One million Americans rarely agree on anything, let alone anything that has to do with the federal government. But this week marked a historic milestone. After 180 days of collecting public comments, the Just Label It campaign announced that 1 million people (1,000,075 to be exact) asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to label genetically modified foods, or GMOs. That's a historic number, says Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm and cofounder of the campaign, which sponsored the petition.
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Launched last October, the Just Label It campaign began when a coalition of 450 consumer activists, medical professionals, farming groups, and public health officials sent a petition to the FDA asking the agency to require that food companies label products containing or made from genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. During the 180-day comment period that ended this week, they asked concerned Americans to comment on the petition. A lot of people did—most commenting that they wanted GE ingredients labeled.
"It took less than 180 days to get 1 million Americans united in support of GMO labeling," says Hirshberg, adding that this petition got more comments than any FDA petition in history. "We had just a striking avalanche of interest in this issue. It's indicative of the sea change we're seeing broadly across the American food landscape." Hirshberg says that other hot-button food issues like "pink slime" in meat (an unappetizing filler added to ground beef made from leftover animal parts and treated with ammonia gas) and bisphenol A in food cans, have made Americans more demanding of transparency in the food supply. "We want to know what more we can do about what we eat and what we can feed our families." After all, labeling of GMOs is required in 40 countries around the world.
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On the heels of the announcement, yet another survey was released finding that all Americans—Republican, Democrat, young, old, men and women—are growing increasingly concerned about the health effects of GMOs. "Few topics other than motherhood and apple pie can muster over 90 percent support, but labeling GE foods is one of those few views held almost unanimously," says Mark Mellman, CEO of the Mellman Group, who conducted the survey with a random sampling of registered voters across the U.S.
"We found very clear, near-unanimous support for labeling of GE foods," he says. "It crosses all demographic and geographic lines." His survey found that 91 percent of people want GMOs labeled, while 81 percent "strongly favor" such labeling. There's a lot of political unity in this as well: 93 percent of Democrats, 90 percent of independents, and 89 percent of Republicans are in favor of labeling.
Furthermore, after being read the official position of the FDA, that there is no "fundamental" difference between GE and non-GE foods and that GE foods are safe, only 25 percent of people said they were convinced that GE foods are "basically safe," and 64 percent said that they felt there was an important difference between GE and non-GE foods.
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"Americans do believe that genetically engineered foods are different from others, and they harbor doubts about their safety and want restrictions on GE foods," Mellman adds.
The support for GMO labeling isn't restricted to the grocery-shopping public, either. Earlier this month, 55 members of Congress, led by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also sent a letter to the FDA asking them to label GMOs. In the letter, the congressmen wrote, "The agency currently requires over 3,000 other ingredients, additives, and processes to be labeled; providing basic information doesn't confuse the public, it empowers them to make choices. Absent labeling, Americans are unable to choose for themselves whether to purchase GE foods."
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Why does it matter? GMO crops have never been tested for safety. The FDA determined they were "safe" back in 1992, when the biotech companies that developed the crops provided the agency with their own test results, which can hardly be considered unbiased, says Hirshberg. The best studied side effect of GMOs is an increase in food allergies, and Hirshberg adds that animal genes are often used in genetically engineered vegetable crops, and that poses a moral dilemma for people who are vegetarians for religious or ethical reasons. Furthermore, as farmers' dependence on GMOs increases, so does their dependence on toxic pesticides such as Roundup and 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange. So-called "superweeds" and "superbugs" have developed resistance to the herbicides and insecticides used on GMO crops, and therefore farmers have to turn to more toxic solutions. Despite promises that GE crops would reduce dependency on pesticides, Hirshberg says more than 400 million pounds of herbicides are being applied to American croplands in the 16 years since GE crops were introduced.
Now that the FDA has closed the comment period on its petition, the Just Label It campaign intends to keep up pressure on the agency, says spokesperson Sue McGovern. "Consumer support is mounting, not diminishing," she says. The group plans on generating a second petition, which you can sign here.
In the meantime, continue to demand organic food from your local grocery stores, and let them know you want nothing to do with the 70 percent of nonorganic processed foods that contain GMO ingredients.