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Daily Barometer: Consumers' Right To Know On GMOs

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., backed by businesses from around Oregon, is petitioning President Obama to pass labeling regulations on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.

Genetically modified organisms are organisms (plants or animals) that have engineered insertions of genetic material to convey traits that those plants or animals would never have in a natural system.

The groups advocating for GMO labels believe that the public has the right to know what’s in the food they consume. This would allow the public to make an informed choice on whether or not to buy GMO or non-GMO foods.

“We’ve changed that label multiple times in the past 20 years,” DeFazio said. “We didn’t have trans-fats on the label; we’ve added things to that label constantly — so you add one more thing.”

Frank Morton, owner of Wild Garden Seed, a company that grows organic seeds at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, cites a common example of GMOs as resistance to herbicides.

There are more than 60 countries around the world that have systems in place that label GMO products.

“We know it can be done,” DeFazio said.

Carol Mallory-Smith, professor of weed science in the department of crop and soil science at Oregon State University, has done extensive work with GMO crops and also with gene flow from GMO crops into other species, either crops or weeds.

There are certain markets in the world that do not except GMO products — countries across Europe and also in the Pacific Rim are some of these non-GMO markets, according to Mallory-Smith.

The manufacturers of GMOs state that their products have not been shown to impose any health risks — the government deregulates them, they’ve gone through everything that has been required of them for testing, resulting in no reason to label a product to make it seem that there is a problem with GMOs.

Individual grocers within states where manufacturers spend billions of dollars to turnover labeling initiatives and distort what the impact of GMO labels would be, according to DeFazio.

“If you can find out how much salt is in a product by looking a the label, why can’t you find if this food contains or does not contain GMOs?” DeFazio said.

GMOs can produce crops that are drought tolerant and salt tolerant. One of the arguments from pro-GMO farmers and producers of crops is that they can grow things in difficult conditions around the world.

For DeFazio, the more disturbing and problematic issue is when the conversation shifts to living organisms in addition to plants.

Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court granted GMOs with a special status as the first living things to ever receive a patent. Prior to the existence of GMOs, patents were not permitted on any life form.

The first GMO was a bacterium that was intended to clean up oil spills. The Supreme Court ruled this as a novel endeavor and said that it deserved patenting. Three years following, the Monsanto Company patented the first soybean.

Now, there are patents on various sorts of living things, including attempts to patent human DNA, according to Morton.

“It’s not beyond my comprehension that there could be good GMOs that are beneficial for society, humans and the environment,” Morton said. “But I’ve never seen one from the examples exist today.”

DeFazio said GMOs should be approved through a process that evaluates its safety — which has never been done.

The Food and Drug Administration relies on studies supplied by the manufacturers rather than carrying out independent testing procedures. The Environmental Protection Agency has little involvement with the environmental impact of GMOs.

Another option instead of a mandatory labeling system would be put in place a voluntary labeling system through the FDA.

The opposition to labeling, according to DeFazio, is really being driven by Monsanto and others.

“I’m hoping that coalition will break apart,” DeFazio said. “Let Monsanto carry its own water … for the things it’s producing.”

Consumers can buy non-GMOs by purchasing organic or the products that are already marketed as non-GMOs, according to Mallory-Smith.

“I think the only way to make a labeling system is to do it nationally, if it’s going to happen,” Mallory-Smith said. “It either has to be all or nothing.”

Multiple beet farmers who use GMOs in Oregon were contacted but did not respond by print time Tuesday.

Dacotah-Victoria Splichalova

Science reporter

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