By Joel DeVyldere
What pits soda giant Pepsi against ice cream mogul Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s? The soft drink company has thus far donated $1.4 million to oppose a referendum that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods (GMOs) in Oregon. Pepsi has been only slightly outspent by Monsanto, which has contributed $1.5 million to oppose the measure.
Greenfield announced last Thursday that he is re-branding a flavor to raise funds for the Oregonian labeling struggle. “Food Fight Fudge Brownie” now generates a dollar per scoop to promote Measure 92, a move Greenfield made earlier this year in his native Vermont to defend successful GMO-labeling legislation there.
With big debates on both sides of the fight, Oregonians may struggle to find the sweet spot that reflects how they feel about genetically modified foods. The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA), another major donor to the “No on 92” campaign, finds GMOs safe, cheap, tested, environmentally friendly, and full of world-altering potential.
According to GMA’s informational website, 70 to 80% of the foods we eat in the United States, both at home and away from home, contain ingredients that have been genetically modified.”
Human beings have a long and proud history of meddling with their crops. There is hardly an item on the supermarket shelf that hasn’t been tampered with over the years. Corn used to be tiny and inedible. Almonds used to be poisonous.
Our ancestors modified their staple foods unconsciously by choosing the juiciest fruit out in the wild and accidentally helping propagate its seeds. Supermarket-sized strawberries and blueberries are a 20th century feat of human-initiated crop modification. We’ve been doing this for centuries. We’ve been grafting, we’ve been manually selecting for genes and cross-breeding plants.
Measure 92, of course, does not seek to reverse the vital history of humans changing plants to fit their needs. GMOs are already clearly defined by the referendum as foods which have had their DNA modified in a lab.
Opponents of the measure have taken the fiscal high road. It would cost too much to find out which foods contain genetically engineered ingredients.
GMO foods have been on the shelves since 1994, when the FDA first approved GMO tomatoes. Today, a short 20 years later, the Center for Food Safety estimates that 75% or more of the food sold in the US contains ingredients with lab-tampered DNA. A full audit has never been done to sort out where each ingredient is coming from, and the effort required to do so would be enormous.
Proponents of the measure cite concerns about basic right to choose. The text of the measure states that, “Labels provide informed consent and prevent consumer deception.” And while well-funded campaigns have struggled to make the right to know seem like an emotional and irrational choice, the international scientific consensus on the effects of GMOs on human health still amounts to a question mark.
To date, no long-term studies have been done to track the health effects of GMOs. The first human test is currently ongoing, and it encompasses everyone who gets their food from a market or restaurant in the US.
In practical terms, many Corvallis residents already select for non-GMO foods in the grocery store. By US law, any food that’s labeled organic can’t contain more than 5% GMO material. Independent organizations like the 3rd Street-based Oregon Tilth are authorized to analyze food items and determine whether or not they legally qualify to be organic.
The efforts of organic food manufacturers and distributors, while noble, are not enough to properly set up this experiment. We need to clearly establish two categories of guinea pigs: those who munch on GMO foods, and those who refuse to touch them.
Measure 92 gives us that opportunity. It makes the claim that “mandatory identification of foods produced with genetic engineering can provide a method for detecting, at a large epidemiological scale, the potential health effects of consuming such foods.”
If we think of our food system, then, as a giant experiment to determine the long-term health effects of GMOs on humans, only through labeling can we give Oregonians the option of being in the control group.