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    GMO fight is heating up in Washington state

    An initiative signature-gathering campaign is already underway here as California prepares to vote on what would become the nation's first law requiring the labeling of foods with genetically modified organisms.
    Non-GMO sweet corn

    Non-GMO sweet corn Seth Anderson/Flickr

    Author and anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith

    Author and anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith

    Efforts to label genetically engineered foods are on the rise, especially on the West Coast. California’s Proposition 37, the Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, is on the  November ballot. In Washington state, signatures are being gathered in support of Initiative 522. If the initiative is successful, the Legislature or voters could decide whether to label GMO foods here in 2013.

    Click on the player above or here to listen to the audio version of this story.

    Trudy Bialic with PCC Natural Markets looks over petitions to require food companies to label products that contain genetically modified organisms. The Seattle based grocery chain has collected 142,000 signatures in support of legislative Initiative 522. If they and statewide supporters get 100,000 more signatures by year’s end, the initiative will be on the ballot in 2013. “It’s a simple right to know issue. We’ve had nutrition labels since 1990," Bialic says. "We got country of origin labeling in 2002. We got trans-fat  labeling in 2006.”

    Bio-tech giants Monsanto and DuPont have poured $40 million intp a negative ad campaign to defeat California's Prop 37, the similar measure on the ballot there this November. If  Prop 37 passes, says Bialic, it will have a seismic impact across the country and could build momentum at the federal level: “So we feel having a second state in line behind Prop 37 really delivers another strong message that this is not just a one state issue this is a national issue.  We need a national policy.”  Forty-nine countries around the world, including the European Union, Russia, China, require mandatory labeling laws. In Europe only 5 percent of food sold contains GMOs, a figure that continues to shrink, according to research. “We’re simply asking to be given the same transparency that they’re already giving these other customers.”

    But if those working for statewide labeling laws hope to see action at the federal level, they may have to wait a while. The FDA response to a petition earlier this year with a million signatures, says Bialic, was “mute.”  Longtime non- GMO consumer advocate Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, says there’s been a revolving door between the Food and Drug Administration and Monsanto since the 1990s when the White House hired Monsanto former attorney, Michael Taylor, to promote biotechnology. “Then he became Monsanto’s Vice President and Chief Lobbyist. Now he’s back at the FDA as the U.S. Food Safety czar.” Tom Vilsak, secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration, was named “bio-tech governor of the year” when he was governor of Iowa, says Smith. “The year before he’d given Monsanto an award.” Other pro-GMO appointees include the U.S. Agriculture Trade Representative and head of USAID, while ambassadors to France and Spain have been deployed on behalf of the biotech industry to promote GMOs, says Smith.

    The driver behind U.S. policy to not regulate GMO’s, says Smith, was the promise of greater exports and greater domination in world food trade. The policy has not been good for US exports. “The European Union blocked imports of 99.6 percent of U.S. corn after 25 percent of U.S. farmers grew the genetically engineered corn. The U.S. export market for soy shrunk. So there’s been an interesting blight in export data following the introduction of genetically engineered crops from the beginning.” 

    Far more positive data is emerging from food companies who want to label their products. The Non-GMO Project, North America’s only third party verification and labeling program for non-GMO foods, has seen requests skyrocket. “It’s the fastest growing label in the natural products industry,” says Megan Westgate, the group's executive director. “Sales of Non-GMO Project verified products are approaching $3 billion annually.” Go into any natural food store, she says, any product category, any shelf, and you’ll find the label with the orange butterfly. “That really has just happened in the last couple of years and it’s continuing to grow exponentially.”

    Consumers want to know their food is safe, she says. Genetic engineering is an experimental technology. DNA from one species is forced into an unrelated species, explains Westgate. Bacterial and viral genes, plant and animal genes are combined in ways that would never occur in nature. “That creates real instability in the DNA and we really don’t know what the long-term impacts are on human health.”  GMO critics point to animal studies as indication serious risks relating to reproduction, immune system problems, organ damage, and gastrointestinal problems. 

    Another GMO trait worrisome to consumer advocates and those pushing for state mandatory labeling laws is that an estimated 80 percent of all GMO crops grown worldwide are herbicide tolerant. Their seeds are engineered to absorb herbicides. When they cross-pollinate, by wind, rain or insects, non-GMO crops are infected.  Again, author Jeff Smith: “We don’t have a way to return the gene pools, corn for example,  to the pristine natural state. The genetically modified corn has already contaminated the indigenous varieties in Mexico which is the world heritage source of those genetics.”

    Smith has given more than 50 talks in California over the last three months in support of Prop 37. As pro and con ads flood the airwaves, he says, people are becoming agitated and educated. “Irrespective of the outcome, the tipping point is gaining speed and gaining momentum.” Twenty-nine groups in states around the country, including  Hawaii, Connecticut, and Wisconsin, are preparing to introduce similar bills. But the outcome in California and in Washington, if Initiative 522 gets on the ballot next year, may start to change what America eats. 

    Green Acre Radio receives support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby.

    Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.

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    Posted Tue, Oct 30, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    "California prepares to vote on what would become the nation's first law requiring foods with genetically modified organisms. "

    requiring GMO foods, huh?



    Posted Tue, Oct 30, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

    I find these proposals troubling. To date, despite the widespread adoption of genetically modified foods, hard evidence of any real health danger is pretty thin. The dangers posted by GMO's are ephemeral in nature, phrases such "That creates real instability in the DNA and we really don’t know what the long-term impacts are on human health" are scary, but they prey upon public ignorance about the true of genetic engineering.

    I recognize that a labeling proposal is not an outright ban, but it is still harmful. It needlessly stigmatizes GMO's and could severely damage the industry. People will be misled to believe that the dangers of unlabeled foods are greater than they actually are.

    Here, then, is my modest proposal. Any policy that is designed to address the risks posed by GMO's should be weighed against the risks of foregoing the benefits of genetic engineering. The risk of foregoing GMO's is, in the long run, higher priced food with lower yields, which could be deadly in a world that is already struggling to feed itself. Similarly, when real dangers are found, then any action should be directed at the specific products that are causing problems, not at genetically modified foods in general.

    Posted Sun, Nov 4, 6:16 p.m. Inappropriate

    "hard evidence of any real health danger is pretty thin"

    hard evidence of environmental damage continues to mount, however. Recent studies show increased herbicide use, for example. And instances of genetic contamination of non-GMA plants abound.

    Of course, there is also that capital "C" conservative stand by, personal liberty. Being able to choose what you put in your body seems pretty basic when it comes to personal liberty.

    Steve E.

    Posted Tue, Nov 6, 6:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    Where are the voices of scientists and academics here? There are legitimate issues with GMOS but you are getting into woo territory here with Jeffrey Smith. He has put out a movie that is full of anecdote and supposition and has almost no basis in reality and science. His qualifications? Ballroom dance instructor. And accumulator of speaker fees. I encourage you to respond---why is Smith qualified to represent the science of GMOs? Worried about level of reporting here.


    Posted Tue, Nov 6, 1:29 p.m. Inappropriate

    ok, so here are some real scientists who could have some interesting views,

    you can find some on both sides of labeling issue. and one is in our own home state!



    Posted Wed, Nov 7, 8:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    Regarding "Pepper2000" -- beware! Just like companies who hire people to flood Amazon with 5-star reviews of their products, this person's post is suspicious of the same. This person is not a consumer and probably not even from WA state. The big food companies who spent millions in CA to defeat Prop. 37 know very well that Washingtonians will be voting on it next, and you can be very certain they're already working to sway public opinion with flimsy arguments like this, warning of scary scenarios of an "ignorant" public who (poor dears) just don't understand the science and might do something drastic (like what? stop buying their products???) just because this GMO stuff hasn't been tested enough. So what? So we're supposed to be the guinea pigs?? Because that's exactly what "pepper2000's" argument boils down to. It's straight from the fears of the guys who profit from public ignorance, to this little discussion here, thanks to "pepper"


    Posted Fri, Nov 1, 7:02 a.m. Inappropriate

    There is plenty of evidence of the harm GMOs cause to humans, and the decade during which a few of them have become ubiquitous is nothing, a drop in the bucket. Every GMO is a different thing. The point is that we are reaching across vast chasms of evolutionary time, foolishly pretending we are smart enough to see the inevitable unintended consequences involved in attempting to overcome the balance of life evolved through millions of years of life on Earth. It will end poorly, if not for humans then for something in the environment, possibly something critical to our long term survival as a species and a civilization.

    The more important thing, which everyone seems to be skipping past in this debate, is the basic food system model of which GMOs stand at the pinnacle. The Earth is now carrying almost an order of magnitude more humans than it did at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, passing one billion for the first time in 1804, growing to nearly eight billion today because, and almost entirely because, we are able to grow more food using hydrocarbons (oil, natural gas). But this brief moment is coming to an end, and there is nothing on the radar to replace it.

    Basic third grade science should suffice to comprehend that we are part of the Earth, from the moment of our birth to the decay and release of the nutrients we're borrowing back into the nutrient cycle that follows our death. Civilization after civilization has disappeared after ignoring this connection to the land and soil and attempted to reach beyond the Earth's limits - Maya, Easter Island, Greenlanders, etc. Look at the inflation-adjusted price trend of petroleum since the 1970s. Blips up and down, but in general trending inexorably upward, at the same time we're coming up against the Earth's limits on our carbon pollution. The party's ending, folks. If you don't understand this, you don't understand agriculture as it exists in our civilization.

    A sane civilization would be working overtime to plant tree crops, build local soil fertility, and, in general, balance human populations with the local ecosystems in which they exist.

    The point of GMOs is the opposite: it rests in the fantasy that we can somehow achieve escape velocity from the Earth's ecosystem and hard resource limits if we tinker enough with the gene pool and pour enough oil on top. If is a childish, foolish fantasy, one that is driving humanity closer and closer to the cliff of a hard, civilization-ending population overshoot.

    Seen in these terms, it is hard not to think of Montsanto, Sygenta, Dow, Pepsi, Nestle, and the rest of these would-be colonizers of our democracy as something like war criminals.

    Which goes for the paid shills and hacks that are filling our airwaves and comment boards at the behest of the chemical and junk food companies.

    Your day is coming.


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