very narrow margin simply because we didn't have the funds to counter the massive ad campaigns created by the No on 37 camp, led by Monsanto and other major food companies. Let's not allow Monsanto and its allies to confuse and mislead the people of Washington and Vermont as they did in California. So please, I urge you to get involved and help in any way you can, regardless of what state you live in.
- No matter where you live in the United States, please donate money to these labeling efforts through the Organic Consumers Fund.
- If you live in Washington State, please sign the I-522 petition. You can also volunteer to help gather signatures across the state.
- For timely updates on issues relating to these and other labeling initiatives, please join the Organic Consumers Association on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter.
- Talk to organic producers and stores and ask them to actively support the Washington initiative.