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How Consumers Are Fighting Genetically Engineered Food—And Winning

Four recent consumer wins that have put serious dents in GE foods’ reign

Scientifically altered plants were first introduced to the American food supply in 1996. Today, they dominate it: About 85 percent of America’s corn, 88 percent of its cotton, and 91 percent of its soybeans are now genetically modified. Estimates suggest that nearly 70 percent of processed foods sold in supermarkets contain genetically engineered ingredients—and none of them are labeled as such.

The GE backlash is as old as GE food itself. Over the past 16 years, consumers and scientists alike have voiced concerns about how modified foods might affect human and environmental health. Agricultural biotech firm Monsanto’s "Roundup Ready" crops—plants genetically modified to withstand a dousing of Roundup herbicide—have been linked to the spread of superweeds, prompting farmers to use even more noxious chemical herbicides that endanger local wildlife, waterways, and farm workers. Genetically modified DNA can also escape the confines of crop fields and cross-pollinate with non-GMO plants, forever altering their DNA. This poses a particular danger to organic varieties, which must be completely free of GE traits in order to be certified. Other evidence suggests that GE products can trigger human health issues like increased allergic reactions. And that only accounts for what we know about them—experts say GE foods’ potential environmental and health consequences haven’t been adequately studied.

The outrage against GE foods has been especially vocal recently, and that’s starting to create real reform in the food system. Here are four recent consumer wins that have put serious dents in GE foods’ reign:

GE Salmon Hits a Snag
The FDA seemed ready to rubber-stamp transgenic salmon’s approval back in 2010. If given the green light, AquaBounty Technologies’ AquAdvantage salmon would have become the first biotech animal ever approved for human consumption. The GE fish swam quickly through the approval process until it hit consumer outcry. Everyone from scientists to environmentalists to public health experts decried the GE fish’s hasty approval process, claiming the salmon’s potential health and environmental consequences hadn’t been adequately studied. For now, at least, approval of GE salmon has stalled.

Millions Call for Labels on GE Foods
Unless shoppers purchase products certified organic or verified by the Non-GMO Project, there’s no way to guarantee that their food doesn’t contain GE ingredients. That’s because no laws require GE products to be labeled as such, a lack of transparency long decried by health- and environment-conscious consumers.

Enter the Just Label It! campaign, which urges the FDA to mandate clear labeling of GE foods. Other campaigns have sought the same result, but Just Label It is an especially well-orchestrated endeavor. Last month, the campaign and 525 partner organizations broke a record by delivering 1.1 million comments to the FDA from people who want GE foods to be labeled, more submissions than the agency has ever received on the issue. The FDA responded by saying, “We haven’t made a decision yet.” That’s small-but-important progress: It shows that the agency is listening and taking the matter more seriously than ever. And Just Label It! is just getting started: The campaign plans to turn up the pressure throughout the coming months.

Enviropig Is Scrapped
GE salmon may have been poised to become the first transgenic animal approved for human consumption, but another was hot on its heels: the "Enviropig."

Until now, that is. Scientists at Canada’s University of Guelph recently announced that they are shutting down their research on GE pigs. The Enviropig was genetically engineered to fit the confines of cramped factory farms and produce low-phosphorous feces, a fix that developers lauded as environmentally friendly but critics labeled as greenwash.

Consumers and food safety organizations lambasted the Enviropig, and even pork producers said they wouldn’t sell it if it was was approved for human consumption. After Canada’s hog industry group, Ontario Pork, announced it would direct funds away from GE pig research, University of Guelph pulled the plug on Enviropig. The Center for Food Safety is now calling on the FDA to halt any plans to approve GE pigs for human consumption—now or in the future.

Overwhelming Opposition to Dow’s GE Corn
Despite the backlash to GE foods, a number of applications to create new GE products are still awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One of those applications is for Dow Chemical’s GE corn, which is genetically modified to be resistant to the toxic herbicide 2,4-D. The opposition to this GE crop has been overwhelming—more than 155,000 comments opposing its approval have already been submitted to the USDA. The agency even extended the public comment period until April 27 in light of all the negative comments that are still rolling in.

The progress toward combating GE foods and promoting more transparency in the food system is encouraging, but it doesn’t mean that these foods’ silent reign is over yet. The USDA is sitting on all kinds of applications for new GE crop varieties, and the FDA still hasn’t taken the final steps necessary to totally kill transgenic animals’ future. We’re just beginning to understand the environmental and health implications of GE foods. Let’s make sure we keep the pressure on until regulators stop favoring Big Ag interests and start protecting the health of people and the planet.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user MillionsAgainstMonsanto

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