When you grab a bottle of "all natural" cooking oil at the grocery store or a bag of "all natural" corn chips, you think you're getting an "all natural" product. But like any product advertised as "natural," that all depends on your definition of the word—and that of the people selling it to you.
Considering our corporate-controlled food supply, you might imagine there are many different opinions on what "natural" means, since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate the term. This past December, California resident Julie Gengo brought a class-action lawsuit against Frito-Lay for advertising its Tostitos and Sun Chips as all natural, despite the fact that both are made with genetically modified corn. Her suit follows another, brought by the same New York City law firm, Milberg LLC, against food giant ConAgra for advertising its canola oil as natural, even though it, too, is made from a genetically modified crop.
Neither case has gone to trial, but both bring up one of the most contentious issues in the food movement today: labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods. Ingredients made from genetically modified crops, or GMOs, such as corn, soy, canola, and even cotton exist in approximately 70 percent of the processed foods on store shelves, including nearly all foods advertised as "natural". Public opinion polls conducted by Reuters, Consumers Union, ABC News, and the Washington Post all show that more than 90 percent of Americans want genetically modified foods to be labeled, something that is already required in 40 developing and developed nations. "It's even required in Russia and China, two countries not exactly known for progressive citizen action," says Gary Hirschberg, CEO of the organic dairy Stonyfield Farms and one of the founders of a new campaign to force the FDA to require labeling. "America, a country ruled by the people, has not provided this same right to know."
The Just Label It campaign was launched in the fall of last year with a petition, filed with the FDA in September, asking them to move forward with mandatory labeling laws. Since the campaign filed that petition, it has received more than 540,000 public comments, most of which are in favor of mandatory labeling. "That's more comments than in the history of any regulation at FDA," says Hirschberg.
Read More: How You Can Stand Up Against GMOs
The Risks of GM Foods
According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soybeans grown in America are genetically modified. In addition to corn and soy, biotech companies have successfully gained patents for genetically modified sugar beets to make sugar, and alfalfa (hay) to feed to livestock. Nearly all of these wind up on your dinner plate in the form of processed foods or in the meat and dairy products made from animals fed genetically modified grain.
"The contention the FDA uses when the issue of labeling has come up before is that these crops are not materially different from non-genetically modified versions of the same crops," Hirschberg says. "But they're clearly different." All you need to do is look at the definition of GMO biotech giant Monsanto uses on its own website: "Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. In general, genes are taken (copied) from one organism that shows a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism."
So what's the big deal about them? We have no idea, says Robyn O'Brien, a former financial analyst for the food industry-turned-food activist after one of her children had a severe allergic reaction that she believes was caused by genetically modified ingredients. "The biotech industry spouts a lot of claims that there is no evidence of harm," she says, which is partly true—because the studies have never been done. "What little science that has been conducted on GM foods has been industry funded," she adds.
But there is evidence that genetically modified crops are not as benign as biotech firms would like you to believe. The best-documented problem they pose to people is the potential for food allergies. When plants are crossbred with entirely new species, new proteins are introduced into the crop, and food allergies can develop if your immune system attacks those new proteins and treats them like foreign invaders. Similarly, in one high-profile case, a soybean was crossbred with a Brazil nut in the late '90s, but the project was abandoned after the scientists realized that the allergenic proteins in Brazil nuts were transferred to the new crop, which could have been potentially fatal for people with tree-nut allergies.
Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner produced this video in support of the Just Label It Campaign.