Ask Farm Aid | October 17, 2011

I saw your recent action alert about labeling GE foods (and I did it!), but I’m wondering why Farm Aid is involved. How will GE labeling do anything for family farmers?

October 2011

Dear Farm Aid,

I saw your recent action alert about labeling GE foods (and I did it!), but I’m wondering why Farm Aid is involved. How will GE labeling do anything for family farmers?

Thanks,
Dan L.

First: thanks for taking part in our Just Label It! campaign to demand mandatory labeling for all foods containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. That means you are (according to a recent ABC News poll) among the 93 percent of American eaters who believe they have the right to know what’s in their food and want to make informed choices.

But you ask a great question, Dan: why is GE labeling important for family farmers?

Food labels—whether in the form of a “Certified Organic” seal or a package of USDA Grade-A ground chuck—don’t just provide eaters with the information they need to make a purchase. They also support farmers seeking new markets and increase transparency in the food system. After all, eaters can only vote with their dollar if they know what they’re voting for!

There’s a lot to the issue of GE labeling, so let’s explore!

Dining in the dark

Genetic engineering starts in a lab—by altering the genetics of a species in order to create traits that can’t occur naturally or through traditional plant breeding. Sometimes this is achieved by transferring genes from one species to another; in other cases, genes that have never before existed are created, as with the development of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, which are modified to resist the application of Roundup herbicide. Some GE crops, such as Bt-corn or Bt-potatoes, have been engineered to produce toxins in their cells as a way to combat pests.

So, did you eat a Roundup Ready soybean or some other GE food today? It’s pretty darn likely. In fact, it’s highly likely you consume GE foods on a regular basis.

That’s because they’re everywhere, starting in the farm fields. Today, genetically engineered crop varieties dominate agriculture. GE soybeans currently account for 94 percent of total soybean acreage in the United States, while GE corn accounts for 88 percent of all U.S. corn acreage and GE canola for 90 percent of canola acreage.[1] GE sugar beets, used to make sugar, make up 59% of all sugar beet acreage. And this is just planted acreage—it says nothing of fields that are unknowingly contaminated with GE genetics from neighboring GE fields.

So what does that mean for you? While you may not find yourself munching on soybeans or sugar beets very often, these crops still creep into our food. They are used as feed for most of our livestock and poultry, in oils commonly used in our kitchens and as sweeteners and preservatives in our processed foods–estimates are that up to 70 percent of processed foods in our grocery stores contain GE ingredients.[2]

Like it or not, it’s extremely difficult to avoid GE in your food chain and darn near impossible without labels.

Though the federal government claims GE products are safe, most research on the topic is conducted or funded by the biotech industry. Many have raised concerns that new food toxins, allergens or diseases are potential risks to eaters, but there is almost no independent research on this issue and few mechanisms to address public health concerns once products hit the market. What’s more, the revolving door between the biotech industry and the federal government—where the very people hired to regulate the industry are former biotech industry employees— casts serious doubt on whether government policies addressing consumer health are being set in the public’s interest.

Some countries have been more proactive on the matter—all 15 European Union nations, Russia, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries around the world require labeling of GE foods. If the citizens of those countries enjoy the right to know when they’re eating GE foods, why shouldn’t Americans?

The Money Trail

To understand how GE labeling can impact farmers, it’s critical to follow the money. Genetic engineering presents a scenario where the technology itself—merits or risks aside—is almost impossible to separate from corporate power and the drive to make profits above all else.

For starters, most GE crops have been developed by multinational corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and Dow Chemical. The crop varieties they engineer (which to date are almost always designed to help push their related pesticides, like with Roundup Ready soybeans) are patented. And those patents grant several privileges to corporate seed giants.

Corporations have been able to restrict independent research on the risks and benefits of GE products, which is perfectly legal under patent law, but seriously undermines objective examination of the safety of GE crops.[3] Patents have also given corporations the power to pursue lawsuits against farmers for illegally “possessing” patented GE plants without a license when their fields are contaminated with GE genes.[4]

With the power to own and patent genetics, seed corporations have garnered incredible control over the market. At least 200 independent seed companies exited the market in the last fifteen years and four corporations now control over 50% of the market. This consolidation has left farmers with far fewer options for seed varieties, while granting corporations the power to control seed prices. Farmers have seen the sharpest rise in seed prices during the period in which GE crops rose in prominence.[5]

All of this points to the need for increased transparency in the marketplace and legitimate marketing opportunities for farmers who chose not to grow GE crops. It also begs the question: if biotech companies feel GE seed genetics are so special that they must be patented, so unique that they can sue farmers for “illegal possession,” why aren’t GE products different enough to warrant a consumer label?

What Farm Aid is doing about GE

There are many questions left unanswered about how GE will impact farmers and eaters, and even less clarity about how these impacts will be managed.

Farm Aid supports the call for mandatory labeling of GE foods by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). We support labeling because it is our right as Americans to make informed choices about the food we eat. We support labeling because we need increased transparency in our food system and a check on the corporate powers that restrict choice for family farmers and increasingly control the way in which our food is grown. We support labeling because it will provide family farmers who chose to grow their food without GE technology a clear, recognizable way to sell (and differentiate) their goods. And, it will allow eaters to actually vote with their dollars to get the food that they want.

Labeling GE foods is not the only avenue for protecting the rights of farmers and eaters, but it’s an essential one. Urge the FDA to require the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. To learn more about genetic engineering in our food, check out www.farmaid.org/GE.

Click here to see Farm Aid’s position on GE foods.

Sources

1. USDA Economic Research Service (2011)

2. Congressional Research Service.

3. Gurian-Sherman, Doug (2011). “No seed, no independent research: Companies that genetically engineer crops have a lock on what we know about their safety and benefits.” The Los Angeles Times.Los Angeles, CA. February 13, 2011.

4. Cook, Christopher, D. (2011). “Control over your food: Why Monsanto’s GM seeds are undemocratic.”Christian Science Monitor. February 23, 2011.

5. Hubbard, K. (2009). Out of hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry. Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering. Washington, D.C., National Family Farm Coalition. December 2009.

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