Fresh Ideas: Don’t you want to know what’s in your food?

Yes, we have no GMO bananas… yet. But when we do, will we know?

Last week the House of Representatives passed HR 1599, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.” That’s doublespeak for a proposal by Congressman Pompeo, R-Kansas, to block states from requiring labeling for genetically engineered foods, known as GMOs. Instead the bill would make voluntary labeling for GMO foods the national standard and block all state efforts to require labeling of GMO foods, with the consumer’s right-to-know being collateral damage. Members of Congress who oppose mandatory labeling voted “yes.” Those who support mandatory GMO labeling voted “no.” The bill moves to the Senate this week.

The bill has been dubbed the DARK Act “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act” by activists pushing for GMO food labeling. America is no leader in this area; 64 countries already label food for GMOs.

What are genetically engineered foods? GMOs are made by transferring genetic material from one organism to another to create specific traits such as resistance to herbicides or insects. Common crops include alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, soy, squash and sugar beets. Possibly 70 percent or more of all processed foods sold to consumers now contain genetically modified ingredients, but because foods are not labeled, precise numbers are not known. In addition, long term health effects are uncertain as the practice only began in the 1990s. In contrast, any food item that’s certified organic cannot contain genetically modified ingredients.

Big grocery (the Grocery Manufacturers Association) argues mandatory labeling is unnecessary and costly, and a voluntary national standard would be sufficient. Supporters of the bill to ban mandatory GMO labeling say state requirements would obstruct interstate commerce. Presently, Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have mandatory labeling laws.

It’s always reassuring when politicians and big business overlook the public’s right to know when it serves their interests. You’d think Republican lawmakers who often holler about states’ rights would be outraged by a bill that further limits state autonomy, but on this issue — not so much.

It begs the question: what don’t they want us to know? According to Food and Water Watch, a proponent of GMO labeling, “Food manufacturers are allowed to affirmatively label GMO food or indicate that the food item does not contain GMO ingredients (known as ‘absence labeling’). But virtually no companies disclose that they are using GMO ingredients under this voluntary scheme. This means that consumers in the United States regularly consume foods that contain GMO ingredients without knowing it.”

According to a 2013 New York Times poll, 93 percent of Americans favor mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food.

One thing genetic engineering of food and the public’s right-to-know do have in common: they are responses to change. As we move into the 21st century at increasing warp speed, change is occurring rapidly.

Genetically engineered crops may be absolutely necessary to cope with climate change, drought, food shortages and famine in our rapidly changing world. Information, once a luxury, is now a necessity. The public now expects information about everything — including what it’s eating. The demand for information will only increase.

Trying to stuff the GMO genie back into the cereal box isn’t going to lessen the controversy around food engineering. Action by Congress to stifle public demand for information about food content and origin is unwise and counterproductive. This issue is about more than food, public information and the supersized influence of corporations. Majorities in Congress are increasingly out of touch with a rapidly changing America; the labeling of GMOs is just the latest example.

Giving Americans information so they can make choices — isn’t that part of living in a free country?

Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.


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