Contains Wheat, Soy, and Genetically Modified Ingredients
Today, Minnesota 2020 continues its series of environmental policy Op-eds from Macalester College students. Over this two week period, we'll feature articles that explore issues from food labeling to wolf hunting. We hope you enjoy this collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.
This past summer, residents of Connecticut and Maine moved closer to taking better control of their food consumption, passing labeling laws for all genetically engineered (GE) food. Currently, nearly half of all state governments, Minnesota included, are considering similar laws. Since 2011, the group Right to Know Minnesota has been working for GE labeling in our state by advocating for the passage of bills H.F. 850 (which has bipartisan support) and S.F. 821.
If we value knowing how our food is produced and what is being done to our environment because of it, Minnesotans should look to the good work being done by groups like Right to Know, which are fighting for consumer choice.
The U.S. is already behind most of the world on the issue of GE labeling. Sixty-four nations, including China, Germany, and the UK, require GE labels on food while we continue to unknowingly consume these products. Congressional Research Service estimates have shown that as much as 70 percent of the food we see in our grocery stores contains genetically modified ingredients. Though the FDA holds that these products are not harmful to human health, their stance is based only on short-term studies. There’s still more we can learn about how GE food could affect our health after many years of consumption.
We do know a lot about GE’s impact on farming and the environment, an issue of particular concern to states like Minnesota where most crops are grown using GE technology. A Minnesota House Research fact sheet titled, "Genetically Engineered Crops," found that in 2012, GE crops accounted for 90 percent of all corn and 91 percent of soybeans grown in the state (compared to 88% and 93% respectively nationwide).
The Centre for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University reported that the growing popularity of GE crops has coincided with a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use and a 404 million pound increase in pesticides from 1996 to 2011, mainly to a growing tolerance of the chemicals meant to limit their existence. Minnesota's forests, lakes, and wildlife are most threatened by chemicals from the GE takeover of the state's two main crops. In fact, in 2007, the State Department of Agriculture found over 91% of samples tested from 53 lakes contained agricultural pesticides. While “all pesticide detections were well below established water quality standards,” pesticides were found in “many non-agricultural areas of the state.” As long as GE products continue to dominate our fields, we risk further contaminating our waters.
So how can labeling GE products change any of this? It gives consumers the power to determine if we want to purchase these types of foods. Currently, we can only assume what products may have been made with GE corn and soybeans based on long and hard to read ingredient lists. Labeling would make clear which products contain GE ingredients, allowing us to keep them out of our pantries if we choose.
Anyone could still go on purchasing these products. However, those who want to avoid subsidizing environmental degradation will be better informed in how to do so. Collectively, we could push food producers towards natural alternatives to GE ingredients.
But convincing Minnesota residents of GE labeling laws’ benefits may not be the hardest task we face. In fact, recent polls conducted by Thompson Reuters and the New York Times found that over 90% of Americans are in favor of labeling products containing GE ingredients. Though a majority of citizens support labeling laws like those being considered in Minnesota, companies who stand to lose the most from GE labeling are fighting hard to keep them off the books. A report by the nonpartisan research organization Maplight showed that major GE producers contributed nearly $20 million towards a successful effort to defeat the 2012 California labeling bill, Proposition 37. In total, the opposition to Proposition 37 outspent supporters 5 to 1, with their largest contributions coming from corporations such as Monsanto and Dupont.
It is tremendously important that we make our voice heard, the voice of citizens rather than corporations, as our state government considers labeling laws H.F. 850 and S.F. 821. GE labeling is a minor change to our food industry with the potential for major positive impact. It's not about preventing producers of GE foods from continuing to operate, but putting the power back into the hands of the consumer to determine what we are eating and how it is produced. Right to Know Minnesota alone cannot turn these ideas into state policy. We need to support such groups in making our desires louder than those of a few wealthy companies by sending a clear message to our policymakers that GE labeling is something Minnesota wants and needs.