The election is just a day away, but Obama and Romney aren’t the only ones who need your attention. In a time where more and more people are taking back control of their health, an important measure is rolling around in California: Proposition 37. If you’re unfamiliar with the bill, here’s the description from California’s Official Voter’s Guide:
Even if you don’t live in California, the passing of this bill could set a precedent for what’s to come in America. You might be facing the same type of choice soon. So listen up.
To GMO Or Not To GMO?
One of our WellnessFX dietitians, Sarah Brett, is a Yes on Prop 37. “It would be in protest of the ability to patent genes,” she says. “Because no one knows what damage any genetically modified food may do, it’s important to know any kind of genetic modification in certain types of food.”
Major opposers of Prop 37 say that there have been enough studies to show that foods made with genetically engineered ingredients are, indeed, safe. “More than 400 scientific studies have shown foods made with GE ingredients are safe,” NoProp37.com stated. “Leading health organizations like the American Medical Association, World Health Organization, National Academy of Sciences, 24 Nobel Prize winning scientists, and US Food and Drug Administration agree.”
Sarah, however, thinks this is misleading. “GMO corporations use patents and intellectual property rights to sue farmers, block research, and threaten investigators.” For a decade, protested Scientific American editors in 2009, GMO companies “have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research,” so “it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised.”
“GMOs have never undergone standard testing or regulation for human safety,” Sarah continues. “And now that they’re in 70 percent of processed foods, it’s extremely difficult for scientists to isolate their health risks.”
GMO technology, however, does have its benefits. It can protect crops against harmful pesticides and up food production. With genetic engineering the desired genotype of an organism can be created instantly, whereas traditional breeding can take generations to get the desired result. “GMO technology is more predictable than traditional breeding,” supporters say, “in which thousands of genes from each parent are transferred randomly to the offspring. Genetic engineering moves discrete genes or blocks of genes at a time.”
A downfall to this, Sarah points out, is that these plants are not able to reproduce themselves. After one or two seasons, the seeds need to be replaced. This is obviously favorable to the companies producing them, but not to crop-owners.
“The consequences of GMO technology are inherently unpredictable,” Sarah says. “Inserting a single gene can result in multiple, unintended DNA changes and mutations. ” One such environmental consequence — genetic contamination of other plants — is already documented. Unlike food, once seeds are released into the environment, seeds can’t be recalled.
Biology Professor Virginia Walbot of Stanford University, however, thinks that much of the public is misinformed on GMO’s. It’s a technology, not an ingredient, she says, and it sets out to accomplish things that otherwise would be done with harmful chemicals. “We’re generally replacing chemistry with biology. Biology is intrinsically softer on the environment. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect or without flaws. But with better engineering we can make it more optimal than it is today, and certainly more optimal than wholesale spraying with chemicals.”
She cites Bt as an example, a gene that comes from the organism bacillus thuringiensis. The most widely used organic-farmer solution to insect pests, its incorporation into a plant’s genetics makes crops indigestible to bugs, thereby killing them. Because of the vast differences in the bug gut than any other animal, it only has this effect on bugs. And bugs would have to evolve a gut that would cause them to starve to death just to be able to resist this gene, so the chance of resistance is slim to none. Compare this with the typical chemical insecticide, which would have a useful lifespan of about 5 to 10 years before the insects evolved resistance to it, and Professor Walbot think that, in this case, genetic engineering is the clear way to go.
While the argument for or against GMOs may be a little one-sided, there are other factors to consider when casting your vote tomorrow. Opposers of the proposition point out that in protecting our health, GMOs might not be the real bad guys. It reflects Sarah’s biggest issue with Prop 37.
“The most widely used GMOs are paired with an herbicide linked to serious reproductive problems and disease,” Sarah says. “Some genetically modified crops are treated with the herbicide glyphosate, which in exposed humans has been associated with DNA damage.” So, the question might arise: if the bigger problem is pesticides, why isn’t the Proposition 37 initiative demanding labeling about that?
And while Proposition 37 might be the best option we have currently, it could prevent better options down the line. “Prop 37 takes the issue of genetically modified food off the table,” Sarah admits. “Instead of building a movement and improving the law over many years, the people behind Prop 37 decided to make an initiative so that more legislation and tweaking can’t easily take place in California.”
There’s also the issue of special-interest exemptions and hidden costs for consumers and taxpayers. Proposition 37 “requires special labels on soy milk, but exempts cow’s milk and dairy products,” opposers say. “Fruit juice requires a label, but alcohol is exempt.”
Sarah, however, isn’t convinced this issue is as significant as the public might think. “The exemptions are on the “natural” products, not exemptions that would exclude the public from knowing something that is vital to their health.”
Dietitian Sarah Brett’s take: “GMOs aren’t needed in the first place, so why would we take on these risks and harms? Studies show that safe, sustainable farming practices applied worldwide could increase our food supply as much as 50 percent. And keep in mind that the world’s already producing 2,800 calories for every person on earth every day — more than enough. And that’s just with what’s left over after using half the world’s grain for feed, fuel and other purposes, and wasting one-third of all food. So the urgent question isn’t about “more” anyway. It is: How can all of the world’s people gain the power to secure healthy food? And a good start is knowing what’s in our food.”
Professor Virginia Walbot’s take: “It’s very strange to me that what [Prop 37] does is ask about the food processing technology—not about the [food’s] content. What people need to be concerned about [are the components] if they’re worried about allergies or getting a balanced diet. So let’s imagine in a supermarket that we required very extensive labeling that dealt with process. You pick up a package of hamburger and it says: “This meat was produced after shooting a cow in the head with a gun.” That was the process of generating the meat. GMO is a technology; it’s not an ingredient. So I think that the proposition is attacking a technology rather than focusing on what people really need to know—which is a complete ingredient list. I find the focus on the technology to be troubling, because it’s not focused on what the real issue is in my mind.”
Conclusion? It’s still a tough one to call. Yes, we should be able to know exactly what goes in our food. But is Proposition 37 the right step towards that? Are we settling for a Flinstones Band-Aid to fix a gaping wound when what we really need are stitches? It’s your vote, and it’s up to you to decide.
Regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s election, Sarah offers some tips for those who want to stay GMO-free:
• Avoid processed foods! It’s a simple way to reduce exposure to the four most common GM ingredients: non-organic forms of soy, canola, cottonseed and corn, including high-fructose corn syrup.
• Look for the voluntary “non-GMO” label.
• Buy “certified organic,” which ensures that no GMO ingredients were used.
• Visit www.NonGMOShoppingGuide.com for a list of thousands of GMO products and brands.
Sarah Brett, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietician with over 17 years of professional experience providing individual nutrition therapy, training professionals and parents, and educating students at the university and junior college level. She specializes in integrative and functional medicines, whole foods, and treating the whole person.