Food Politics

The future for GMOs? Image from Shutterstock.
Economics. Abortion. Foreign policy. Health insurance. Bailouts. Tax loopholes. Energy policy. Wealthy Americans. Poor Americans. The middle class. There's one topic you haven't heard about this election season, however, and it's one of the most literal issues you're likely to ever face—one that you actually deal with many times each and every day.

Your food.

A great number of commercial crops grown in the United States contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Those crops are sold to you in the produce section of the supermarket, and are used as ingredients in a number of processed foods you buy; from cereals to chips to canned goods.

Currently commercialized GM crops in the U.S. include:
  • Soy (94% of all grown in US is GM)
  • Cotton (90% of all grown in US is GM)
  • Canola (90% of all grown in US is GM)
  • Sugar beets (95% of all grown in US is GM)
  • Corn (88% of all grown in US is GM)
  • Hawaiian papaya (more than 50% of all grown in US is GM)
  • Zucchini and yellow squash (more than 24,000 acres). 
All but soy cross-pollinate, although pop corn and blue corn do not cross with the current GM corn varieties. And now, with the sugar beet growers going GM, there is the possibility of cross-pollination into other beet varieties and near relatives, such as chard.

There's a proposition on the voting block in California this November that, if passed, would make the state the first to require food labels to include the following information:
  • Require labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.
  • Prohibit labeling or advertising such food as "natural."
  • Exempt from this requirement foods that are "certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages."
Whether you live in California or not, the vote is relevant because, if passed, it will establish a trend likely to be considered in other states over the course of the next several years. It's relevant because it begs the question of whether consumers have the right to know whether ingredients in their food products have been genetically modified. And it's relevant because of the extensive research conducted lately that links genetically modified food organisms to organ failure, suggests GMOs can contribute to obesity, and shows genetically modified food can actually cause cancer.

I'm not sure of any reason why this shouldn't be a basic requirement on food labels, or what the argument would be against people knowing what's in their food, but—no surprise—lots of companies that turn a profit off food chock-full of GMOs (and the associated pesticides) have come out in opposition to the proposal (namely brands like Monsanto, which has already thrown more than $7 million into the ring, go figure). Nationally, on the broader issue of labeling, in answer to the question of whether the Food and Drug Administration should require that “foods which have been genetically engineered or containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled to indicate that,” a whopping 91 percent of voters say yes and 5 percent say no. This is as nonpartisan as an issue gets, and the polls haven’t changed much in the last couple of years.

So what are the politics of the issue, on a national level, and why hasn't GMO labeling already been established nationwide?

[To read particularly timely pieces on the current, frighteningly state of GMOs in our food supply chain, check out this piece on apples and this on cancer].

President Barack Obama
As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to label genetically engineered food. But so far, no labels. And, even more disturbingly perhaps, this: He appointed Michael Taylor in August 2011 as senior advisor to the commissioner of the FDA. This is the same man who was in charge of FDA policy when GMO's were allowed into the US food supply without undergoing a single test to determine their safety. He had been Monsanto's attorney before becoming policy chief at the FDA; and became Monsanto's vice president and chief lobbyist. This guy, appointed as America's food safety czar?!

Yes. Really.

Then, earlier this month, Michelle Obama developed a new shopping guide as part of her Let's Move campaign against obesity that offers Americans some personal tips on how best to shop for food while at the grocery store. But missing from her guide is any warning (let alone any mention) about avoiding chemical poisons like the artificial sweetener chemical aspartame, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), the meat preservative sodium nitrite, and many other common food toxins.

I guess it's kind of hard to lash out about something your top food safety guy is in bed with.

Okay, so what about the other guy?

Mitt Romney
Obama's not the only guy with ties to Monsanto—which, to remind you, is a company sporting a checkered past that involves scandals with PCBs, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone, NutraSweet, IUD, genetically modified (GM) seed and herbicides, reaching back to the 1970s and ’80s...

...Which happens to be right around the time when Monsanto was the largest consulting client of Romney’s employer, Bain and Company, and when Romney helped move Monsanto from chemical colossus to genetic giant, trading one set of environmental controversies for another.

But is it relevant? Well, put it this way: "This history matters ...because of the litany of Monsanto corporate objectives that clash with planetary concerns. If Romney is elected, this bête noire of environmentalists will have a very old friend in a very high place." So says Wayne Barrett in an article he penned for the admittedly liberal-leaning Nation (read the full, very compelling article, here). The year Romney joined Bain (1977), Monsanto became one of Bain's first clients.

"John W. Hanley, the Monsanto CEO at the time, became so close to [then-30-year-old] Romney that he and Romney’s boss Bill Bain devised the idea of creating Bain Capital as a way of keeping Romney in the fold. Hanley even contributed $1 million to Romney’s first investment pool at Bain Capital... Bain and Romney whispered in Monsanto’s ear until 1985, when Hanley’s successor Richard Mahoney says he “fired” them and when Romney moved on to Bain Capital."

The history is long and not terribly illustrious. Fast-forward to this past March, when Romney named an 11-member Agricultural Advisory Committee packed with Monsanto connections, including its principal Washington lobbyist Randy Russell, whose firm has represented Monsanto since its founding in the 1980s and has been paid $2.4 million in lobbying fees since 1998.

Fair to say Romney's not going to come out in favor of labeling GM food anytime soon.

Oof. On both sides of the coin.
Okay. Seems like whoever you vote for this November (and you should, of course, vote—if you hate the top-two picks, may I encourage you to check out the other options) may not be terribly helpful in the labeling of foods department—nor is he likely to take the sort of environmental action necessary to actually turn the tides of climate change, which as far as I can tell stands to cause far more damage than homeland security, economic, or abortion policy issues combined. Luckily, there is an immediate solution: Grow your own. Even then, you need to be careful! A lot of the seeds you buy today are riddled with GMO's. Here's a short list of seeds you can buy that have no GMOs in them.  Zero. Zip. Zilch.
Note: For organic seed databases, see OMRI and ATTRA.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.