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The defeat of California’s Proposition 37: Why Detroiters should care

WSU Farmers Market

Consumers can reduce their exposure to GE foods by eating fewer processed and packaged foods, and choosing organically grown foods whenever they can. The WSU Farmers Market is a good place to get such foods. COURTESY PHOTO

By Kami Pothukuchi, Ph. D.

In the recent elections, Proposition 37, the campaign to label genetically modified food in California, was defeated. A coalition of pesticide and junk food manufacturers poured more than $45.6 million on ads that blanketed the state’s airwaves. The top three funders — Monsanto, Du Pont and Dow Chemical — alone spent almost double the $8.7 million that advocates of Prop 37 raised.

Despite the great disparity in spending, the margin of victory was relatively small: 53 percent to 47 percent. In fact, nationally, 91 percent of people support laws requiring labeling foods containing GMOs (genetically manufactured organisms), according to a poll conducted earlier this year by the Mellman Group. Using a random sampling of registered voters across the country, the poll found broad agreement across traditional divisions of party identification, race, gender and age.

Unlike more than 60 other countries, including China, Japan, Russia and European Union members, the U.S. has no law requiring labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. As a consequence, U.S. consumers are unknowingly purchasing and consuming such foods every day, despite the lack of independent tests by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on their safety.

Why should Detroiters care about this California initiative and the outcome?

First, Prop 37 underscores a core principle of both an effective democracy — the public’s right to know about decisions that affect their health and that of the environment — as well as an efficient marketplace — access to information so consumers know just what they are buying. Just as we have a right to know if food contains trans-fats or high fructose corn syrup, we have the right to know if our food has been modified at the molecular level to contain viruses or foreign genetic material, as is the case with GE foods.

Second, GE foods represent a vast experiment conducted by chemical companies on people and the ecosystem, and by the time the results are in, it may be too late to do much, if anything. The U.S. government relies solely on these companies who own the patents for these new foods for all safety testing. Shouldn’t we have independent government-sponsored research on the impacts of GE foods on human health and safety and the health of the environment? As researchers gather evidence on what may be safe or not, don’t we citizens deserve to choose whether or not to eat these foods?

Independent researchers indeed are starting to amass the evidence that is needed, but it is a slow process and results are as yet inconclusive. For example, according to a study published in the Reproductive Toxicology journal, two GMO toxins were detected in the blood of nearly 90 percent of pregnant women tested and 100 percent of their fetal cord blood. More recently, The Food & Chemical Toxicology Journal published a study that showed that rats fed GE corn suffered from severe liver and kidney damage, and large cancerous tumors.

The production of GE crops such as “Roundup Ready” corn or soy also raises concerns about the overuse of herbicides and the resulting growth of resistant “superweeds,” pollution of drinking water, and other risks to farm workers and wildlife. One 2011 research estimate is that American farmers have used over 527 million more pounds of glyphosate since genetically engineered glyphosate resistant crops were introduced 16 years ago.

Third, we need to be concerned about the effects of big money on our elections and the resulting barrage of TV ad campaigns — often highly deceptive ones — on this topic and more generally. For example, the corporate-driven ad campaign effectively shifted the Label GMO narrative away from a citizens’ “right to know” to one that riled up fears about higher grocery bills and lawsuits against small producers such as beekeepers whose honey may include pollen from genetically engineered flowers (small producers were exempt from such actions).

All this corporate money seemed to have sown the seeds of doubt among voters. What can good food advocates do?

Community food advocates can engage each other and community members in everyday conversations about the politics and ethics of GMOs: Who benefits from them and who bears their costs and risks? What might be the implications of large-scale modifications to our collective heritage; the earth’s genetic diversity?

We need to learn more about just and sustainable alternatives and what it takes to create and implement them. We also need to call on our elected officials to support more environmental and health impact reviews and other independent research on GE foods, and to invest in agricultural practices that are healthy, safe and sustainable.

As consumers, we can cut back on processed and packaged foods, buy organic as often as possible (although this is not fail safe), and avoid products containing corn, soy, cotton, canola and sugar as these are most likely to be genetically engineered.

Given the uncertainties about GE foods now and into the future, at the very least, we need to have the choice not to consume them. Labeling is a necessary first step.

Kami Pothukuchi teaches urban planning at Wayne State University where she also directs SEED Wayne, a campus-community collaborative dedicated to building sustainable food systems. She is also a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council.

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