The US government is at it again!

…. or is it?
In Proposed US law to mandate GMOs?, I posted the actual text of the The Global Food Security Act of 2009, S.384, introduced by Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Robert Casey (D-PA), in response to authors of blog posts and petitions that didn’t quite seem to have read it before getting all excited about it.
The next big GMO scandal involves recommended changes to the Codex Alimentarius Commission of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. All relevant documents have been posted by the Codex Committee on Food Labeling (CCFL), apparently unknown to those who would have us up in alarm.
The Institute for Responsible Technology (founded by Jeffery Smith) wants us to pay attention to their Action Alert – Codex Conference (emphasis original):

Please send this URGENT message to US Government leaders to protect your right to know which foods are made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs)…
They must stop US negotiators at an international (Codex) conference from May 3-7, from pushing an agenda that could make it difficult for anyone, anywhere in the world to label foods as genetically modified (GM) food—or even make non-GMO claims on their product’s label.

A petition on CREDO Action Network is even more alarming (emphasis mine):

…the current U.S. draft position paper declares that mandatory labeling laws such as they have in Europe are “false, misleading or deceptive.” If the U.S. succeeds in writing the proposed Codex regulations, any attempts here in the U.S. to label foods as genetically engineered, whether voluntary or by law, would become far more difficult.

What’s actually “misleading or deceptive” is the way the US recommendations are presented by these two groups. Ironically, the US actually seems to be recommending most recently that nothing be changed at all, in Government Comments at Step 3 (pdf). The US recommendations, presented 3-7 May 2010, as “Proposed draft recommendations for the labelling of foods and food ingredients obtained through certain techniques of genetic modification/genetic engineering”, are as follows:

We strongly encourage CCFL to discontinue further discussion of the provisions in Appendix VII of ALINORM 09/32/22 so that the Committee may focus its resources on the agenda items dealing with the implementation of the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health, an agenda item of immense public health significance and directly related to the mandate of Codex—to protect the health of consumers.

Why would the US want the Codex Committee to stop working on plans to make rules for mandatory labeling of GMOs? In short, member countries have such different regulatory frameworks and such different ideas that it’s unlikely that any consensus will be reached. In fact, no consensus has been reached in over a decade of discussion on this topic, and by Codex rules, where there is no basis for consensus, discussion should end. This is laid out in full in the above referenced document. Other countries and some other groups put out Comments at Step 3, which you can find at the Codex Committee on Food Labeling website. Perhaps it is inappropriate for the US to propose that discussion be stopped, but stopping the discussion is far from being the same as banning labeling of GMOs.
Did the US ever propose that voluntary labels be prohibited? Nope. They did advocate that labels “indicate that foods derived from GM/GE were not in any way different or less safe due to their method of production provided that they had undergone safety assessments consistent with relevant Codex guidelines.” This is consistent with other labeling requirements in the CODEX and other labeling sources. A voluntary label that meets this requirement would be similar to rBST labels in the US that state that milk from cows that have not been treated with rBST is no different than milk from cows that have been treated with rBST.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

13 comments

  1. My apologies for taking so long to get this out. It’s been sitting unfinished in the drafts folder for a while now. Finally had a few minutes to clean it up and post it today!

  2. The curious thing about this misinformation is that Jeffrey Smith should be part of it.
    Normally, this is the province of the organic industry, the conventional seed industry, or the chemical crop protection industry — or all of them together. Strange bedfellows to be sure, but all with a vested financial interest in the outcome — demonizing GM crops to protect, or increase, market share. They directly and indirectly fund groups which only superficially represent “civil society”. That’s the game.
    But Smith? He’s at best a yogic flier who flogs fictional books about GM crops printed by the vanity press. http://academicsreview.org/reviewed-individuals/jeffrey-smith/ The best we can say about his involvement is that he felt the need to maintain consistency with his theme of rampant falsehood and hysteria. The fact that he continues this theme suggests that it must be quite remunerative, although narcissism (in the DSM sense) probably figures quite largely.

  3. I haven’t met Mr. Smith, but I have talked to people who have and they’ve said he seems like a nice person. I won’t make any assumptions about his motivations, but I do wonder if he is one of many people who have good intentions that just don’t play out very well.

  4. Well, Smith appears on the surface to be a True Believer. He has invested an incredible amount of his time and effort in trying to stop genetic engineering in food. (specifically food, not medicine as far as I know.) At the MOSES conference, he as as active trying to get interview as I was, we had to figure out how to share the media room. (I didn’t talk to him very much, though, mostly logistics and asked him for an interview in the future to which he said yes.)
    He has said that there’s not much money in the anti-GE stuff he does, but then again it is enough to send him around the world to many countries. Indeed, he seems to do a lot of traveling, just after the MOSES conference he was in California for a natural foods expo. His Non GMO Shopping Guide features ads from big organic and natural food companies, so there has to be a decent enough flow of money to continue to fund his operation.
    As for the other vested interests, I think there is a good argument to be made that the anti-GE hype is part of a marketing campaign. For instance, it is not an accident that the Non GMO Project is “natural” industry-funded, and actively tries to scare people into avoiding GE foods – they even deny that buying Organic is good enough to “protect” you from GMOs. Of course, by buying their premium products. All the while they cry foul at “industry” hyping GE crops. As my bioethics professor said to me earlier this year, “Well, there’s Industry and there’s Industry.”
    I talked to Shane Morris in Ireland, who was involved in a GE sweet corn consumer acceptance study, and he told me that the biggest reaction they got was not from the organics, or from Greenpeace, but from the conventional industry who did not want people to know that sweet corn was sprayed with pesticides at all!
    What I think is incredibly fascinating about the anti-GE industry marketing is that they argue that it is a first step in eliminating GE crops entirely. Jeffrey Smith keeps talking about the “Tipping Point.” But in fact, if the percentage of GE crops went down, the benefit of anti-GE marketing would dwindle, and “Non GMO Project” labeled foods would be at a disadvantage. Therefore, in order to keep this premium market alive they need to keep disparaging GE crops – but keep them around.
    What a tangled web we weave.

  5. As someone who has worked with Jeffrey Smith for years, I can vouch for his dedication to ferreting out the truth about GMO’s.
    It’s always telling that when people are unable to take on a person’s arguments on their scientific merits, they attack them personally.
    Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility has intensively studied the scientific data on GMO’s for the past seven years, and based on that research has come to the conclusion that they have definitely NOT been demonstrated safe for our health or the environment.
    For more information, especially on the rBGH (rBST) in dairy foods, see http://www.oregonpsr.org and click on Campaign For Safe Food.
    Rick North, Project Director – Campaign For Safe Food
    Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility

  6. All I ask is that GMO ingredients be listed as such, that cloned meat be labeled as such, and that irradiated food be indicated as such.
    I also ask that foods certified organic be exactly that!
    If not labeled, the public will always feel that Big Ag is hiding something – rightly or wrongly does not matter. Fear of food will only lead more and more people to grow their own …..if they can still get organic seed and fertilizer, which Big Ag is trying to take away from us.
    Big Ag and Big Pharma are the real rulers of the world, and this needs to end. Democracy no longer exists. Even our right to choose our food knowledgeably is being taken away from us. That is WRONG!

  7. M, let’s look at a similar situation that I think has great application to the GMO labeling situation. I choose to not consume meat for a variety of reasons. In short, consuming meat is an environmental risk that I’m not willing to contribute to and a health risk that I choose not to take. Should every product that contains meat or meat-derived ingredients be required to be labeled as such? As convenient as this would be for me, I don’t think everyone should be forced to pay for the additional costs of testing and labeling. Instead, I favor voluntary labeling. This gives me the ability to choose products that are certified vegetarian (such as vegetarian cheeses that contain no animal rennet). In addition, voluntary “vegetarian” or “vegan” labels shouldn’t imply that there is a greater health risk from non-vegetarian products unless it is verified though science based evidence. Why should GMO labeling be any different, when we consider that GMO ingredients from medicines to enzymes to whole crops have been found through independent science based evidence to be as safe as their non-GMO counterparts?
    Please provide examples of exactly how “big ag” or “big pharma” is trying to take away organic seed or organic fertilizer. As far as I know, organic fertilizer consists of manure or legume crops, and I haven’t heard of any big manure takeovers. Since manure comes from every animal, including humans, I think it would be incredibly difficult for any one to take it over. As for seed, last I heard, the organic industry was booming despite problems in the economy, and there is plenty of organic seed to fulfill those needs. We have seen a lot of consolidation in the seed industry but there is still plenty of room in the market for organic seed companies to flourish. If there are any “real rules of the [capitalistic] world”, it’s consumers who decide which products will succeed and which will fail. As for now, organic products are hardly in any danger.

  8. If Jeffrey is so dedicated to ferreting out the truth about GMOs why is it that practically everything I’ve read by him about GMOs is unmitigated horse manure?

  9. Rick, I have to agree with Ewan here, although I may phrase it differently. A great example is the one in this post. Never has the US argued against voluntary labeling of GMOs or GMO derived ingredients. It’s all there in the CODEX documents. So, then, if Mr. Smith is committed to the truth, why allow the Institute for Responsible Technology to spread rumors that are false? I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, I’m not attacking Mr. Smith. I have, however, questioned the science (or in this case, simple documentation) or lack thereof behind many of his writings. If there is real risk, I want to know about it, but real risk has science backing it up.
    I couldn’t find any information on the OPSR site indicating the intensive studying of scientific data on GMOs. Perhaps you could direct me towards that information?
    In general, when someone makes a health or safety claim for or against “all GMOs”, I am very skeptical. Genetic engineering is a group of methods, not a product. Evaluation of the method of genetic engineering, compared to other methods of breeding, can be done – in 2004 the National Academies put out the comprehensive document “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects” and concluded that the exact details of the genetic engineering causes wide variation in potential risk compared to other methods.
    We can evaluate specific products of genetic engineering for environmental or health safety. Right now, Bt and Roundup Ready are the most widely available biotech traits on the market, and there are many safety studies for both. It’s easy enough to find them on PubMed, but for some reason it seems that many people, including Mr. Smith, choose to avoid peer reviewed studies in favor of badly designed experiments that did not get through the peer review process.
    If you want to look at studies on rBST, search on PubMed for “rbst milk”. I find Survey of retail milk composition as affected by label claims regarding farm-management practices and Effects of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) and season on plasma and milk insulin-like growth factors I (IGF-I) and II (IGF-II) in lactating dairy cows to be very compelling, but there are many more. I’m not an animal scientist, and I’m sure there are other studies that I haven’t seen, but the evidence seems to be in favor of saying that milk from bBST treated and non-rBST treated cows is substantially equivalent.

  10. Hi Rick, thanks for your comment. If you spend a little more time here at this site you will find that we do spend a good deal of time debunking Smith’s arguments on their scientific merits. Above, Eric linked to Academics Review which takes on all 65 of the claims he makes in his latest book. And what we have found is he is not particularly adept at “ferreting out the truth” at all. I have on several occasions gone digging to find the source of one claim or another of his only to find that a misunderstanding or falsehood was behind it. Here is one example: Smith continues to claim that Obama promised to label GE foods when he never did. I have sent this information to Smith’s organization and there has been no change in behavior. I don’t dispute that he seems like a nice guy, but I can’t fathom anyone calling his research thorough and truthful. Dedicated, definitely.
    Specifically where on your site is this analysis of the safety of GE crops? I poked around a bit and spent some time reading a long powerpoint document by Martin Donohue that needs some updating, particularly in the golden rice section. I like how beta-carotene is suggested as a carcinogen, and then non-GE means of getting beta-carotene are suggested. (No mention of the fact that the “expensive” cost of golden rice development is equivalent to only two years of “cheap” supplementation with vitamin pills, which means that the rice is more sustainable.) And the Flavr Savr tomato did not have a flounder gene in it. This is why we are here because even well-meaning people who do not have much training in the subject make frequent mistakes when writing about it. I would very much like to see the OPSR analysis of GE crop safety if you could provide a link.
    It seems your organization focuses primarily on rBGH and Pharmaceutical crops, and GE animals. You may find some commonality with some of the things we have written here. I for one am not a fan of pharma crops, and we have also written about rBGH and its effects on treated cows, if briefly. The completely anti-GE stance of your organization, however, I think you’ll find some clear disagreements.

  11. Karl, it is interesting that many of us have more in common with self-claimed anii-GE folks than it might seem at first glance. There is significant variation even among Biofortified writers, however, and even more variation among generally pro-GE folks at large.
    I am also not a fan of pharma crops. I may, depending on the situation, be in favor of pharmaceuticals in crops that don’t reproduce by seed or in non-food crops. One could name biofortified crops pharma crops (although I wouldn’t) and I am in favor of biofortification in many cases.
    GE animals… eh. There may be cases where it would be useful, but I personally would like to see a decrease in animal ag in general, such that animal products are more of a luxury than a daily staple. I don’t understand the uproar over Enviro-pig, though. That one seems like a good way to “have your cake and eat it too” in that cheap pork production can continue with reduced impact of the environment (although I’d rather see cheap pork production give way in favor of smaller, more environmentally friendly, more expensive pork production).
    rBGH is complicated – because as far as I can tell (admittedly, I am not an animal scientist) – cows that give a lot of milk tend to be susceptible to health problems at greater rates than cows that give less milk but this applies to cows that just naturally give a lot of milk as well as those treated with rBST. The problem isn’t rBST, but the market that demands cheap milk. If the health problems associated with high milk production can be overcome with breeding, then perhaps rBST can be part of a sustainable and ethical milk-producing toolbox. But to argue against rBST by saying it is hazardous to humans is simply false, according to the sources that I’ve read.

  12. “Fear of food will only lead more and more people to grow their own”
    You say that like it’s a bad thing. I work for Big Ag and am a big advocate of growing your own food, getting hold of seed, and fertilizer, isn’t really a big deal (compost isn’t exactly difficult to produce in quantities far exceeding what you’ll use if you have the relatively typical small veg patch large lawn) – I’m pretty sure that “big ag” produces a bunch of organic seed (I’m guessing that Home Depot and the like don’t source their seed from small farmers, yet they do have USDA approved organic seed for just about any vegetable you could care to mention) – so I’m not quite sure how providing the seed amounts to taking it away from you.
    I’d rather people weren’t scared of their food of course, but if it gets folk out and producing their own food – well, at least that’s a nice silver lining.

  13. The idea that non-GE seeds (heirlooms, etc) are disappearing due to GE seeds is pervasive. It is assumed that genetic diversity has gone down due to the introduction of GE traits. While there have been some supply issues with particular varieties, it seems to be the kind that is sporadic and easily explained by market issues. Take a look at this post on the Ethicurean about the troubles with obtaining particular hybrid seed varieties: http://www.ethicurean.com/2010/04/27/backyard-seed-vault/
    But it becomes really hard to justify the belief that these heirlooms are going away, considering that there are so many more people buying their seeds and growing them. I certainly do hope that more people grow their own for fun, taste, and perhaps some savings. But I think fewer people are motivated by fear to do so than they are the other reasons I mentioned. There are people who truly believe the world is coming to an end in the food supply, and plant “Survival” gardens. It is interesting that there are already companies trying to “Bank” off of this fear, hilariously lampooned by Stephen Colbert:
    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/267141/march-10-2010/survival-seed-bank
    But lets leave talk of End Times to those who are so inclined. I would really like to see something demonstrating that these seeds and their genetic diversity are actually disappearing in the manner proposed.

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