Colorado and Oregon could soon become the first states in the nation to pass ballot initiatives mandating the labeling of food products containing genetically modified organisms. Earlier this year, Vermont became the first state to approve GMO labeling through the legislative process, but the decision is now being challenged in the courts. Numerous items are already sold in grocery stores containing genetically modified corn and soy, but companies are currently not required to inform consumers. Advocates of Prop 105 in Colorado and Measure 92 in Oregon say GMO foods can be harmful to human health due to pesticide residues and the altered crop genetics. Opponents say the effort to label genetically modified food is overly cumbersome and will spread misinformation. Leading corporations opposing the labeling measures include Monsanto, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo Inc., Kellogg Co. and Coca-Cola. By some accounts, opponents of labeling have contributed roughly $20 million for campaigning against the proposed laws, nearly triple the money raised by supporters of the initiatives. In Oregon, the fight for GMO labeling has turned into the most expensive ballot measure campaign in the state’s history. We speak to Tufts University professor Sheldon Krimsky, editor of The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: Food fights are raging in Colorado and Oregon—that is, the fights over ballot initiatives that would require the labeling of genetically engineered food. On Election Day, voters will cast a “yay” or “nay” for Proposition 105 in Colorado and Measure 92 in Oregon. The states could become the first to mandate labeling laws for genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, possibly affecting industry labeling practices across the country. [Earlier this year, Vermont became the first state to approve GMO labeling through the legislative process, but the decision is now being challenged in the courts.] Numerous items are already sold in grocery stores containing GMO corn and soy, but companies are currently not required to inform consumers. Advocates of Prop 105 in Colorado say GMO foods can be harmful to human health due to pesticide residues and the altered crop genetics. Several celebrities have banded together to support the Right to Know campaign with this playfully ironic PSA that begins with actor Danny DeVito.
DANNY DEVITO: What makes you think you have the right to know?
JILLIAN MICHAELS: Who do you think you are?
BILL MAHER: You shouldn’t know whether your food is genetically modified.
JOHN CHO: You might do something dumb.
GLENN HOWERTON: Like you’d be looking at labels and making decisions.
DANNY DEVITO: Knowing if you’re eating or buying genetically engineered food is not your right.
KAITLIN OLSON: Ooh, maybe move to Europe or Japan if you want that right.
GLENN HOWERTON: Or a lot of countries where people have the right to know.
BILL MAHER: But not here, baby.
KADEE STRICKLAND: Unless you demand that GMOs get labeled.
GLENN HOWERTON: Vote, and you get to know what’s in your food.
UNIDENTIFIED: Vote yes for the right to know.
AMY GOODMAN: An ad by the Right to Know Colorado campaign. Opponents of Prop 105 say the effort to label genetically modified food is overly cumbersome and will spread misinformation. This ad was released by the No on 105 campaign.
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DON AMENT: Agriculture is crucial to Colorado’s economy. Proposition 105 would hurt Colorado food producers by forcing them to use misleading labels that conflict with national standards. It would require many food products that we export to be labeled as genetically engineered, even when they’re not.
AARON MATÉ: That’s an ad by the No on 105 campaign. Leading corporations opposing the labeling measures include Monsanto, Kraft Foods, Pepsi, Kellogg and Coca-Cola. By some accounts, opponents of labeling have contributed roughly $20 million for campaigning against the proposed laws, nearly triple the money raised by supporters of the initiatives. In Oregon, the fight for GMO labeling has turned into the most expensive ballot measure campaign in the state’s history.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Sheldon Krimsky, editor and author of several contributions in the new book, The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk. He’s a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, as well as an adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine at Tufts School of Medicine. Professor Krimsky is also a board member of the Council for Responsible Genetics.
Sheldon Krimsky, welcome to Democracy Now!
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I just flew back from Austria, which is GMO-free. And they’re very puzzled when they look at the United States. I mean, they are GMO-free. They don’t allow genetically modified foods to grow there. They’re puzzled when they look at the United States that we’re not talking about GMO-free country, we’re talking about labeling the foods that are genetically modified. You can be for GMOs and still support labeling for them.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the significance of these ballot initiatives. I mean, what’s going on in Colorado is a true battle, Monsanto and these other corporations pouring in millions. Now Chipotle has joined Ben & Jerry’s and lot of environmental groups in saying that they want the labeling. Why do you think the labeling is such a problem? What is the problem with GMOs?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, I think we have to go back to the history of regulation in the United States. The Dan Quayle commission produced a position paper, basically, on how to regulate biotechnology. Out of that, they said that you don’t have to regulate genetically modified food. So, if you put a chemical into a processed food, you have to go through FDA regulations. But if you put a foreign gene into a plant, according to the FDA, you don’t have to go through regulations. They give the corporations the opportunity to decide whether they want to market the food or not. So when you start with that assumption, where they think and believe that putting foreign genes into food is no different than just creating hybrid crops, once you follow that logic, and they say there’s no need for labeling—Europeans have never followed that logic. They say you have to test each of these products, because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.
AARON MATÉ: Your book makes the case that the science on GMOs has been corporatized, that companies like Monsanto have had such a huge influence over the research and the conclusions of scientists. How has that come to be, when, for example, on the issue of fossil fuels, we have a consensus of climate scientists that fossil fuel extraction causes global warming and needs to be stopped, even though that would be harmful to major companies? How is it that agribusiness has come to control the science, as you claim in your book?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, there are some independent scientists, and they have produced some animal studies on the effects of GMOs, and some of those studies have shown that the effects are not good. And every time a scientist produces such a study, they are vilified by other scientists and other people who are tied to the industry. So, we have seen from our own research that the science has been politicized, and there are many cases where we can show that scientists have been treated unfairly and unethically, just because they have found negative outcomes with respect to the animal studies.
AMY GOODMAN: While on the campaign trail in 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to label GMO foods, if elected.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Here’s what I’ll do as president: I’ll immediately implement country-of-origin labeling, because Americans should know where their food comes from. We’ll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified, because Americans should know what they’re buying.
AMY GOODMAN: That was candidate Obama. What has President Obama done?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Nothing. On the biotechnology area, he has not taken any initiatives at all. The FDA has held pretty much to their original position that labeling is irrelevant for GMOs and that it would add no useful information to consumers. The fact is that, when polled, most consumers feel there should be labeling on GMOs to give them a choice. Everyone has the right to be a first user or a late user of a new product or technology. Remember Olestra, the artificial fat substance? Some people said, “Oh, you know, I’ll just go for it.” Other people said, “Oh, no. Not me. I’m going to wait until several million people have tried it.” And we don’t have that choice with GMOs unless we buy organic, because the government standard does say that organic foods are not supposed to have more than 1 percent GMOs in them. So that’s the only choice people have, and organic is usually more expensive.
AARON MATÉ: On top of labeling, what other measures would you want to see implemented around the issue of GMOs?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, for one thing, the Europeans have taken a position that these products have to be tested, that you cannot assume a priori that they’re going to be safe. The United States has taken exactly the opposite position, that they don’t have to be tested. We have evidence—in the least, I found 22 studies have shown that the animals that are fed GMOs have had some negative effects. We don’t know whether these 22 studies will stand up when they’re retried, but nobody can tell us that these studies in peer-reviewed journals are not important or relevant. And sometimes, the few negative studies that you have are more important than the dozens of positive studies, which show nothing. So, we have to take a very serious look at the studies that have been done which have shown that there are some negative effects.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the major players in the ballot initiatives in Oregon and Colorado who are against labeling? For example, like Monsanto?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, the large corporations don’t want to label, for obvious reasons. They don’t want to have segmented, patchwork communities where they have to present products to different states in different conditions. It doesn’t work well for the efficiency of a corporation. So, they would prefer to have one rule for every state and every city. Now, when California requires labeling on products because of environmental effects, those labels go to every other city and state in the country. So we all benefit from some of the California initiatives on toxic chemicals. And that could also be true with GMOs. If they label in Oregon, if they label in Colorado, they can just label everywhere. And the company is not going to lose out on that.
They’re trying to instill fear in the people that the food prices will skyrocket if they do that. Well, that’s just fear tactics. We have some labeling, voluntary labeling, on genetically modified products used to make milk, bovine growth hormones. You can buy milk that says, you know, “no bovine growth hormone.” It hasn’t skyrocketed the products of—the cost of milk.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have a chapter of your book online at democracynow.org. Sheldon Krimsky, editor and author of a number of contributions in the new book, The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know About the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk. He is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, as well as adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine at Tufts School of Medicine.