A Quad-City group that is part of a movement to require food labels listing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, was born in August when LeeAnn Felder moved to Davenport from Arizona.
Felder, 22, a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, is a member of the Green Corps, an organizing program of Food & Water Watch, an environmental organization based in Washington, D.C.
Spurred by the group’s backing, Felder set about forming the Let Me Decide coalition. She organized meetings, movie screenings of the film “Genetic Roulette,” hosted a grassroots training session and a meeting with Iowa legislators, signed up business endorsements, held a news conference, and surveyed and rounded up more 1,000 residents to join the coalition.
“There is overwhelming support for this issue,” Felder said on the very day she was to move from Davenport and continue the campaign for GMO food labels in another part of the U.S.
Consumer interest, confusion
GMO labels on food are of definite interest to some consumers, said Ruth MacDonald, a professor and the chairwoman of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at Iowa State University in Ames.
Consumers have real concerns about their food and how it might affect their health, but many people are confused by the issue. They might not even be aware of GMO and what it means, MacDonald said, as well as how it is done and where the products are found in their grocery store.
Genetic modification, she said, means essentially that a scientist has modified the seed. Protein in the seed is changed so a plant can resist a pest such as the European corn borer, to include a herbicide such as RoundUp or to grow with less water.
“Some consumers believe that most of the fruits and vegetables in the market are GMO — which is not the case,” MacDonald said.
GMOs are, however, about 70 percent of processed food products sold in a typical grocery store, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a national food industry trade association. About 90 percent of corn and soybean crops are GMOs and have been since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
MacDonald has served as a scientific expert for the Center for Food Integrity, a Missouri-based nonprofit organization established in 2007 to, according to its website, “build consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system.” She also has researched which factors in the food supply influence cancer risks.
There is no need to label the modified foods, she said. People have been eating GMO products for almost 20 years now, and there is no documented evidence of any effect on human health.
Besides, if producers quit using GMOs, not enough food could be supplied for this country, let alone for export to the rest of the world, she said.
“Agriculture is founded on modifying genes in plants and animals to provide hybrid and select foods, but we were doing it in a natural process, and that takes a long time,” she said. “Now that we have the scientific tools to move faster and more specifically, that’s the step we’ve taken. That scientific approach to food is one thing people are wary of.”
Iowa Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, is one of the legislators who met with the Let Me Decide coalition. Seng, the chairman of the state Senate Agriculture Committee, is in the process of gathering information about the GMO labels, including listening to area activists in addition to food industry officials. The senator said he has an open mind on the topic.
Legislation requiring the GMO labels “may deserve a day before the committee, to see if this has legs,” Seng said. “If it doesn’t, it won’t go anywhere.”
In Illinois, similar legislation is being studied and may be introduced in January, said Kevin Semlow, the director of state legislation for the Illinois Farm Bureau, based in Bloomington.
Pro-label proponents have told Seng that GMOs might be unsafe, and there is a lack of research into the effects of GMOs on human health.
That is the view of Sophia Foreman, 18, a student at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, one of two organizers carrying on Felder’s work with Food & Water Watch in the Quad-Cities.
“We don’t know the long-term effects, and that’s the reason to label the foods,” said Foreman, a lifelong vegetarian who comes from an environmentally active family in Nashville, Tenn.
Jerry Neff, 75, an environmental activist from Pleasant Valley and a member of the Let Me Decide coalition, has similar feelings.
“I’ve had a long concern for chemicals and weed control in crops and animals,” he said, noting that it is expensive to eat all-organic foods, which, by definition, are not GMOs.
Goal is safely produced food
The research and care that goes into corn production helps ensure that the food is safely produced, said David Ertl, who is on the research staff at the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, based in Johnston. Ertl, with a doctorate degree in plant breeding, previously worked for 23 years at DuPont Pioneer, a leading worldwide developer and supplier of plant genetics.
The purpose of developing seeds via genetic engineering is to modify the DNA, which results, in turn, in a modified protein with goals such as giving plants the ability to fend off insects or weeds.
The very first test done on the protein is for what’s called “allergenicity,” or whether it will kick off allergic reactions. That is evaluated first with a computer model and followed up with animal trials, Ertl said.
Beyond that, tests for toxicity are done on rats and mice.
“It’s similar to how a prescription drug is formulated,” he said. The proteins are thoroughly studied for their effects on people and plants.
A type of modified corn, called Bt corn, is a concern to many people. But those who see no need for GMO labels contend that the pesticide built genetically into the corn to guard it from corn borers is benign to humans.
Bt is a naturally occurring bacteria in the soil that is found worldwide. It is unusual because it has sets of crystal-like proteins that selectively kill insects, including the corn borer.
“We don’t use that in our bodies in any way,” MacDonald said.
“These proteins have been carefully tested to make sure they break down during digestion, as any consumed protein does, and do not cause allergic reactions,” she said.
Activist has doubts
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Pam Kaufman thinks she should be able to decide what’s in her food. Kaufman, a Bettendorf resident who is in her 50s, signed on with the Let Me Decide coalition. Americans have a right to know what’s in their products, just as residents of Western Europe and some other countries already do, she said.
A massage therapist who works in Davenport, Kaufman grew up on a farm in northwest Illinois. She remembers a chemical spill on one of her father’s fields.
“It was just like scorched earth,” she said. “Nothing grew there at all, even two years after the spill.”
She thinks sufficient independent testing has not been completed into the effects of GMO foods on humans and is very concerned with ingredients in corn such as Bt.
“Long-term, there are too many unknowns,” she said.
Over time, Kaufman has become suspicious of government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, which is charged with most of the food safety oversight in the country. The FDA says GMO foods are safe, but that is what government agencies said about the insecticide DDT, a group of toxic chemical compounds known as dioxin and other chemicals that were later found to be unsafe, Kaufman said.
FDA stresses safety
The FDA recognizes the strong interest that many consumers have in knowing whether a food was produced using bio-engineering, said Morgan Liscinsky, an agency spokeswoman. The FDA supports voluntary labeling that provides consumers with that information and has issued industry guidelines regarding such labels.
MacDonald, however, notes that consumer demand for non-GMO foods has provided a market for food manufacturers whereby they can charge higher prices for foods labeled “No GMO.”
A box of cereal with the “No GMO” label may cost $6, whereas a regular box would be $3 to $4, she said.
“Consumers will pay more for these foods on a perceived health benefit that is not real,” she said.
The professor said current food labels do not include processing techniques, and that if they did, they would be “as long as a book.”
Liscinsky said the FDA is committed to ensuring that “foods from genetically engineered crops are as safe as foods from their non-genetically engineered counterparts.”
Biotech crops — such as Bt corn — are among the most highly studied and regulated of all food products, Ertl said.
“But I do understand the concern people have,” he said.
The goal, he said, is higher yields and food productivity. Planting Bt seed means farmers use fewer pesticides overall, he said, adding, “People don’t make that connection too often.”
Non-GMO foods are viable for specialty markets, Ertl said, and are widely available to consumers at organic food and health stores.
“But that’s not going to produce enough food to feed the world,” he said.