This piece ran first in the Spring issue of Edible Berkshires.
Maybe you’re like my friend Dalija Merritt. She buys as much organic food as she can afford. She avoids trans fats and hydrogenated oils, and BHT and BHA preservatives, all artificial dyes and sweeteners and in general, any food item with a list of ingredients exceeding two lines.
But when it comes to GMOs -- genetically-modified organisms -- Dalijia is quite confused. So are a lot of folks as it turns out.
“I would like more clarity,” says Merritt, who owns the East Gate Inn, a B&B located adjacent to Tanglewood’s main gate in Lenox. “What emblem do I look for? And what foods have GMOs? Are they in dry foods? Are they in canned foods? I try hard to give my guests only the best natural foods.”
Confession: before I began research for this article, I didn’t pay much attention to the brouhaha over
Then there is the Frankenstein issue. It’s kind of creepy to think about scientists tinkering with the genetic makeup of the plants and animals we eat! According to a Consumer Reports survey of 1,004 representative Americans, ninety-two percent favored labeling GMO-containing foods. GMO labeling is mandatory in 60 countries.
Why not the US?
Until last summer, many states, including Massachusetts and New York, were well on their way to passing legislation requiring manufacturers to label GMO-containing foods. These states were following in the footsteps of Vermont, the first state to pass a mandatory-GMO labeling law in 2014.
The Vermont law survived a court challenge and was on its way to implementation when the agribusiness and food industry mounted an all out campaign – spending millions -- to convince Congress to put a halt to all state efforts to require labeling legislation. As often happens, industry won.
On July 1, 2016, Congress passed the Safe and Affordable Food Act preempting all state regulation, and making GMO labeling exclusively the responsibility of the federal government. The USDA was given two years to implement the labeling disclosure regulations.
Martin Dagoberto, an activist who led the consumer-advocacy campaign for mandatory labeling of GMOs in Massachusetts, says the new federal law favors manufacturers and food growers. “This law was written by and for industry,” he says. “It’s not a consumer protection law at all.”
Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, says that under the new federal law (which Consumers Union opposed) manufacturers have a choice as to how they will meet the labeling requirement. The system is complex and two of the three options require consumers have access to either the Internet or a cell phone.
“They created a labeling system for rich young people who own computers and cell phones,” Halloran said. “We were totally opposed to the gizmo choices because half the people in rural areas, as well as half those who make less than $30,000 annually, don't own smart phones, nor do more than two-thirds of older people.”
At this point, the USDA is “now undertaking the very wonky process of implementing the law,” says Consumer’s Union policy analyst Will Wallace.
Under the legislation, a comment period should have begun by now. But it just keeps being pushed back. Under the Trump administration, it’s anybody’s guess as to how the USDA regulations will be implemented and enforced.
President Trump's executive order mandating that for every federal regulation implement, two must be slashed, ultimately could spell doom for the labeling legislation. Massachusett's consumer advocate Dagoberto points out, however, that the executive order applies to regulations issued in 2017; the federal labeling regs don't go into effect until 2018. Of course Trump could extend the order.
"Nothing is certain," says Dagoberto. "We just don't know how it's going to roll out."
Meanwhile the demand for non-GMO labeling continues to grow. Increasingly, food companies recognize the value in voluntarily submitting their products to the not-for-profit Non-GMO Project, an independent organization (launched in 2010) that certifies products as non-GMO. The Non-GMO Project Verified Seal – with the bright orange and black butterfly against a sky blue background -- has certified more than 40,000 products across the U.S.
Those butterfly seals appear on two varieties of Klara’s Kookies, a Lee, Massachusetts cookie producer. Husband and wife owners Jefferson Diller and Klara Sotonova decided to seek non-GMO verification four years ago. “We don’t like to bring products into our home that are not safe for our family. We feel the same way about the cookies we sell to others.”
The certification process costs $1,500 per year for each product. And it requires a small mountain of paperwork. Diller says that as a food producer, he had to trace back each ingredient used in the cookies to a certified non-GMO manufacturer. For example, he said, “we had to prove the eggs and egg whites we use are non-GMO verified.”
The case for non-GMO verification became crystal clear to me when I learned the following from Jean Halloran at Consumer’s Union:
Monsanto has for the past two decades genetically-engineered corn and soybean seeds. Why? “It’s part of a production system,” Halloran says. The GMO plants are engineered so that they can survive being dosed with huge amounts of the herbicide glyphosate (known by the brand name Roundup.)
"They are using 15 times more Roundup than they were 20 years ago,” Halloran says. The herbicide is still being studied for its carcinogenic properties. Meanwhile, there are now “superweeds” that have developed immunity to the herbicide..
So there you have it: Monsanto makes money engineering and selling the GMO-modified seeds and then the corporate giant makes money producing the herbicide used on the crops. What a racket!!
What is a consumer supposed to do?
Easy. Buy products that boast the orange and black butterfly, that is, the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal. The more that consumers buy and demand non-GMO products, the more likely companies are going to seek certification labeling.
So that’s what I am telling Dalija. Look for the butterfly wherever you can.