The Genetically Modified Foods Issue Reaches the Campaign Trail

Discussion
Nov 05, 2007

By Tom Ryan

A consumer advocacy group is pushing presidential candidates to support making labeling of genetically modified foods the law – with some success. Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have agreed to the organization’s proposal, as do candidates Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich. Top Republican candidates have not taken positions.

“We want to make food safety a defining issue of this election,” Anne Dietrich, executive director of Fairfield, IA-based The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, told The Des Moines Register. “Once this becomes the law of the land, then Monsanto, Syngenta, Kraft and Kellogg’s will reformulate their products. Iowa is the best place to start.”

James Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, told the paper that opponents of genetic engineering “hope by using these scare tactics they can persuade policymakers to alter labeling, and they can use the label to drive people away.”

Mr. Greenwood also cautioned candidates against trashing genetics in front of farmers, who profit from genetically engineered crops.

“I wouldn’t want to be a presidential candidate going into Iowa … and extolling the virtues of labeling their corn in a way that might make consumers not want to buy it,” he said.

The debate over genetic engineering continues. Opponents claim genetic engineering ruins habitat and kills off certain animals and insects, including the monarch butterfly, and also robs the soil of nutrients. Proponents claim genetically engineered foods are safe and vital to feeding the world, especially amid growing demand for crop-based biofuels.

One less debatable fact is that genetically modified foods are in the supply chain and many Americans don’t realize it.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of soybeans and 78 percent of corn planted in Iowa are genetically engineered varieties. At the same time, according to a study done last year by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, about 60 percent of Americans don’t believe they have eaten genetically engineered food. The same survey showed that 46 percent of respondents were opposed to genetically engineered foods, and 54 percent said they were unlikely to eat foods that had been genetically modified.

Discussion questions: Do you think more labeling should be required for genetically
altered foods? Given the amount of genetically engineered crops already
in the food chain, is labeling at all practical? What do you think still needs
to be done to solve the debate over genetically altered foods and better inform
the public of their safety? Do you see food safety becoming a hot button issue
for the presidential election?

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15 Comments on "The Genetically Modified Foods Issue Reaches the Campaign Trail"


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Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

Every shopper should have the right to know every pertinent fact about ingredients. If genetically modified foods are labeled, and some people don’t want them, then demand for natural foods will rise. Farmers will benefit from higher demand for natural foods. Farmers might not agree with enhanced labeling in the short run, but if the labeling requirements are phased in with at least 1 year’s notice, every farmer can make a choice.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Guest
Laura Davis-Taylor
14 years 6 months ago

I agree with Mark. This is a right to know situation and it’s appalling that this has been kept in the dark for so long. Some people will not care about the issue…but for those that do care, they will care a lot.

I don’t know if the politicians are truly advocates or simply identifying an emotionally charged trend for campaign support, but it’s a good move and farmers can respond according to public market demand.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
14 years 6 months ago
That horse has been out of the barn for so long that it’s impossible to shut the doors. Genetically modified products are so integrated into existing siloed grain supplies that the only way to make sure products could be labeled with any degree of accuracy would be do destroy all the current grain surpluses (not the most practical idea) and zero base that end of the supply chain. The whole GM “debate” is really more of a genteel screaming match in which genetic modification is becoming a proxy (on one hand) for all the evils of technology and (on the other) for all the promise of science. The fact that the entire history of agriculture is one giant exercise in genetic modification doesn’t seem to slow down GM’s opponents. By the same token, the real questions about biodiversity, etc. get lost in GM’s proponents’ strident arguments about the need to feed the planet. Both sides have been too adversarial for too long to make this an easy problem to solve. What we need is enough… Read more »
Rick Moss
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

I don’t have faith that any of these politicians have sufficiently researched this issue to understand the repercussions to the agricultural economy. They’re certainly not working from any evidence that biotech crops present any health threat. And studies have shown that consumers are overwhelmingly apathetic to biotech; it ranks way down the list of food safety concerns. This is an “emotionally charged issue” only for a niche group, but could become an unnecessarily pesky one for the food industry if the candidates decide there’s mileage in it.

Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
14 years 6 months ago
Given the recent recalls, food safety is already a hot button issue. The problem is that discussing it on the campaign trail leads to nothing. As we all know, presidential candidates on all lines will promise anything. This needs to be a real discussion on what’s needed, not political rhetoric by people who are looking to get a job for the next eight years. Let’s put the rule of reason to genetically modified foods. But let’s do it on a global level. Start with a public/private educational partnership on what this actually is and then move to sensible labeling. At present, labels aren’t big enough to put in all the information that everyone wants. But let’s take a little broader view of all this. You have countries whose people are starving turning down genetically modified grains. These are not politicians who are concerned with the health of their own people, only with lining their own pockets. I firmly believe that sensibly-modified products can feed the world. Don’t let it get lost in political and bureaucratic… Read more »
Liz Crawford
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

Food labeling in Europe is a bit more sophisticated than ours, and the consumers are more in tune with the issues of ingredient-impact.

Ultimately, I believe food labeling will be more rigorous, not less. However, the price differential between non-genetically modified foods and the modified remainder will reveal differences in class.

Warren Thayer
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

I agree with Ryan and Rick. GMO has been debated publicly, appeared on countless magazine covers, been in the newspapers, on TV, etc. I mean, how far do you go with this? Search GMO on Nexis, and you get 1,000 hits. Search Google, and you get 14.5 million. Individual responsibility has to come into play somewhere. It’s fine to have the public know, but labeling at this point when, as Ryan puts it, the horse is already out of the barn, would be impossible.

Ben Ball
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

Sometimes I think that if I am going to have anything both relevant and unique to say on a discussion, I am going to have to post before Ryan. As he points out, “genetic modification” of our grain, meat and dairy supplies began when the first two “pure” species were crossed by an ill wind, a buzzing bee or an overly amorous bull. What concerns consumers isn’t so much that their food is “genetically modified” but that man is getting into the act and potentially doing things mother nature would never consider. Fair enough — no different than cloning.

As to the political aspects and whether this will become a hot-button issue for the election — well, one only has to recall the images of Nancy Pelosi announcing the Democratic outrage at “poison toys” in a press conference a few weeks ago to answer that question. It will be an issue if someone can make it one. In this case, no joy for either side.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

In an ideal world, food would certainly be labelled so that consumers could make educated choices. Of course this requires sufficient – unbiased – education for them to understand the various shortcuts and codes that would be used on those labels. They (we) would also have to decide how concerned we were about the implications of growing genetically modified crops as well as the possible personal individual impact of eating them. Not to mention eating the chickens or drinking the milk of animals fed on GM crops. Are we anywhere near an ideal world in this or any other area? Somehow, I don’t think so.

As for politicians and hot button issues, I don’t think we’re anywhere near an ideal world there either although I expect some of the current candidates will have something to say on their way to the polling box even if their views and plans sink to the bottom of the priority heap once elected.

James Tenser
Guest
14 years 6 months ago
“Genetically modified” (like “irradiated”) is a scary-sounding term that could describe both safer and less-safe forms of food production. Opponents cite nightmare scenarios. Proponents portray a utopia of plentiful, disease-resistant crops to feed a growing world. Selective breeding is an age-old practice for genetic modification. The new wrinkle here is the direct genetic manipulation of embryo or seed stock to insert desirable traits (or eliminate undesirable ones). This becomes a political issue because of objections voiced by special interest groups motivated by economic interests and/or dogmatic beliefs. Similar to debates surrounding other science-based issues such as global warming and stem-cell research, the public is treated to the spectacle of politicians using obsolete reasoning to argue over the morality of current technology. We humans are very bad at this. We tend to seize on a few polarizing facts instead of weighing the totality of consequences of our choices. Consumers elsewhere are afraid of things they don’t understand, and they will avoid foods that sound unnatural. But they like functional benefits and safety too. I tend to… Read more »
Mark Burr
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

There is really nothing politically charged enough here that won’t be forgotten tomorrow as soon as the next special interest group gets that same group of candidates to agree to their premise. They will then say that they never said anything of the kind when speaking to the next group that could (or they think could) benefit them otherwise.

The present group is the most disingenuous I’ve seen in my lifetime and they have done or said nothing to convince me otherwise. The food industry can sleep well tonight and the label sales people can keep working hard on what they already have to say.

George Anderson
Guest
George Anderson
14 years 6 months ago

Sometimes we just need to admit that science actually has the capacity to improve our lives. This is a nothing issue. Agricultural husbandry has been going on for ages producing heartier crops and feeding a growing worldwide population. If the politicians want real issues worth talking about, why don’t they turn their attention to farm subsidies while campaigning in states like Iowa or getting an answer as to why honey bees are dying off in the millions?

John Lansdale
Guest
John Lansdale
14 years 6 months ago

This could be a real surprise election-deciding issue. It can only go one way too. More food labeling.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
14 years 6 months ago

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there are probably less than 1000 scientists and a few global economists in the whole world who can be said to thoroughly understand the highly complex issues surrounding “genetically modified” crops. And they do not all agree. Quite probably none of these people sit in the US Congress or are running for office. Like global warming, this issue will become diluted and “sound-bitey” the more it melds into political positions touted by desperate candidates and funded by competing lobbyists–rather than a helpful scientific exercise that searches for truth, and ways to feed the world’s people in generations to come.

E Allen
Guest
E Allen
14 years 6 months ago

I love this…

We’ve been genetically altering produce for decades. Just look at the different varieties of tomatoes that have been “crossbred”–that’s genetically altered in my book. So, if consumers want to see details on “genetically altered” products, how far is the industry willing to go to address all the food we currently consume that has been accepted but known to be “crossbred”?

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