Americans spent the past weekend thanking Armed Forces veterans and those in active service for what they've given for our country. Now, for a darker period in American history: Today marks the day that, 20 years ago, the U.S. government announced its flawed policy on genetically modified foods that has since allowed more than 80 percent of foods in U.S. grocery stores to be contaminated with ingredients tied to food allergies and the rampant overuse of toxic herbicides and insecticides.
Vice President Dan Quayle was the architect behind the Food and Drug Administration's policies on genetically modified foods, or GMOs. At the time, Quayle headed up a pro-business agency called the Council on Competitiveness, whose goal was "regulatory relief," says Stacy Malkan, media director for California Right to Know, a nonprofit trying to educate people about the dangers of genetically modified foods. After a number of meetings with Monsanto executives, on the fateful day of May 29, 1992, Quayle announced that no new laws would be passed to regulate biotechnology and that creating GMOs, which involves manipulating plant DNA in a laboratory, was no different than traditional plant breeding (a fact that can't be farther from the truth). Therefore, the policy went, GMOs didn't need to undergo safety testing and they don't need to be labeled on packages.
"The policy was written by a former Monsanto lawyer," Malkan says. "Yet it runs counter to the global scientific consensus that GMO foods are different from traditional plant hybrids."
Since then, the agencies involved with regulating GMOs and the pesticides used on them—the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency—have had to rely on decades-old laws that were created for entirely different purposes, according to Claire Hope Cummings, author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (Beacon Press, 2009).
Four years after Quayle's announcement, the first commercial GMO crops were planted, and it's been downhill ever since both for biotech firms and the public. The companies producing them promised that these crops would reduce reliance on pesticides, yet USDA figures show that pesticide use on gene-altered corn, soy, and cotton has increased as much as 200 percent since they were first planted in 1996. As a result, farmers in 22 states are now battling pesticide-resistant weeds and insects, which are being fought with stronger, more toxic pesticides, including one, 2,4-D, made from an ingredient used in Agent Orange. 2,4-D is so potent that crop scientists estimate it can kill anywhere from 17 to 77 percent of the crops on farms close to those where 2,4-D is sprayed. According to the nonprofit Pesticide Action Network, the chemical is also a reproductive toxicant, suspected endocrine disruptor, and probable carcinogen.
As for promises that GMOs can feed the world, those have been dashed, too. The United Nations Human Rights Council has found that small farmers can double food production by using ecological farming methods, similar to those used in organic farming, rather than adopting new biotechnology crops.
Twenty years after Dan Quayle's fateful announcement, our best hope is for new GMO labeling laws that would require companies to disclose when they use ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops. Lacking action at the federal level, seven states have tried to pass labeling laws at the state level, but all have failed. California seems to have the most hope. Non-GMO activists there collected well over 1 million signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot that would not only require GMO labeling, but also disallow any company that uses GMOs in its products to use the word "natural" on the products' package or in marketing materials about the products.
"We're really confident this will pass," says Malkan. "The support for this in California is huge, and you just don't see support like that for most political issues," she adds, referring to the measure's support among Democrats, Republicans, and even conservative Libertarians.
In the meantime, protect yourself! Buy certified-organic foods, which are required to be produced without genetically engineered ingredients. Or find foods certified by the Non-GMO Project, which tests foods for GMO residues.