Jim Bridge is not an organic farmer. The plainspoken 62-year-old Plum resident
uses some herbicides and pesticides, sparingly, on his 40-acre property. But
standing near his cornfield one recent fall day, he declared that he draws the
line at genetically engineered crops.
"Here is my argument on the whole deal. When you read the seed catalogs, the licensing agreements for genetically engineered corn say you can't feed animals any of the corn husks, corn stock or any byproduct off those seeds.
"So what the hell am I eating the corn for?"
California voters may be asking themselves the same question Nov. 6, when they cast votes on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would require food manufacturers to label any raw or processed foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
It is yet another chapter in the ongoing war between consumers who are demanding more transparency in food labeling -- remember ground beef's "pink slime" controversy? -- and the food industry, which is constantly balancing issues of safety and profitability.
Nearly 70 percent of processed foods, from soda to soup, contain genetically engineered ingredients, which originate in a lab when a plant's genetic makeup is changed or altered. Genetic engineering allows scientists to splice a specific gene resistant to herbicides into a plant without the trial and error of selective breeding.
Today, nearly 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, according to the Center for Food Safety, as is 91 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of cotton -- which produces the cottonseed oil often used in food products. Six chemical companies own most of the patents for genetically engineered foods -- Monsanto, Dow, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont, in order to make crops "Roundup Ready." That popular herbicide killed everything green -- including crops -- until GMOs arrived. Now, farmers can spray Roundup to kill weeds without fear of affecting the corn or the cotton.
There's a lot at stake. California, all by itself, is the eighth-largest economy in the world. Moreover, California develops laws and regulations -- workplace smoking bans, auto emissions standards -- that spread well beyond the state's borders. GMO labeling could, too.
Organic food companies, consumer advocates, lawyers and Whole Foods -- which endorsed Proposition 37 in September after months of pressure from advocates -- have spent about $4 million on advertising. Opponents -- chemical companies, agribusinesses, food manufacturers and other corporations, including two large Pittsburgh companies, Bayer and Heinz -- have spent $30 million. The American Medical Association also opposes the labeling, noting there "is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class."
Indeed, there is no evidence that GMOs in food are harmful to health. A recent French study that showed rats with giant tumors fed GMO products was roundly criticized for its methodology.
Still, labeling supporters noted that Monsanto and other companies who hold patents on genetically engineered seeds in this country have refused to allow independent scientific studies of possible health or environmental effects. Supporters also cite data showing a dramatic increase in recent years
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