Home What Are You Eating? The Trouble With Genetically Engineered Foods, Revisited

The Trouble With Genetically Engineered Foods, Revisited

by Erika Nicole Kendall

In the middle of my anti-frankenfood week, I see this article from the NYTimes, titled “Why Aren’t GMO Foods Labeled?

…and immediately, I think to myself… “…because the rush to approve and accept them came much faster than the rush to ensure that such unique technology was actually deemed safe, across the board, for human consumption.”

There’s also this:

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules requiring that the word “imitation” appear on any food product that was, well, an imitation … [And] the food industry [argued over the word], strenuously for decades, and in 1973 it finally succeeded in getting the imitation rule tossed out, a little-notice but momentous step that helped speed America down the path of nutritionism.

… The American Heart Association, eager to get Americans off saturated fats and onto vegetable oils (including hydrogenated vegetable oils), was actively encouraging the food industry to “modify” various foods to get the saturated fats and cholesterol out of them, and in the early seventies the association urged that “any existing and regulatory barriers to the marketing of such foods be removed.”

And so they were when, in 1973, the FDA (not, note, the Congress that wrote the law) simply repealed the 1938 rule concerning imitation foods. … The revised imitation rule held that as long as an imitation product was not “nutritionally inferior” to the natural food it sought to impersonate—as long as it had the same quantities of recongized nutrients—the imitation could be marketed without using the dreaded “i” word. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

So… as long as the studies declare that the GMO products aren’t “nutritionally inferior,” we don’t really have to be told they’re fake food. How much do you want to bet it’ll be a long time before those studies are ever done?

The problem with genetically modified foods, really, is the uncertainty. And really, let’s be honest, here. In an industry where everyone is waiting for the next opportunity to turn a big profit, very little is left unchartered. Everything is studied to a fault because if there are benefits to tout for something, we’d be inundated with press releases, commercials and everything else. For any food – genetically modified or otherwise – to be covered in a cloud of uncertainty… tells me that that cloud is placed (and left) there intentionally. If you dug deeper than the cloud, you’d find all the reasons to not eat the stuff.

The article includes a lot of stuff that food nerds like me are interested in, but I’m going to parse it down to the stuff that I think should be noted and quoted here, at least:

In the last three weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved three new kinds of genetically engineered (G.E.) foods: alfalfa (which becomes hay), a type of corn grown to produce ethanol, and sugar beets. And the approval by the Food and Drug Administration of a super-fast-growing salmon — the first genetically modified animal to be sold in the U.S., but probably not the last — may not be far behind.

It’s unlikely that these products’ potential  benefits could possibly outweigh their potential for harm. But even more unbelievable is that the F.D.A.and the U.S.D.A. will not require any of these products, or foods containing them, to be labeled as genetically engineered, because they don’t want to “suggest or imply” that these foods are “different.” (Labels with half-truths about health benefits appear to be O.K., but that’s another story.)They are arguably different, but more important, people are leery of them. Nearly an entire continent — it’s called Europe — is so wary that G.E. crops are barely grown there and there are strict bans on imports (that policy is in danger). Furthermore, most foods containing more than 0.9 percent G.M.O.’s must be labeled.

Let’s not forget – Europe’s regulations? Far tougher than ours. And why?

Tom Vilsack, the pro-biotech former governor of Iowa, is now Secretary of the USDA.

Michael Taylor, former Monsanto Vice President, is now the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods.

Roger Beachy, former director of the Monsanto-funded Danforth Plant Science Center, is now the director of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Islam Siddiqui, Vice President of the Monsanto and Dupont-funded pesticide-promoting lobbying group, CropLife, is now the Agriculture Negotiator for the US Trade Representative.

Rajiv Shah former agricultural-development director for the pro-biotech Gates Foundation (a frequent Monsanto partner), served as Obama’s USDA Under-Secretary for Research Education and Economics and Chief Scientist and is now head of USAID.

Elena Kagan, who, as President Obama’s Solicitor General, took Monsanto’s side against organic farmers in the Roundup Ready alfalfa case, is now on the Supreme Court.

Ramona Romero, corporate counsel to DuPont, has been nominated by President Obama to serve as General Counsel for the USDA. [source]

…but back to the article.

Also curious is that the salmon is being categorized as a “new animal drug” which means that the advisory committee in charge of evaluating it is composed mostly of veterinarians and animal scientists, instead of, say, fish ecologists or experts in food safety. Not surprisingly, the biotech industry has spent over half a billion dollars on G.M.O. lobbyists in the last decade, and Michael Taylor, the F.D.A. deputy commissioner for foods, was once vice president for public policy at Monsanto. Numerous groups of consumers, farmers, environmental advocates, scientists, supporters of organic food and now even congressmen — last week, a bill was introduced to ban G.E. salmon — believe that the approval process demonstrated a bias towards the industry.

Understand what this means. It means that since the genetically modified animal isn’t actually being evaluated as an animal… or as, well, food. It’s being evaluated as a drug.

…but back to the article.

Cross-breeding is guaranteed with alfalfa and likely with corn. (The U.S.D.A. claims to be figuring out ways to avoid this happening, but by then the damage may already be done.) And the organic dairy industry is going to suffer immediate and frightening losses when G.E. alfalfa is widely grown, since many dairy cows eat dried alfalfa (hay), and the contamination of organic alfalfa means the milk of animals fed with that hay can no longer be called organic. Likewise, when feed corn is contaminated by G.E. ethanol corn, the products produced from it won’t be organic. (On the one hand, U.S.D.A. joins the F.D.A. in not seeing G.E. foods as materially different; on the other it limits the amount found in organic foods. Hello? Guys? Could you at least pretend to be consistent?)

The subject is unquestionably complex. Few people outside of scientists working in the field — self included — understand much of anything about gene altering. Still, an older ABC poll found that a majority of Americans believe that G.M.O.’s are unsafe, even more say they’re less likely to buy them, and a more recent CBS/NYT poll found a whopping 87 percent — you don’t see a poll number like that too often — wants them labeled.

The cross-breeding of alfalfa is a big deal because of the issue with the term “organic.” For instance, if you purchase organic cow’s milk, it means that your cow has eaten only organically grown food, as well. Since alfalfa makes up the hay fed to cows, its imperative that that alfalfa be organic, as well. If cross-breeding – in other words, when seeds of plants “blow over” to someone else’s land and grow there – happens that easily with alfalfa, then it alters the amount of organic alfalfa there is to feed organically raised cows… thus reducing the ability to organically raise cows… thus increasing the difficulty of raising cows organically as well as reducing the amount of organic milk… thus increasing the price of organic milk and cheeses.

That’s a big deal.

There’s a great clip – I’ll have to find it somewhere – of a court case where a food industry executive was asked why they didn’t want food labeled to reflect what it truly is, and the woman said “Oh, we don’t want to unnecessarily worry the public.”

That’s industry speak for – “We know they’ll pick up on something that’ll give them a reason to not give us their money.” Look at that number. 87%

Eighty-seven per cent of the public wants genetically modified foods labeled! Why can’t we get what we want? Because the industry doesn’t want to “unnecessarily worry” us. Oh, okay.

…but back to the last and, to me, most important part of the article:

Even more than questionable approvals, it’s the unwillingness to label these products as such — even the G.E. salmon will be sold without distinction — that is demeaning and undemocratic, and the real reason is clear: producers and producer-friendly agencies correctly suspect that consumers will steer clear of G.E. products if they can identify them. Which may make them unprofitable. Where is the free market when we need it?

A majority of our food already contains G.M.O.’s, and there’s little reason to think more isn’t on the way. It seems our “regulators” are using us and the environment as guinea pigs, rather than demanding conclusive tests. And without labeling, we have no say in the matter whatsoever.

We are, essentially, being turned into test subjects – unwittingly, even – but there’s one way to avoid it. Start doing what you can to avoid genetically modified foods and the things that feed from them.

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Danielle February 17, 2011 - 2:44 PM

Erika, that clip was on Food Inc the documentary.

Erika February 17, 2011 - 3:00 PM

Ah! With the woman talking about her son thatshe lost because of Jack in the Box? Thanks!

I’ve seen so many darn documentaries that I don’t remember my left from my right. Jeez. LOL

Danielle February 17, 2011 - 4:39 PM

Yup. I think it was the lady with Kevin’s Law, he died when he was 2 from a strain of E coli.
On a side note:
I was on monsanto’s website today and wanted to hit something by how deceptive these people are. It’s just not right what these companies are doing.
Now I see why you write with a smidge of a conspiracy twist- it really is!

Erika February 17, 2011 - 4:53 PM

See, and I always feel bad because I know people will swear up and down that I’m going off the deep end… but it’s not even a matter of conspiracy. It’s a matter of marketing and deception to protect someone’s profits. It’s that simple. Somewhere along the line, it became less about people and more about money… the only person that cares about me is, in fact, me… regardless of how many “We’re one of you” marketing campaigns there are out there.

Msladee February 18, 2011 - 2:21 AM

This piece inspired to look into whether there was ever a lawsuit following the 1973 ruling. I didn’t quite finish that particular search because I was too outdone with finding out that the recent sugar-beet GMO approval by the the USDA came in direct conflict with a U.S. district court order to halt planting the Monsanto seeds until an impact study could be done. From Wall Street Journal Online.(http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704709304576124454083334630.html?mod=googlenews_wsj). SAY WHAT NOW? What part of the checks and balances game is this? Since when does an agency ruling beat a court order?

And the justification? A shortage of sugar in the U.S. I’d laugh if that wasn’t the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Usually I don’t put much energy into government conspiracies, but this is more than a bit much.

JoAnna February 18, 2011 - 2:28 AM

Erika, I have co-workers that don’t understand why I’m so excited to start my garden in a few weeks. They’ve told me to just buy my vegetables at the store, and not go thru the trouble of buying heirloom seeds, seed starting, planting and weeding, etc… I like the idea of growing plants whose seeds I can harvest for future seasons. Can’t do that with hybrids. And some Monsanto hybrids won’t even produce viable seeds. Since grain is a seed, what does it mean when it’s engineered to be sterile? As in you grow the plant and those seeds are sterile. What does it do to our bodies to consume sterile grain?

I have noticed that since I’ve eliminated processed foods from my diet, my health is better. No congested sinuses in the morning, no annual winter cold/flu, my skin is clearer, and less fatigue. It’s funny/scary when you think of how many soy/corn derivatives there are out there disguised as “food” or food additives.

I wonder if too many Americans are addicted to those same additives to even care about Monsanto if it means they’ll go without their convenience foods. I also wonder if Monsanto is banking on that…

Samantha Sophia February 18, 2011 - 11:00 AM

Is it asking to much to make a fully informed decision about what I eat. It is so ridiculous.

Danielle February 19, 2011 - 8:35 AM

It’s crazy isn’t it? We the consumers are not being told about where our food comes from- I wonder if 50 years from now there will be some massive lawsuit when it is scientifically proved that these genetically modified food are not fit for human consumption. Awesome that we are the guinea pigs of these scientists! (sarcasm)

What can we do? Vote with our grocery dollars! I went out to eat at a local place, and I was kinda shy about asking if the ingredients were organic (the restaurant had something about using local ingredients etc but for all I know that could just be for one dish). I didn’t want to sound ‘bougie’ to the server or my friend I was with. But you know, it’s my health and my body – it’s okay to want to put the best into it.

Lisa February 20, 2011 - 7:18 PM

I have watched Food, Inc., and Fast Food Nation. But it was not until I watched the documentary Earthlings and read the book Fast Food Nation that I really realized all the harm I have been doing to my body over the years. Also thank you for this website.

Tiera September 5, 2011 - 5:24 PM

If I’m not mistaking, I believe that the top right corner says “MICROWAVABLE for added carcinogens.” Carcinogens? You mean those pesky little things that cause cancer?…In MY food? Na..I’ll pass…

Mimi September 19, 2011 - 9:05 PM

What the officials do to foods these days are scary! It makes me wonder is anything honestly edible anymore? All we can do is be aware and careful 🙁

Mz. Adventure December 26, 2011 - 5:09 PM


you might find this web site of interest in your quest to research GMO foods. There is a lot of information here. This particular article speaks on the GM foods that have recently been approved by our government. Also keep in mind that a lot of the farm raised fish and other animals that we consume are fed GMO waste turned into feed for these animals. It was recently discovered that GMO’s caused gastric distress in animals that consume this feed, something the scientist call split gut disease, in which the gut begins to leak intestinal fluids into the stomach cavity causing disease in the animals. We are eating these animals and “farm raised” fish, shrimp, salmon..etc. 90% of the soybeans or soybean based foods are made from GMO. So we are already eating this stuff indirectly. Scary does not even begin to describe it.

Jelly Jam September 17, 2013 - 1:42 AM

Long time listener, first time caller! 🙂 I read this blog right after watching a video I saw on FB that definitely fits with the topic, so I wanted to share. It’s a segment from a show on Canadian tv…I think the Lang & O’Leary show.

Apparently, a 14 yr old girl from Canada who’s advocating for labeling asked to debate the male host, O’Leary, because he’s a big proponent of GMOs. I guess the hosts and the producers thought having a kid on the show would be easy prey, but the kid held her ground and had great retorts.

Anyway, the hosts kept trying to trap the girl into saying she was anti-science because she was suspicious of GMO companies, which to me as a scientist was anti-scientific and anti-ethical since a good researcher ALWAYS questions things, even their own work. And there was a moment when the girl said she’d be less suspicious of GMOs if there was actual long-term, longitudinal research on GMOs done by independent entities other than biotech companies. And O’Leary said flat out, “There is long-term research. We’ve been eating GMOs all this time [and we’re okay.]” (In so many words.) And his co-host Lang chimes in “We’re the lab rats.”

I don’t think the hosts meant to say that, but it was the realest (and scariest) statements ever. Check it out:


Erika Nicole Kendall September 17, 2013 - 11:19 AM

WOW. I mean…WOW.

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