Monday, July 17, 2006

GMOs: Testing and Labeling

This is the first of a series of articles written by Erica Martenson and printed in the Napa Sentinel. There are reprinted in this post and the following two with permission of the Sentinel.



What do genetically modified (GM) foods have to do with democracy? According to Frances Moore LappĂ©, author of the book, Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, “Everything.” She wrote, “Think about it: None of us called for the genetic manipulation of seeds. Not one of us said, yes, this new technology will benefit me, my family and my community...No citizens were asked to weigh the risks of GMOs against possible gains. Yet today most of us are eating them, while kept completely in the dark as to the hazards we may be facing-- for ourselves, our children, and the farming ecosystems on which our lives depend."

Not only have the American people been left out of the decision-making process with respect to genetically engineered foods and beverages, but also due to a lack of labeling, Americans are eating them on a regular basis without their knowledge and without their consent. Polls consistently show that year after year about 90% of Americans want the federal government to require the labeling of GM foods, so they can choose whether or not they wish to consume them. Given that statistic, why hasn’t the U.S. government already mandated the labeling of GM products, giving American consumers the same right as people in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, and other countries, all of which have already passed such legislation?

According to Jeffrey M. Smith, author of the best-selling book on genetically engineered foods called, Seeds of Deception, in one year alone, the biotech industry spent $142 million lobbying the government. It’s not surprising the biotech industry has been lobbying so hard to prevent labeling laws, since surveys show that 57% of Americans would prefer to avoid GM food, and studies also show that the more people learn about GM foods, the less they trust them. The labeling of GM foods in the United States would likely lead to their demise, if what happened in other countries is any indication.

In countries that have required GM foods to be labeled, lack of consumer demand has led food manufacturers to remove GM ingredients from their products and grocery stores to pull GM foods off store shelves. Up to this point, here in the U.S., the federal government has protected the biotech industry by not requiring that GM products be labeled, which gives rise to a few questions: Will the U.S. government continue that same policy? Or will it reflect the will of 90% of Americans? Are we still truly a representative democracy and a capitalist society in which consumer choice and consumer demand drive the economy? We shall soon see…

On May 2nd, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D, Ohio) introduced six bills into the House of Representatives to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are currently unregulated and unmonitored by the Food and Drug Administration, even though the agency’s own scientists have expressed concerns about possible health risks, including potential allergies, toxins, antibiotic resistance, and nutritional problems. The six bills are known collectively as the, “Genetically Engineered Regulatory Framework.”

One of the bills Kucinich introduced called, “The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act” (H.R. 5269) would require food manufacturers to label any products that have been genetically modified and would also allow companies to market their products as being “GM-Free.” Another bill named, “The Genetically Engineered Food Safety Act” (H. R. 5268) would require the Food and Drug Administration to perform safety tests on genetically altered foods to make sure they are safe for human consumption, using the same testing standards they utilize to approve new food additives. In letters to his constituents on this issue, Representative Mike Thompson states that he believes that genetically modified foods should be tested for safety and clearly labeled; however, according to the current Congressional record, he has not yet co-sponsored either of these bills. These bills can be seen as a litmus test. How the House of Representatives eventually votes will give insight into whom they really represent—the American people or a handful of biotech corporations.

In his remarks to the House of Representatives when introducing the six bills, Kucinich stated, “These bills will protect our food, environment, and health. They are a common-sense precaution to ensure genetically engineered foods do no harm…Current laws, such as our food safety and environmental laws, were not written with this technology in mind. Clearer laws are necessary to ensure that these new scientific capabilities and associated impacts are closely monitored.”

And how do the issues of safety testing and labeling of GM products relate to the genetically modified wine yeast the Napa Sentinel reported on last week? In his research article titled, “Genetically Modified Wine Now Being Sold,” Dr. Joseph Cummins, Genetics Professor at the University of Western Ontario, commented on the fact that there was no evidence that the developer of the GM yeast performed any animal feeding studies to test for toxicity, even though genetically altering wine yeasts “can lead to unexpected toxicity in the final product.” In addition, this GM wine yeast has only been approved in North America, where GMOs are unregulated, and since American wines using it would not currently be labeled as such, he says, “It is only prudent to avoid all U.S. wines,” except perhaps those labeled “organic.”

“This is a current crisis. This is about the food we eat. What are we willing to risk? On what limited information? Are we willing to run across railroad tracks blindfolded with our children tied to us with a train coming down the track?” questioned Lowell Downey of the Napa County Green Party.

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