Volunteers were out in full force around California in April, gathering signatures in front of grocery stores, at food co-ops and festivals petitioning against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Anywhere consumers and potential voters would gather, they showed up clipboards, fliers and organic tomato seeds in hand.
The Label GMO campaign began over a year ago in an effort to get a proposition on the ballot making it mandatory for all food companies to label foods that have been genetically modified. This ballot initiative is something they hope will help consumers make healthier decisions when purchasing foods.
Genetically modified foods come from a scientific process of manipulating plants and other natural food products, combining genes from different organisms. The scientific term is “transgenics.” Often, pesticide-like chemicals are used on crops such as corn and soy to prevent them from being destroyed and help farmers produce more of the crop.
Volunteer with the West Los Angeles Label GMO group, Rick Cavener, said he worries about the chemicals that are being consumed because corn and soy are put into so many of the foods we eat.
“It’s actually a bacteria virus gene (put into) the DNA of plants so each cell has this bacteria in it and they have no long-term investigation into what happens health-wise to humans,” Cavener said. “It’s only been proven in rats to cause a lot of ailments. I think everyone should have a right to know what’s in their food. I want to know what’s going in my system and if it’s a chemical, I for sure want to know what that is.”
The controversy with genetically modifying foods began with a company called Monsanto, which used its name brand chemical “Round-up” to kill pests eating their crops without examining the health and environmental effects it might have.
“Now the bugs and the weeds that were resistant to it in the past are now all becoming immune to (the chemical), so they’re having to spray even more chemicals on the food and come up with even stronger chemical pesticides,” Cavener said. “So right now they’re trying to introduce (a chemical) which is almost equivalent to Agent Orange. It’s getting scarier as the days go by.”
While no studies have been conducted to verify the claims, many say that GMOs contribute to health problems such as obesity and birth defects.
Nutrition expert and professor of pharmaceutical science at the University of Southern California, Roger Clemens, disagreed with the claim and said that genetically modified foods do not present health risks to humans.
“The reality is there isn’t any evidence to say that GM foods present any health hazard whatsoever,” he said. “Those kinds of foods go through tremendous safety evaluations before they’re permitted to go on the U.S. market. It would be unfortunate that California passes such a law that would suggest that they’re unsafe.”
According to Clemens, the research that has been done indicates that genetically modified foods are safe as are medicines that use modification, something many consumers don’t worry about.
“It’s really interesting if you look at much of the medication that is used in the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry, those are derived through genetic modification,” Clemens said. “But when it comes to food, [consumers say,] don’t mess with my food.”
Clemens said that even though people may have the right to know what is in their food, it won’t change what they consume on a day-to-day basis.
“While I can appreciate the right to know, what are they going to do with the information? Will they really make the change of behaviors?” Clemens said. “Whether it may change minds, I don’t know. It certainly wouldn’t change their health.”
Mother’s Market & Kitchen is a chain of organic grocery stores in Orange County, Calif., that prides itself on offering consumers a wide variety of products ranging from gluten-free to vegan, and is a strong advocate in the Label GMO ballot initiative campaign. Deborah Rubino, assistant to the chairman of the board for Mother’s Market & Kitchen, said that they allowed Label GMO volunteers into the stores to help spread the word and educate consumers about the campaign and GM foods.
“Mother’s Market is really interested in consumers having a choice so we feel very strongly that people should know what’s in their food,” Rubino said. “We want there to be truth in labeling, we want people to make a choice and know what they’re getting.”
Rubino said she understands that not all consumers care about whether foods have been genetically modified but she hopes that they will still see the benefits in having the foods labeled.
“Whether or not you choose to eat foods that have been genetically modified is really your own choice but I would think most consumers would not see a negative in knowing whether it was or was not,” Rubino said.
Some consumers said that evidence or not, the government has the obligation to tell them what is in the food they are buying and feeding to their families.
“At this point, for the most part we aren’t aware of that, we don’t know what’s going on,” said shopper Christa Chaffins. “We think we’re buying something good like a product that we trust and it’s all marketing and advertising and the reality is there are all kinds of detrimental things going in our products without us knowing.”
Many believe that the lack of information is what’s causing health problems in the country and that government labeling, even at the state level, would facilitate healthy change.
“People just don’t have enough knowledge about nutrition, that’s why it really should be a law,” said shopper Kathleen Grandis. “I would vote for (this proposition) and I would tell everyone I know to do the same.”
According to Label GMO officials, the campaign was able to submit nearly a million signatures to the state registrars; exceeding the minimum 550,000 signatures required. It will take the state five to seven weeks to determine the validity of the signatures and give the initiative a proposition number for the state ballot.
Though they anticipate a rough battle against food companies in terms of attack ads and counter campaigning, the Label GMO volunteers said that educating people and bringing the issue into the spotlight is their main goal.
“We’ve already done poll testing and 90 percent of the people want this,” Cavener said. “The awareness level has definitely risen in the past year and we plan on educating people until November.”