Commentary / Mel Bankoff: State Measure 27: Give people choice on genetically engineered food By MEL BANKOFF
THE SURVIVAL OF OUR species depends on our ability to create a safe and secure agricultural system. The development of farming based on petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and other compounds has rapidly transformed agricultural systems. Now the creators of the petrochemical revolution - Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, etc. - have developed a new scheme: genetic engineering. Measure 27 on the November ballot addresses this scheme.
Rachel Carson's landmark book "Silent Spring" exposed the hazards associated with the introduction of man-made chemicals into our ecosystem. Our bodies have become depositories for DDT, dioxin, PCBs and hundreds of other synthetic compounds. What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves - and having become more aware of the consequences of petrochemical-based agriculture, we now must learn about genetically engineered food and crops.
These products made it to market due to the strategic relationship between the Food and Drug Administration and biotechnology companies. Phil Angel, Monsanto's past director of communications, said "Monsanto shouldn't have to vouch for the safety of GE foods. Our interest is in selling as much as possible. Assuring safety is the job of the FDA." But Dr. Henry Miller, the FDA official responsible for biotechnology issues from 1979 to 1994, said "The U.S. government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked us to do and told us to do." The FDA, which is supposedly responsible for food safety, didn't listen to its own scientists' warnings about unintended consequences of genetically engineered foods, such as new toxins that are unpredictable and difficult to detect (see wwwbiointregrity.org). The lack of consensus among FDA scientists was covered up, making it possible for FDA administrators to represent genetically engineered products as safe - i.e., "substantially equivalent" to other foods - and therefore not requiring any testing.
The British Medical Association and the Canadian Royal Society have voiced strong opposition to genetically engineered foods on the basis of the precautionary principle: We should not introduce anything into the ecosystem unless it is fully tested and safe beyond all doubt.
Without labeling or testing of genetically engineered foods, how can we know if our health has been affected? What about the environment? Just a few areas of serious concern:
*Biotech corn is registered as a pesticide with the Environmental Protection Agency - it can be regarded as a living, self-propagating pesticide. *Insects are becoming increasingly more resistant to biotech crops, requiring increased chemical applications - defeating these crops' very purpose. *The overapplication of the herbicide Roundup to Roundup-ready soybeans is creating super-resistant weeds. *The diversity of our global seed bank is being polluted by cross-pollination from genetically engineered plants. *We cannot recall living systems, as though they were defective cars or washing machines.
Because of these and many other concerns, it is not mere folly to demand labeling, as Measure 27 proposes.
Our opponents have characterized us as extremists. Thirty-five other countries, home to half of the world's population, have labeling laws or moratoriums in place on genetically engineered foods. Measure 27 has been endorsed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Oregon Democratic Party, the Center for Food Safety, Stahlbush Island Farms and PC Markets of Choice, to name a few.
Our opponents have misinformed the public, claiming that restaurants, school food programs and bake sales would be affected by our initiative. The inflated estimates of the costs of implementing Measure 27 are based partly on this misinformation. The Oregon Department of Agriculture, for instance, estimates that inspections and testing would cost $11 million a year - but this estimate is immediately reduced to $3 million by removing restaurants from the purview of Measure 27.
In addition, Measure 27 is a statutory initiative. The Legislature can make necessary changes that are consistent with the intent of the law, thereby minimizing any adverse impact on Oregon businesses and farmers. The biotech corporations instill fear by warning of consumer price increases. In all the countries that have labeling laws, there have been no price increases. Due to the increasing demand for labeling by foreign markets, the large grain and soybean growers are already segregating their genetically engineered products.
Why are these out-of-state biotech corporations spending millions to stop Oregonians from knowing what is in their food? Labeling would give consumers the choice and the opportunity to vote with their pocketbooks. This would be in accord with the federal Fair Package and Labeling Act: "Informed citizens are essential for the fair and efficient functioning of a free market system."
The U.S. government and biotechnology companies, through the World Trade Organization, are claiming that European moratoriums on the importation of genetically engineered foods are an infringement to free trade. The passage of Measure 27 in Oregon would pose a powerful threat to the proliferation of genetically engineered foods; our success will inspire other states to take similar actions, while opening a long overdue national debate. An educated U.S. public is a threat to the corporate agenda of global control of our food systems.
A success in Oregon will be heard around the world. Vote yes on Measure 27, and let Oregon be revered once again as the trail blazer for critical legislation.
Mel Bankoff of Eugene is director of organic sales for Emerald Valley Kitchen, and treasurer of the Vote Yes on 27 Political Action Committee.