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Washington State this week votes on a ballot initiative that would require labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients. Two other states passed GMO labeling laws earlier this year, though with caveats, and more than twenty other states have put the issue on the agenda or on the ballot this year. It’s part of a renewed debate around GMO foods, which has shifted from questions of safety to labeling requirements. We explore the issues.
- Michael Moyer Senior Editor, Scientific American
- Delana Jones Campaign Manager, YES on 522
- Georgina Gustin Agriculture and Food reporter, CQ Roll Call
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Around 70 percent of processed foods in the United States contain genetically modified ingredients. The first GMO foods to hit US shelves were tomatoes, approved by the FDA back in 1994, and the fight over GMO foods has raged since. The latest battle line, labeling foods containing GMOs.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWashington state just voted on a proposition requiring labeling of all GMO foods. It seems that measure is headed for defeat, but it's a vote that's being watched closely around the country, as more than two dozen states and the federal government are looking at how and whether to label GMO foods. Joining us to get the lay of the land is Georgina Gustin. She covers agriculture and food for CQ Roll Call. Georgina Gustin joins us in studio. Welcome.
MS. GEORGINA GUSTINThank you.
NNAMDIJoining us from Bryant Park Studios in New York is Michael Moyer. He is Senior Editor at Scientific American. Michael Moyer, thank you for joining us.
MR. MICHAEL MOYERGreat to be here.
NNAMDIGeorgina, can you give us a little background on the Washington state initiative that appears to have failed. It wouldn't be the first state to require labeling of GMO foods. So why has it been making national headlines?
GUSTINWell, after California last year, there was a proposition there, it was a big, expensive state wide proposition 37. That caught a lot of peoples' attention. It was very expensive. The entities against the measure threw like 46 million dollars into the campaign. And that was a big market. Washington is basically the next biggest market to consider these labels. There have been other states. Earlier this year, Connecticut first, and then Maine. They passed their own labeling laws, but they are contingent upon contiguous states also passing similar laws.
GUSTINSo, Washington didn't have those restrictions, and so it would have been significant had that measure gone through.
NNAMDIMaine and Connecticut had strings attached. So, while the initiative in Washington state is not the first, this year, to put GMO labeling in front of voters, it's the first that has no strings attached. Can you talk about that?
GUSTINWell, California's didn't either, but, you know, Washington was the second of that kind. You know, the states in the northeast that have passed these measures, they have been concerned that they would be isolated from the food supply if they didn't have these strings attached. So, they're saying, well, it's different, depending on the state, but they're requiring at least four other states to pass similar measures, because they feel like they would be limiting their food supply if they were an island, basically, requiring these labels.
NNAMDIWell, Michael Moyer, half the states in the nation, this year, introduced some sort of legislation requiring GMOs be labeled, as such are banning engineered foods altogether. And Whole Foods announced, earlier this year, that it will require GMOs to be labeled by 2018. Despite the failures of two big ballot initiatives, is there a momentum building on this issue?
MOYERI think, clearly, there's a momentum. I think that there are, as you say, a number of initiatives that are out there trying to address this labeling issue. I think that there's no momentum in the US for trying to ban these, in the way that a number of European countries have done. But the next best thing for anti-GMO opponents is to have prominent labeling on packages, that would almost serve as warning labels.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation on the fight over GMO food labeling, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think GMO food should be labeled? Why or why not? Do you think genetically modified foods are safe? What have you heard or read? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet at kojoshow. Let's get an update on what happened in Washington state. Joining us now, by phone, from Seattle is Delana Jones, Campaign Manager for YES on 522, a ballot initiative in Washington state that would require labeling of all GMO foods.
NNAMDIDelana Jones, thank you for joining us.
MS. DELANA JONESYeah, thanks for having us, Kojo. You know, it was a long night here in Seattle, and we're still holding out hope. This race is not over yet. For those folks that maybe don't follow Washington election results too closely, there are still over 300,000 votes still to be counted. Due to Washington state's vote by mail system, there are hundreds of thousands of votes still to be counted, because people could drop their ballots, and as long as they postmarked by eight o'clock yesterday, so they could actually drop those in a vote by mail center.
MS. DELANA JONESSo, you know, people were, as reports were coming in, you know, people were still voting. So, and King County has a tendency, you know, the votes that we're looking at right now, that has us in this deficit, those are from the more conservative regions, because there are just simply less votes to count there. You know, here in King County, it makes up a third of the electorate, and it looks like King County might even (unintelligible) , so that's all good news for this measure as younger people and more progressives here, in the Seattle area, they just simply show up later.
MS. DELANA JONESSo, we're still, you know, cautiously optimistic, and this race is not over yet.
NNAMDIGiven that all the ballots are mailed in, when do you think you'll have a final count?
JONESYou know, at every day, the Secretary of State posts results at five o'clock, and so more results will be available after6:00 p.m. Pacific Time tonight. And we'll be giving those updates daily, you know? King County will still, you know, Monday's votes will probably roll in today, and yesterday's votes, which was always the biggest volume of votes, should roll in the next few days. So, we hope to know by Friday. Monday at the latest.
NNAMDIDelana Jones, what would Initiative 522 have required? Or what does it require? What would it require?
JONESYeah, it would be mandatory labeling on genetically engineered foods, mainly processed foods. And so cereals, cereal bars, things that are made with high fructose corn syrup or genetically engineered corn, or sugar beets. Those kinds of things.
NNAMDIMoney has been a big issue in this campaign, it's my understanding. It broke records, in terms of the money spent on an initiative. Can you talk about that?
JONESYeah. It was record breaking, the amount of, you know, out of state corporate special interest cash that flooded our state. You know, the five major -- Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, the chemical companies, and then also the Grocery Manufacturers Association. But the largest donor to the NO Campaign, and as you know, that's a D.C. lobby and organization for a lot of companies.
NNAMDIYes, as a matter of fact, we invited the GMA to join us on the air for this show, but we got no response. Who supported the YES on the 522 Initiative?
JONESWell, we had, actually, over 15,000 donors. The average donation to our campaign was 25 dollars. It was truly a grass roots movement. It was brought to the ballot here in Washington state by 353,000 petitions, were volunteer gathered, second largest petition gathering effort in the state. So, it truly had, you know, it was grass roots movement that brought this to the ballot, and we had funders all over the country, sure. But we also had an enormous amount of Washington, just regular folks supporting this.
JONESFishers, farmers, nurses and parents who just simply want to know the ingredients that's in their food.
NNAMDIOpponents of this initiative said that it's a costly process to change labels and that labeling GMO foods would raise grocery prices. Do you think that's the argument that swayed people?
JONESYou know, that argument is -- it is probably a component of the confusing and misleading attacks that were brought out against this campaign, but real world evidence suggests that 64 countries label, and these companies, they label their products all the time. And they already label their products for these export markets, and real world evidence suggests those grocery prices, they didn't go up in the 64 countries that label GMOs. It doesn't cost anything to put an extra, you know, few words on a package
JONESAnd these companies, they already do this in 64 other countries. And so I just, you know, think that they should do the same here in Washington state, and here in the United States.
NNAMDIDelano Jones is the Campaign Manager for YES on 522, a ballot initiative in Washington state that would require labeling of all GMO foods. Delana Jones, thank you for joining us. And good luck with the number of votes still to be counted.
JONESThanks. I just ask that everyone stay tuned. This race is not over yet. So, please stay tuned, and we'll continue to update everyone with results.
NNAMDIThank you so much for joining us. We're still talking with Michael Moyer. He is Senior Editor at Scientific American. Georgina Gustin covers Agriculture and Food for CQ Roll Call, and we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Georgina, Michael, Delana talked about the money in this fight. In fact, polls in Washington state showed voters strongly in favor of this ballot initiative just a couple of months ago. But after a lot of advertising and record amounts of money spent fighting these initiatives, that obviously shifted. Something similar happened last year in California.
NNAMDIStarting with you, Georgina, should we be concerned about the role of money in these campaigns?
GUSTINWell, I think it certainly has made a difference, and there's a pattern that's emerging in California. As you said, the polls showed, before the money started pouring in, that this had huge popular support. And then, the money came in and things turned around. And that lost -- that initiative lost narrowly. I think it was maybe three percentage points. And the same thing appears to have happened in Washington state, although, as Delana said, we don't know yet. But, when you see the contributors against these initiatives, they are certainly interested corporations.
GUSTINAnd the biotech industry and agribusiness, they have something to protect. And interestingly, though, in the Washington measure, some of the -- in the Washington measure, some of the corporations that had contributed against the California campaign, they dropped out. So, I think, you know, big companies like Kraft, Mars, Unilever, they said, we're gonna step back from this. They closed their wallets and they decided they weren't gonna give to that campaign anymore. I think that was kind of interesting.
GUSTINBecause it's maybe suggesting that they don't wanna get tangled up in this anymore. It's bad PR for them. It looks like they're trying to hide something. And so, maybe they are stepping back and taking a different tact.
MOYERI think that the money issue really kind of speaks to a broader issue in genetically modified foods, and the opposition to them. I think that GMOs and GMO labeling serve as an effective stand in for people who are concerned about big agribusiness, and about industrial agriculture. And unable to really oppose the Monsantos and the Krafts of the world in any specific way, they say, well, what else can we do? We can oppose this technology, which they champion.
MOYERAnd I think that it's a very large and complex issue, and I think that a lot of these issues get muddled up.
NNAMDIMichael, all 24 papers in Washington state came out against this ballot initiative. The Seattle Times, for example, described this as, quoting here, a clumsy, emotion based campaign. Others pointed to this as a potentially good idea wrapped in very bad lawmaking. Can you talk about that?
MOYERSure. I was surprised, actually, to learn that the -- it was unanimous in Washington state, that the newspapers all came out against the campaign. But in a way that reflects the scientific consensus about genetically modified organisms and genetically modified ingredients. There's a lot of confusion out there about it, and people are concerned. There was recently a poll, that the New York Times did, that said three quarters of Americans expressed concerns about genetically modified organism, with 37 percent of those who expressed concern saying that they fear that they cause cancer.
MOYEROr allergies. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that genetically modified organisms do not cause anything of the sort, that they're exactly as healthy as the ordinary ingredients that we eat without genetic modification.
NNAMDIPlease go ahead.
MOYERSo I think that, you know, in some way our publication Scientific American, we came out -- we had a special food issue just a few months ago and we have an editorial in the front. And we came out against labeling for genetically modified ingredients because the scientific consensus is so clear. I think that there's a lot of people who are uncomfortable with changes to their food but the science says that it's just the same as regular food. And putting the label on it I think causes more confusion for those who don't follow the issue closely.
NNAMDIHere is Brian in Arlington, Va. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHi. I wanted to address a frequent argument I think the industry gives for why you should not label food's GMO. And, in fact, you shouldn't be allowed to label other foods as not containing any GMO. I guess they feel that our -- consumers will be misled into unfounded concerns that this indicates somehow GMO is unhealthy and we're too ignorant to understand that it means something else.
BRIANFor me, I just want to say, I don't feel that GMOs would be unhealthful for me to eat. I'm sure they're perfectly safe to eat but I wouldn't buy them because I think I have pretty well-founded concerns about what these do to the environment. And if they would label these things and consumers didn't buy the products, then they'd have to educate us on how we're wrong and that should be left up to the consumers.
NNAMDIBrian, thank you very much for your call. Georgina, beyond the states taking up this issue, a number of companies are taking it upon themselves to address the GMO labeling issue. Whole Foods announced earlier this year it would require GMO labeling in its stores by the year 2018. Ben and Jerry's pledged to be GMO-free. Wouldn't food manufacturers prefer national standards to a patchwork of state laws and individual companies taking on labeling?
GUSTINI think they would except FDA regards GMO foods as substantially equivalent to conventional food, so there's no imperative there for a label. And congress has shown very little interest in passing anything that would require labels. So I don't think they're going to get that national standard, or it doesn't appear that they would. And the -- I think that's why people who advocate for labels are trying the state-by-state approach because they think that's the way to address this.
GUSTINBut from the industry's standpoint I think that makes it certainly much more difficult because you have this patchwork state by state. You have to reformulate for one state and maybe not reformulate for the adjacent state. So I think the industry would rather there not be any requirement at all. But if there weren't a requirement -- if there were a requirement that it would be national.
NNAMDIMichael, same question to you.
MOYERYes, I think that the national standard probably isn't going to happen for the reasons that Georgina said in terms of congress doesn't have any appetite for it. And the FDA, which regulates a lot of our food supply, they have to apply warning labels based on empirical evidence of risk. And that empirical evidence of risk does not exist for genetically modified organisms. But back to something that your caller Brian said, which I thought was interesting, you can actually label foods so that they do not contain genetically modified ingredients.
MOYERThere is a clause in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 that says if you label a food 100 percent organic, it is not allowed to contain any genetically modified ingredients. So for those of your listeners who are concerned about this, Brian mentioned the environmental effects of genetically modified organisms which are more in the air I think than the health effects, although I think overall genetically modified foods are beneficial for the environment. Those of your listeners who are concerned can seek out 100 percent organic foods.
NNAMDIBrian, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we will continue our conversation on the fight over GMO food labeling. You can still call us during the break at 800-433-8850. Would you avoid GMO foods if you knew which products contained them, 800-433-8850? You can also go to our website kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the fight over GMO food labeling. We're talking with Michael Moyer. He's senior editor at Scientific American. Georgina Gustin joins us in studio. She covers agriculture and food for CQ Roll Call. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. I'd like to go immediately to Jerry in Baltimore, Md. Jerry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JERRYHi. I don't understand what all the uproar is about GMO foods. From my understanding, corn is one of the first genetically modified food by man, even just through natural -- if you want to call it natural selection, where we used to go out and actually pollinate these flowers to get, you know, a more desired crop, pork, pig. I mean, look at just the domestication of them. They're not wild boars. Today's pork is a lot leaner than yesterday's. And, you know, a favorite pet, dogs. I mean, people have been breeding them. Isn't that genetic modification? Where do people get all this...
NNAMDIFirst you ,Michael Moyer, and then Georgina Gustin.
MOYERI think that that's a great point that Jerry brings up. And, indeed, our entire food system, everything we eat has been extensively modified through breeding. And one of the arguments that genetically modified food campaigners make is that the kind of change that you make to an organism through genetic modification is much more precise than it is through breeding. When you breed two things together, you throw their genomes together and you get lots and lots of different outcomes. And you try and select for the ones that have the traits that you like. But all sorts of other things might get shuffled up in their code.
MOYERWe don't have any problem with that. As you say, it's really the foundation for civilization. Corn would be inedible. Wheat as we eat it today could not exist in the wild because its seeds wouldn't blow in the wind. So what you have is this opposition to this technology. And the fear is that there are going to be unintended consequences to the very precise changing of certain links of the DNA. But we -- as you say, we do that for everything else.
MOYEROne other thing, another technology that we use that no one really talks about ever is so-called mutagenic techniques where you scramble the DNA of organisms with radiation and chemicals. We've been doing that for many, many decades and no one cares and no one's gotten sick.
GUSTINWell, I think people are fearful of this technology, not because of the technology itself but because there is a proprietary control over the technology by a handful of corporations. I think that's what scares people about it. These are patented traits. They're owned by these handful of companies. So while there has been, you know, hybridization and breeding over the millennia, this is a little bit different because it is done in a lab. It's DNA splicing, inserting that into a plant to get a specific trait. And that process is owned by a corporation.
GUSTINAnd I think that's what scares people. The technology itself and the promises that the industry and many people believe it holds, I don't think people generally have a problem with that.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Allow me to go now to Adam in Washington, D.C. Adam, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
ADAMHi, Kojo. This is actually Adam Eidinger and you had me on the show in the past. I wanted to let you know that I'm a Monsanto shareholder and I'll be voting in January on what...
NNAMDIYou're full of surprises, Adam, but go ahead, please.
ADAMWell, they're going to be -- the company itself will be voting on whether or not to label genetically engineered foods in support for a federal policy. But I wanted to ask a couple questions about the White House. President Obama pledged to label genetically engineered foods as a candidate, as a senator in Iowa. And, you know, whether or not we can, you know, see if there's anything wrong with the technology, it's just about transparency. And this is simple transparency. So I just wanted to ask the panel what they think about, you know, the president's pledge and has he been held accountable?
NNAMDII'll start with you, Michael.
MOYERI am not familiar with President Obama's pledges to label and what not to label. What I do know is the FDA is bound to label foods based on empirical evidence of risk. And that empirical evidence has not been forthcoming. Now, of course I'm sure he could do some sort of executive order or what have you and make it happen. But it has not been.
MOYERSo regarding, I think, Adams very interesting and very good point that this is really just transparency -- in the interest of transparency and we just want to know. I think that, you know, transparency only goes so far. I think that if you put a label on -- such as the one that they're voting on in Washington state, which is front-of-the-box label that says genetically engineered, I think that that serves as a de facto warning label.
MOYERAnd what that does and what we've seen it do in Europe is basically genetically modified projects -- excuse me, products end up falling off of the shelves. You basically can't get genetically modified products in Europe anymore. And it's really hurt genetically modified projects in Africa where there's a lot of advances that you can make to staple crops to make them more nutritious, more drought resistant and things of the sort. Those sorts of advances are not being adapted because -- adopted, excuse me, because of the opposition to GMO labels -- to genetically modified foods that you see in Europe.
NNAMDIGeorgina, talk a little bit more about what happened in Europe because a lot of people have the mistaken impression that GMO foods are banned in Europe. But that is not, in fact, the case. What happened after they started being forced to have GMO labeling?
GUSTINWell, Michael's right. Essentially what happened was they started -- the food industry started reformulating their products because they knew that having the label on the front of the box or wherever was a turnoff for consumers. So they reformulated their products, and therefore demand for genetically modified crops in Europe plummeted. And the industry saw that. They obviously don’t' want a repeat of that here.
GUSTINBut there's also some pretty interesting evidence out there to suggest that perhaps consumers -- whether consumers care about this is sort of up in the air because in some part of the world, in Asia for example, as Delana mentioned, 64 countries require labeling -- in some countries it really hasn't had an impact and consumers really don't seem to care. So in the EU where this really scared people kind of right off the bat -- the whole frankenfoods thing just kind of caught on there -- it became much more of an issue there. In other places it doesn't appear to be.
NNAMDIOn to the phones again to Bill in Washington, D.C. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLHello. Some of my initial questions have been answered recently by your broadcast. I was wanting to ask what is exactly the definition of GMO, particularly vis a vis a hybrid. And that has been already addressed. And I think it's previously commented, the need for the world to have hybrid and crops that have been selected for certain qualities is going to be essential. And so to change my initial question a little bit, how many things that are labeled genetically modified really include splicing of genes from outside the species? Or are they just the genes within the species that could be arrived at (unintelligible) arrived at through a more efficient and quick process?
MOYERI think that that's a great question. It touches on a lot of things. And what you're talking about in terms of introducing genes from outside of the species is generally referred to as transgenic organisms. There's a very famous example going on right now. There's a salmon that they're growing and hope to commercialize based in Canada which has the characteristics of another type of fish that allows it to grow much more quickly. And that's a transgenic organism.
MOYERA genetically modified organism is one where you are taking genes from another plant strain generally of the same species. And you're selecting the particular genes, a very small snippet of the genetic code that codes for the trait that you want to select for, whether that is trying to make something taste better or trying to make it more drought resistant. Or in the case of BT corn and things like that, being able to produce a pesticide that allows you to use less pesticide in the field itself.
NNAMDICare to comment, Georgina?
GUSTINWell, I think there is a lot of misconception certainly about what GMO means and what it does. We're not talking about tomatoes anymore, although the flavor savor tomato was the initial product to hit the shelves. But most of the stuff we're talking about is, you know, sugar beets, corn, soy. And these are ingredients that end up in processed foods mostly.
GUSTINSo we're not talking about -- with the exception of papayas and squash and a handful of things we're not talking about the produce that we see and, not yet anyway, the meat that we buy. Although as Michael mentioned, the aqua bounties technology is working on a GE salmon which in February the FDA said posed no threat to the environment. So that's a step closer to being a reality.
NNAMDIBut this isn't the first time there's been a battle over labels with food manufacturers. Packages didn't always have nutrition labels on them. Is it natural that many Americans are skeptical of big food manufacturers?
GUSTINI think labels are really -- it's a great question and labels are a very confusing place. They're also very valuable. And people spend a lot of money just working on what's on that little box or, you know, that little white box or whatever -- the logo on the front of the box or what have you. I think they do have a right to be concerned because they've been misled before or feel like they've been misled before. And the industry fights to -- you know, often to conceal things that they, you know, don't want to reveal.
GUSTINAnd in the case of GMOs, it's a lot cheaper to use what's out there than to reformulate and use non-GMO options. So when we talk about the cost of, for example, in Washington the no on 522, the initiative in Washington, those folks said, well it's going to cost $450 more per family if we pass this labeling requirement. That's because of the reformulation and because it'd have to go towards -- to more expensive ingredients. Not because of the label itself. So, yeah, I mean, the labels are a very, very complicated place. And I think people have a right to, you know, be concerned about them. And certainly there's a lot of confusion out there about what the labels mean.
NNAMDIMichael, someone labels in part because they feel the regulatory agencies have not done their job on that issue, and that big food manufacturers have had an outsized influence on decisions around safety and labeling. Is that, in fact, an issue?
MOYERWell, I mean, I think that Georgina really hits on something that is core to this issue. There's a real mistrust with big food manufacturers and with industrial agriculture and with agribusiness. And I think if people have been misled in the past, you know, these are corporations that answer really to their shareholders. And that's all that they answer to. And there's -- you know, the regulatory agencies have a duty to make sure that, you know, what the public is getting and what it is eating is basically safe to eat.
MOYERSo, you know, I think that a lot of the opposition to GMOs kind of comes from that real mistrust that the big food companies are putting this weird stuff into our packaged products, and we want something done about that.
NNAMDIHere is Carol in Washington DC. Carol, your turn.
CAROLHi Kojo. I wanted -- excuse me -- anybody mentioned the pesticides an insecticides that are often put on GMO crops, and how that's affecting our health.
NNAMDIWell, we got an email from Steven who writes, "Please also talk about the more fundamental issue, Roundup and related herbicides. The main reason for the controversial GMOs and that they are Roundup ready, allowing industrial farmers to use larger quantities of pesticides including in particular, glyphosate. There's evidence that the pesticide kills more than weeds. It's killing many of the healthy bacteria in our guts. It's killing gut bacteria that produce essential amino acids. It's use is clearly correlated with and almost a certainly a cause of the rise of autism over the past few decades."
NNAMDIMichael, your magazine, Scientific American, came out with an editorial in August with the headline, "Labels for GMO Foods are a Bad Idea." What are some of the issues you focused on in that editorial? The calls from Carol and the email from Steven certainly suggest that there adverse health effects, if not with GMOs themselves, with the pesticides that are used on them.
MOYERYeah. Let me address what -- the email that you just read there. There is no evidence that GMOs or these pesticides cause autism. You know, I kind of don't want to get into the whole world of what causes autism. There's a lot of conspiracy theories out there, and that's basically a conspiracy theory. And so -- and you're listeners who like to have evidence before deciding on something would be wise to consider that.
MOYERRegarding the broader issues of the environmental consequences of genetically modified organisms, actually genetically modified organisms in general allow farmers to put a lot fewer pesticides on their crops because the organisms themselves are coded to create pesticides that are dangerous to insects and specific insects such as boll weevils and what have you, but not to humans. There's actually a really good study that just came out, a seven-year study of 533 Indian farmers.
MOYERNow, these were cotton farmers, but they put in BT cotton which produces the BT bacteria which kills these pests, and over the seven years it increased the yield and profits and a big reason for that was that they were able to use fewer pesticides which, you know, as we know then go run off into the environment.
NNAMDIGeorgina, who has weighed in on the safety of GMO foods and what's the conclusion?
GUSTINThat is a great question. You have almost every health organization -- national health organization, the World Health Organization, the Royal Society, the American Medical Association, a number of entities that are stalwarts and, you know, said to be impartial, and they have said that there's no evidence to suggest that ingesting GMO foods is unsafe. But they are -- the come down in different places as far as some of them are more cautious than others, and some will say, well, there's no evidence -- we're not saying that they are unequivocally safe forever. What we're saying is that there isn't evidence to suggest that there are health consequences so far.
NNAMDISo far. We're going to have to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. Do you think there should be a national standard requiring labeling of GMO foods? 800-433-8850. You can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the fight over GMO food labeling. We're talking with Georgina Gustin. She covers agriculture and food for CQ Roll Call. Michael Moyer is a senior editor at Scientific American. Our number is 800-433-8850. Michael, another issues opponents have raised is that manufacturers could be subject to lawsuits for inadvertently including GMOs in their products. Can you talk about that/
MOYERRight. What they found in the preliminary studies before the California measure that failed last year, and then again for the Washington state measure, is that there would be bureaucracy that of course would have to creep up here showing that people who did not label their foods indeed had no genetically modified ingredients in their food, and there were fears about lawsuits, spurious or not, charging people with putting things in food that are not supposed to be in the food.
NNAMDIAnd Georgina, what do you say to people who say, look, if you don't embrace this technology, this technology has the potential to feed the poor and hungry the world over. If you don't embrace this technology, you are denying them the opportunity, you are denying the world the opportunity to meet one of the greatest challenges it's ever met in history, and that is to end hunger.
GUSTINYeah. I mean, this conversation is one of extremes. On the one side you have the biotechnology industry and agribusiness and scientists saying that if you don't support this, you know, if you don't completely embrace this technology you're an anti-science luddite and you're going to starve the children of the future. And they say we need to find a way to feed the nine billion people who are going to be on this planet by 2050.
GUSTINOn the other side of the conversation, you have people saying this is, you know, these are corporations that are trying -- they're using us as guinea pigs and they're trying to take over our food supply. So -- and in between you have a lot of people who are either confused or don't care. But the industry uses this mantra by 2050 we need to feed nine billion people, we need to find a way. And if we are curtailed in doing that, if we have to, because of a labeling initiative or because of an outright ban, if we can't make money essentially, and if -- and, therefore, can't invest in R&D, then this technology goes nowhere.
GUSTINThe promise that this affords just won't ever come to fruition. The problem there, of course, is people say, okay, well, show us. Show us what it is -- how is it that you're feeding people? And people are skeptical of the results so far on that front.
NNAMDIMichael, as we said, individual companies are taking this issue on, and overall Americans strongly favor labeling GMOs. Most surveys show a huge majority in support of labeling. Despite setbacks in individual states, Michael, is labeling inevitable?
MOYERThere's certainly a strain of thought that labeling is inevitable. You know, we've seen now in two cases, in -- apparently in Washington and in California last year, that polls seem to support labeling, but then when people actually go to the polls, that they don't vote in favor of it. So it's hard to tell. I think that Georgina's right, that the vast majority of people out there are either confused by the issue or don't care, and I think that, you know, we're going to see these skirmishes play out across the country in the coming years in terms of what we have with labeling.
MOYERI would be very surprised if major food companies didn't have teams of people already working on, okay, what happens if and when labeling is required, you know, what do we do, how do we comply?
NNAMDIHere's Tim in Chantilly, Va. Tim, your turn.
TIMThank you. And I appreciate the opportunity to speak. I think that it's really important to remember here that the burden of proof shouldn't be on the people but rather the corporations to prove whether or not genetically modified products are in fact dangerous to the people. The one editor suggested that it's really just a rumor and a scare tactic that these chemicals could be causing diseases or could be causing illnesses, when in fact should be the burden of proof of those that do want to take control of the food supply, that they should show us beforehand that these things are in fact safe for people rather than the other way around.
TIMAnd it's making people that doubt them seem foolish that there's not concrete evidence yet that these things are in fact dangerous. The second point to remember for everybody listening is that remember what corporations have done historically across history and follow your instincts there. Lastly, the food and drug administration is being stacked with people that used to work in the industry so you also have to be skeptical about those in the Food and Drug Administration that are overseeing these issues right now.
NNAMDIHow about the World Health Organization?
TIMWhat do you mean the World Health Organization?
NNAMDIThe World Health Organization, like the Food and Drug Administration, says as far as it knows, and on the basis of the research that has so far been conducted, that these foods are safe, and they say like the FDA that they can't say that for eternity, but as far as they can tell, they're safe.
TIMAgain, the burden of proof is on the people to prove that it's dangerous before it goes out there, stoking -- stoked by the claims of the big agricultural companies that of course there's nothing wrong with what they're trying to do. I've been told that there are studies and seen some information of people in India and other places where animals won't even touch some of the products that are being put forward. Now, of course, these aren't long, rigorous three- to five-year studies, so everybody's saying there's nothing to it. But that there is a lot of anecdotal information that points to the fact that these things are not all what they're made out be.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. To which you would say what, Michael Moyer?
MOYERI think that Tim brings up a point that a lot of people raise regarding what's called a precautionary principle, which is basically before anything comes out that you have to prove 100 percent beyond a doubt that there is no possibility of there being any danger.
NNAMDIGood luck with that.
MOYERNow, of course, it's impossible -- what's that?
NNAMDIGood luck with that.
MOYERYeah, right. It's -- no. It's impossible to prove a negative like that, and so you have to look at it as a risk-reward sort of scenario. All the studies they've done, many hundreds of studies, just for instance you mentioned the World Health Organization. The European Commission, which really can't be considered a tool of Monsanto or agribusiness, they funded 130 independent research projects carried out by more than 500 teams and all of them have said that GM crops are perfectly safe.
MOYERSo you look at the preponderance of evidence. You look at the risk. The risk -- you can't say it's zero, but it's extremely low. And so when you have something that has an extremely low risk and very definite benefits, then, you know, then you make a fine decision on what to do with it. If you didn't want any risk in your life, you couldn't even leave your bed in the morning, right? You couldn't walk across the street. I think we have a situation like that in regards to GMO foods.
MOYERAlso, with what Tim said regarding, oh, I've heard this anecdotal evidence, well, this is what you get from a lot of people who are, as Tim certainly seemed to be, very opposed to GMO foods. Oh, there was these -- this community in India and people didn't eat them and everyone developed these tumors or what have you. Well, you know, there's a lot of other factors that could be at play in any one anecdotal situation. This is why we do rigorous scientific studies, so that we can separate out all the different factors and see what is trying to cause what, and where the real correlations are and maybe even find an error of causation in there somewhere.
NNAMDIGeorgina, beyond the safety to humans, there have also been concerns raised about the effects of GMOs on the environment and what it might do to soil, wildlife, or other plants. What are some of the issues there?
GUSTINWell, I think because GMO crops have been so widely adopted, definitely in this country, people are concerned sort of in a macro cosmic way about the fact that there has been increasing monocultures in agriculture. So corn, soy, sugar beets, and so we're only growing those, they've become highly profitable, and that has become problematic because you're diminishing biodiversity. In the case of glyphosate-resistant crops, you're pouring a lot of glyphosate on them, and so I think the environmental concerns stem from the fact that there's just less diversity out there, fewer regional food sheds and farming systems, and diversified farms.
GUSTINAnd, you know, largely in the last ten years you've seen a tripling of farmers' markets, you've seen people really get engaged in food, and that's why. I think they think that production in agriculture -- a lot of people think that production in agriculture has moved in this unhealthy direction for the environment.
NNAMDIBut Michael Moore, you broached the issue earlier in the conversation that GMOs might be good for the environment.
MOYERRight. I think that what Georgina is talking about, I think, is absolutely true that you have these problems in American agriculture of monocultures, you know, of these huge swaths of the country given over to crops like corn and soy that end up getting used for animal feed and for things like corn syrup to -- I would suggest that your listeners who are concerned about these issues, that the real villain in the room probably isn't GMO foods, it's the farm bill which I'm sure Georgina knows quite a bit about, and really how that's -- that is pretty much directly funding the kind of agriculture that we have here in the U.S. But to get to your question in terms of GMOs being...
NNAMDIWe only have about 30 seconds left.
MOYERThey allow for -- depending on the crop, allow for no-till farming which has less run-off that goes into rivers, and again, allows for fewer pesticides to be sprayed on crops which can then go downstream and create problems.
NNAMDIMichael Moyer is a senior editor at Scientific American. Michael, thank you for joining us.
MOYERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIGeorgina Gustin covers agriculture and food for CQ Roll Call. Georgina, thank you for joining us.
GUSTINYou're welcome. My pleasure.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein and Stephannie Stokes. The engineer is Andrew Chadwick. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. If you'd like to share questions or comments with us, you can email us at email@example.com, join us on Facebook, or send a tweet to us @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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