by guest blogger Katherine diMatteo, president and world board member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements
Over the past few months, I’ve found myself neck-deep in thinking and talking about genetic engineering. Not about the science, but about the current state of affairs surrounding it genetically engineered foods. Recently, the USDA approved RoundUp Ready alfalfa to be planted in a manner that leaves little protection for organic farmers or farmers who want nothing to do with biotechnology. Legal battles around sugar beets—also approved with few protections for organic farmers—and the pending approval of GE salmon have brought the uncertainties, dangers, and influence of such technology back into focus and renewed discussions about how to protect ourselves and our future.
Did you know that 31 countries plus the 27 countries of the European Union have laws and/or regulations about labeling GE crops and food products? All but four of those countries require mandatory labeling of ingredients or finished food products that contain, may contain or are derived from genetically engineered crops. Of course, the United States is not one of these countries—the one exception being the state of Alaska, which, since 2006, has had a law that requires the labeling of genetically engineered fish and fish products.
It may come as no surprise that the original countries that approved GE crops, the United States, Canada, and Argentina, are also large exporters of grains and beans. And none of those countries allows labeling or has adopted voluntary labeling guidelines. And it’s the largest importers of those crops—the EU and Japan (which don’t produce GE crops or do so on a very limited scale)—that have adopted mandatory labeling requirements. Brazil and China also now have GE labeling laws, even though they are among the top 10 GE-crop producing countries today.
One major problem complicating GE labeling laws is there is no one international agreement on these laws. For 18 years, a debate on whether national laws on labeling GE foods should be allowed has raged within a little-known international body called the Codex Alimentarius, and again, it may come as no surprise that the U.S. has fought against allowance of such laws. Finally, this July, a document was approved that provides some protection for a country with GE labeling laws from accusations that such laws are barriers to trade. A small step forward!
Is labeling the answer? Certainly in Europe the GE labeling law has curtailed the use of GE seeds (although not eliminated all production) and the use of ingredients from GE crops (except in animal feed). Could this be possible in the U.S., which now has 165 million acres of GE crops planted? Polls* show that more than 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labeling of GE foods. While our reasons for wanting to know what’s in our food may vary, what unifies us is the belief that it’s our right to know. Without labeling of GE foods, we cannot make informed choices about the food we eat.
Several efforts are under way to mobilize support and to take action for our right to know. The Center for Food Safety (www.centerforfoodsafety.org) is petitioning FDA for GE Food labeling (site live at the end of September). A march (www.right2knowmarch.org) has been organized to raise awareness and gather consumer support for this campaign. The march starts on October 1 in New York and ends October 16th in Washington, DC, with a rally in front of the White House. In addition, organic, non-GMO, environmental and consumer groups are coming together in a unified effort to spread the word about the petition. By working together, the hope is to generate the largest number of public comments ever recorded by the FDA.
To turn the tide on the approval and production of GM crops is going to take a multi-faceted strategy. Labeling is one approach, and I’m on board to tell Washington that I want to know if my food has been genetically modified. I hope you will join me.
*In a 2/25/11 MSNBC Health Poll with nearly 46,000 responses, 96% support mandatory GM labeling. In a 2/15/11 CBS NYT poll of nearly 750 consumers, 87% of consumers want labeling of GM foods. In a May 2011 proprietary study of 5,245 consumers, 88% supported labeling of GM foods.