GMOs: Food, Money & Control: Part I

 

Charles W. Elliott

The recent battle over California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative to require consumer labeling of genetically modified organism (“GMO”) food[1], has shone a harsh spotlight on the impacts of biotechnology on agriculture and our food supply, and on corporate influence over the political process and the public’s right to information. As corporate efforts to expand the use of genetic engineering in agriculture march onward, we see a counterweight in the movements for sustainable food production and support for organic and small scale farming. We’ll be taking a look at some of the issues surrounding use of genetic engineering in food production in a series of blog posts on GMOs: Food, Money & Control.

Consumers Kept in the Dark: Big Push to Label Genetically-Modified Food Fails

Proposition 37 — the ballot initiative that would have required GMO food labeling in California, the world’s ninth largest economy — drowned under the tsunami of corporate money opposing it.  Monsanto, a leading maker of genetically engineered seeds, contributed $8.1 million alone. More than $45 million was spent by large agribusiness, big processed food manufacturers, and chemical companies, including DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills, Nestle, Conagra and Dow. It should come as no surprise that Dow, the company that brought us dioxin-laced Agent Orange, would prefer that we not know whether the food we eat contains foreign genetic material.

As a result of Prop 37’s defeat, U.S. consumers continue to be among the few in the industrialized world that are kept in the dark about genetically-engineered food. Mandatory labeling of GMO food is required in some 50 countries; these include the members of the European Union, China, Japan and, as of January 2013, India.[2]

In contrast to the corporate money that poured into the “NO” campaign, Prop 37 supporters spent only $9.2 million, relying primarily on social media and grass-roots initiatives.  At first, this approach seemed to work well. As of the end of September, the measure was leading by a huge margin: 61% in favor, 25% opposed, and 14% undecided. (USC/Los Angeles Times poll). That’s when the expensive negative – and misleading – advertising campaign underwritten by corporate money began.[3]  In the wake of that negative campaign, and opposition from a more credible quarter – the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science[4] — support for the measure plummeted. Prop 37 was ultimately defeated by a wide margin: 53% – 47%.

That defeat will certainly save our industrial-food system a lot of labels. United States consumer groups estimate that about 75% to 80% of processed foods currently sold in the US are made with genetically modified corn, soybeans, sugar beets and cottonseed oil.[5]

Potential human health risks have driven much of the concern over the production and consumption of GMO food.  But a singular focus on health risks obscures more fundamental questions: Who shall control our food supply? Should our food supply become hostage to an ever-more technologically complex and industrialized system? Do GMO crops offer the potential to reduce hunger in a growing global population?

In subsequent posts on this blog, we’ll be exploring these questions, along with related issues such as GMO food safety, crop contamination through the “drift” of foreign genetic material to non-GMO crops, control of crop seeds through patents and licensing, impacts on pesticide use and the problem of unintended consequences.


[1] A general explanation of genetically modified food can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food. For a “neutrally-toned” article on the numerous controversies involving GMO food, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food_controversies

[4] “Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods”, American Association For The Advancement Of Science, 20 October 2012 http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2012/media/AAAS_GM_statement.pdf.  The Statement was widely criticized, and was was promptly followed by another statement of prominent scientists objecting to it.  See, http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2012/yes-labels-on-gm-foods

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