California's Proposition 37, which would have required labeling for foods containing genetically-modified ingredients, was defeated on November 6, but in many ways, the proposition was still a victory for the movement to raise awareness about the potential health consequences of GMO food consumption.
Prop 37 was defeated by a fairly narrow margin, with 52% of California's voters giving it a thumb's down, and 49% supporting it. Had it passed, the bill would have mandated a significant overhaul of the food regulatory system in the country's most populous state by requiring food makers to indicate which products contained GM ingredients.
This would have given concerned consumers the option to more easily seek out GMO-free products.
Given California's size as an agricultural state and as a consumer market, passage of Prop 37 would have had national implications, a fact not lost on Monsanto—a leading developer of GM crops—and other major agri-businesses. Earlier this year, Prop 37 was favored to pass by 2:1. In the months prior to Election Day, the "No on Prop 37" campaign---largely funded by industry—spent roughly $46 million to defeat the bill.
While the defeat of Prop 37 disappointed many organic food and consumer protection advocates, others view it as an opportunity to revise and redraft a bill that some saw as unrealistically stringent.
Spawn of the Flavr Savr
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines GMOs as "organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally," thereby allowing "selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, [and] also between non-related species." The method by which genetic alteration is achieved is variously referred to as "genetic engineering (GE)," "recombinant DNA technology," "modern biotechnology," or "gene technology."
Since the first genetically engineered whole food, the "Flavr Savr" tomato, went to market in 1994, members of the scientific community, the agricultural industry, and consumer advocates have offered myriad conflicting perspectives on the potential health risks and benefits associated with GM foods.
Genetic modification of plants formally began in 1983, when scientists created an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. Development of GMOs for human food production was fairly slow until the advent of Flavr Savr, after which there was a fairly rapid succession of approvals of plants modified to increase yield, change flavor or nutrient composition, increase resistance to herbicides, delay ripening, improve draught tolerance or raise resistance to pathogens and insects.
As of 2011, 25 GM food crops have been approved for US commercial agriculture. According to industry sources, 95% of all soybeans, 93% of all canola, and 86% of all corn (maize) grown in the US, is genetically modified.
To date, there are no GM animals approved for use in human food, but a breed of salmon genetically engineered for rapid growth and large size is pending approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
Just Label It!
In the US, food industry use of GMOs is largely unregulated. Manufacturers are not required to inform consumers whether or not their products contain GM ingredients, an issue on which the federal government has remained inactive. In contrast, the governments of over 50 countries, including Japan, India, China, and all of Europe require manufacturers to label products that contain GE ingredients (Kimenju, S.C. & De Groote, H., 2008). Several European countries have banned the use and planting of GMOs altogether.
American consumers, on the other hand, lack access to information about the contents of their food, which has led to widespread speculation regarding the potential health risks of GMOs.
California's landmark ballot initiative, officially known as the Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, received huge support from health and consumer protection organizations. In addition to the mandate for GMO labeling, it would have prohibited use of the word "natural" to market products containing GMO ingredients.
The appearance of Prop 37 on the California ballot fueled a contentious political and economic battle. Not surprisingly, it was met with great resistance from some of the nation's largest food and pesticide companies, which poured huge financial resources into efforts to defeat the measure.
The world's six largest pesticide corporations, the "Big 6," were among the top funders of "No on Prop 37." The two largest contributors, Monsanto and DuPont, respectively spent more than $7 million and $4 million on opposition efforts, alone outweighing the $8.7 million in total contributions raised by the "Yes on 37" campaign. KCE, an independent public television station based in Southern California, has compiled a comprehensive and detailed list of all major corporate contributors to the Yes and No campaigns.
Putting Up Resistance
The behemoth chemical companies' dedication to defeat Proposition 37 provides some insight into the industry forces driving the use of GM food crops.
GM herbicide-resistant and insecticide-resistant crops have been hugely successful in the US, and studies have demonstrated that the demand for pesticides increases noticeably whenever GE crops are planted. Greater pesticide use has led to greater weed resistance, which has in turn caused increased pesticide use. Between 1996 and 2011, GE crops contributed to a 7% increase in pesticide use, equivalent to over 400 million pounds (Benbrook CM, 2012).
Given the massive American market for pesticides, the industry's anti-Prop 37 efforts were not surprising. What did surprise many supporters of the measure was the oppositional stance taken by trade associations such as the Natural Products Association and the Council for Responsible Nutrition, whose member companies include some of the nation's largest organic and natural food producers.
These representatives of the so-called "natural" food industry stood against Prop 37 because some member companies use GMOs. NPA and CRN stood among those suggesting that labeling of GMOs will fuel unfounded fears and spurious lawsuits that will ultimately increase costs to consumers, growers, and manufacturers.
Prop 37 had its critics even among those who are generally against GMOs in the food supply. Some say the bill set unrealistic "zero tolerance" standards that would have been difficult, if not impossible to meet. Then, there was the question of implementation and enforcement, which would have presented significant logistical challenges. Many non-GMO activists believe that given the interstate and international nature of today's food supply chain, only a federal-level regulation would have significant impact in reducing GMOs in the food chain.
Health Implications of GMOs
The Environmental Working Group, an independent environmental and consumer advocacy organization, recently released an analysis that found that Americans annually consume their body weight, if not more, in genetically engineered food.
The extensive list of genetically modified food crops approved for commercial use includes, but is not limited to, wheat, corn, soybean, rice, sugar beets, canola, papaya, melon, squash, cotton, flax, linseed, tomato, alfalfa, and potato. Common food products that contain GM ingredients include chips and other snack items, canned soup and vegetables, popcorn, flour, bread and bread mixes, and processed meats.
Critics of GM technology argue that GMOs present numerous dangers both to human health the long term implications of which have not yet been sufficiently studied. WHO has mandated that modern technologies like genetic engineering be thoroughly evaluated if they are to constitute a true "improvement" in food production, further calling for examination of "the potential negative effects on human health of the consumption of food produced through genetic modification."
When genetic modifications are carried out, novel unstudied, untested compounds like unfamiliar proteins and allergens may emerge. The impact of these new compounds on human health is difficult to predict, but could include such unintended consequences as toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, and gene transfer (Sparrow 2010). If, for example, genes from GM foods were transferred either to the cells of the human body or to commensal GI bacteria, they could cause unexpected problems. This would be particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes used in creating GMOs, were to be transferred into the human body (Dona, A. & Arvanitoyannis, I.S., 2009).
Recent studies have suggested that even reportedly "safe" levels of GM crops pose a threat to healthy growth and development. A French study in the November issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology demonstrated that even in quantities deemed unharmful to humans, Monsanto's NK603 GM corn, and residues of their herbicide Roundup, caused tumors, multiple organ damage, and premature death in laboratory rats.
The first peer-reviewed lifetime feeding trial to test the long-term effects of NK603 or Roundup, the French study found that rats exposed to minute amounts of the GM corn or the weedkiller developed mammary tumors and severe liver and kidney damage as early as four months in males, and seven months for females, versus 23 and 14 months respectively in a control group.
Notably, while the lifespan of rats is an average 700 days, GM crops have been approved for human consumption on the basis of animal feeding trials lasting only 90-days, roughly equivalent to late adolescence in rats (Séralini et al, 2012).
There are no definitive human studies documenting clear links between consumption of GM foods and cancer, allergic disease or any other disorders, but the available animal studies were sufficient for the American Academy of Environmental Medicine to call on physicians to advise patients to avoid GM-containing foods.
Massive Environmental Impact
Supporters of genetic engineering, argue that health risks are theoretical, at best. They promote GM crops as a vital solution to global health challenges, pointing to GM crops that are insecticide and herbicide tolerant, drought resistant, and nutritionally robust. GM crops are often cited as a panacea for global malnutrition and hunger, poor crop yield, food shortages, and drought. Advocates portray genetic engineering as a modern extension of traditional selective breeding, claiming that GM crops are therefore as safe as those produced through traditional hybridization and breeding techniques.
Humanitarian efforts to utilize GM food crops in life-supporting ways might afford benefits to agricultural communities struggling to produce enough high quality, nutrient rich food. In reality, however, the majority of GMOs are not used to feed the world; rather, they've become an inexpensive addition to a food system that already produces strikingly cheap food.
What's more, GMOs are known contributors to environmental and agricultural challenges including increased insect resistance, virus resistance, and herbicide tolerance.
GM crops, whose seeds are owned and patented often by multinational corporations, are engineered to produce bacteria that deter specific pests or withstands specific herbicides, which are also corporate-owned and patented. This system traps farmers in a loop whereby they must continue to purchase designated seed-herbicide or seed-insecticide combinations year after year. According to anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva, this contributes to a loss of biodiversity and poverty among farmers growing GM crops.
The risk of genetic material transfer from GM crops into the wild, referred to as "outcrossing," has major implications with regard to food safety and security. Even if GM and non-GM crops are planted in separate fields with sizeable buffer zones, there is no fail-safe method for preventing the mixing of plants. Consequently, if such crops mix, GM foods unintended for human consumption can unintentionally end up in our food supply.
In one example, traces of an insecticidal GM maize variety called Starlink, which was approved in the US for animal feed only, were identified in commercial corn products when they caused allergic reactions among consumers (Kleter, et al., 2008).
Do We Have a Right to Know?
Regardless of one's interpretation of the possible risks and benefits, proponents of GMO labeling argue that consumers have the right to know what their food is made of and how it was grown. According to the Just Label It campaign, more than 92% of Americans want GE ingredients to be identified on food packaging.
Consumer advocates suggest that if manufacturers are certain that GM foods pose no threat to human health and safety, they have no reason to withhold that information from product labels.
If it accomplished anything, the Prop 37 effort raised the GMO issue to mainstream national awareness. It was supported by nearly half of all California voters, and its defeat came at a significant price for pesticide, chemical and agriculture companies.
Labeling advocacy groups are already regrouping for future labeling efforts, and Prop 37 is likely to be remembered as the beginning of the fight for the Right to Know, not the end of it.
In the mean time, consumers who want to limit consumption of GMOs are best advised to avoid or limit processed, packaged foods in favor of whole foods. Conscious shoppers should look for brands that voluntarily indicate the use of organic or "non-GMO" ingredients. To help consumers, the Institute for Responsible Technology and the Non-GMO Project—two of the nation's largest anti-GMO organizations--have created a free Non-GMO Shopping Guide app for smart phones.
Consumer purchase decisions favoring non-GMO foods will set a precedent not only for nationwide efforts to label GMO foods, but will also contribute to the larger movement towards transparency and accountability in our global food system.
Kristen Schepker holds a Master's degree in Integrative Health Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is a certified yoga instructor and holistic health and wellness coach practicing in San Francisco, CA.