Label GMO Foods? Our Right2Know

Here’s an everyday scenario: you're shopping at your local grocery store and you maneuver your cart through the middle aisles, where most of the processed food lives. Have you ever seen a label that lists genetically engineered (GE) soy as an ingredient on these packages? No? That’s because the label doesn’t exist. The US government has continually resisted labeling foods that contain GE ingredients -- or even foods that don’t, effectively taking away our ability as consumers to make informed choices. This past weekend, in an effort to change this, labeling proponents embarked on the Right2Know March, a 15-day protest event that started in New York City, which will end on October 16th in Washington, DC, demanding genetically engineered food be labeled. Check out the photosfrom the kickoff in Brooklyn.

Also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetically engineered crops are altered with inserted genetic material to exhibit desired traits, like tolerance to pesticides. Although agribusiness likes to present GE technology as “the only way to feed the world,” touting its potential to increase crop yields, improve nutritional quality and reduce use of pesticides and natural resources, in reality, GE crops have failed to outperform traditional varieties pretty much across the board.

Fundamentally, the issue here is about choice. While the debate about genetic engineering is unlikely to end anytime soon, most people can agree that consumers should have the right to know whether the foods they buy contain GE ingredients. Without this knowledge, consumers cannot freely choose to embrace or reject the technology.

They've also created some serious problems. For instance, GE crop production threatens biodiversity, requires large quantities of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and has led to the emergence of “superweeds,” necessitating the use of even more toxic chemicals. Moreover, since GE seeds can be patented, the seed industry is now dominated by Monsanto and a handful of other biotech companies – a problematic development given the ongoing consolidation of all facets of the food system.

Oh – and by the way – there are also concerns about the long-term impacts of consumption of GE foods on human health. (To learn more about the health, environmental and ethical implications of GE technology, read Food & Water Watch’s outstanding hot-off-the-press report, Genetically Engineered Food: An Overview.)

Currently, the vast majority of corn, soy and cotton grown in the US are genetically engineered. This year, the USDA approved four new GE seeds (alfalfa, amylase corn, sugar beets and Kentucky bluegrass). Note that the government agencies charged with regulating GE crops – namely, the FDA and the USDA – are full of former biotech industry executives who are not all that inclined to advocate for testing of GE crops.

"Yet, unlike the strict safety evaluations for approval of new drugs, there are no mandatory human clinical trials of GE crops, no tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, no long term testing for human health risks, no requirement for long-term testing on animals, and limited testing for allergenicity, with some studies raising concerns that GE foods may pose an allergen risk." -Naomi Starkman

As a result of environmental and public health concerns, many other countries require genetically engineered foods to be labeled (and some even ban GE production outright). So how do eaters feel stateside? MSNBC conducted a poll that posed the question, “Do you believe genetically modified foods should be labeled?”96% percent voted, “Yes. It’s an ethical issue – consumers should be informed so they can make a choice.

This sentiment was clearly expressed in March, when hundreds of companies participated in the Right to Know Rallies and over 60,000 letters were written to Congress demanding that GMO foods be labeled.

This week also saw the launch of the Just Label It: We Have a Right to Know, GMOcampaign, which has built up some major public support for a legal petition that will be submitted to the FDA requesting the labeling of GM foods. Nearly 400 businesses and NGOs have already signed on. (Full disclosure: GRACE is proud to be one of these organizations!) This week, Food Democracy Now! also released a video of then-candidate Obama in 2007 promising to label GMO foods if elected. FDN is promoting a letter of their own that you can sign to encourage President Obama to stick to his word.

Fundamentally, the issue here is about choice. While the debate about genetic engineering is unlikely to end anytime soon, most people can agree that consumers should have the right to know whether this controversial technology was used to produce ingredients in the food they buy. Without this knowledge, consumers cannot freely choose to embrace or reject the technology.

You can be part of the effort to demand GE food labeling by joining -- or just supporting -- the Right2Know March, a historic two-week rally that kicked off with an event at the United Nations in New York City on October 1st, and will end at the White House on the afternoon of World Food Day, October 16th. Marchers can join for a few hours or the whole two weeks. Check out the route, join the march or follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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