Most people that follow food issues had their eyes on California last night. Voters in the state were going to the polls to determine if the United States would finally join countries around the world and label ingredients recently introduced into our food that have been genetically engineered to produce their own insecticidal toxins, ingredients that are now regulated by the EPA as pesticides.
The legislation had the opportunity to impact all of us. California recently voted on labeling an ingredient found in sodas, due to its potential link to cancer. But rather than label it, soda companies decided to reformulate their products and they removed the ingredient in products around the country. The same fate could happen with these genetically engineered ingredients if they were labeled - companies might simply want to opt out rather than carry any liability that a label might cause.
So the question put to California voters was essentially: should ingredients, now regulated as pesticides, be labeled in our food?
But it wasn't exactly framed that way. And in the months leading up to the election, a tsunami of money poured into the state from chemical and pesticide companies from around the world. These corporations selling the products, both the genetically engineered ingredients and the chemicals used on them, didn't feel it was neccessary to label these ingredients, they didn't want to cause alarm.
And with polling results in, they won in the California voting booth.
But did they win on the national stage?
Because rather than consider this "the end" of the issue, perhaps it should be seen as the beginning of a long-overdue dialogue in the United States, a dialogue that the industry spent $45 million dollars to try to keep from having.
Any grocery store shopper knows that a lot gets labeled: orange juice has to be labeled if it comes from concentrate, allergens are labeled, fat content, too. But we have not yet joined over 50 countries around the world and called for the labeling of ingredients that have been engineered by the chemical companies to withstand increasing doses of their chemicals.
A recent Wall Street Journal poll asked: Do you think genetically engineered foods should be labeled? 87% said yes.
This is not a party issue, it is an American one.
And as more of us are waking up to the fact that the United States remains one of the only developed countries in the world to have failed to label these ingredients in our food supply, the question now seems to be: Is now the time to label genetically engineered foods, foods whose genetic makeup has been hardwired to withstand increasing doses of toxic chemicals or to produce insecticides within the plant itself.
The chemical companies that are both making the foods and selling the chemicals required to grow them often claim that their products are needed to feed the world.
It's an emotional argument. Powerful, too, and does a lot to drive shareholder return. But in light of the fact that 2 billion people are overweight or obese and 1 billion are hungry, according to the USDA, 40 percent of the food we produce is never eaten.
Is a food shortage really the problem? Or is it a shortage in earnings visibility that has these companies quietly pushing their products on us, spending $45 million to make sure that they don't have to label them for fear that labels might lead Americans to join eaters in other countries and opt out?
"The world is hungry because of politics and economics, not because we can't grow food" a farmer from Australia recently said. And if you go wide, beyond the consumers and farmers, and dig into the politics of food, you realize how complicated and politically, economically and finanicially loaded the issue has become.
The companies engineering these crops to withstand their chemicals say they are safe. They've conducted their own research because the FDA has not.
It's not the first time that ingredients with the potential to cause harm have been marketed this way. Doctors marketed cigarettes to our grandmothers. Like the tobacco industry, the pesticide and chemical industries fund research, protected under intellectual property law that is not subject to peer review, and then present it as evidence that their products are safe. That's their job, to market their products so that they can drive shareholder return. But what about the rest of us, the world's 7 billion stakeholders in the food supply - those of us, not known by the names given to our portfolios, but those of us simply called "eaters"?
A researcher with the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research and director of the Molecular Embryology Laboratory said,"The noteworthy thing is that there are no studies of embryos on the world level and none where (the chemical routinely doused on these genetically engineered crops) glyphosate is injected into embryos.”
We don't know what these foods are doing to our children. And while correlation is not causation, from 1992-2007, there was a9.4% increase in childhood cancers in the United States. Children in the United States where cancer is now the leading cause of death by disease in kids under the age of fifteen also have skyrocketing rates of food allergies and have earned the title "Generation Rx".
Is it the new, genetically engineered ingredients in the food? We'd have no idea, since there are no labels.
That's hard to hear, especially for those of us that dismissed concerns around genetically engineered foods as some hippy, fringy, purist thing. It can be so hard to hear that when industry claims there is "no evidence of harm", you almost want to believe them. But if you think about it, without labels, there simply is no evidence. And "no evidence of harm" is not the same as "evidence of no harm."
Labels are needed to prove a direct cause and effect. And while we don't yet have them, mounting hospitalization records, record drug sales and an increasingly allergic, diabetic, cancer-stricken and obese population in which 46 children are diagnosed with cancer every day might suggest that we should take a closer look and introduce labeling here in the United States as a conservative measure to protect the heath of our citizens, the way the health of citizens in every country in the European Union, Australia, Japan, Russia and China are protected (to name a few).
And while in the face of record amounts of campaign spending money by the chemical, pesticide and junk food companies, the labeling initiative was defeated in California, what that campaign started was a long-overdue national dialogue. This is not "the end" of anything but the beginning of a national discussion.
It brought an awareness to the fact that the FDA does not require pre-market safety testing of these foods, that no long-term human, prenatal or pediatric studies have been conducted and that Americans remain one of the only developed countries in the world whose citizens have not been give the liberty of labels in order to make an informed choice about the foods that we are eating.
States matter. To get a feel for just how much take a look at the first seat belt law which was introduced by a state in 1984, in no time, others followed. And today, in the absence of any federal seat belt law, it speaks to the important role that states play in protecting the health of their populations by using preventative measures to protect citizens from potential harm.
So what can Americans do next? Keep up the pressure at the state level. Begin a dialogue. Find a friend who cares about this as much as you do. Join the national movement that is calling on the FDA to address the issue on behalf of all Americans. A 53 to 47% loss is not something to bury heads over given that the opposition flooded the campaign with $45 million in marketing, but rather something for which to keep heads up, looking forward, as we focus on the FDA and work to address this at the national level.
The health of our country and our economy are dependent on the heath of Americans. 41% of Americans are now expected to get cancer and there is a growing burden that disease is placing on our economy. Labeling these new ingredients in our food supply, ingredients that are now regulated by the EPA as "pesticides," just might prove to be one of the smartest economic measures of our time.
To learn more about genetically engineered foods and the pesticides being routinely applied to them, please visit one of the following sites, known for their independent research: