A movement to require the labeling of foods grown with the use of genetically modified organisms is gaining traction in Maine, after the widely-publicized failure last November, of a labeling bill in California. The bill was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent, with opponents of labeling outspending advocates 10-1.
Thirty states are currently considering legislation to mandate labeling genetically modified organisms.
According to its supporters, California’s citizen-initiated Proposition 37, was designed “to create and enforce the fundamental right of the people of California to be fully informed about whether the food they purchase and eat is genetically engineered and not misbranded as natural so that they can choose for themselves whether to purchase and eat such foods.”
Sponsors said California consumers have the right to know whether the foods they purchase were produced using genetic engineering and that genetically modifying plants and animals can cause unintended consequences. They said mandatory identification of foods produced through genetic engineering could provide a method for tracking the potential health effects of eating genetically engineered foods.
Damariscotta restaurant owner Grace Goldberg said some companies that label their food products as organic contributed to the more than $46 million that was spent to defeat Proposition 37.
“What were excellent companies that did organic production when they started, were bought up,” said Goldberg owner of Savory Maine on Water Street. “She said companies including Cascadian, Knudsen and Muir Glen are now owned by agribusiness giants such as General Mills and PepsiCo.
“Those companies are working very hard to prevent labeling because most of the products they sell have GMOs (genetic modified organisms),” Goldberg said.
Fifty countries including the European Union member states, Japan and other U.S. trading partners, have laws mandating disclosure of genetically engineered foods.
No international agreements prohibit the mandatory identification of foods produced through genetic engineering.
Rob Johanson of Goranson Farm in Dresden is not involved with protests that have taken place this month in Washington, D.C., but said he supports efforts to require labeling GMOs.
“I’m dead set against genetically modified organisms,” Johanson said. “They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s shotgun technology.”
He said too many questions remain unanswered regarding the effect of GMOs on the environment and on organisms that are not the intentional target of the technology. “There’s no way it can possibly be safe.”
Johanson said his sympathies are with those engaging in activities such as the Occupy Monsanto rally during the Jan. 21 Presidential Inauguration, but that he is too busy with farmers markets to take part.
Nobleboro farmer Richard Spear said genetically modified organisms are “a way to get away from pesticides.” Spear uses Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seed for silage corn.
“It saves on the amount of pesticide we have to put down,” Spear said.
Goldberg said such claims fall into the category of “too good to be true.” She said similar claims were made for chemical fertilizers and pesticides that “caused an imbalance and created disease-resistant pests and a polluted environment.”
“Just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should,” Goldberg said. She said pests are likely to develop resistance to GMOs, as they do to chemical pesticides and herbicides.
According to a 2009 report by The Organic Center, “The most striking finding is that GE (genetically engineered) crops have been responsible for an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the U.S. over the first 13 years of commercial use of GE crops.”
Spear said he has no objection to labeling products with GMO components.
“I just do silage corn, which wouldn’t affect any human consumption,” Spear said.
David Koubek of Good Shepherd’s Farm in Bremen said his choice to use organic farming methods is a form of activism.
“We don’t support the use of genetically modified organisms,” Koubek said. “We’re certainly on the side of the folks who would like to see labeling for genetically modified organisms.”
He said he sees “many ethical, moral and biological questions” in the technology that was first applied to farming with field tests on tobacco in 1986 in Belgium and 1987 in the U.S.
“The methods used by companies that are driving transgenic modification are not natural and there’s nothing normal about a corn plant mating with a moth,” Koubek said. “For a plant to contain genes from an animal is not normal or biologically ethical.”
“At the very least, people should have the right to know if these products are in food.” Koubek cited polls from MSNBC, NPR, The Washington Post and ABC News that showed more than 90 percent of Americans support labeling foods containing GMOs.
“While you can say that farmers have always done genetic modification by breeding animals, the transgenic companies are now using methods which are very unnatural,” Koubek said.
“There’s a lot of secrecy in the industry,” Koubek said.
More than $45 million was spent by opponents of Proposition 37, $8 million of that coming from Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready seeds that are genetically modified to work with Roundup.
“The industry doesn’t want people to know,” Koubek said. “There’s obviously something that they’re afraid of people knowing. If it’s such a great product, wouldn’t they want to advertise that they have genetically modified organisms in the food that you’re consuming? Instead there’s a lot of money being spent to do just the opposite, to keep people in the dark.”
Goldberg said GMOs are too new for there to be any documentation of long-term effects to the environment and the animals and plants that are subject to the technology.
Koubek said he is also concerned that Monsanto and other producers of GMOs are patenting the life forms being created in their labs.
He cited cases in which Monsanto has sued farmers who accidentally grew plants from seed that came from plants that were pollinated with genetic material from Roundup Ready plants grown by other farmers in nearby fields.
Koubek said it is important to educate people about what is in the food they eat.
“We’d certainly urge people to vote with their wallets and buy foods that are either organically grown or non-GMO verified,” he said. “That’s the only way to be sure you’re not supporting the transgenic crops. We also support businesses who speak out, such as Wood Prairie Farm in Maine.”
Wood Prairie is a party in a country-wide lawsuit by more than 80 farms against Monsanto, to stop the chemical company from suing farmers for inadvertent use of their products.
Koubek said he and his wife have three small children and are unable to join in protests, but that their hearts are with those taking action.
Goldberg said concerned consumers can only protect themselves, in the absence of mandatory labeling, by restricting purchases to those foods that are certified as organically produced or voluntarily labeled GMO-free.
Wood Prairie Farm is located in Aroostook County. For more than 36 years, Jim and Megan Gerritsen and their family have been farming organic potatoes, seed, grain and vegetables.
In the online blog at cbsnews.com, Jim Gerritsen said the parties to the suit want nothing to do with Monsanto’s seed and only want a promise that they will not be sued if the transgenic modification breeds into their crops, as the company did to Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser in 1998.
“Instead [Monsanto] hired a team of lawyers and accused us, the plaintiffs, of trying to pull a publicity stunt and being liars,” Gerritsen wrote. “I’d much rather be tending to the work on my seed farm than being involved in a lawsuit against one of the biggest, most aggressive companies in the world.”
For their part, Monsanto claims patents are “necessary to ensure that we are paid for our products and for all the investments we put into developing these products.”
“Without the protection of patents there would be little incentive for privately-owned companies to pursue and re-invest in innovation,” the company’s website at monsanto.org states.
“Monsanto invests more than $2.6 million per day in research and development that ultimately benefits farmers and consumers,” the website states.
Since 1997, Monsanto has filed 145 lawsuits in the United States, against farmers the company claims have infringed on their patents.
According to the Public Patent Foundation, farmers in the current lawsuit seek “preemptively to protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement should they ever become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed, something Monsanto has done to others in the past.”
The case, Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, was filed in federal district court in Manhattan and Monsanto filed a motion to dismiss the case in July 2011.
In February 2012, a District Court judge dismissed the case. In March 2012, the plaintiffs appealed the District Court’s decision to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which heard oral arguments in the case on Jan. 10 in Washington, D.C.
In a Jan. 8 article in the Wall Street Journal, Ian Berry and Ben Fox Rubin wrote that Monsanto’s seed business saw a 14 percent increase in sales in its first fiscal quarter, rising to $1.76 billion.
“The segment’s improvement was largely due to stronger corn seed and [modified] traits sales, which jumped 27 percent to $1.14 billion, aided by Latin America and U.S. Sales,” the story said.