Two opposing pieces of legislation addressing Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) labeling have been introduced into Congress in the last year.
Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act in April 2013.
This legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, would require labeling of genetically engineered foods, thereby allowing consumers to make informed choices about what they eat.
The other legislation, introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas this April, one year later, would require labeling on any GMO product for which a health risk has been proven and it would effectively ban any state-level labeling requirements.
This second bill is called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. Anti-GMO activists refer to the 2014 legislation as the DARK Act — Deny Americans the Right to Know.
With this 2014 follow-up legislation to prevent GMO labeling, consumers might ask, “Why should we know which foods are genetically-modified?”
In our food system, genetically modified organisms are plants containing genes from other organisms and appear as one of two types: plants that contain genes for herbicide resistance and plants that contain genes for toxins which prevent insect pests from eating them.
With herbicide resistance, farmers apply weed killers without killing their GMO crops. The problem is that traces of glyphosate (Roundup) may be finding their way into our food system.
One report estimates that 400 million more pounds of herbicides have been applied to our food system than would have been applied to conventional food crops before GMOs. Residues in our food, therefore, are not unexpected. Studies indicate that glyphosate may interfere with the biochemical pathways for synthesizing certain amino acids.
The next herbicide that may find its way to our tables soon is weed killer 2,4-D. The EPA has reported 2,4-D toxicity to the eye, thyroid, kidney, adrenals and reproductive organs in rat studies, as well as abnormalities in neurotoxicity studies in dogs and rabbits. The EPA suggests that two-generation reproduction studies are still required. The other type of GMO contains the genes that produce toxins to insect pests. Currently, corn contains the gene that codes for a toxin from Bt bacteria. The Bt toxin has been used quite safely in conventional and organic farming, but it can be washed off of the outside of the crop.
In the case of GMO Bt-crops, the toxin is expressed inside the cells of the plant and is inside our food; it cannot be removed by washing. A study published in the last year indicates Bt toxin damages red blood cells in mice and suggests that more studies are needed to establish the safety of Bt toxin in humans. The EPA does not set tolerance levels of Bt residues in our food.
Secondary effects of GMOs include super-resistance of weeds and pests, tainting of non-GMO crops with pollen from nearby GMO crops, and loss of native species. The potential for long-term health effects on animal and plant life in the natural environment is unknown.
There are no independent long-term, multi-generational studies on the effect of GMOs on humans or on the environment — pre-market or post-market.
Perhaps GMO foods are safe enough. However, the fact that pesticide residues will be accumulating in our heavily GMO-invested food system would seem to call for independent studies on cumulative effects of multiple genetic modifications.
Manufacturers of GMO seeds have an investment in the outcome and should not be the only ones doing safety studies.
Currently there is no review of seed manufacturers’ safety claims.
Without long-term, independently-verified safety claims, the consumer should know whether they are risking exposure to pesticide residues from GMO crops. Look for the NON-GMO Project label. Buy local and ask the farmer or grocer whether the food is GMO or GMO-fed. Ask your grocer to stock non-GMO foods. Eat fewer and less processed foods. And try the True Food app from iTunes.
Consumers have power. Maybe it’s time to wield it.
Katherine "Kat" Wolfram is the organizer for the Electric City Food Coop in Schenectady, as well as an educator and molecular biologist. The Gazette encourages qualified readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday and weekday opinion sections. Contact Mark Mahoney at firstname.lastname@example.org.