In the News
By Quartz Media
We’re surrounded by information about the health and nutritional benefits of different food, but a lot of it conflicts—and it’s leaving people more confused than ever about how to make healthy food choices. Should we eat all organic? Does our food need to be natural, and fresh? One recent fad is to avoid genetically modified food.
GM food has negative connotations for many consumers because of general mistrust of the food production industry, but also because anti-biotech activists have been so effective at stoking concerns. It’s led to an sharp increase in non-GMO labels, even on products like salt, which can’t be genetically modified because sodium chloride is an inorganic compound that doesn’t contain genes.
But non-GMO labels do more than placate people concerned about scientists secretly tinkering with their food. They might persuade people to make a poor food choice. That’s because genetically modifying food can actually make it safer, by limiting the need for, say, pesticides. According to Pam Ronald, who studies genetics at the University of California, Davis and whose husband is an organic farmer, farms going non-GMO to meet consumer demand are causing major damage.
“These non-GMO labels have proliferated, and they’re really a problem,” Ronald told Quartz. “Because there’s no regulation, they can just spray anything they want. So what’s happening is… they’re going back to using [far] more toxic compounds. And I think that’s really a disservice to the consumer to market it as somehow being more healthy—when of course, it’s not, and it’s also more harmful to the environment.”
(A representative from the non-GMO Project was not available for an interview.)
Click here to learn more on how misleading labels confuse consumers, and some expert advice on how to actually make healthier choices. (Hint: it’s not choosing non-GMO.)
Most of us don’t spend our days plowing fields or wrangling cattle. We’re part of the 99 percent of Americans who eat food but don’t produce it. Because of our intimate relationship with food and because it’s so crucial to our health and the environment, people should be very concerned about how it’s produced. But we don’t always get it right. Next time you’re at the grocery store, consider these 10 modern myths about the most ancient occupation. Read more…
Millions of people around the world will soon celebrate Earth Day, but for hundreds of New England’s dairy farmers, every day is Earth Day.
We’re talking about farmers like the Erb family. The Erbs own and operate Springvale Farms and Landaff Creamery in Landaff. This was one of three pilot farms that assisted the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in creating an on-farm sustainability assessment tool, called the Vital Capital Index for Dairy Agriculture. This tool allows farms to measure what matters and establish a baseline of sustainability on farms. Read more…
On July 29, 2016, President Obama signed into law an Act amending the Agricultural Marketing at of 1946 which provides for a national bioengineered food di
Click on the link below to see the letter.
When you think of water, what comes to mind? Is it a cool swig after a hard workout? Is it your beach vacation from last year? Or is it whether or not enough water will fall from the sky to grow your food?
March 22 is World Water Day, and it’s an opportunity to reflect on the importance of water. This year’s theme is “better water, better jobs.” How does water impact agriculture, which employs nearly 1 billion people around the world? Let’s take a look.
Although nearly 70 percent of the Earth is covered in water, only 2.5 percent of that water is fresh. To complicate things, only 1 percent of that fresh water is easily accessible. To sum it up, only 0.025 percent of the planet’s water is available for human use.
Agriculture uses a lot of water, accounting for almost 70 percent of all withdrawals and up to 95 percent in developing countries where there may be fewer technologies to make water use efficient. While you only need to drink about a gallon of water per day, it takes 528 to 1,320 gallons of water to grow the food you eat in a single day. Think about that.
Water is important in maintaining food security, which is defined as “regular access of people to enough high-quality food to leave active, healthy lives.” Lack of water, or too much water, can contribute to famine and undernourishment, especially where people depend on local agriculture for their livelihood. Using water efficiently is critical.
Irrigation is an important technology to help maximize the efficiency of water use in agriculture. The highest yields that can be obtained from irrigation are more than double the best yields from rain-fed agriculture. For instance, drip irrigation involves distributing water at very low rates from a system of plastic pipes with outlets called emitters or drippers. The water is released so that the only part of the soil that receives moisture is where the root grows.
Read the entire article and learn more about agricultural innovation here.
The future of Connecticut’s law mandating the labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms has been thrown in doubt by Congress and a court. And that’s just fine. The law is needless.
The law — which has never taken effect — may be nullified. The law’s supporters are calling this threat a victory of big agribusiness and the supermarket lobby over consumers. In fact, nullifying the law would be a victory of common sense over ill-informed fretting.
A federal appeals court in New York City will soon hear a challenge to Vermont’s GMO-labeling law, which is similar to Connecticut’s. And the U.S. Senate may pass a bill to stop states from requiring GMO labels. The House has already done so.
No Lack of Evidence
After more than 2,000 studies, foods made with GMOs have been shown to be just as safe as food created by natural genetic selection. That hasn’t stopped the fearmongering by talk show hosts and the publication of GMO scare books.
According to a 2012 report by the American Medical Association, “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”
GMO labeling is framed by its advocates as a consumer-friendly issue, however — which is why some politicians continue to back it even as the evidence shows it’s entirely unnecessary.
So what’s wrong with providing consumers with information about the products they buy?
In most cases, nothing. Having more information often leads to a wiser purchase.
But mandating the labeling of foods as genetically modified implies that they are somehow dangerous and feeds into anti-scientific ignorance. It’s in the same category as the anti-vaccination mania, fear of fluoridation and the widespread (yet incorrect) belief that climate change is a hoax.
The reason Connecticut’s GMO-labeling law is in limbo is that in 2013, our legislators wisely required that four other states enact similar laws before ours takes effect. These four states must be in the Northeast and have a combined population of 20 million. At least one of the four must abut Connecticut.
Unsurprisingly, given all the criteria, this has yet to happen.
The grocery industry and agrochemical companies like Monsanto have indeed lobbied hard against GMO labeling, saying the goal of proponents is to ban GMO foods altogether. The proponents, for their part, say these companies are putting profits ahead of public safety.
In this case, the companies have independent research on their side.
As for labeling, it is already easy for consumers to know a product’s genetic makeup. Non-engineered items routinely carry the label “USDA Organic.” Anything else can safely be assumed to have GMOs.
The fate of Connecticut’s 2-year-old law to require the labeling of foods made from genetically modified organisms may soon be decided, either in a federal courtroom or in Congress.
A federal appeals court in New York City is scheduled to hear oral arguments this week, in a challenge to Vermont’s GMO law. If the food industry wins in that case, Connecticut’s labeling statute would also be in jeopardy.
But the greatest threat to GMO labeling laws in Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine now appears to be in Congress. Responding to an intense lobbying effort by the grocery industry and pro-GMO companies like Monsanto, the House voted 275-150 in July for legislation that would stop individual states from requiring GMO food labeling.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who voted against that bill, said it appears likely the Senate will follow suit. “The House vote is a pretty good measuring stick,” Courtney said of the measure’s chances in the Senate.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is pushing hard for federal action to stop states from acting individually on GMO labeling, are sounding confident.
Mike Gruber senior vice president with the grocery industry lobbying group, said a Senate committee is set to take up the GMO issue at an Oct. 21 hearing and that there is strong bipartisan support for legislation to overturn individual state GMO laws like Connecticut’s.
“We would like to get this whole issue resolved before the end of the year,” Gruber said. The food industry insists there is no health or safety need to tell consumers that a food contains genetically modified organisms, that scientific studies show GMOs are just as good as ‘natural’ foods, and argue that putting on GMO labels would only confuse people and push up food costs for everyone.
Anti-GMO activists are calling the federal legislation the “Deny American the Right to Know,” or DARK Act. They cite numerous polls showing that GMO food labeling is supported by a majority of Americans.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said all indications are that it will be “an uphill battle” to stop the industry-backed GMO legislation from winning Senate approval.
“I am ready and eager to work against it,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal is supporting a Democratic bill that would order the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require GMO labels for genetically modified foods. But passage of that legislation in a Republican-controlled Senate appears unlikely.
Recent decisions by some major food manufacturers and retailers to begin marketing non-GMO products reflect the growing popularity of organic and non-processed and so-called natural foods. In July, the Obama administration also announced that it’s planning to update the way the federal government regulates GMOs and other biotechnology products.
According to a USA Today report, an estimated 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop involves GMOs. Almost
the same percentage of America’s soybeans are genetically modified and about 88 percent of corn used as feed for cattle, pigs and chickens is grown from GMO seeds.
The GMO labeling law that passed in Connecticut’s General Assembly in 2013 was one of the first in the nation and had some highly unusual conditions attached. Connecticut’s law can’t take effect until at least four other states also approve GMO labeling, the combined population of those states must equal at least 20 million and at least one of those states must border Connecticut.
Massachusetts lawmakers are now poised to fulfill at least one of those conditions by passing GMO labeling legislation, according to two key supporters of that bill.
According to Massachusetts Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, 154 of her state’s 200 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of the GMO bill. Rep. Todd Smola, a Republican from Warren, Mass., said backers of the legislation “have a pretty good shot this time” of winning passage.
In New York, anti-GMO activists say they plan to make another try in 2016 to push through their own labeling bill. Stacie Orell, a spokeswoman for GMO Free New York, predicted there is a good chance to win approval in the New York Assembly but added that the Republican-controlled Senate looks “a little tougher.”
Among the fiercest opponents of GMO labeling laws are the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food
Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers .
Those four industry organizations are plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking to overturn Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which is set to take effect in July 2016.
Earlier this year, a federal judge rejected the industry groups’ request for an injunction to stop the Vermont statute from taking effect while the lawsuit is being litigated. The case is now before the U.S. Second Court of Appeals in New York City.
Connecticut is one of eight states that have filed briefs in support of Vermont in the GMO lawsuit.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said the lawsuit hinges on the issues “of free speech and legislative prerogatives.”
In a brief filed with the appeals court in late August, Jepsen’s legal staff argued that allowing the food industry groups to block Vermont’s law “threatens to undermine a wide range of labeling and public reporting laws” for food, pharmaceutical products and consumer goods and services.
Gruber said the Vermont law is “proving itself to be very disruptive” because food producers, wholesalers and retailers are “scrambling to figure out how to comply” with the statute’s provisions. They also desperately want to avoid the law’s potential fines, which could amount to $1,000 per day per product.
GMO labeling, said Gruber, “is designed to mislead consumers that these [GMO] products are unsafe.”
Lawmakers and activists in New York, Massachusetts and other states considering GMO labeling laws argue that, if GMO products are as wholesome and safe as the food industry claims, telling consumers which foods are genetically modified shouldn’t be a big deal.
“We’re not asking for a lot,” said Smola, who has been pushing for GMO food labeling for years. “We’re trying to educate the public to let them make their own decisions. That’s the American way.”
At first blush, it sounds like a good idea: require the labeling of genetically engineered foods so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat. Yet such a law, proposed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and other senators, simply caters to unjustified worries and makes no sense scientifically.
Genetically modified food isn’t new. Since farming began, humans have been breeding food — in other words, changing the genetics — for beneficial traits and better crops. The practice has moved from the field to the lab, as scientists can now transplant genes from species to species.
The laboratory angle worries some people, and in recent years about 2,000 studies have been done on genetically modified foods to uncover any problem. The result? According to the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the National Academies of Science and several other groups, so-called GMO food — made with genetically modified organisms — is safe.
As the European Commission put it, engineering crops genetically is “no more risky than conventional plant-breeding techniques.”
Despite the failure of research to come up with hazards, what’s wrong with better informing consumers by labeling genetically engineered food? Several things.
Such a move doesn’t inform consumers so much as it caters to misconceptions, and government shouldn’t be about that. Labels may limit consumer choice: Despite the lack of proof that such crops endanger anyone, retailers may choose not to stock certain foods. And mostly, politics shouldn’t trump science.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of the genetically engineered label debate is that the labels already exist, in a sense.
The majority of food found in the supermarket, especially processed food, contains some genetically engineered component. Non-engineered items routinely carry the label “USDA Organic.”
Lack of such a designation almost always indicates some genetic engineering, so those who are worried about a potential hazard need only look for the label. No new law is necessary.
A Pew Research Center study on science literacy, undertaken in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and released on January 29, contains a blockbuster: In sharp contrast to public skepticism about GMOs, 89% of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe.
That overwhelming consensus exceeds the percentage of scientists, 88%, who believe global warming is the result of human activity. However, the public appears far more suspicious of scientific claims about GMO safety than they do about the consensus on climate change.
Some 57 percent of Americans say GM foods are unsafe and a startling 67% do not trust scientists, believing they don’t understand the science behind GMOs. Scientists blame poor reporting by mainstream scientists for the trust and literacy gaps.
The survey also contrasts sharply with a statement published earlier this week in a marginal pay-for-play European journal by a group of anti-GMO scientists and activists, including Michael Hansen of the Center for Food Safety, and philosopher Vandana Shiva, claiming, “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”
A huge literacy gap between scientists and the public on biotechnology is one of the many disturbing nuggets that emerged from the Pew Research Center survey, which was conducted in cooperation with the AAAS, the world’s largest independent general scientific society. The full study, released on January 29, is available here.
The eye opening take-away: The American population in general borders on scientific illiteracy. The gap between what scientists believe, grounded on empirical evidence, often sharply differs from what the general public thinks is true. The differences are sharpest over biomedical research, including GMOs.
- 88% of AAAS scientists think eating GM food is safe, while only 37% of the public believes that’s true—a 51-percentage point gap
- 68% of scientists say it is safe to eat food grown with pesticides, compared with 28% of citizens—a 40% gap.
- A 42-percentage point gap over the issue of using animals in research—89% of scientists favor it, while only 47% of the public backs the idea.