Prop 37: David vs. Goliath

Written by Chris Kanthan. Posted in Business, Environment, Healthcare, News, Politics

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Published on August 19, 2012 with 30 Comments

This November, Californians will vote on a question that affects all of us – do we have the right to know what’s in our food?

By Chris Kanthan

August 19, 2012

Some of the biggest corporations are spending millions of dollars to defeat Proposition 37, a controversial initiative on the California November ballot calling for the labeling of food and beverages that contain GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms.

For many, this battle is a little perplexing as they wonder what a GMO is, or why a genetically modified potato, for instance, is called an ‘organism’ and not a vegetable; if GMO is good or bad, why it should be labeled; and why the issue brings up so much passion on either side. Let’s break it down.

What is a GMO crop or plant?

There are several crops and vegetables that are genetically modified to have some specific characteristics. Some of the popular ones include corn, soy, beets, cotton, alfalfa and canola. Bovine growth hormone (given to cows to increase milk production) and aspartame (the sweetener in many diet drinks) are also derived from genetically modified bacteria and would fall under the big label of GMO.

These are called organisms because the U.S. patent law prohibits patenting “natural” things. So you cannot patent a tomato from your garden, or a rare frog you found while hiking. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 in a 5-4 decision that things that are produced in a laboratory – and not found in nature – can be patented. So if you take a frog gene and put it inside the tomato, then that’s patentable, and yes it has been done!

In most of these crops, after the bacteria’s gene is inserted into the plant’s cell, the plant starts either producing pesticides on its own, or the plant becomes resistant to certain herbicides.

In the former case, every cell of the plant produces a toxin called “Bt toxin” which kills the insects that would otherwise have destroyed the farm. And the advantage is farmers have to spray less pesticide. The flip side is the bugs can become resistant to Bt toxin over time and this can lead to superbugs. Also, when you eat the plants, you are getting a dose of Bt toxin as well. And studies have shown that the genes from the GM food can get transferred to our blood through the bacteria in our intestines. Other studies have shown that Bt toxin can kill human cells, cause organ damages etc.

In the second popular kind of GMO plants, the genes of the bacteria inside the plant cell make the plant resistant to powerful herbicides like Roundup (made by Monsanto). The benefits to farmers are that they don’t need to employ a lot of people to remove the weeds manually and they can also plant the crops much more densely. So this increases the yield in a given amount of land. The disadvantages are that Roundup resistant superweeds are showing up everywhere and farmers are forced to spend more on toxic herbicides. Roundup by Monsanto has a toxicity of class 3, according to the EPA, meaning that 30 grams can kill an adult human being. Several studies have shown this chemical to cause birth defects in humans and also infertility and cancer in animals. The collapse of bee colonies have also been linked to herbicides and pesticides. Institute for Responsible Technology, founded by Jeffrey Smith, has documented many of the scientific studies in this area.

More extensive testing could and should be done, but there are several roadblocks to overcome. The FDA and other government agencies in charge of approving GMOs don’t do any testing on their own. They only look at the final test results and conclusions provided by the company and the companies don’t release raw data to the public. Furthermore, Monsanto and others test their products on one mammal (rats) for just 90 days. No long-term studies are done on animals, and no studies are done with human subjects. Pharmaceutical drugs, on the other hand, need to have human studies.

Finally, the Patent rights of the companies over the seeds give them extraordinary power in limiting or even stopping independent studies. Just like when you purchase software, you agree to pages of restrictions – scientists in the U.S. face debilitating lawsuits if they try to test the biotech seeds. “The Monsanto agreement with the USDA covers research into crop production practices, for example, but not research into issues such as the health risks of genetically engineered crops.”

Labeling

Consider the fact that more than 90 percent of all corn, soy, beets, and canola in the U.S. are GM (genetically modified) and you can see immediately how most of the processed food in the U.S. will have GMOs in them. After all, if you walk into the aisle of a supermarket, you will be hard-pressed to find anything that doesn’t have corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, soy, sugar (beet sugar is just labeled ‘sugar’), or canola oil — cereals, jams, candies, bread, muffins, cookies, cupcakes, sodas, sports drinks, sauces, juices… the list goes on.

It is also a fact that more than 40 countries in the world mandate labeling of GMO products, including the entire European Union, China, Russia and Australia. There are other countries that make GMO labeling voluntary and many other countries have plans to introduce GMO labeling.

In the U.S., several laws have been proposed at the federal level but they all have failed so far. Even Obama promised in 2007 that he would push for GMO labeling, a promise he has not kept so far. More than twenty States have attempted to pass GMO labeling bills including Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut, Colorado, and New York – and in each case their attempts have been thwarted by big corporations using extensive lobbying or threats to sue the States.

As for Prop 37, corporations will be spending more than $20 million to influence voters. Grocery Manufacturers Association President Pamela Bailey said defeating the initiative “is the single-highest priority this year.” Pepsi Co, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg together have so far spent $3 million. Biotech giants Monsanto and DuPont have contributed more than $8 million.

It is interesting to note that in almost every State that has tried to pass GMO labeling bills or ballot initiatives, including California, polls show that between 75-95 percent of the people support it and in a nationwide poll, 93 percent of Americans said they would like to see GMO labeling.

Arguments of either sides

Opponents of Prop 37 and other similar measures claim that such labeling practice would require extensive testing and hence would cost a lot of money. Moreover, there might be confusion about requirements – how much GMO in a food or drink would necessitate labeling; frivolous lawsuits; increased costs in relabeling products; and increased food prices if some products switch to non-GMO products.

To address these concerns, proponents of “California Right to Know” ask:

– If GMO labeling is so cost prohibitive, how come the same corporations are selling their products to billions of people who live in more than 40 countries that require labeling? These countries have varying labeling requirements but the food industry has managed to accommodate these different regulations.

– When Kellogg’s, for example, is able to come up with a brand new packaging just for the Olympics, why is it hard to add one extra line that says “Contains genetically modified food?”

– If GMOs are safe and have no health issues, why would food manufacturers switch to “more expensive” non-GMO ingredients?

– There are claims such as “No fat”, “No gluten”, “No sugar”, “No artificial preservatives” etc on the food packages and they haven’t resulted in frivolous lawsuits or increased food prices, so why would “No GMO” label be any different?

Bragging versus Hiding

If you buy a laptop or a computer, you would very likely see a label that says “Intel inside.” Intel does it because it gives the customers more confidence in that product. Anything that increases the value of a product is advertised prominently.  This is marketing 101. Anything that’s bad is hidden or put in fine print. So if GMOs are 100 percent safe, why are these companies fighting tooth and nail to prevent labeling?

And if you are starting to become a little suspicious about the GMOs at this point, you may also be wondering how we got into this situation. The answer lies in politics and the history of one particular corporation.

Monsanto, Politics and GMO

When it comes to understanding the landscape of GM seeds and plants, the undeniable giant is Monsanto, the company that owns most of the market. According to their website they are an agricultural company and a relatively new company. In reality, they were founded in 1901 and have also been leaders in chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, chemical weapons, sweeteners, animal growth hormones, plastics and pharmaceuticals.

In their early days, they sold Saccharin, an artificial sweetener, to Coca Cola. Then they sold lots of PCBs and DDT (insecticide) both of which were banned later in the U.S. because of their dangerous effects on health and the environment.

In the 1960s, Monsanto and Dow Chemical (now simply known as Dow for PR reasons) made lots of money producing Agent Orange that was used in destroying rice fields and other vegetation in North Vietnam. American planes, helicopters and trucks sprayed more than 3 million acres of land. It was a deadly chemical weapon with long lasting byproducts (such as Dioxins) that are some of the most toxic chemicals known to man.

Monsanto assured the government that they had done extensive testing and hawking Agent Orange as harmless to humans and animals. The reality was different for the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who have endured or died from horrific illnesses from the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange dumped in their country.

Forty years later, hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese are still suffering from cancer, birth defects, rare heart diseases, Leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and more, thanks to Monsanto’s “safe” product.

After the end of Vietnam War, Monsanto found an ingenious way to continue making profit from its Agent Orange expertise. Hence, the world’s number one weed killer used by farmers and suburban families alike – Roundup – was born. Monsanto advertised it with lovable TV ads and catchy slogans and promising features like “safe as table salt” and “environmentally friendly” and “fully biodegradable” (all three claims have been proved false).

Roundup’s success would later directly lead to the genetically modified food because of one simple reason – Roundup was so toxic that it not only killed the weeds but also the crops and the plants that the farmers were growing. Roundup’s main ingredient, gylphosate, and other so-called “inert” ingredients, just proved too much for the corn, soy, and other plants.

So rather than engineering new pesticides, Monsanto decided to come up with new crops! The need to withstand the onslaught of Roundup gave birth to “Roundup Ready” corn and soy. Although the plant cell’s vital function still gets disabled, the bacteria’s gene takes over the role. A rough analogy would be like saying “eat this food and your heart will stop but don’t worry we will implant an artificial pump.”

Monsanto has been a very creative corporation with a team of brilliant scientists. But where it has outperformed any other entity is in playing the political game of “revolving doors.” People at the highest levels have jumped back and forth between Monsanto and the regulatory agencies that are in charge of evaluating Monsanto’s products.

One classic example is that of Michael Taylor, an FDA official who later went to a law firm representing Monsanto. He worked hard to remove pesky health laws like the Delaney Clause, one of the foundations of food safety regulation, that prohibits cancer-causing chemicals to be added to the food supply.  Then in 1991 he went back to the FDA as a Deputy Commissioner and worked to get approval for Monsanto’s GMOs and growth hormones for cows (rBGH). From 1994-1996 he worked in the USDA helping dismantle more laws, and as a reward for his success, he was appointed as a Vice President at Monsanto. And to the utter shock of progressives, Obama brought him back to the FDA as a Food “Safety” Czar.

There are numerous articles that shed light on Monsanto’s influence in the FDA, EPA, USDA, the U.S. Supreme Court (think Clarence Thomas), and the White House administrations and their cabinets, and the Congress (regardless of the party). This Vanity Fair article gives a captivating overview of Monsanto’s history and influence, and this Mercola article gives a visual Venn Diagram of the intersection between Monsanto and high-level government officials.

Monsanto has also used the legal system and patent laws to grow its U.S. market share of many crops from 0 to 90 percent within 15 years. They have sued farmers into submission and have used their influence in government to spread their agriculture monopoly and domination to countries all over the world. The Emmy award-winning Food, Inc. talks about Monsanto’s coercive ways as well.

One of the major problems with patenting seeds and plants is that it destroys biodiversity. Just a century ago, we used to have more than 300 varieties of corn in the U.S. and now Monsanto’s corn is the piranha that has eaten all the other fish in the pond.

Conclusion

Biotech is an exciting field with amazing potential to help mankind, but the current crops and plants from Monsanto and related companies have dark clouds of uncertainties over them. The potential health and environmental hazards are too big to ignore. Patent laws, regarding seeds and plants, need to be re-examined and independent scientific studies of GMOs need to be supported and encouraged.  Finally, regulatory government agencies need to be freed from the undue and corrupting influence of Monsanto and other related companies.

As for GMO labeling, Proposition 37 – California Right to Know, is a great, long-overdue initiative that might lead to fewer allergies and illnesses and a better environment through natural or organic farming methods. Above all, Prop 37 will give the people of California, and possibly the whole nation, the freedom to choose what they eat and drink.

Chris Kanthan

Chris Kanthan

Chris Kanthan has degrees in Physics and Engineering with a minor in Economics. And, just for fun, a diploma in Paralegal. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, has traveled to more than 30 countries, and deeply cares about politics, finance and food. He has also written an e-book titled "Deconstructing Monsanto" that is available on iTunes, Amazon.com and Smashwords.com. He can be reached at chrisk2000@yahoo.com.

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