California’s Proposition 37, which would have made it mandatory to label foods containing ingredients from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), was defeated on election day with 53 percent of voters rejecting it. This is a major blow for food safety as consumer groups and food activists have been fighting hard for consumer’s rights to know what is in their foods. Just recently a ABC news poll found that 93 percent of Americans were in favor of GMO foods being labeled--so what happened? Well special interest happened. The biotechnology and food processing industry spent millions of dollars, 45 million to be exact on clever messaging implying that many foods would be banned or have higher prices, if GMO labeling i.e. more, “government red tape,” and “complex new requirements and restrictions,” came into effect. They misled voters in the California Voter guide into thinking the FDA was against the labeling, which is not true.
Reengineered foods have never been demonstrated to be all safe. Foods made of genetically modified crops such as maize, soybean, and oilseed rape have been judged right now safe to eat, and the methods used to test them have been deemed appropriate. These conclusions represent the consensus of the scientific evidence surveyed by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and are consistent with the views of the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the lack of evidence of negative effects does not mean that new genetically modified foods are completely safe. The possibility of long-term effects from genetically modified plants cannot be excluded and should always be taken into consideration on a case by case basis. This may be why genetically modified foods are essentially banned in the European Union, where they follow the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety an international agreement on biosafety where the Protocol makes clear that products from new technologies must be based on the precautionary principle and allow developing nations to balance public health against economic benefits. There are also more than sixty countries that require labels to identify whether a food has been genetically modified. In fact in Japan a food must be labeled if it contains more than five percent of a GMO and in India, lawmakers are working laws that would require labeling for even smaller amounts of GMOs.
Big Food and Big Biotech are celebrating their California victory, but thankfully the fight is not over. Unfazed by the defeat in California, consumer groups are working across states for labeling and have united as the Coalition of States for Mandatory GMO Labeling. States involved in this initiative are Arizona, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. It’s great to see this momentum building and confirms that everyone has the right to know what they are eating!
Co-authored with US PIRG Public Health Advocate Nasima Hossain