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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on September 26th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 29 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 29

Food for thought--and rigorous debate

Proposition 37, which would require labeling foods that contain genetically modified organisms, prompts Californians to seriously think about their next meal

BY RYAN MILLER

Supporters say they have a right to know what they’re putting into their bodies. Opponents say our food supply shouldn’t be tied up in more red tape and regulations than it already is.


Sink your teeth in
The Santa Maria Valley League of Women Voters is sponsoring a forum on Proposition 37, which involves the mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms in food. The forum is at the Betteravia Government Center, 511 Lakeside Parkway in Santa Maria, on Oct. 8. This free event runs from 6:30 to 8 p.m. A moderator will lay the necessary foundation by defining the proposition and the term “GMO,” and speakers—two for, two against—will make statements, rebuttals, and more statements before answering written questions from the audience. For more information, call 598-8929.

The camps are divided over Proposition 37, an initiative statute that would, in a presumably organic nutshell, require that food “made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specific ways” be labeled as such and not be advertised as natural. The initiative would also allow people to sue manufacturers who don’t properly label what they make.

Californians will be voting on this proposition in November, but in the meantime, ag producers and environment watchers are weighing in with their arguments.

Locally, the Santa Maria Valley League of Women Voters has invited four people—two for the measure, two against—to speak about the issue at the Betteravia Government Center on Oct. 6. The league reported that 40 to 70 percent of food sold in the state may contain genetically engineered ingredients, and that no current U.S. law specifically regulates or requires identification of such foods.

Claire Wineman of the Grower/Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties and Jackie Crabb, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau, will speak in opposition to the measure.

Neither organization got back to the Sun as of press time, but arguments against the proposition include doubts about the supporting science’s veracity, worries over ballooning bureaucracy for enforcement and an associated increase in food costs, and confusing exemptions. Indeed, exceptions to the regulations would range from food unintentionally produced with genetically modified material and food containing only small amounts of the questionable stuff to certified organic foods, alcohol, and food served for immediate consumption—as in at a restaurant.

Opponents also worry that the proposition’s passing would create a field day for trial lawyers eager to profit from a proliferation of frivolous lawsuits filed against farmers and grocery stores.

The legislative analyst examining Proposition 37 reported that state administrative costs—including Department of Public Health expenses from reviewing documents and inspections—could range from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million each year. There were no expected significant long-term increases in costs associated with litigation.

By using genetically modified material in crops, opponents say, growers have safely been able to produce more food that’s resistant to pests and disease, which means it requires fewer pesticides. “Thousands of common foods are made with ingredients from biotech crops,” reads an argument at noprop37.com, under the heading “Stop the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme.”

On the support side at the forum will be Dulanie Ellis, a documentary filmmaker and chair of the Ojai Valley Green Coalition’s Food Council. She believes this issue is of maximum importance for California—and ultimately all of humanity. Genetically modified organisms, she said, can dramatically impact the environment and “all of our food plants for the rest of time.”

Farmers and scientists point to studies proving the benefits and safety of genetically modified organisms, but Ellis said there’s really been no long-term health study done on the effects of humans eating GMO-touched crops.

“This blows my mind,” she said. “Every time I see that written I say, ‘Oh come on. None?’”

She added: “Scientific studies that say it’s safe are industry paid for. … Until there is a great deal more known about the effects of genetic engineering in the food supply, we should approach with caution, because you can’t put that genie back in the bottle very well.”

And so we enter the world of statistics and studies, the minutiae of causation or correlation. Dulanie said the introduction of genetically engineered foods also marked a time when heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and allergies began rising. She cited doctors and studies of her own, ranging from a recent look at premature deaths due to organ malfunction and a high instance of crossover soy allergies.

And as for the Federal Food and Drug Administration? The body responsible for making sure what we eat isn’t killing us?

“They’re completely in bed with biotech,” Ellis said, noting that such coziness extends throughout the upper levels of our government: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Darrow has ruled on Monsanto cases despite being a former employee of the company, and Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, could also put “Monsanto’s vice president for public policy” on his résumé. Ag giant Monsanto is often invoked as the specter of everything gone wrong when it comes to food. The biotech company is essentially synonymous with herbicides and genetically modified seeds.

“It’s like the fox is in the henhouse,” Ellis said, later adding: “I just don’t think that our government is capable of making a clear decision on this, because they’ve slept with this for too long and there’s too much money tied in.”

As for Proposition 37, specifically, Ellis countered the most publicized opposition arguments, asking rhetorically whether food costs went up when manufacturers began labeling trans-fats and sodium. She expressed doubts that lawsuits would plague mom-and-pop grocers, or even farmers. Ellis, in fact, sympathizes with farmers—“I’m not demonizing anybody here,” she said—who are hammered by regulations as it is. But she also believes their growing dependence, as a whole, on genetically engineered crops is akin to a drug addiction that’s difficult to kick and ultimately harmful: to the soil, to their business, and to their consumers.

“We’re really at a pivotal time,” Ellis said. “This can’t wait one more election cycle. That’s how urgent this is. It cannot wait. It cannot fail. … We need to start to put the brakes on this right now. We need to know what we’re eating, and how it was grown, and what’s in it. We need it for our own health and wellbeing.”

Also speaking in support of the measure is Ron Whitehurst, coordinator of Label GMO Ventura. He e-mailed his thoughts to the Sun, noting that “polls” show that more than 90 percent of Californians want GMO foods labeled. Like Ellis, he raised an eyebrow at ailments increasingly plaguing U.S. consumers, from diabetes and obesity to digestive problems and inflammatory diseases.

“Is that a coincidence?” he wrote. “Some say there is no connection with GE food, but it is impossible to conduct any epidemiological study on this question because GMOs cannot be tracked in human diets. It is unethical to force American consumers to unknowingly be lab rats without even setting up a proper research study about it. There is no informed consent in this on-going experiment.”

He, too, cited a recent French study that, after two years, found tumors in rats fed GMOs, specifically Roundup-tolerant maize.

“If the food is not safe, not only is the government and industry responsible for tremendous, needless suffering,” he wrote, “but society is picking up the tab for tremendously high health care costs to treat the kinds of diseases showing up in the rats.”

Mirroring the anti-GMO camp’s dismissal of money-greased studies, Monsanto responded to the French findings: “This study does not meet minimum acceptable standards for this type of scientific research, the findings are not supported by the data presented, and the conclusions are not relevant for the purpose of safety assessment.”

Who to believe? The multi-national corporations and high-ranking scientists? Or the more grassroots people pushing for greater transparency and caution before it’s too late?

In this case, even with the upcoming forum in Santa Maria, voters may have to look at their ballots in November, consider Proposition 37, and trust their guts.

Contact Executive Editor Ryan Miller at rmiller@santamariasun.com.