Due to health and transparency concerns, some Stanford students and faculty have expressed support for a proposed ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically modified food on retail grocery products in California. The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act of 2012 requires 504,760 signatures to appear on the Nov. 2012 ballot in California.
Hannah Kohrman, co-president of the Stanford Farm Project and a coterminal student in earth systems, said she “fully supports” the ballot initiative.
“Genetically engineered (GE) foods are highly controversial to begin with,” Kohrman said. “Many consumers don’t trust their safety and think we don’t know enough about the consequences of eating and growing GE foods.”
The Farm Project will discuss the ballot initiative at its normal Wednesday night meeting this week. Kohrman said she will “recommend that [the group’s] members sign the online petition” at the meeting.
Kohrman called into question the rationale behind the food industry’s reluctance to label foods.
“The fact that the food industry would be so against labeling genetically modified crops makes me even more skeptical,” she said.
According to Kari Nadeau, Stanford associate professor of pediatrics, “if something has been genetically modified the public ought to know.”
Nadeau stressed the importance of a label “that states what type of genetic modification has occurred.”
“If to increase the protein content of a food you have inserted nut proteins, the food product has to be labeled,” Nadeau said.
The health risk of splicing peanut and tree nut proteins into other foods to enhance the protein count is an issue that needs to be researched further, she said. According to Nadeau, seemingly minor alterations can have unintended life-threatening ramifications for the growing number of food allergy sufferers, and not labeling genetically modified foods risks creating serious anaphylactic allergic reactions.
Nadeau noted that doctors are curious if allergies were as common among the population before there were genetically modified (GM) foods.
“When the soybean started to become genetically modified, those modifications were at the fulcrum, and we began to see an increase in the prevalence of food allergies,” Nadeau said. “Modern hygiene is probably also a factor,” she added.
“As we move forward with generations, things are getting worse and worse, with a steady rise of food allergies and asthma,” Nadeau said. “There’s an entire profile of a nation that’s becoming more allergic.”
According to the California Secretary of State website, the ballot initiative would “require labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specific ways.”
The initiative would exempt certain foods from being labeled such as certified organic food, products of animals that ate or were dosed with genetically modified material and foods that are “processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically modified ingredients.”
The Secretary of State website indicates that the fiscal impact would be a “potential increase in state administrative costs of up to one million dollars annually to monitor compliance with the disclosure requirements specified in the measure.” Legal costs due to “possible violations to the provisions of this measure” to the courts and attorney general could add up to “potentially significant costs.”
Ruthie Schwab MBA ’13, president of the Graduate School of Business Food and Agricultural Resource Management Club, said she views informing consumers and clearly labeling food as the best policy. Schwab highlighted implications on a national and governmental level, nothing that “it ensures a higher level of transparency and accountability along supply chains, which can be valuable from a food safety perspective.”
“While in the short term it may create an initial burden for industry, the European Union (EU) has shown it can be done and, once implemented, does not seem to pose a significant ongoing challenge,” Schwab continued.
A submission to the California Attorney General’s office by James Wheaton, attorney for the initiative’s proponents and visiting lecturer in the Stanford department of Communication, said that “polls consistently show that more than 90 percent of the public want to know if their food was produced using genetic engineering.”
The proponent findings statement continues, stating “no federal or California law requires that food producers identify whether foods were produced using genetic engineering,” whereas, “fifty countries – including the EU member states, Japan and other key U.S. trading partners – have laws mandating disclosure of genetically engineered foods.”
The initiative materials also note the environmental impact of increased GM food production, stressing the “hundreds of millions of pounds of additional herbicides…used on U.S. farms” on GE crops that tolerate herbicides.
“Organic farming is a significant and increasingly important part of California agriculture,” the statement continues. California has “one out of every four certified organic operations in the nation,” and these farmers’ crops “are regularly threatened with accidental contamination from neighboring lands where genetically engineered crops abound.”
Student supporters of the initiative differentiate between base objection to genetically modified foods and a desire for greater transparency for consumers.
“The initiative is not debating the safety or use of GE foods, but it’s supporting the consumer’s right to know,” Kohrman said.
“GMOs aren’t always bad in themselves, and they may be necessary to feed a growing world population, but it’s important to protect consumer choice by labeling foods that contain genetically modified plants,” said Elaine Albertson, a coterminal student in earth systems and urban food systems.