Eight-nine percent of Americans want GM labeling - NYT poll
2. GMO poll results
NOTE: A New York Times blog poll (item 2) shows that 83 percent of US consumers are bothered by the presence of GMOs in food; 89 percent want to see labeling of such foods; about 85 percent would like to see stricter regulations; and nearly three-fourths would buy less salmon if it were GM.
1. Why aren't GMO foods labeled?
By MARK BITTMAN
The New York Times
February 15, 2011
If you want to avoid sugar, aspartame, trans-fats, MSG, or just about anything else, you read the label. If you want to avoid GMO's ”” genetically modified organisms ”” you're out of luck. They're not listed. You could, until now, simply buy organic foods, which by law can't contain more than 5 percent GMO's. Now, however, even that may not work.
In the last three weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved three new kinds of genetically engineered (GE) foods: alfalfa (which becomes hay), a type of corn grown to produce ethanol), and sugar beets. And the approval by the Food and Drug Administration of a super-fast-growing salmon ”” the first genetically modified animal to be sold in the U.S., but probably not the last ”” may not be far behind.
It's unlikely that these products' potential benefits could possibly outweigh their potential for harm. But even more unbelievable is that the FDA and the USDA will not require any of these products, or foods containing them, to be labeled as genetically engineered, because they don't want to "suggest or imply" that these foods are "different." (Labels with half-truths about health benefits appear to be OK, but that's another story.)
They are arguably different, but more important, people are leery of them. Nearly an entire continent ”” it's called Europe ”” is so wary that GE crops are barely grown there and there are strict bans on imports (that policy is in danger). Furthermore, most foods containing more than 0.9 percent GMOs must be labeled.
GE products may grow faster, require fewer pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, and reduce stress on land, water and other resources; they may be more profitable to farmers. But many of these claims are in dispute, and advances in conventional agriculture, some as simple as drip irrigation, may achieve these same goals more simply. Certainly conventional agriculture is more affordable for poor farmers, and most of the worlds' farmers are poor. (The surge in suicides among Indian farmers has been attributed by some, at least in part, to GE crops, and it's entirely possible that what's needed to feed the world's hungry is not new technology but a better distribution system and a reduction of waste.)
To be fair, two of the biggest fears about GE crops and animals ”” their potential to provoke allergic reactions and the transfer to humans of antibiotic-resistant properties of GMOs ”” have not come to pass. (As far as I can tell, though, they remain real dangers.) But there has been cross-breeding of natural crops and species with those that have been genetically engineered, and when ethanol corn cross-pollinates feed corn, the results could degrade the feed corn; when GE alfalfa cross-pollinates organic alfalfa, that alfalfa is no longer organic; if a GE salmon egg is fertilized by a wild salmon, or a transgenic fish escapes into the wild and breeds with a wild fish ”¦ it's not clear what will happen.
This last scenario is impossible, say the creators of the GE salmon ”” a biotech company called AquaBounty ”” whose interest in approval makes their judgment all but useless. (One Fish and Wildlife Service scientist wrote in material obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, "Maybe they should watch 'Jurassic Park.'")
But the testing process is suspect: the FDA relied on data submitted by AquaBounty (that data is for fish raised in Prince Edward Island, even though the company plans to raise the fish in Panama, which is possibly illegal).
Also curious is that the salmon is being categorized as a "new animal drug" which means that the advisory committee in charge of evaluating it is composed mostly of veterinarians and animal scientists, instead of, say, fish ecologists or experts in food safety. Not surprisingly, the biotech industry has spent over half a billion dollars on GMO lobbyists in the last decade, and Michael Taylor, the FDA deputy commissioner for foods, was once vice president for public policy at Monsanto. Numerous groups of consumers, farmers, environmental advocates, scientists, supporters of organic food and now even congressmen ”” last week, a bill was introduced to ban GE salmon ”” believe that the approval process demonstrated a bias towards the industry.
Cross-breeding is guaranteed with alfalfa and likely with corn. (The USDA claims to be figuring out ways to avoid this happening, but by then the damage may already be done.) And the organic dairy industry is going to suffer immediate and frightening losses when GE alfalfa is widely grown, since many dairy cows eat dried alfalfa (hay), and the contamination of organic alfalfa means the milk of animals fed with that hay can no longer be called organic. Likewise, when feed corn is contaminated by GE ethanol corn, the products produced from it won't be organic. (On the one hand, USDA joins the FDA in not seeing GE foods as materially different; on the other it limits the amount found in organic foods. Hello? Guys? Could you at least pretend to be consistent?)
The subject is unquestionably complex. Few people outside of scientists working in the field ”” self included ”” understand much of anything about gene altering. Still, an older ABC poll found that a majority of Americans believe that GMO's are unsafe, even more say they're less likely to buy them, and a more recent CBS/NYT poll found a whopping 87 percent ”” you don't see a poll number like that too often ”” wants them labeled.
In the long run, genetic engineering may prove to be useful. Or not. The science is adolescent at best; not even its strongest advocates can guarantee that there aren't hidden dangers. So consumers are understandably cautious, and whether that's justified or paranoid, it would seem we have a right to know as much as Europeans do.
Even more than questionable approvals, it's the unwillingness to label these products as such ”” even the GE salmon will be sold without distinction ”” that is demeaning and undemocratic, and the real reason is clear: producers and producer-friendly agencies correctly suspect that consumers will steer clear of GE products if they can identify them. Which may make them unprofitable. Where is the free market when we need it?
A majority of our food already contains GMO's, and there's little reason to think more isn't on the way. It seems our "regulators" are using us and the environment as guinea pigs, rather than demanding conclusive tests. And without labeling, we have no say in the matter whatsoever.
2. GMO poll results (and more)
The New York Times
February 24, 2011
Clearly this is something I'll be writing about for years to come; emotions are high and many pro-GMO people are industry boosters in disguise. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but fake impartiality is obnoxious. There were two pieces in Forbes about my column. The more reasonable one categorized me as a "foodie elite" presumably not because I sometimes eat well but because I refuse to acknowledge that genetically engineered foods will save the world, which they will not (you might read this terrific piece by Christopher Cook in the Christian Science Monitor, about Monsanto's business and its threat to food safety, and then remember that not all new developments are progressive) and a "luddite" (which is ridiculous, unless believing that not every bit of technology is world-saving makes you a luddite).
The other was written by a member of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization whose slogan appears to be "Free Markets and Limited Government," and which is a member of the Cooler Heads Coalition, whose "Global Warming 101”³ page reads: "Global warming may or may not be a problem. Man may or may not be driving it." This plus the fact that the so-called think tank has received funding from ExxonMobil (or is it MobilExxon?) shows you how seriously that should be taken.
Meanwhile, as I wrote last week, although there has been almost no evidence that GE food is a direct public health problem, it's a field in which Monsanto and others are having their way. I do believe we need to push our regulatory agencies to give approval to these new creations more grudgingly.
But without further ado, let's go to the poll results. I invited you to share your feelings and thoughts, both here and on Facebook and Twitter, about genetically modified foods. To all of you who answered or commented in one place or another, thank you.
You'll have to allow me a small margin of error for my counting, but unless I was off by hundreds of votes (and I wasn't) it seems that a large majority of you are in some way leery of GM foods or crops, or at least want them to be labeled. If you have a few minutes to spare, scroll through some of the comments; there are some great responses (from all sides), and certainly a discussion worth having (and continuing) as we see how the latest GMO decisions play out.
In short, in last week's blog poll, about 83 percent of you are bothered by the presence of GMOs in food; 89 percent want to see labeling of such foods, and about 85% percent would like to see stricter regulations; nearly three-fourths would buy less salmon if it were genetically engineered (but this number is skewed by the large number of you who don't buy farm-raised salmon in the first place I'm in that category or who eat no salmon at all).
The Facebook and Twitter polls were similar: between 82 and 85 percent of those responding would choose not to buy foods with GMOs if they were so labeled.
1. Does it bother you that there are genetically engineered ingredients in most of the foods sold in American supermarkets?
Need More Information: 9
2. Do you want the products that contain genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled "Contains Genetically Engineered Ingredients"?
Need More Information: 5
3. Do you think that government agencies should enact stricter regulations for testing, growing, and marketing of GE crops and other products?
Need More Information: 19
4. If genetically engineered salmon were to come on the market, it would not be labeled according to current policy and would therefore be indistinguishable (visually, at least) from other farm-raised salmon. Would this curb your overall purchasing of salmon? (Vote-Counter's Note: Some of the people who answered "No" to this question said they already don't buy farmed salmon, or, for one reason or another, don't eat fish in the first place.)
Need More Information: 8
Would you buy food with genetically modified ingredients if you knew they were in there?
Need More Information: 24
Would you buy food with genetically modified ingredients if you knew they were in there?
Need More Information: 12