Last weekend, 2 million people around the world took to the streets to protest genetically modified food, drawing attention to its dangers and the environmental harm caused by its production. Two million people is a pretty good showing by any standard, but especially so when event organizers said they would have considered 3,000 a success. According to Andrew Kimbrell, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety, the turnout was a welcome sign of a growing safe food movement:
A decade ago we would have been happy if 10 people showed up at a march about food safety, now if we get less than a million people signing a petition we are disappointed.
Sadly for Kimbrell and other food safety activists, a million signatures on a petition or majority support for food labeling does not guarantee the government will submit to the public will.
In March, congress passed an emergency budget bill containing a provision dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act. It was a major victory for the biotech sector, and more evidence of the reach of its influence in the halls of power.
Fortunately for anyone who shares Jon Stewart's fears that this we'll soon be eating meat carrots, or the "tomato that throws itself", public opposition has vocally called out this overreaching by the "agro-industrial complex". Whether the public can lure our government away from their apparently unyielding support for these harmful and unsustainable agricultural practices is another matter, entirely.
Surveys have consistently found that around 90% of the American people support mandatory labeling of GM foods. In March, around the same time the government was signing the so-called Monsanto Protection Act into law, the Center for Food Safety submitted a petition to the US Food and Drug Administration with over a million signatures, demanding mandatory labeling. The FDA's response? "Don't call us, we'll call you."
Meanwhile, just this past week, the Senate voted down a measure that simply would have allowed states to make their own decisions about labeling requirements on GM products by an overwhelming margin of 71 to 27.
The labeling issue is interesting on many levels, not least of which the biotech sector's resistance to letting consumers know that food has been genetically engineered, even though they insist that all health concerns are unfounded. The industry seems to understand, however, that a lot of people balk at the notion of eating "frankenfoods" created in a lab and heavily sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. So their solution? Just don't tell people what they're eating. What you don't know can't hurt you, right?
The truth is we don't really know how much this food is hurting us or if it is in fact safe. Organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists have consistently called for proper, long-term testing of genetically engineered food, and are not satisfied with the FDA's declarations that the food is fine and that short-term (90 day) tests suffice.
Neither does it inspire confidence that former Monsanto employees were appointed by President Obama (around the same time his wife was digging her organic vegetable garden) to hold key positions in both the FDA and the USDA, prompting claims about the fox guarding the hen house.
Regardless of the food itself, there is ample reason to be alarmed by the chronic overuse of toxic herbicides and pesticides. One of the selling points of GM crops is that the herbicide resistant gene implanted in crops should let farmers eventually cut down on their use of toxic sprays. As it turns out, the opposite has happened. Farmers have to spray herbicides like Round Up (a Monsanto product) so liberally on both weeds and the "resistant" crops alike that the weeds have also become resistant.
These new "super weeds" now infesting millions of acres of farmland – thus requiring yet more herbicide. To kill off the new strains of weeds, companies are trying to commercialize crops resistant to older, more toxic herbicides that fell out of use long ago, like dicamba and 2,4-D – one of the components of Agent Orange.
I don't know about you, but I don't need a lot of tests to tell me that eating food made from ingredients engineered to resist a combination of Round Up, dicamba and 2,4-D might not be great for my health. It's no comfort knowing that 70% of all processed foods in America contain GM ingredients, or that these foods are not labeled as such.
The Monsanto Protection Act will expire in September, and thanks to public outcry, it's unlikely to be made permanent law. The otherwise cosy relationship Monsanto and other biotech companies have with our government continues to thrive, however, and nothing other than sustained public opposition will likely put that to an end.