Monday, June 24, 2013


The eternal debate about the safety and environmental problems associated with production and consumption of genetically modified foods seems to be getting more and more vitiated with both protagonists and antagonists taking up extreme positions unlikely to be reconciled in the foreseeable future. Both sides have marshaled their own "facts, figures and fictions" to score over the other side. What is missing in this monologue between the two sparring parties is utter disregard for the right of citizens to know what he or she is eating from a sealed food packet! Though many countries have either banned or restricted the use of GM food ingredients in consumable products marketed within their borders, there is a single exception, that is the US which refuses to recognize that GM foods may not be 100% safe and acceptable. It is sad that more than 80% of the food products in the US market do contain one or more of GM ingredients and shockingly this happens without the consumer ever knowing about the same. The present President of the US does not seem to be in a hurry, if at all he has any intention, to even mandate the industry to at least declare the presence of GM ingredients, if used, on the front of the pack label.

It is to break this inertia on the part of the federal government that a progressive state like California, due to the prodding of consumer activists took the ballot initiative for discerning the views of the citizens in the first week of November last year. In a puzzling development the results were completely shocking with slightly more than 50% of those who voted not finding it necessary to label food packets containing GM ingredients! This was in contrast to the findings of early sample survey studies which found that more than 80% wanted to make such declaration mandatory in the state. What turned the tide, according to dispassionate observers, was the false and misleading campaign by the perpetrators of GM technology involving more than $ 45 million expenditure to influence the thinking of the citizens and con them to vote against the proposal.This should be a lesson for all others regarding the financial and political clout of the GM lobby, fighting against whom may be a Herculean task.

The failure of the California ballot initiative that would have mandated labeling of genetically modified foods may not be a death knell for those seeking nationwide labeling because they pin their hope on President Obama as he is seen to be supportive of labeling. Still, efforts to force changes at a federal level could face an uphill climb because only a ballot victory at least in one of the states can trigger action at the federal level. There are new such state labeling initiatives which are planned for Washington state and Oregon. Antagonists are sparing no efforts to force change at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has primary regulatory oversight for food and food additives. A citizen's petition is pending with the agency demanding a re-examination of its policy against labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. More than one million people signed on making it a record as the most ever for a petition to the FDA. Probably the Californian ballot initiative did make more people aware of the issues surrounding GM foods.  If recent reports are any indication most average folks are well educated about this issue. 

To add strength to the campaign for forcing GM food producers to declare use of GM ingredients on the front of the pack label many organic and natural food companies, environmental and consumer groups have joined the movement recently and the issue cannot be ignored that easily any more. According to the strategists spear heading the action program filing of the petition in October 2011 was the first step which would be followed by a federal law suit against the FDA. The California measure, had it been approved would have provided leverage for the federal effort and therefore the 53 percent to 47 percent defeat in progressive California is considered a setback. The crux of the matter is that the American food , Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938 is being too narrowly interpreted by FDA and treats modern-day GMO technology in a way that does not comply with the intent of the law to protect consumers. Genetically modified crops, which have had their DNA spliced with genetic material from other species, have been around for 16 years. Popular biotech crops can survive treatments of weedkiller and are toxic to insects that feed on the crops. And most processed foods sold in the United States contain some GMO corn, soybeans or other crops. The petition by the activists calls on the FDA to declare that molecular or genetic alterations are "material" changes relevant to consumers. 

The FDA's current policy, set in 1992, holds that foods derived from genetically modified plants were "substantially" equivalent to those produced through conventional means. The combination of FDA's failure to mandate pre-market safety testing and its permissive labeling policy has meant that silent changes to the food supply are tested on the public without their knowledge. Most members in the scientific community are frustrated because the industry and regulators are disregarding numerous studies showing harmful impacts from GMO crops. It was only recently that more than 70 scientists, academic researchers and professors declared that "corporate influence" was stifling research that finds negative implications connected with GMOs and they further aver that labeling of GE (genetically engineered) foods is not a question of whether, but when. Against such a sordid background there is a silver lining which heralds a new beginning for those fighting against GM foods and that is the overwhelming legislature support for a law in the tiny state, Connecticut, mandating the industry to compulsorily declare on the label presence GM ingredients in the food products manufactured and marketed within the state. Probably other states will also promulgate such laws that can have a snow balling effect at the federal level. 

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