By Connor Griffin
Last fall, petitioners around the EWU campus gathered signatures to see an initiative requiring the labeling of all retail foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.
As of Jan. 5, Initiative 522, The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, had gained enough support to appear on November’s ballot.
The goal of I-522 is to identify all genetically engineered foods offered for retail sale in the state of Washington. The vote on this initiative comes up in November and, if passed, it would go into effect July 1, 2015.
Genetically engineered foods are relatively new to the agricultural and grocery scenes but are already a cause for debate around the nation. I-522 is at the forefront of that debate. A heated and expensive battle will sweep across the state, pundits predict, before the vote in November. If the example of California’s failed Prop 37 is any indication, biotechnology companies like Monsanto will be spending $40 to $50 million to fight I-522.
Monsanto and other opponents of the initiative point to a 2010 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications that concluded genetically engineered crops “have been enthusiastically embraced by farmers in the United States, Canada,
Brazil, Argentina and China.” The biotech industry claims that this support for biotech crops from farmers comes as a result of higher yields, a decrease in input costs (e.g., seed price, chemical pesticides and crop maintenance) and economic gains for farmers who utilize them.
In the book “The Frankenfood Myth,” a response to the popular anti-genetic engineering documentary “Frankenfood,” Dr. Henry Miller claims “although [genetically engineered crops] boast significant benefits and an unblemished safety record, genetically engineered crops are subject to excessive, hugely expensive regulation in every country of the world that grows them.” Miller would certainly oppose I-522. His book is apt to be cited by those who stand to gain from marketing Genetically Engineered foods.
Proponents of I-522 cite five independent, peer-reviewed scientific studies that found biotech crops can have adverse health effects, such as deterioration of liver and kidney function and impaired embryonic development. Non-government organizations like Food & Water Watch say that the Food and Drug Administration “has no way to track adverse health effects in people consuming genetically engineered foods
. . . because there is no requirement that foods containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled.”
Globally, 49 countries already have mandatory genetically engineered labeling requirements. With these requirements, citizens gain awareness of whether they are consuming foods with genetically engineered ingredients. Without a label on foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, the only way American consumers can guarantee they are not consuming genetically engineered foods is by buying USDA-certified organic foods.
Contradicting the claims of biotech companies, the Environmental Protection Agency found that the use of genetically engineered crops does not decrease the use of chemical herbicides. EPA researchers found that between the years 2001 and 2008, U.S. application of chemical herbicide doubled. That large-scale application has produced adverse effects on both the environment and the farmers who work it. Farmworkers see birth defects and immune system malfunctions.
Farmers face continual pressure to abandon conventional crops in favor of genetically engineered crops despite the higher cost. And farmers who continue to use conventional crops are under constant threat of contamination by genetically engineered plants through naturally occurring cross-pollination by nearby genetically engineered crop fields, which can result in buyers rejecting grain loads and costing an estimated $40 million annually. In addition to losses from market rejections, non-conventional farmers with contaminated fields can also be legally prosecuted for patent infringement because their fields now contain patented plant genetics. By 2007, Monsanto alone had filed 112 lawsuits and “recovered” between $85.7 and $160.6 million, according to the Center for Food Safety.
Having had firsthand experience in both conventional and non-conventional farming, I have become a proponent for the labeling of genetically engineered retail foods. Corporations may claim that genetically engineered foods boost yield numbers and reduce agrochemical consumption, but my experience says otherwise. I agree with the majority of Americans who wish to have a choice on whether or not to consume foods with genetically engineered ingredients.
Due to the relatively newness of the field of biotechnology, many of the long-term effects of genetic engineering have yet to be determined. Without the labeling of genetically engineered foods, researchers have few ways of tracking them and the long-term health effects they might cause. For these reasons, and many more, I encourage you to learn about this issue and make an informed vote in November.