GMO Labeling Is Coming...Sort Of
Most people in the world of alternative health seem to think we're winning the war against GMO foods. We're not. We're actually losing it quite rapidly. How can this be? I think it's because many people concerned about health and nutrition live in a bubble that makes it unable for them to see the big picture. By living in a bubble, I mean that they frequent websites that support their views on GMO and participate in the comment sections of those sites, exchanging opinions with others who also largely share their views. Unfortunately, they also tend to opt out of any sites that don't support their POV 100 percent. What this means is that they tend to develop an unrealistic understanding of what's happening in the larger world.
So what does this have to do with GMO?
As it turns out, if you rely on certain sites exclusively for your information on GMO, you have probably come to believe that the world is largely united against GMO and that it is only the corporate greed of companies like Monsanto that keeps it going. You might also believe that Monsanto is now back on its heels and that an inevitable victory against the evil corporate entities is imminent. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different.
Let me give you two examples.
- The March against Monsanto
A month ago, Chipotle announced that they were going 100% non-GMO.1 This was quickly touted on some sites as a major victory for the natural food movement, and I quote: "The free market victories against the sleazy biotech industry are coming at a rapid pace now, and the latest announcement is a real game changer."2 Now, to be sure, Chipotle's announcement is a good thing. But unfortunately, once you step outside the bubble, you realize that it's not only not a game changer; it actually means very little at all. First, Chipotle's GMO ban is fairly superficial. It affects only two ingredients: their cooking oil and the corn and soy used in their tortillas. In this regard, it's more than a bit reminiscent of the General Mills announcement last year that Cheerios was going non-GMO--an announcement that was fairly easy to make since oats (the main ingredient in Cheerios) are not a GMO crop. For Chipotle, getting rid of genetically engineered corn was easy. Their primary tortilla supplier was already producing non-GMO corn flour in small amounts, and it agreed to increase its production for Chipotle. And instead of using GMO soybean oil, it looks like Chipotle is shifting to a trio of non-GMO sunflower oil, canola oil, and rice bran oil. In other words, it's far more marketing than substance--something that Chipotle itself admits. According to Steve Ellis, Chipotle's founder and CEO, "The cost of going GMO-free was "de minimis. It's really mostly about beef."3 Those were his words. You can't get much less than "minimis." But that's not even the big problem with the Chipotle announcement.
Notice Chipotle didn't say they were going organic with the new ingredients--just non-GMO. Unless Chipotle specifies otherwise at some point (something they do not currently do on their site), all it means is that Chipotle is no longer using ingredients grown from GMO seeds--but those ingredients are still being sourced from large scale, industrial, conventional, non-organic farms. This means that the crops are still going to be sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. And although these farms may use less glyphosate than would be used with Roundup ready GMO corn, they will likely replace it with heavy use of the herbicide atrazine. Atrazine has been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers4 and birth defects.5 Incidentally, atrazine is a major source of profit for Syngenta, a large chemical company that Monsanto is trying to buy. (More on that later.) And it gets worse. Because non-GMO corn does not have a built-in ability to repel pests, farmers have to use far higher levels of pesticides to protect them.
The bottom line is that if the problem with GMO crops is not inherent in the GMO process itself (and, as we will see in a bit, 88% of scientists don't think it is), but rather with the pesticide and herbicide capabilities built into those crops, then Chipotle has really accomplished very little health-wise. They are still serving beverages sweetened with high fructose corn syrup made from GMO corn, and the grain and oil crops used to make their food are still being saturated with herbicides and pesticides. Ouch!
The March against Monsanto
On May 24th, there were simultaneous marches in major cities around the world protesting Monsanto. Again, if you got your news from inside the bubble, you would believe that it was history making, with protests "exploding across the planet."6 But again, once you step outside the bubble, the reality is notably less than presented in the headlines. On the positive side, this was actually the third annual March against Monsanto, and in certain cities it did attract moderately large numbers.
About 2,500 people protested in the Swiss cities of Basel and Morges, where Monsanto has its European headquarters; 1,000 protested in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and it's estimated that about 3,000 people gathered in Paris. But from there, the numbers drop off significantly: only 500 in Los Angles and Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso in West Africa, and 250 in Rio. In Toronto, you're looking at 1,200 demonstrators, but that's down from 3,000 last year--not a great trend. Worldwide you're looking at 10-20 thousand anti-Monsanto demonstrators scattered throughout numerous cities. And while that may sound like a lot, it feels a lot less significant when you compare it to the 2010 Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Washington, DC "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear." That drew 215,000 people to see two comedians in one location.7
But perhaps you think I'm being a gloomy Gus and downplaying the importance of the anti-Monsanto movement. Not really. Monsanto has very little reason to care about any of it. The truth is that the scientific community has overwhelmingly lined up behind them. Yes, there are a number of scientists who are anti-GMO, but 88 percent of all scientists support it. In 2013, a petition was started on change.org to protest against the destruction by activists of GM rice field trials in the Philippines. Since then, over 6,700 scientists have signed the petition in support of GMO.8 Yes, I understand that Dr. Prakash, the person who started this petition fronts for Monsanto, but it doesn't change the fact that he got 6,700 scientists to endorse his petition. And who do you think carries more weight with government ministers: 10,000 protesters, or 6,500 scientists?9 (And as we will see in a bit, the numbers are actually far worse.) But the most telling and disturbing fact of all is that Monsanto's net sales have increased by a billion dollars a year in each of the three years that the March against Monsanto has been taking place.10 There is a major disconnect if you think your rallies are making a difference and the company you're protesting against is growing its sales by a billion dollars a year. In fact, Monsanto has so much money in their kitty that they just offered $45 billion to take over Syngenta, the European agrichemical giant.11 In addition to being the world's largest producer of atrazine, as we mentioned earlier, Syngenta just happens to be the world's largest pesticide producer. From a business point of view, what this offer really says is that Monsanto isn't paying any attention to the anti-Monsanto movement. What they are worried about, on the other hand, is the ever increasing, widespread weed resistance to glyphosate/Roundup, and they're looking to hedge their bets.12
Although I've never been in favor of patchwork GMO labeling as established by individual cities or states since it would be an unenforceable regulatory nightmare for companies, I've always been In favor of a Federal law establishing uniform, mandatory, totally transparent, GMO labeling. Unfortunately, although the Federal government "appears" to be moving in the direction of a uniform Federal law, it doesn't look like any labeling that they come up with will be either mandatory or transparent. First, though, let's talk about what's happening at the state level. While it's true that several states have held referenda on setting up state controlled labeling (California, Washington, and Oregon), those measures have narrowly lost. On the other hand, some 70 state bills have been introduced in 30 different states since 2013. And one state, Vermont, has actually passed such a regulation. But that doesn't necessarily mean what you think it means. First, it's hardly a done deal. It's not due to take effect until July 2016; it's expected there will be a number of court challenges before then; and most important of all, it's likely to be superseded by Federal law.
So what's happening at the Federal level?
USDA Process Verified Program
In fact, this is not a new program. The USDA has had a paid Process Verified Program offered through its Agriculture Marketing Service for some time. Until now, though, it has not been used for establishing non-GMO credibility, but rather, for large agribusiness such as Tyson, Cargill and Perdue to authenticate their claims that certain sub-brands of their chickens are antibiotic-free, cage-free, vegetarian-fed, or humanely raised. This is a fee-based service in which these large companies actually pay for auditors from the USDA to come into their companies and perform their verification process.
Recently, SunOpta, the multi-national food and industrial mineral company headquartered in Canada, became the first company to use the Process Verified Program to establish its non-GMO cred. This was viable for SunOpta for several reasons. First, with revenues of over a billion dollars a year, they have the money, and they're vertically integrated. That is to say, they source, process, and package natural and organic food products, controlling everything from seed to manufacturing. This is known as a vertically integrated business model that almost no smaller company can match. According to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, some larger companies are lining up to use the service now that SunOpta has opened the door.
It is crucial to understand, however, that there are no verified third-party standards involved in this process. The USDA has not even created a standard for non-GMO. All they are doing is signing off on SunOpta's own non-GMO practices. Also, certification through the Processed Verified Program only applies to raw ingredients, not to finished products. This means that this program is a non-starter for virtually every supplement and smaller nutritional foods company.
Needless to say, the Non GMO Project is not happy with the confusion that the USDA program will sow.13 In the end, though, these concerns are likely to prove irrelevant as the USDA's program and, unfortunately, the Non GMO Project as well are both likely to soon be marginalized.
Federal Non-GMO Legislation
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 proposed by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan14 says that it is designed to "establish a federal labeling standard for foods with genetically modified ingredients." But in truth, the bill was written and backed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association—including biotech giant Monsanto and Koch Industries. It actually contains a “prohibition against mandatory labeling” and is specifically designed to block any real GMO labeling efforts from ever happening. While it does provide for the possibility of USDA certification along the lines of the Process Verified Program, it does not mandate it, and it gives sole authority to the Food and Drug Administration to require mandatory labeling on such foods only if they are ever found to be unsafe or materially different from foods produced without GM ingredients. (At the very end of this report you'll see how this bill pretty much guarantees that GM Foods will never be found unsafe and, thus, will never require labeling.) And most importantly, the bill, if approved, would override any state laws that require GMO labeling.
Not surprisingly, it is supported by the food industry, with some 373 of them (along with Monsanto and DuPont) banding together under "The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food" banner to express their support.15 Also not surprisingly, the Coalition, in its letter to Congress, strongly opposed individual state efforts to require labeling, saying labels would be misleading because GMOs are safe, and the result would be "higher food prices for hard working American families."
More surprisingly, and perhaps most disturbingly, in just 60 days since its introduction, the bill has already picked up bipartisan support from 48 members of Congress.16 Unfortunately, while everyone in the alternative health industry is patting themselves on the back for Chipotle's "minimis" turn to non-GMO and the March against Monsanto, H.R. 1599 is building momentum and, at the moment, has a reasonable chance of passing.
That would be a disaster.
Conclusion: The Future of Non GMO
Sometimes I despair for the future of alternative health and natural foods. The natural health community in the U.S. often seems to be more into gesture politics than practical politics. And although Europe seems to be somewhat standing up for open labeling of GM foods, it is also becoming ever more restrictive in regard to alternative health and supplements--as is most of the rest of the world. For example, the European Health Initiative bans virtually any supplement or vitamin that is not part of the "accepted mainstream" and in any amounts beyond pixie dust. In Canada the modus operandi of the regulatory authorities in regard to supplements and herbs seems to be that if it works, you can't have it--even if it has a safety record stretching back hundreds of years. Australia is now using a variety of regulations to ban the importation of everything from digestive enzymes to wheat grass juice powder--mostly based on agricultural and trade issues as opposed to health or safety issues--but the net result is the same. And not long ago, the Irish Health Products Regulatory Agency slipped language into their proposed guide to retailers that effectively bans all food supplements selling in Ireland that contain the herbs Echinacea, black cohosh, St John's wort, butterbur, Devil's claw, globe artichoke leaf, goldenseal, greater periwinkle (Vinca major), lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor), Griffonia, and Ginkgo biloba.17
As for the US, there have been major setbacks in the past few months in regard to dietary supplements, children's vaccines,18 and as we have discussed today, in regard to GMO. And what truly makes these setbacks disturbing and sad is that, to a large degree, the alternative health community itself is responsible for most of the lost ground. Unfortunately, too many people in the community would rather be righteous than right, stand on principle and lose the war, and avoid dealing with reality. We are unwilling to give ground on a few lesser points in exchange for winning the larger battle. The bottom line is that, as a community, we seem to have resorted to the politics of indignation and gesture. We refuse to play practical politics.
Well here's your chance in regard to GMO to get practical, and it's pretty much do or die. If H.R. 1599 passes in anything close to its current form, it will be game over. GMO foods will be everywhere, and you won't know what's what. Federal law will override any state or local laws; remember, it's written into the bill. We are now faced with several options.
- We can continue to express our indignation on blogs, but that will have no effect on legislators.
- We can march once a year to express our disgust with Monsanto, but that's hardly a match for the kind of influence that $16 billion a year in revenues can buy you when it comes to campaign contributions.
- We can claim that science proves that anything associated with GMO is dangerous, but it doesn't actually, at least not yet. There are a couple of theories that suggest why the very process of making GMO foods is dangerous, but they are only theories. There is little in the way of studies to support them.
- We can claim that the herbicides and pesticides associated with certain GMO products are dangerous. And yes, here you can make a better case as there are a number of studies to support that POV. Unfortunately, there are also a number of studies, sponsored by the GMO industry, that prove otherwise--thus clouding the issue. As hard as it is to swallow, the pro-GMO scientists are winning the argument, at least within their own community. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 88 percent of scientists believe GM foods are safe to eat, compared with only 37 percent of the public--a gap of 51 percentage points.19 It also means that only 12 percent of the scientific community finds GM foods threatening. When legislators look to see where the scientific community stands, they're currently finding it standing 7 to 1 in favor, so it's not likely we're going to win on that argument. You can also throw in that in March, the World Health Organization's cancer research arm designated the herbicide glyphosate, widely used on GMO crops, as "probably carcinogenic to humans"20 --although it's probably also worth noting that some Congressional Representatives might feel that using WHO to support your arguments is un-American.
- We can claim that people want to know what they are eating, and, after all, according the Pew poll, almost 2/3 of the American public is unsure about GM foods, and, there is no question, the demand for non-GMO foods is increasing. But the truth is that once you move outside the natural health bubble, most people really don't care that much no matter what they told the pollsters. Just look at all the unhealthy foods that most people eat. Yes, it's true that McDonald's sales have been dropping and Chipotle's have been climbing, but that's deceiving. In 2014, McDonald's revenues were $27 billion,21 Chipotle's only $4 billion.22 Soft drink sales (largely made with sweeteners produced from GM corn) in just Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US generated close to $300 billion in sales,23 whereas the global market for organic beverages AND foods was only $80 billion (although expected to double by 2018.) And in fact, Chipotle itself acknowledged that their GMO-free movement stops at sodas: "Many of the beverages sold in our restaurants contain genetically modified ingredients, including those containing corn syrup, which is almost always made from GMO corn."24 The bottom line is that outside the bubble, most people don't care how their food is produced as long as it tastes good.
So where do we stand? If you contact your Representative to let them know how you feel about H.R. 1599 and why all GM foods must be labeled--and you should--none of the above arguments are likely to sway them. But there is one that just might--and it's also likely to sway the scientific community that currently seems to be so solidly lined up behind GM foods:
Without mandatory, totally transparent, federal GMO labeling, there will be no way of knowing what GM foods people are eating. This means that researchers will never be able to do a cohort study in the future to determine the long term consequences (if any) of eating GM foods. Future research will be impossible because the data will not be available. Science actually demands the mandatory, totally transparent labeling of GM foods for this reason, if no other. Any scientist or medical researcher endorsing anything other than immediate, federally mandated, totally transparent, GMO labeling is putting themselves in the camp of willful ignorance.
By the way, if you don't know the name of your Representative or how to contact them, click here.
- 1. "G-M-Over It." Chipotle. (27 May 2015.) http://chipotle.com/gmo
- 2. Mike Adams. "BAM! Chipotle goes 100% non-GMO; flatly rejecting the biotech industry and its toxic food ingredients." NaturalNews. April 27, 2015. (Accessed 27 May 2015.) http://www.naturalnews.com/049510_Chipotle_non-GMO_foods_clean_fast_food.html
- 3. Stephanie Strom. "Chipotle to Stop Using Genetically Altered Ingredients." The New York Times. April 26, 2015. (Accessed 28 May 2015.) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/27/business/chipotle-to-stop-serving-genetically-altered-food.html
- 4. Tom Philpott. "Independent Panel: EPA Underestimates Atrazine's Cancer Risk." Mother Jones. Nov. 7, 2011. (Accessed 29 May 2015.) http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2011/11/atrazine-cancer-epa
- 5. Rachel Aviv. "A Valuable Reputation." The New Yorker. Feb 10, 2014. (Accessed 29 May 2015.) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/10/a-valuable-reputation?currentPage=all
- 6. "March against Monsanto explodes globally... World citizens stage massive protests across 38 countries, 428 cities... mainstream media pretends it never happened." NaturalNews. May 24, 2015. (Accessed 27 May 2015.) http://www.naturalnews.com/049833_March_Against_Monsanto_citizen_protests_glyphosate_toxicity.html
- 7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rally_to_Restore_Sanity_and/or_Fear
- 8. Channa Prakash. "Global scientific community condemns the recent destruction of field trials of Golden Rice in the Philippines." Change.org. (Accessed 27 May 2015.) https://www.change.org/p/global-scientific-community-condemns-the-recent-destruction-of-field-trials-of-golden-rice-in-the-philippines
- 9. "Who's leading the call for transparency over the GM feeding trial?" GMWATCH 26 Sep 2012. (Accessed 27 May 2015.) http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2012/14235-whos-leading-the-call-for-transparency-over-the-gm-feeding-trial
- 10. "2014 Financial Highlights." Monsanto. (Accessed 27 May 2015.) http://www.monsanto.com/investors/pages/financial-highlights.aspx
- 11. "Syngenta statement on unsolicited preliminary approach from Monsanto." Syngenta May 8, 2015. (Accessed 29 May 2015.) http://www.syngenta.com/global/corporate/en/news-center/news-releases/Pages/150508.aspx
- 12. Carey Gillam. "UPDATE 3-Monsanto says would divest all of Syngenta's seed business." Reuters May 20, 2015. (Accessed 27 May 2015.) http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/20/syngenta-ag-ma-monsanto-idUSL1N0YB0RT20150520
- 13. "Does the USDA really have a new non-GMO program?" Non GMO Project. May 14, 2015. (28 May 2015.) http://www.nongmoproject.org/2015/05/14/does-the-usda-really-have-a-new-non-gmo-program/
- 14. "H.R.1599 - Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015." CONGRESS.GOV. (Accessed 28 May 2015.) https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1599/text
- 15. "Honorable Members of the U.S. House of Representatives." The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. April 28, 2015. (Accessed 28 May 2015.) http://pompeo.house.gov/uploadedfiles/h.r._1599_support_letter_-_4.28.15.pdf
- 16. "H.R.1599 - Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015." CONGRESS.GOV. (Accessed 28 May 2015.) https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1599/cosponsors
- 17. "Underhand herbal food supplement ban by Irish regulator." alliance for natural health. 4 Feb 2015. (Accessed 28 May 2015.) http://anh-europe.org/news/underhand-herbal-food-supplement-ban-by-irish-regulator
- 18. Brian Wu. "California State Senate Passes School Vaccination Bill." The Science Times. May 19, 2015. (Accessed 28 May 2015.) http://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/6501/20150519/california-state-senate-passes-school-vaccination-bill.htm
- 19. Cary Funk and Lee Rainie. "Public and Scientists' Views on Science and Society." Pew Research Center. Jan 29, 2015. (Accessed 29 May 2015.) http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/
- 20. "IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides." IARC WHO. 20 March 2015. (Accessed 29 May 2015.) http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf
- 21. "McDonald's 2014 Annual Report." McDonald's. (Accessed 29 May 2015.) http://www.aboutmcdonalds.com/content/dam/AboutMcDonalds/Investors/McDonald's%202014%20Annual%20Report.PDF
- 22. "Chipotle 2014 Annual Report." Chipotle. (Accessed 29 May 2015.) http://phx.corporate-ir.net/External.File?item=UGFyZW50SUQ9Mjc3NjI5fENoaWxkSUQ9LTF8VHlwZT0z&t=1
- 23. "Global Soft Drink Markets - Forecast." ReportLinker. (Accessed 29 May 2015.) http://www.reportlinker.com/d0103426402/Global-Soft-Drink-Markets-Forecast.html?pos=1
- 24. Chipotle G-M-Over It