Tuesday, April 03, 2012
By James J. Gormley
On March 12th, 55 members of Congress submitted a joint letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in support of a legal petition backed by over 400 organizations and businesses calling on the agency “to protect consumer rights and prevent consumer deception by requiring the labeling of genetically engineered [GE] foods.”
With over 500 organizations and companies now behind it and over 1 million petition signatures submitted to the FDA before the FDA’s comment deadline, it is clear that there is a renewed groundswell of consumer support for the labeling of GE (or genetically modified, GM) foods and ingredients.
On Tuesday, March 27th, the FDA responded to the petition by saying it had not yet made a decision and needs more time; it also only recognized 394 signatures rather than 1 million, an anomaly due to the FDA’s peculiar way of handling and recording petition drives and form letters.
Nevertheless, 17 states have reportedly introduced GE-labeling legislation, with bills in Connecticut and Vermont currently standing the best chance of passing. Meanwhile, Californians are being mobilized to secure a place for a mandatory GE-labeling ballot initiative in time for the November general election.
Do we remember the last time there was a mandatory labeling initiative in the Golden State? The year was 1986. That was when “The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act” was passed into law via a direct voter initiative.
Prop 65, a well-intended yet disastrously misguided law that should instead be called the “Private Attorney Enrichment Via Straw Man Plaintiffs Act,” has done little to protect consumers but has done much to hurt businesses operating in or selling into California, including dietary supplement companies.
In addition to providing a disgraceful “gravy train” for unscrupulous consumers and avaricious attorneys, it does nothing to truly help consumers as its labeling requirements make it seem that virtually every product a consumer sees, walks on, sits on, wears, consumes or somehow comes in contact with is carcinogenic. It becomes the state government version of a student with bad study habits who yellow-highlights 99 percent of the text in a chapter as a test preparation, which of course is the same as not highlighting anything.
So the cautionary here is: We must be careful what we ask for, because if we don’t think through the proposed pieces of legislation downstream to the level of roll-out, regulation and enforcement, and how they will affect the labeling of food supplements and other functional or fortified consumables, then we might well be in for a surprise.
For example, it is known that between 65 to 72 percent of corn in the U.S. in GE (some estimates have this as 88 percent), in addition to 94 percent of soy, 95 percent of sugar beets and over 90 percent of canola (rapeseed). Not only that, but 75 percent of wheat farmers are interested in “going GE” and over 30 percent of riceland has already been contaminated by herbicide-resistant GE rice.
In fact, on a global scale, over the past 15 years more than 2.47 million acres (an area larger than China and the U.S. combined) have been planted with GE crops.
“By anyone’s reckoning, it’s a fast-moving train,” wrote Cookson Beecher of Food Safety News on January 27th. “Biotech crop cultivation jumped 87-fold between 1996 and 2010, making genetically engineered crops the fastest-adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.”
So, in a practical sense, if we don’t support market changes from the ground up, we may hurt some of the same health-food companies we are trying to help. For example, if only 6 percent of soy acreage is non-GE, there may not be a sufficient supply to meet the demand of consumers who are looking for GMO-free soy protein isolate powder at their local store.
In addition to issues of a nearly non-existent supply, there are also important price considerations for consumers and stakeholders to consider. According to chef Eric Ripert as quoted by FoodNavigator-USA.com, if people want to solely eat non-GMO, “they need to increase their food budgets---and prioritize their spending on food over luxuries, such as the latest iPhone.” He also suggested that people could consume smaller portions.
So if we are going to encourage that producers shun 65 to 95 percent of ingredients on the market, what mechanisms are we going to campaign for to increase investment in sustainable, GMO-free cropland? It takes over 3 years to convert from non-organic to organic, and organic farms do not currently receive USDA subsidies. That needs to change.
We need to generate the political will in Washington and Maryland to make sure that attractive subsidies, interest-free loans, equipment discounts and tax breaks are offered to farmers for converting their farms to organic and for new, family farmers to get started. This must be supported by consumers and by the food and food supplement producers who can, and should, commit to sourcing their ingredients with suppliers who work with these family farms.
And consumers must be made aware of the importance of purchasing products made with these ingredients while keeping in mind that it will take some years for the market and the products to catch up to the demand, and to be patient with companies who are committed to increasing their percentage of non-GE ingredients each year in line with the ever-increasing supply of those ingredients.
Gormley Files Take-Away: If we support the market of and for non-GMO this way, organically if you will, we will reduce or eliminate the economic incentives for agri-business to take over the last-remaining cropland and will encourage a staged, gradual conversion of farmland to sustainable, non-GMO crops in a way that helps family farmers, helps suppliers, helps food supplement manufacturers, helps health-food retailers and helps consumers---all without devastating supply or retail prices, collapsing markets and disappointing consumers.