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Can corporations convince California voters that they don't want to know what's in their food?

By       Message John Moffett       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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California's Proposition 37, also known as the "California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act", will be on the ballot this Tuesday for Californians to decide if they want to know what is in the foods they eat. Proposition 37 would require that many food products that contain genetically modified plants such as GMO corn be labeled so that consumers know what they and their families are eating. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a Washington DC based trade association of major food manufacturers, has made it their top priority to defeat Proposition 37 this November. As a result, many agribusiness, chemical and food industry corporations are donating large sums of money to defeat proposition 37, including companies like Monsanto (over 8 million dollars), Dupont companies (over 5 million dollars), PepsiCo (over 2 million dollars), Kraft (over 1.6 million dollars) and even Smucker's ($485,000). The big question for these companies is -- can they spend enough money on negative advertising to get 51% of California voters to say they would much rather not know what is in their food?

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are technically known as transgenic organisms because a gene from one organism has been artificially inserted into the genome of another. It's a big deal for agribusiness because they have become dependent upon companies like Monsanto to ostensibly reduce their costs by making crops temporarily resistant to insects and weeds. Setting aside discussions on any actual cost savings or increased crop yields for farmers, it is a documented fact that insect and weed species adapt to the new crop and field conditions within several generations. As soon as the new, modified plant is grown in large monoculture conditions the insects and weeds immediately begin the process of mutation and selection to generate naturally resistant versions. At best you can expect perhaps 10 years before substantial resistance becomes widespread in some insect and weed species populations. Then the process must be repeated with the development of a new transgenic plant variety. It should be noted that as in the case of overuse of antibiotics and the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that it is the overuse of Roundup that leads to the development of resistant insect and weed varieties. However, the use of Roundup resistant crop varieties by large agribusiness strongly encourages repeated heavy application of glyphosate substantially increasing the glyphosate levels in the resultant food products, and accelerating the development of resistant weeds.

One of the main arguments made by companies like Monsanto against labeling of GMO foods is that they are no different from unmodified food crops. It is obviously absurd to assume that these corporations would spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on modifying an organism's genome if the end result was going to be "exactly the same" as the original organism. The whole point is to make a very specific change - the addition of a foreign gene into the plant's genome. The new transgenic organism is different by design.

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Let's go over some of the reasons why you might want to know what is in the food you and your family eat, using "Roundup Ready" transgenic plant varieties as an example. The prevalent weed killer Roundup, made by Monsanto, is based on the chemical "glyphosate", which kills most plant species by inhibiting an enzyme responsible for the synthesis of certain amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Monsanto took the gene for a related enzyme that was resistant to the actions of Roundup from bacteria and inserted it into the genomes of several plant species including soybean and corn. The entire purpose of generating Roundup ready plant varieties is to allow large agribusinesses to spray the crops with as much glyphosate as needed to kill all weeds in their fields without significant harm to the crop. In addition to multiple applications per season, some farmers use Roundup to "desiccate" crops before harvest to make the harvest easier. In this case the Roundup would be applied just one or two weeks prior to harvest. All of this is done to reduce labor, not to increase crop yields or improve the quality of the produce. The end result is produce with significant concentrations of glyphosate, which consumers end up ingesting directly from the produce, or indirectly through the glyphosate laden feed given to chicken, cattle and hogs. Monsanto's purpose in making Roundup Ready plant varieties is that it locks farmers into using two Monsanto products simultaneously, Roundup Ready seeds, and lots of Roundup. It is about profits for Monsanto, not about consumer safety or profits for farmers.

Monsanto makes a number of claims concerning glyphosate safety, including that glyphosate is non-toxic, breaks down rapidly and is poorly absorbed in the human intestine. However a German study showed that glyphosate was found in every human urine sample that they tested.

This would be impossible if glyphosate was broken down quickly and not absorbed into the human bloodstream. Further, many studies have suggested that glyphosate is an endocrine disrupter in mammals, and that it is even more toxic to certain types of wildlife, especially fish and amphibians. The toxicity of glyphosate in these organisms appears to be enhanced by the other additives in Roundup that are meant to increase penetration of glyphosate into plant leaves. A recent study found that rats fed glyphosate or GMO corn (that was sprayed repeatedly with glyphosate) for 2 years died sooner and developed tumors at a higher rate than rats fed a normal diet. This report was immediately criticized in the corporate-friendly press, but nonetheless should raise concerns among consumers and regulators alike. 

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Roundup is not used for the benefit of the consumer; it is used for the convenience of the agribusiness that applies it. An interesting unintended consequence has been to reduce profits on certain crops not because yields are better, but because the European Union banned the import of certain GMO crops from the US, thus depressing prices here at home.

The latest round of polling shows that the negative ads from agribusiness have worked, and that now Proposition 37 may now be behind in the polls. It will be a supreme accomplishment for huge corporations like Monsanto if they can spend a few millions of dollars to convince consumers that they really don't need to know what is in their food. It seems almost incomprehensible, but in todays corporatized society most consumers are too distracted and fed too much disinformation for them to make educated decisions. Take for example the claim by opponents of Proposition 37 that it would lead to "frivolous lawsuits". Ask yourself who might bring a lawsuit against a major food industry corporation over something like the contents of their products? That would be consumers and consumer groups. So big businesses are telling those very same consumers that they shouldn't want their food to be properly labeled because the consumers themselves might sue a corporation over a food product's ingredients or labeling. If they can pull this off, they can probably get away with anything.

The upcoming vote could be the beginning of the end for consumer protections when it comes to food safety. Normally these types of decisions are made behind closed doors to ensure that corporations get their way. But this time around, Californians are in a position to tell corporations that food safety is a priority for them. If corporations can get people to surrender their rights to know what they are eating so easily, then the future of consumer safety in the US is truly dim.

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John R. Moffett PhD is a research neuroscientist in the Washington, DC area. Dr. Moffett's main area of research focuses on the brain metabolite N-acetylaspartate, and an associated genetic disorder known as Canavan disease.

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