In 2013, 90 percent of all corn, beets and soybeans planted in the United States were genetically engineered (GE) according the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is a 65 percent increase since 2006.
According to Renée Maas from Food and Water Watch, a grassroots organization leading the campaign to get GE food labeled in North Carolina, the so-called misconception of the dangers involved in genetic engineering is a grim reality that negatively affects the health of Americans.
Maas said that the impact on American health is easily seen, but not so easily confirmed.
“It’s hard for doctors and scientists to link them to genetically engineered foods because they aren’t labeled,” she said. “So a lot of people don’t know if they’ve eaten them.”
Genetically engineered plants have been altered in order to display certain desirable characteristics and withstand heavy doses of herbicide or pesticides. GE commodity crops appear in 70 percent of processed foods found on grocery store shelves.
But Americans are unaware because ingredients that have been genetically engineered are not listed on the packaging. The United States is one of the only developed countries that doesn’t require GE labeling. In total, 64 different countries have labeling laws, including Japan, South Korea, China, Brazil and the entire European Union.
The United States saw its first federal legislation dealing with GE labeling in over a decade in August of 2013. But more success has been achieved on the state level. In 2013, a total of 52 GE labeling bills from 26 different states were introduced.
Maine and Connecticut became the first U.S. states to require labeling on foods that contain GMOs in the summer of 2013. The most recent states to consider labeling laws are Rhode Island and Hawaii.
Shortly after Maine and Connecticut began requiring labeling, the Scientific American published an article claiming that labeling GMOs would “intensify the misconception that so-called ‘Frankenfoods’ endanger people’s health.”
A 2012 study by French scientist Gilles-Eric-Séralini found serious problems associated with GE foods, specifically issues with kidney and liver function. But, met with criticism from the GE food industry, he was forced to retract his findings. According to Food and Water Watch, the retraction of Séralini’s study follows a history of suppression and censorship by the biotechnology companies.
The usual protocol surrounding a controversial scientific study is for traditional studies to be performed. But the industry pays hundreds of millions of dollars to fund research at public universities. Such funding consistently produces results that are favorable for the sponsors. All previous studies done on GMOs were performed by Monsanto, the leading producer of GE seed.
In fact, the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency don’t perform their own independent research. Instead, they rely on companies like Monsanto, who own the patents for GE seed.
“The industry that created genetically engineered food, they don’t want to see it labeled,” Maas said. “If people know that their food is genetically engineered, consumers would demand better food.”
Proponents like Maas argue that people have a right to know what they’re eating.
In November 2013, Washington state voters rejected an initiative to require GE labeling, USA Today reported, because labeling laws were considered to expensive.
“The grocery industry has spent millions and millions of dollars on, sometimes, telling people outright lies about how much labeling would entail and how much it would actually cost,” Maas said.
According to Maas, companies change their labels frequently, often for rebranding or on specific occasions, such as a sweepstakes or holiday. The request, she said, is not unreasonable.
Other opponents of labeling laws claim that GE labeling would increase costs for the average family as much as $600 per year. But an independent study in the U.K., a country with a comparable food market, the Food Standards Agency established that GE labeling would increase yearly food expenditures by only five American dollars at most.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employee Theresa Eisenman has noticed the attention that GE labeling has received recently.
“We recognize and appreciate the interest that some consumers have expressed in knowing whether a food was produced using genetic engineering,” she said. “The FDA’s role is to ensure that foods under its purview meet applicable safety labeling and other regulatory requirements. Food derived from genetically engineered plants must meet the same requirements, including safety requirements, as other foods, such as foods derived from traditionally bred plants.”
Eisenman also said that food manufacturers have the right to label foods that have been developed through genetic engineering, provided that such labeling is truthful and not misleading.
Some supporters of labeling GE foods take issue with the large quantities of herbicides and pesticides that accompany these seeds. Rochelle Sparko of the North Carolina Farm Stewardship Association said that these seeds are designed to resist certain chemicals that kill pests.
“When you dump a bunch of herbicide on the land, it ends up in the land. It ends up in the streams and the ground water,” Sparko said.
A study performed by Washington State University in 2012 discovered that the overuse of these herbicides are creating herbicide-resistant “super weeds” that require about 25 percent more herbicide to eradicate each year.
The study also found that the amount of herbicides used each year had increased by about 1.5 million pounds. This problem is most pronounced for farmers who are forced to pay an increasingly high rate for herbicides to maintain their crops.
“Our major concern with GMOs is that we just don’t know enough yet about whether they are safe. We do know that there are concerns with the herbicide use that goes along GMO growing. GMO labeling is a way to let consumers know that those kinds of herbicide have been used in the food,” Sparko said.
While the Farm Stewardship Association supports labeling laws for GE foods, Sparko said that the agencies fighting such laws outspend supporters by about 10 to 1.
“When there’s a ballot initiative, the GMO companies will spend thousands of dollars to try and convince people that they actually don’t want to know what’s in their food,” she said.