Beyond Labeling, the U.S. Needs Transparency Now for GE Food

posted Jul 10, 2014, 4:56 PM by Tracy A Corley   [ updated Jul 28, 2014, 7:34 PM ]
Genetically engineered (GE) food promised to feed the world. Unfortunately the world refuses to buy it. In April 2014, China banned imports of U.S. corn, reportedly due to fears of GE food contamination. A few weeks later, Russia proposed bans on GE imports and stalled GE crop cultivation, joining the EU, Japan, and more than 60 others in limits and bans.

Many Americans don’t want GE foods either. Most at least they want them labeled — 87% according to a 2008 CBS News/New York Times poll. Unfortunately, more than 80% of processed foods contain GE ingredients. With market saturation like that, Americans have little to no choice but to eat GE food. Even organically-grown crops carry risk of unknown contamination.

The U.S. needs transparency through both labeling and pre-market research of GE food now. In spite of calls for transparency in the U.S. and abroad, the agrotech industry continues to pour millions into fighting transparency efforts. More than 26 states have legislation under consideration, not including city and county ordinances. Vermont was the first state to enact a statewide ban.

U.S. policy hinders transparency just as much as the agrotech industry. The 1986 Coordinated Framework divides responsibility for GE regulation between the FDA, USDA, and EPA. This disjointed regulatory framework resulted in failure after failure, which, in 1999, the public and scientists highlighted in FDA hearings. In response, the FDA issued Pre-market Notification and Labeling Guidelines in 2001 — just as George W. Bush moved in to the Oval Office. The rule, if enacted, would have reversed the FDA’s 1992 policy position that classified GE foods as “substantively equivalent” to regular food and required more pre-market review. To date, the agrotech industry possesses full discretion over market entry decisions and conducts its own research, which it can choose not to disclose.

These regulatory and transparency failures make us and our communities sick. The CDC and other scientists have proven that GE food introduces new allergen sources, more toxins, and increased antibiotics resistance. Healthcare providers cannot keep pace with new risks, particularly since healthcare innovations require more rigorous testing than food innovations. Scientists have shown that GE food sickens the environment through monoculture farming techniques and growing pesticide use, which pollute ecosystems and kill beneficial insects like honeybees and Monarch butterflies. The threat grows as pests continue to develop resistance to Roundup™ and other pesticides.

But most immediately, GE food sickens our economy. Not only have the costs of patented seeds, specialized equipment, and highly skilled labor put family farms financially at risk, but China’s ban alone cost the corn industry an estimated $2.9 billion. To put that into perspective, in 2010, corn exports totaled $11.1 billion at today’s corn prices. Blows like this threaten jobs and businesses across our food system, from truck drivers to neighborhood bakeries.

To avoid a food system and economic disaster, the U.S. needs to bring transparency to GE foods through a national food policy council and the advancement of House Resolution 1699 and Senate bill 809.

A presidentially-appointed national food policy council would foster transparency by coordinating research, labeling, and reporting. By shifting power from three disjointed agencies who cannot even agree on a common definition for genetic engineering, this independent decision-making body can coordinate with federal agencies, scientists, state and local food policy councils, interest groups, and non-governmental organizations. The council would assess multiple food system issues, set the food policy agenda, and craft policy alternatives for improving transparency — much like state and regional food policy councils and the international commission Codex Alimentarius.

Introduced in April 2013, S. 809 and H.R. 1699 already address the concerns in the 1999 FDA proposed rule. Unfortunately, these “Right to Know” acts go head-to-head with the Right to Free Markets in the U.S. economy. Sen. Boxer and Rep. DeFazio should rename these bills, update them with commerce considerations, and push them out of committee to confront Rep. Pompeo’s Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 4432). Authored by the anti-transparency Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and known by critics as the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, this bill preempts state and local laws, makes mandatory labeling laws illegal, and places discretion in the hands of the FDA secretary. The two pro-transparency bills would move forward faster if grassroots advocates would organize under a single organization — like the opposition did under the GMA — and mobilize the healthcare industry and state governments, who currently shoulder the costs for GE food damages through hospital readmissions, environmental cleanups, and economic development efforts.

To truly feed the world, Americans must get out of the dark. Ask your congressmen and women to support the President in forming a national food policy council and to pass H.R. 1699 and S. 809. Together, we can make GE foods safer and more accepted, domestically and abroad, through transparency.

This post is also available on Northeastern University's Consortium on Food Systems Sustainability, Health, and Equity blog.  The views, conclusions, and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Northeastern University or any of its affiliates or assigns.

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