Opinion: Should Genetically Engineered Food Be Labeled?

Taking on agribusiness giants like Monsanto, Cargill and Syngenta is no easy task, but some Iowans are determined to raise the issue of consumers’ right to know what is in the food they eat.

In October, Occupy the World Food Prize activists in Des Moines held panel discussions and protests confronting what they say are lies about the nature of industrial agriculture. Meanwhile, concerned citizens in Iowa City are working with Matt Ohloff, full-time organizer for Food and Water Watch, to build a grassroots campaign to push for labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods in the Iowa legislature next year and are in the process of asking the Iowa City City Council to pass a non-binding resolution in support of GE labeling legislation.

Jessica Reznicek demonstrates at a World Food Prize event in Des Moines on Oct. 18

 Educating the Public

Although Proposition 37 in California failed to pass, Ohloff says that getting 47 percent in favor of labeling GMOs is impressive considering that their campaign was outspent five-to-one. Monsanto and other food industry corporations spent $46 million on ads that were some say were misleading, citing breaches like the placement of an FDA logo beneath quotes criticizing Proposition 37. In a recent Reuters report, FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky said the agency made no such statement and had no position on the initiative.

Ohloff says the success of “No on 37” shows how important it is to educate the public.

“There is a lot of confusion about what genetically modified is,” said Ohloff at the meeting held at the Iowa City Public Library Thursday, Nov. 8. “The biotech industries like Monsanto tend to say that genetic modification has been happening for thousands of years, that what they’re doing right now with changing the genetic makeup is the same thing as cross breeding plants, which is just not accurate.”

Ohloff says Food and Water Watch prefers to use the term “genetic engineering” to make it clear that it’s engineered, not just modified.

“They are now able to splice genetic material or inject genetic material from different organisms that are not of the same species,” Ohloff explains, giving the example of Bt, a soil bacterium that kills pests and makes plants breed pesticides internally.


Kurt Lawton, Editor of Corn & Soybean Digest, says there is no proof that genetically modified foods have caused any problems.

“They’ve been in the food chain for at least 15 years in most products, so if you did do some kind of label, then pretty much everything would be labeled that may contain a genetically modified grain,” says Lawton. “Realistically, you are just scaring people with that when there has been no scientific proof that there is any problem with genetically modified grain.”

Ohloff says we need labeling because genetically engineered foods have not been sufficiently tested, are potentially unsafe and are unlabeled, so consumers don’t know what they’re eating.

Dr. Judy Carman, Epidemiologist and Senior Lecturer at the Research Center for Injury Studies, Flinders University, in Southern Australia, says the scientific evidence that claims Roundup Ready (crops engineered to resist herbicides) is safe for animal and human consumption is “seriously flawed” and she calls for independent testing.

Lawton says all of the research that is required by federal agencies has been done, but Ohloff says the entire system is skewed. Regulatory agencies don’t do their own research, he says, but get their information from the industries that produce the GE products. Some studies have shown potential health-risks, but because GE products are patented, biotech companies that hold the patents don’t approve independent research and say the results of unauthorized tests are not legitimate.

“Genetically engineered food comes from genetically engineered crops, which are patented by biotech companies and that’s proprietary information,” says Ohloff. “Adequate peer-reviewed research has not been done and that’s why we say it’s largely untested.”

The Right to Know

Theresa Carbrey, education coordinator for New Pioneer Food Coop, says the coop policies respect their members’ desire to know what is in their food.

“If you wish to chose non-GMO food, we recommend choosing certified organic food and locally grown food from suppliers we know,” says Carbrey, noting that the problem is they cannot confirm the status of conventional or GMO ingredients in the absence of federal GMO disclosure laws.

Melanie House, who is working with Ohloff on the local campaign, says she thinks it’s important to have GE foods labeled.

“I feel that there’s an integrity that we associate with farming and with food,” says House. “We as citizens deserve that transparency to know what we’re buying.”

Gloria Williams is a freelance journalist and peace and justice activist.