What GE food labeling means for consumers, growers

Bill goes to state Senate next week as part of slow approval process that could end with decision in hands of governor

Almost two months ago, I traced the progress of California legislation that would require labels on grocery items that contain genetically engineered (GE) food ingredients. Today’s column provides an update of the status of that legislation, and asks what it means to gardeners and grocery shoppers.

First, the Health, Agriculture and Judiciary Committees each have approved Senate Bill 1381, so the full Senate will consider it next week. If the Senate approves the bill, the Assembly will consider it. Then, assuming both houses pass the bill, it will go to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature, which would make GE labeling California law.

This methodical sequence exemplifies the democratic process: thorough but not always fast.

The process of course includes lots of lobbying by both consumer groups who insist that the public has a right to know what is in their food, and corporate groups who prefer a cloak of darkness. Have I revealed my bias? I hope so.

What does this legislation mean for gardeners and grocery shoppers?

First, it would become effective January 1, 2016, so the legal impact wouldn’t be immediate. The practical impact, however, would be felt soon. Food providers would quickly re-design their labeling (a common occurrence, actually, not an unusual expense).

Another short-term impact would be that twenty other states (at last count) would advance similar legislation. According to the California Department of Food & Agriculture, the state’s agriculture industry revenues totaled $44.7 billion in 2012, making it one of the nation’s largest food producers. California’s action would establish the national standard for GE food labeling.

Another outcome: grocery shoppers would see the new labels, and very possibly would increase their purchases of non-GE foods, i.e., organic foods, which by federal regulation cannot include GE ingredients. This would substantially boost in the market for organically grown produce, and a statistically small but meaningful loss of demand for products with GE ingredients.

In the longer view, because GE technology typically makes crops immune to weed killers and has encouraged vast increases in uses of synthetic chemical pesticides, GE food labeling would reduce those uses and the accumulation of those chemicals in our environment.

Another longer-term impact, based on weeds’ natural adaptation to synthetic chemical pesticides, would be to slow the growth of pesticide-resistant “super weeds.” Scientists have for years predicted the emergence of such weeds, which are beginning to appear. The corporate perspective on super weeds does not foresee the loss of business for GE seeds and the related synthetic pesticides, but rather the introduction of even more toxic synthetic pesticides, such as the defoliant Agent Orange.

Home gardeners surely would benefit from a more natural environment with less contamination from synthetic chemicals. Fortunately, the evolutionary development of super weeds, which seriously impacts commercial farmers, won’t bother the home gardener because they can pull even super weeds by their roots.

Gardening helps us to avoid the usual daily stresses but politics still intrude.

More

This issue will stay in the state and national news for the foreseeable future, whether or not the California Senate approves the current legislation. Those who want to follow the issue have ample information sources on-line, and on both sides of the issue.

A good place to start would be to read California’s Senate Bill 1381, which is only nine pages long. Search the Internet for “California SB 1381.”

The arguments of opponents to label genetically engineered (GE) foods are represented well by The Atlantic magazine. The most recent article, by Molly Ball, appeared on May 14, 2014, with the title “Want to Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified?” At last count, it had 2,103 comments by readers.

An August 20, 2013 article in Scientific American,  “Labels for GMO Foods are a Bad Idea,” also has inspired hundreds of comments (a recent response was gated May 19, 2014).

For the full picture, read these articles and at least a sample of the readers’ comments.

The advocates of labeling are well represented on consumer-oriented websites, particularly the following:

Organic Consumers Association

Center for Food Safety

Beyond Pesticides

 

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