Gabriela De La Cruz, Lanae Hernandez and other students in the master of public administration program had one reaction after watching “The Future for Food”: disbelief.
De La Cruz considers herself health conscious; she reads the nutrition labels and asks questions about the health benefits of various ingredients, she said after the watching the documentary recently in class.
However, Professor of Public Administration Keith Schildt informed them there is more going on with their food than the labels indicate.
“I was shocked to know what really was in my food,” De La Cruz said. “We are so clueless about the stuff we are buying.”
The documentary taught the group about genetically modified organisms, a common procedure that involves inserting traits from one organism into another by gene splicing. Such actions involve taking original plants, such as soybeans and corn, and inserting animal DNA into them by using a gene gun.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 88 percent of corn produced here in 2011 was genetically modified. Corn is a key ingredient in common grocery items, from brown sugar to Coca Cola.
The negative health effects of GMOs are still being researched, still this statistic shocked Schildt’s class.
While Schidlt’s class planned a strategy to inform La Verne about this foreign component, Hernandez encountered Kim Clymer-Kelley, a volunteer and Pasadena area coordinator for LabelGMOs, the group behind a proposed November ballot measure that would require all food containing GMOs to be labeled accordingly.
As of last week the LabelGMOs campaign had gathered enough signatures for the measure to be placed on the ballot.
If the signatures are verified, Californians will have a chance to vote on the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act in November.
“The title pretty much sold it,” Hernandez said. “People have no idea what is in their food and they have the right to know.”
Know what’s in your food
The purpose of the initiative is to raise awareness among California residents about which food they buy and consume is genetically modified. While would not ban the use of genetically modified food, it would let consumers know whether to avoid purchasing food that contains GMOs, according to the proposal.
Clymer-Kelley said LabelGMOs founder Pamm Larry created this initiative in July 2011 for one reason: having families live healthy lives.
“People are getting sick and they do not know the cause,” Clymer-Kelley said.
It did not take long for Larry to gain support and develop a well-respected organization, as a poll she conducted found more than 90 percent of Californians want to know if their food is genetically modified, according to the proposal.
“Seventy-five percent of our food is genetically modified,” Hernandez said. “We could be eating this stuff without knowing it.”
Companies such as Monsanto, a major farming industry, are a strong proponent in using biotechnology. They often use this procedure to insert their herbicide, Round Up Ready, into most of their products – corn, sugar beets, soybeans – to combat weeds and other harsh environments.
As Monsanto resists labeling their GMO products, support for Labeling has increased, said Anet Aguilar, volunteer coordinator for LabelGMOs.
Nineteen LabelGMOs local groups, from San Francisco to San Diego, now work in California.
“If they are keeping this a secret, it makes me wonder if I should be eating this,” Aguilar said. What inspired Aguilar to join was how Larry, a grandmother who is concerned about her family’s health, was motivated to build an initiative that will be beneficial for everyone.
“She realized you did not have to be an activist to inform people,” Aguilar, said. “It is amazing to see someone with no experience in legislation get involved.”
This initiative would also prohibit companies that use GMOs from claiming their products as “natural.” Denise Ryan, external relations director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, said this is a slap in the face to organic farmers.
“It does seem unfair to put the burden of certification on people who want to live healthy lives,” Ryan said.
When Larry realized companies like Monsanto were not labeling products that contain GMOs in their product, she grew skeptical of the consequences of this substance.
According to mercola.com, genetically modified food has not been participated in long-term safety testing, stating they may not be safe to eat.
The proposed initiative states that no taxpayer money will go into labeling GMOs; labeling would only be at the expense of the company.
“It is just a matter of ink,” Aguilar, said. “I see no negative impact with this initiative.”
GMOs impact health
With regard to health concerns, Monsanto’s website states that products that have been genetically modified are just as safe as non-GMOs. However, others disagree.
Professor of Biology and Biochemistry Jay Jones said with genetically modified food, there is potential for people with allergic reactions to be at risk.
For example, Monsanto uses genetic engineering to connect fish DNA to a tomato. This process is used to enhance the life of tomatoes so they may last longer on the grocery shelves.
“With the additional proteins being added from genetic modification, the body creates multiple antigens to combat this substance,” Jones said. “If too much is created, the individual may go into anaphylactic shock.”
Besides animal DNA, genetic engineering also allows companies to force bacteria, such as E. coli, to connect with food to survive in harmful environments.
According to the initiative, if a law is placed to mandate GMO labeling, it can be a critical method for tracking potential health effects of eating genetically engineered foods.
Monsanto claims the company performs numerous tests in a controlled environment to ensure its products are safe. While it is true that the tests are conducted by scientists, testing is not conducted by a third party such as the Food and Drug Administration.
Instead, they are conducted in the company’s facility, a fact that Schildt calls ironic.
“Basically, they can write their own report and send it to the government with no questions asked,” Schildt said.
GMOs affect the environment
Jones also said genetically modified plants can create a negative impact to the environment.
Even though it is genetically modified, these plants can cross-pollinate with other plants, including weeds.
“The organism that they were trying to combat becomes resistant,” Jones said. “Now they have these ‘super weeds’ that can withstand the herbicide.”
Schildt believes there is one purpose why Monsanto genetically modifies their products with their herbicide: to put smaller farmers out of business.
When a genetically modified plant cross-pollinate with other farmers’ crops, it collects their traits.
Since Monsanto created a patent for their GMO crops, they are able to claim that their competitors stole their product. Aguilar said this procedure is unfair, since non-GMO farmers use various techniques to be sure their food is not genetically modified.
“Not only are they screwing with traditional farming, they are denying the right of the farmer,” Aguilar said.
Monsanto has numerous plantations across the globe, according to company website.
Legislation not unprecedented
Supporters say they wonder why the FDA or the USDA have not required Monsanto and similar companies to require GMO labeling.
According to the proposal, 50 countries, including Japan, member states of the European Union and China, impose strict regulations in labeling GMOs.
Siobhan DeLancey, FDA spokeswoman, said there is an explanation why they do not mandate this requirement: there is no difference compared to its traditional counterpart.
“We can require labeling if there is a change in nutritional quality, substantiality and difference to the product,” DeLancey said. “Just because a product is genetically modified, that does not make a reason for the FDA to regulate it.”
DeLancey also said that FDA regulations are constructed by Congress.
Schildt said that it is not the lack of regulation that upsets people, but the fact that companies such as Monsanto has strong influence in Capitol Hill. To ensure they obtain this control, many Monsanto employees have taken multiple government positions in agencies such as the FDA, EPA, even in Congress.
“That type of power that a company has is scary,” Schildt said.
Monsanto claims its product is as natural as organic material, according to its website.
Ryan said this has supporters of the initiative disgusted, knowing that organic farmers to consistently go through strict FDA regulations to earn their product to be called natural.
“I find this ridiculous,” Ryan said. “You are either a natural farmer or you are not.”
Another setback for organic farmers is that they are not allowed to label their products GMO-free.
“FDA has concluded that the absence of genetic engineering in a food or ingredient does not necessarily mean that there is a material difference in the food,” DeLancey said. “A label statement that expresses or implies that a food is superior because it is not genetically engineered will be misleading.”
However, the FDA does not object to companies that use GMOs to voluntarily label their product.
Despite having multiple facilities inhabiting the world – even to places that require GMO labeling – Schildt said Monsanto is concerned with starting a media frenzy.
“They suggest that it will scare the customers if this was released to the public, thus resulting into losing profits,” Schildt said.
“We are going to do what the government failed to do,” Aguilar said.
More education needed
When Clymer-Kelley was out in the field gaining signatures, she receives mixed reactions.
“It is interesting when I see people pay top-dollar for foods, but they have no idea what is in them,” Clymer-Kelley said. “When I inform them about GMOs, their jaws drop.”
However, some people are not convinced GMOs are a negative.
“I get frustrated when people think like that,” Clymer-Kelley said. “When I asked them if they would like to know what is in their food, they ignore me.”
It may be a challenge to educate people about GMOs, but Clymer-Kelley said that is part of the job. Aguilar added that some people feel powerless when it comes to making a difference.
“Some people think signing a petition is a waste of time,” Aguilar said. “They seem to forget that they can do a lot if they are just committed.”
Nevertheless, the amount of support LabelGMOs is receiving, including partnering with other campaigns such as Food Democracy Now, reassures Aguilar that people care about this issue.
“Demographics seem to be irrelevant,” Aguilar said. “All I see is concerned citizens wanting what is best for California.”
Ryan also noticed an increasing in people switching to organic farming. During the recession, she saw an 8 percent increase in organic farming.
“There is a health consciousness being raised in our country,” Ryan said. “Organic farming is becoming to be a transformative moment.”
“Farming organically was a way of life before it was industrialized.”
LabelGMOs has collected roughly 1 million signatures; 850,000 verified signatures are required to get a measure on the California ballot.
De La Cruz said their mission is not done. On May 2 LabelGMOs volunteers turned in their petitions to the Board of Elections Offices in major cities throughout California where they will determine how many signatures are actually valid.
While waiting for the results, which can take approximately seven weeks, LabelGMOs continues to educate people about GMOs and why people should be aware.
“It takes time to educate, but once people are alerted, they think, ‘should we even eat this?’” Aguilar said.
“We want people to have the option to know what goes in their mouth.”
Alex Forbess can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.