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In 1992 the FDA ruled against requiring labels for genetically engineered foods. Currently about 90% of the U.S. soybean crop and almost 75% of U.S. corn is grown from genetically modified seed, and it’s estimated that more than half the foods in grocery stores today contain ingredients that have been genetically engineered. Biotech companies and grocery manufacturers say genetically modified food is safe to eat and not different from conventional products in any measurable way. However, some believe consumers should be able to more easily avoid genetically modified foods if they so choose and are pushing for mandatory labels on foods with genetically modified ingredients. Join us for a discussion on the pros and cons of mandatory labels for genetically modified foods.
- Gardiner Harris science reporter for The New York Times and author of the mystery novel "Hazard."
- Thomas Redick Global Environmental Ethics Counsel
- Gary Hirshberg president, Stonyfield Farm, Inc
The U.S. is the world’s leader in genetically engineered crop production. Genetic modifications can boost herbicide tolerance, resistance to insects, and in some cases, add nutritional value. Twenty years ago, the FDA ruled that genetically modified food did not require labels, but some say this ruling hurts consumers who would prefer to avoid eating food with genetically modified ingredients.
The FDA’s Rationale
The FDA’s decision not to require labeling genetically modified foods 20 years ago basically comes from the mentality that food should be labeled according to what comes out of the process – not the process itself. FDA officials didn’t believe that genetically modified food was any different from other existing forms of hybridization. According to Gardiner Harris, the U.S. gets more than 80 percent of its food from abroad. “The FDA inspects one in one million pounds of seafood coming into this country,” Harris said. “They are entirely unable to police this global food supply, so it would be very difficult for them to police the process that goes into every single food coming into this country,” he said.
Why Is Labeling Important?
Although the FDA couldn’t possibly keep up with monitoring a significant portion of food imports, Gary Hirshberg believes that labeling is important for several
reasons. Consumers want to know, and have a right to know, the origins of their food and how it has been processed, Hirshberg said. Further, in most other parts of the world, and most of our trading partners, already require labeling. Hirshberg also believes that the common use of genetically engineered crops has resulted in some serious detriments to our food supply. More (and more potent) chemicals are necessary because the primary trait that has been developed in genetically modified corn is for herbicide tolerance, which allows farmers to use much more if it. In turn, weeds have become more resistant, which has led to farmers needing to use stronger herbicides known as defoliants, which Hirshberg said can be very toxic to humans.
Other Implications Of Particular Food Labeling
Requiring all genetically modified food to be labeled as such would inevitably drive up food costs, according to Thomas Redick. Companies would have to change the labels on their food, and some would voluntarily source non-genetically modified ingredients to put on their labels, which would drive the cost of non-genetically
modified crops up because of greater demand. “That’s certainly the case in any nations that have implemented labeling,” Redick said. But Gardiner Harris thinks that even with the potential negative outcomes for consumers that Redick said this kind of labeling might bring about, the public is very concerned about its food sources. “There is an enormous focus on food and concern about it,” Harris said. “The industry has done an absolutely miserable job when it comes to GMO because the industry really has promised that genetically modifying foods will bring all sorts of benefits to consumers. When, in fact, nearly all of the genetic modification, up to this point, has been to the benefit of processors,” Harris said.
Science On Both Sides
“I think in 2012, we ought to have the humility to recognize that we don’t know it all, that as we manipulate the technologies, which ideally will have long-term benefits to feed the 9.2 billion people…consumers have gotta have the ability to choose whether to be a part of this system or not,” Hirshberg said. Redick disagrees. “It’s clear that we’ll probably have a mix of sustainable organics, sustainable bio techs, sustainable nano whatever that’s going to be in the future agricultural system. And I don’t see any place for the government putting labels on any of that if the voluntary system is providing consumers what they want,” Redick said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. is the world's leader in genetically engineered crop production. Genetic modifications can boost herbicide tolerance, resistance to insects and in some cases, add nutritional value. Twenty years ago, the FDA ruled that genetically modified food did not require labels, but some say this ruling hurts consumers who would prefer to avoid eating food with genetically modified ingredients.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the issue of labels for genetically modified foods, Gary Hirshberg. He's president of Stonyfield Farm, Gardiner Harris, science reporter for The New York Times and joining us by phone from Clayton, Mo. Thomas Redick of the Global Environmental Ethics Counsel. I do look forward to hearing your comments, questions, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org or join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you and Happy New Year.
MR. THOMAS REDICKGood morning.
MR. GARDINER HARRISGood morning, Diane.
MR. GARY HIRSHBERGGood morning.
REHMGood morning. Gardiner Harris, if I could start with you. Explain to us just what genetically modified foods are.
HARRISRight. Well, as you know, Diane, we have become increasingly sophisticated about DNA and about genes and since the 1970s, have had fairly good technology to be able to sort of drop specific pieces of certain genes into certain organisms. I mean, and this now is a very common part of our bio-medical infrastructure. I mean, the way we all get insulin, for instance, is genetically modified bacteria, e-coli that have certain genes in them that then manufacture human insulin.
HARRISI mean, you know, before this, we had to rely on pig insulin, which frankly wasn't particularly good so -- and now, of course, there are a host of other bio-tech drugs for things like not enough red blood cells for people for rheumatoid arthritis, any number of things for cancer drugs even that are all made largely through the use of genetically modified bacteria. There's even a drug that is now made from goat milk from genetically modified goats so this technology is here.
HARRISIt's actually now become so easy to do that just about any lab assistant in a common lab can do it. So foods now, of course, it's moved into the area of foods.
REHMSo what are the most commonly genetically modified foods?
HARRISWell, corn, of course, is the big one and, you know, corn is a really interesting food, Diane. It obviously is native only to the western hemisphere. The Mayans developed corn themselves probably from a thistle. Nobody is quite sure how they came up with corn. It's so domesticated now that there is no such thing as wild corn. It's not like you'll get volunteer corn plants in your garden ever. You have to plant it. It is entirely domesticated so it's sort of appropriate that this has become the sort of the battleground over the next phase of sort of technological innovation in food.
REHMSo you've also got soy. You've got sugar...
HARRIS...and alfalfa and sugar beets and all these other places that it has gone to...
REHMOkay. And the FDA ruled about 20 years ago that...
REHM...they did not need to label those foods. What was the rationale?
HARRISWell, the basic rationale for them is that they don't label things according to the process that creates it but rather from what comes out of the process. They also didn't believe that there was anything that they could see that came out of this process that was dramatically different from the old forms of hybridization and other things.
HARRISYou know, we have a very globalized food chain, Diane, and the FDA is actually a fairly small part of it. I mean, in some kinds of foods, like seafood for instance, another genetically engineered food is salmon, you know. We get more than 80 percent of the food from abroad and so I think -- and the FDA inspects one in one million pounds of seafood coming into this country. They are entirely unable to police this global food supply so it would be very difficult for them to police the process that goes into every single food coming into this country.
REHMGardiner Harris, science reporter for The New York Times. Gary Hirshberg, you have long been an advocate for requiring labels on genetically modified foods. Tell us why.
HIRSHBERGSure. Well, this is an issue of transparency, of truth and of trust, trust in our food system. As Gardiner says, our food system has become highly complex, highly technologic. Why label? A couple of basic reasons. First, consumers want to know and have a fundamental right to know. These crops are very different. They are patented. Obviously, the Commerce Department has determined that they're substantively different. In fact, companies have spent a lot of money defending those patents.
HIRSHBERGThe definition, by the way, that Monsanto uses on their own website is that biotechnology gives plants desirable characteristics or traits that often cannot be developed through traditional breeding practices so this is -- it's acknowledged. This is a new kind of science. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly want labeling. Thomson Reuters, in a poll actually commissioned by NPR a year ago, showed over a sample of 3,000, showed 93 percent of consumers desiring foods to be labeled. Lake Associates, Consumers Union, MSNBC, there's endless polls. All of the numbers come in at well over 90 percent. This is not a small debatable number.
HIRSHBERGSecond, labeling is required in most of the world, in 36 countries around the world, most of our trading partners, all of the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Brazil, even China. And again, these are most of our trading partners so what is going on there that we don't have? Third, again, this fundamental difference is really the issue. I'm here, as you know, because there's a petition now before the FDA. It was submitted in September and as of this morning, 500,000 Americans have signed this petition and have submitted comments in favor of labeling.
HIRSHBERGThe FDA, by statute, has 180 days to open this comment period so by the end of March, at current rates, we're getting roughly 15 to 20,000 people per week signing. We expect that it will be over a million. As Gardiner and I were talking before the show, you know, this is an extraordinary number. In the history of the FDA, there's never been comments of this volume. And finally, and here's the key, this is not an effort, though it's been characterized as one, to stop GMOs. That's complete folly.
HIRSHBERGAs Gardiner says, they're here, 76 percent of corn, 80 percent of soy and indeed GE crops and CE products are absolutely contributors to modern living. And again, a million American diabetics are alive today thanks to the promise of this technology, but there are concerns and they're valid concerns.
HIRSHBERGWell, one of them is that, despite the promise that there would be substantial reductions in chemicals used in agriculture, we've actually seen an explosion of herbicides being used in this country, over 400 million pounds, mainly because the primary trait that has been developed in corn, as Gardiner mentioned, is for herbicide tolerance. And this has, of course, allowed farmers to spray herbicides at will. Glyphosate, the most common of them, we know that as Roundup and this has resulted in hundreds of millions more pounds of these herbicides out there.
HIRSHBERGInterestingly, what has evolved is that now we have a whole generation of weeds that are herbicide tolerant and, in fact, it's widely understood in the industry. In fact, just several weeks ago, the USDA announced a petition that is going out for comment on a defoliant tolerant 2,4-D tolerant corn and this is because what has happened is that in order to control these herbicide tolerant weeds now, farmers have had to apply stronger herbicides known as defoliants.
HIRSHBERGAnd if the name 2,4-D sounds familiar to your listeners, most of us of my generation know this to be the prime component in Agent Orange, the legacy of which is well known among Vietnam veterans in this country, birth defects and the like. And so, literally, what we're seeing now is an explosion in the use in 26 states of defoliants that are directly a result of messing with this technology. Now, our argument is not simply that -- the science is going to be debated for a long, long time. It reminds me of climate change, you know, we're debating it 30, 40 years later.
HIRSHBERGBut while the debate is raging, consumers deserve the right to choose whether they want to support or embrace a system that promotes this kind of chemical overuse. And the specific definition is the question before the FDA is, what is material? Gardiner was explaining, and it's true in 1992 with -- under Dan Quayle's leadership in the Council of Competitiveness, the FDA determined that what was material was organoleptic, that is, can you taste it, can you smell it, can you see it?
HIRSHBERGBut the reality is, is that we believe that that definition is not with the times, it's not with the 21st century where GE is going to be a major part of the mix. In fact, we have many, many examples where processes from made from concentrate juices, irradiation, wild or farmed, even country of origin now on meats, have been promulgated by the FDA. But we believe that GE belongs under that same definition.
REHMGary Hirshberg, he's president of Stonyfield Farm Inc., Gardiner Harris is science reporter for The New York Times. When we come back, we'll hear from Thomas Redick of Global Environmental Ethics Counsel and short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about genetically modified foods. You've heard from Gardiner Harris, science reporter for the New York Times about the ways in which foods that are constantly before us are genetically modified, starting with corn, which is in virtually everything. You've heard from Gary Hirshberg. He's president of Stonyfield Farm, Inc. which, of course, makes a very widely selling yogurt. And now it's time to hear from Thomas Redick. He's counsel to Global Environmental Ethics. And I wonder, Thomas Redick, what you think about labeling genetically modified foods.
REDICKCertainly, and thank you. It's awfully good to hear some other perspectives. I've written a book with some Arizona state professors where we laid it all out, but I'll try to sum up. Basically, the voluntary labeling system that exists in the world for kosher and Palau (sp?) and also non-genetically modified seems to work just fine. And I'm counsel to the United Soybean Board and American Soybean Association who have both non-GMO and conventional or biotech producers. Sometimes it's the same person growing, you know, organic non-GMO and biotech all on his farm just to hedge his bets.
REDICKAnd we knew the voluntary system that's in place is adequate to meet any consumer's needs. You go into the typical Whole Foods, for example, store and you'll find all sorts of non-GMO options in the food production system. Even in the conventional grocery store it's really frankly almost everything you see in the soy department will be non-GMO labeled or organic, which is, by definition under the National Organic Program, a non-GMO product.
REDICKSo I do believe that we've got a system that works pretty well. As far as it being a material, you know, definition, that's something that's a pretty complicated legal question. But I think we have FDA admitting an eradiation that perhaps they went too far in going to process this labeling. Country of origin labeling is being challenged at the World Trade Organization so I won't comment on the legality of expanding that kind of program.
REDICKBut there is certainly a subsidiary motive with the Greenpeace and the activists to use labeling to try to drive food companies to substitute by mandatory governmental labeling that looks a little like a warning. If it's voluntary, it's just a choice. And it does -- actually, it would raise costs of all food if you labeled genetically modified content that it's...
REHMExplain to me how it would raise costs, Tom.
REDICKYeah, we, in the book, go into detail on this. And because companies would then have to change the labels and then they would voluntarily source non-GM inputs to avoid the label, it will drive more folks in the chain of, say, corn chips to purchase a non-GMO corn. And then, the non-GMO corn goes up in price because of demand. That's certainly the case in any nations they've implemented labeling.
REDICKWell, there's over 40 nations actually that have labeling laws. The Institute for -- IFPR, International Food Policy Research did a study that showed not many of these are actually being implemented. Where they are being implemented, significant costs are incurred and it raises the price for those who can least afford to pay for the food. So it does have...
REHMLet me -- okay. Let me ask you, Tom, about this survey that Gary spoke of earlier where 93 percent of the 3,000 people surveyed said they really would prefer to have labeling on their GM food.
REDICKYeah, there's a good group called IFIC International Food Information Council that did a survey that's not designed to get a result. I mean, in these surveys that Gary mentioned they say, wouldn't you like to label gm foods, and that's a very leading question. If you ask the question, what would you like to see on a label that's not already there, genetic modification is very low on the list. So we view the survey as designed to get a result. It's a good example of really bad policies make...
REHMOkay. All right. Gardiner Harris.
HARRISTom is gonna lose this fight and I think Gary's gonna win it, Diane. And that's because, you know, when it comes to culture, along with language and religion, you can't come up with something as emotionally charged as food. And I think over the last five years, ten years, Gary's business has exploded because there has been a huge growing interest and concern about food. I mean, food has become sort of the designer jeans of this past sort of decade.
HARRISI mean, people now identify themselves according to their diet, whether they're gluten-free or lactose-free or all that sort of stuff. I mean, there is -- I mean, Whole Foods has taken off. There is an enormous focus on food and concern about it. And you really see it, of course, in Europe where agriculture has almost become like, you know, there's been some Disneyfication of it a little bit.
HARRISSo I think that there is a great deal of concern about it. And I think the industry has done an absolutely miserable job when it comes to GMO because the industry really has promised that genetically modifying foods will bring all sorts of benefits to consumers. When, in fact, nearly all of the genetic modification, up to this point, has been to the benefit of processors. In other words, you know, you've got this corn that's been made so that they can use more herbicides. You've got salmon that is being made so that they can shorten the growing period.
HARRISI mean, there has been nothing in -- so the promise of genetic modification was that we were going to be able to produce certain foods that were more nutrient rich, that would help feed the billions in the developing world better and all that. But what has, in fact, happened is that the benefits are nearly all accruing to these major corporations and so people are not seeing benefits at their table. And I think what they're really sort of feeling is that their culture -- a major important part of their culture is slipping away.
HIRSHBERGI mentioned -- I think there's a larger issue here. I mentioned the words transparency, truth and trust earlier. Transparency, in this case, because the science and arguments in favor of these technologies have actually come from the companies who profit from them and that's a problem. Truth, because 15 years after the introduction of many of these crops, we're seeing disturbing patterns in terms of their failure to deliver on these promises.
HIRSHBERGWe're seeing now, for example, it was just reported in December right before Christmas that the insecticide in corn in the BT -- the genetically engineered insecticide-resistant corn, which wasn't supposed to show up in humans, is now showing up in humans. It was supposed to be destroyed by saliva and so on. And we're seeing constant -- again, this is new technology and we're beginning to see...
REHMWho's doing this kind of research?
HIRSHBERGOh, it's -- I have volumes of references here. There's 98 or so studies that were sent to me in the last couple of weeks in preparation for this. So -- but let me come to the big point, Diane, because here's where I think we in biotech may actually have some common ground. This is really about trust, trust in our food system. And, in fact, it's obviously of concern to biotech firms.
HIRSHBERGThere's an outfit called the Center for Food Integrity. I'm sure Tom Redick knows it well. It's a nonprofit created by a coalition of agribusiness companies and industry groups, Monsanto, the American Farm Bureau and National Corn Producers and so on. And their mission is to, quote, "build consumer trust and confidence in today's food system." And yet at the same time, these very same companies have launched this year a $30 million campaign, PR campaign, to build trust through something called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
HIRSHBERGNow, it seems to me that trust is of concern. These companies, as Gardiner points out, are primarily selling these goods to processor -- to foods that will ultimately be used by people like me, processors. And the processors want transparency. The processors want to ensure trust. That's what builds healthy (sounds like) brains. I'm accountable to the consumer every single day. But rather than spend $30 million to promote the PR benefits and at the same time be fighting transparency, one wonders whether that would ultimately be calculated to build trust in a world.
HIRSHBERGWhere, as Gardiner says, we're seeing an explosion of farmers' markets, local labels. Whole Foods is just the beginning of it. Organic, CSAs, transparency. Look at the New York Times. Practically every day, there's an article about opening up and helping people to understand where their food comes from.
REHMAll right. So Thomas Redick, what is the problem with transparency?
REDICKWell, I do believe the trust here is between the vendor and the buyer of food. There is certainly a trustworthy network of non-gmo production in this country that serves -- it is a small minority of folks who actually, when asked to pay for something, that they have to put their money where their mouth is that want to pay for non-GMO soy milk. But then again, as I mentioned, in soy milk, that's all that's really available. Once I saw Soleil marketing a slightly different soy milk, but it was not declared non-GMO and it was about a nickel or a dime cheaper for a quart.
REDICKAnd I do think that there's gonna be options where genetic modified food, particularly in the corn industry, provides lower cost tortillas and such for folks that use that type of a crop for that purpose. I see that...
REHMHere is an...
REDICK...the transparency when you do a study that is misleadingly asking, don't you wanna label food and not asking about the cost, that's where I really think the whole argument falls apart.
REHMTell me how the question read, Gary Hirschberg.
HIRSHBERGI don't, in fact, have the question. I can't really defend that point. But I would say to the point -- again, as a food processor, this issue on costs -- I change labels multiple times a year. I assure you, I’m small in comparison to my much larger counterparts. The cost of label changing is an insignificant cost in the food.
HARRISBut I mean, Diane, so I think a lot of people are sympathetic to this notion of transparency and what's the matter with sort of labeling things. From FDAs perspective, though, this becomes a really tough thing to do because, of course...
REHMBut why should it be tougher for FDA to do it if all these European countries, Japan, China, everybody else is doing it?
HARRISBut they're not. Europe has zero policing system for these various things going on. I'm sorry, but China is an entirely corrupt society. We get a huge amount of our supplies from China. We've had melamine in dog food. We've had a completely contaminated heparin, contaminated in such a sophisticated manner that it passed some very sophisticated tests. And the people doing that contamination had to know that deaths would result. So you have a society that is bent on making money regardless of the cost. They've also had melamine even in baby food.
REHMWhat about the rest of Europe?
HARRISWell, so Europe has these rules and these laws, but almost no policing function for any of it. They do very little inspection, even of their own drug plants. So while -- you know, while it will certainly help in much of the domestically-produced food, because I think U.S. companies will follow the law, you know, we're getting a growing share of our food from abroad. And I don't think that you can trust the FDAs in the rest of the world to do this well.
REHMGardiner Harris, science reporter for the New York Times and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Tom Redick, what about the different standards for labels in other countries?
REDICKThis is part of the problem when different nations are all writing different types of GM labeling laws. Japan, for example, who have a tolerance for GM content that marketing standard of 5 percent, whereas Europe is 0.9. And from the production system, this does raise the cost of trying to ship to Europe. My growers have to get seed that's only 1 percent guaranteed purity and 0.9, well, you have to test to make sure you got the cleanest batch of seed and give back the rest or grow the other for commodity chains.
REDICKAnd I do think that the cost is not just labels. It's driving inputs out of products and that's where you get a marketplace that's chasing, you know, the too few soybeans and more, you know, people are going to pay more money for food. It certainly happens.
REHMAll right. Here is an -- here is an email from Shelly at Bloomington, Ind. She says, "As a gardener and consumer, I'm extremely concerned that the same company that created Agent Orange and proclaimed its safety is now being trusted when they say that GMO food is safe. I want nothing to do with Monsanto and other companies that push the GMO agenda. And I'm angry that I am virtually forced to eat this food since labeling is not required."
HIRSHBERGWell, and this is indeed the kind of comments that we receive all the time now. As I mentioned, Diane, it's between 15 and 20,000 coming in each and every week. And now with this new 2,4-D tolerant corn, you have to understand that nobody is able to say -- and we can't say and we won't say that this is necessarily making that food hazardous. But those toxins will now be endemic in our agricultural communities. And, in fact, the problem is in our air and our water.
HIRSHBERGThis is where we know that historically from the use of defoliants and Agent Orange that the impacts result from ambient exposure, so our farm communities, our rural communities and so forth. Also there's an impact on plants. Your rosebush next door to a farmer who's spraying this stuff is now going to be vulnerable. Your fruit trees -- any time this drift gets into the air. Now, I want to quickly say we don't, for a moment, suggest that this is an easy thing for the FDA to do. Both gentlemen have raised this point and we fully agree.
HIRSHBERGOrganic standards, for example, took 12 years from the time that they first went into law 'til we actually had a standard. And we don't even have global equilibration between those standards, although I believe there'll be an announcement this year from the USD that, in fact, we are unifying our standards with our European counterparts. This -- the fact that it isn't easy to do doesn't mean that we shouldn't be doing it, though. This is why I mentioned trust. Ultimately, what is the role of the FDA? It's of, for and by the people, not of, for and by five or six companies, like this woman's email, who are ultimately profiting from these crops.
HIRSHBERGIt will be very difficult. And we're not prescribing the process, but what we're saying is this is the role that the FDA has to play for us. The FDA is, by definition, required to defend and protect the American people.
HARRISIt's all true. You know, as we -- this is one of those cultural touchstones, Diane. And what's interesting is the vilification of Monsanto, for instance. I mean, there's a lot of people out there who think Monsanto is the devil itself. And anybody who has touched Monsanto is, you know, horribly touched and can never be trusted again. And it -- and there is a fair amount of irrationality here, I sort of think.
HARRISAnd if -- you know, if you were going to rank order the various things that FDA should be doing on food and other things, to me, GMO labeling falls well below, for instance, dealing with antibiotics, the wide spread use of antibiotics in feed animals that is a clear threat to human health, and some other issues as well.
HARRISHaving said that, I think because of the cultural issues around food and because I think that there is a basic lack of trust in Tom's clients, I think, at some point, the FDA is going to have to deal with this, even if it does not really have the tools to follow through on its rules.
REHMGardiner Harris. He's science reporter for the New York Times. Also here, Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm, Inc. and Thomas Redick. He's ethics counsel for Global Environmental. Short break and more of your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones first to Sally who's in Nokesville, Va. Good morning to you.
SALLYGood morning, Diane. I am a vocal part of the over 90 percent, as it was called, to get the surveys. As both a consumer and a small livestock farmer, I feel concern about the food supply is very justified. I'd like to bring up Dr. Don Huber's research and findings about the health problems, including rampant infertility in livestock, that he found directly corresponding to a newly identified micro-organism that they found in the GMO feed of the livestock and how that, along with the glyphosate in -- we're not just talking about the, you know, what's in the grocery store, directly with the soy or the corn in it, but the livestock, the meat, the beef, the chicken and the pork we're eating, that contains the glyphosate that we're eating.
REHMAll right. Do you know anything about that, Gary?
HIRSHBERGWell, there's an enormous amount of inference now about glyphosate. And again, I would make the general point that these -- we're gonna be needing to debate these technologies for years to come. Our point, very simply, is that our track record of approving new technologies, historically, from asbestos to lead in paint to DDT is, you know, these are technologies that, at first, made sense, but they're later found to cause serious problems.
HIRSHBERGAnd so the data is going to be accumulating here. People are going to be getting research and the debate will rage on, but while that's going on -- this, we believe, is the role of the FDA. We believe that consumers should have the right to choose to whether to be part of this system or not.
REHMAll right. Here's a question for you, Gary. From, let's see, Carl, who says, "Stonyfield switched to yogurt cups made from corn and has admitted on the company website that they are made from genetically engineered corn. Now, I think this is a good thing," says Carl, "much better than fossil-fuel based plastic cups. But a lot of other Stonyfield customers were outraged at the news and feel they would like to know.
REHMMy question is, since you've said on the show this morning you believe people have a right to know if their food is genetically engineered, do you believe your customers have a right to know if the containers their food comes in are made from genetically engineered crops?"
HIRSHBERGWell, we do. And that's why Carl knows about it because we were upfront about it. By the way, the comment we made was that they may be made from GM corn because, as Gardiner mentioned earlier, most of the corn in this county is GM. So what we said is it may be and people should know about it. And again, we made the calculation that it was better to produce from a crop than from oil out of the ground where you use it once.
HIRSHBERGWe also, incidentally, got into the -- we actually offset our GMO corn. In other words, if there was a possibility that our corn was genetically engineered, we actually paid to plant -- paid farmers extra money to plant non-GMO corn as a kind of an offset, similar to carbon offset. But I make the point or I go back to Tom Redick's point earlier today, there are sources of organic soy. There are sources of organic corn.
HIRSHBERGWhat we have right now is a supply and demand imbalance. The point that Tom was making that labeling will drive up the costs of these crops is absolutely not born out in the marketplace. In fact...
HIRSHBERG...quite the opposite.
REDICKWell, no. Gary, if I could just intrude. It's pretty clear to me that where people have enforced it, it raises costs. There's an incident in Brazil where Greenpeace tested their soybean oil and demanded all these documents to enforce the labeling law and those costs get passed on. And it, as I mentioned, the switching of inputs and you get this non-GMO musical chairs going after corn. But the big issue I think you've raised yourself is that we don't live in a label-only world. We live in the world where the people can go on the internet, get the details about products. In the stores, we have broad displays. Like, at Trader Joe's, they're saying, we're non-GMO in this whole store so don't even worry about it. Don't even read a label.
REDICKSo you've got issues here where there's plenty of information and plenty of transparency and there certainly is a risk that we would significantly increase the cost of food to those who can least afford that higher cost.
HARRISDiane, I think it's hard to argue that consumers are over-educated about their foods. I mean, I think that, again, the tendency toward more information rather than less is certainly one that a reporter who -- you know, I spend my life trying to give people more information rather than less, that I think is certainly an understandable desire. And I think is one that is felt across the country.
HARRISI don't -- you know, honestly, Diane, I have no idea how this is gonna play out or how it should play out because I'm sympathetic to both sides here because I think that there is great promise to GMO in food, hopefully for real consumers, for improved, more nutritionally fortified foods and all the rest. I think that there is some real questions, as Gary keeps raising, about the long-term consequences of these various modifications and if we really do wanna label them. And I think that there is, from everything I've seen, sort of a consensus among people that labeling would be a good thing. I have no idea how you would actually get that done.
HARRISAnd one last point here is that right now, the FDA is trying to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was the first new rules governing food to try cut back on all these food contamination scares that we've been getting. This legislation passed last year. And the, you know, the House Republicans have basically cut the FDA's budget, rather than increased the budget, to do all these things. So, you know, we've got fewer and fewer food inspections, fewer and fewer food inspectors. We need more money for this. If you wanna do real GMO labeling, you're gonna -- I'm sorry, Tom's right. You're gonna have to pay for at least some sort of regulatory infrastructure at the governmental level to get it done.
HIRSHBERGIt's a lot cheaper than getting sick from overuse of defoliants in creating a nation of birth defects.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from Emily. "Are genetically modified foods currently labeled organic? How would genetically modified food labeling affect organic food labeling if a farmer using non-genetically modified seed is next to a farmer who uses GM seeds? Cross pollination occurs. Is anything pure?"
HIRSHBERGNo. This is a very, very good point and, in fact, it's important to underscore. A lot of people have accused me of pushing this notion because it will somehow benefit organics. Actually, we've already been through this with genetically modified synthetic growth hormone in the '90s. We were pushing for labeling. We got it. The FDA did approve it. And ironically that gives consumers a choice not to buy organic 'cause they can now buy conventional milk free of synthetic growth hormones. So it hasn't, in fact, benefited us at all.
HIRSHBERGThis issue of cross pollination is a very big issue and it's a very big concern. And in fact, the Secretary of Agriculture now has a committee called the AC21 Panel that is working on this notion of coexistence, of how to live in the 21st century. What happens when your bull gets out of your field and into my garden? And indeed, a wind drift and compensation are critical issues for our times.
HIRSHBERGOur labeling campaign, again at JustLabelIt.org is not really challenging the existence of these GMOs. We accept they're here. They're here to say. What we're saying, though, is that while we're understanding the research, while we're understanding the impacts, the consumer has the right to know. And I should quickly mention, Diane, that on these issue of costs -- I wanna tell you a quick anecdote.
HIRSHBERGWhen we first started in organics in the 1990s, organic sugar was a 100 percent higher premium cost than conventional sugar. We had to -- and obviously, I couldn't pass it along to the consumer and charge $2 for a yogurt cup. Today, though, in 2011 at least, organic sugar was at parity with conventional.
HIRSHBERGAnd the reason for it is because an increase in demand has resulted in more supply.
HIRSHBERGOrganics is now a $29 billion industry, five percent of U.S. food and as a result, we've watched the premium come down.
REHMAll right. To Bristol, Ind. Good morning, Mary.
MARYGood morning. My question relates to the -- or my concern relates to the use of the 2,4-D and other chemicals on our farmland. I mean, we know what Agent Orange did and yet we're now dumping that onto our farmland. And I just have great concern for what we will discover down the road from using that kind of chemical.
REHMRedick, do you wanna comment?
REDICKWell, actually, this is Tom pointing out that the World Wildlife Fund has done good studies showing that the crops actually reduced the use of chemicals. So I'm not sure where Gary's getting the information about increased -- for example, with Roundup those crops actually use less Roundup herbicides than using it in a normal, you know, burning-off-all-the-weeds situation because they suppress the weeds when they sprout up afterwards.
REDICKSo I do see that as a reality check.
HIRSHBERGNo, no. This is widely known. This is the USDA pesticides statistics. In the 10 years after Roundup-ready crops were introduced, glyphosate use went from 7.9 million pounds per year to 119 million pounds per year. And response -- and now, just to the woman's question, the area infested with resistance weeds in the U.S. expanded more than fivefold, from 2.4 million acres in early 2007 to 13 million acres across 26 states last year. These are not our data, this is USDA data.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from Wayne who is in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, The Institute for Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics, at the University of Georgia, who says, "As a professor of crop science, I am disturbed to hear Mr. Hirshberg's comments, which are either incorrect or misleading. The trading partner argument is faulty beginning with Europe. They like to require labels primarily on imported products. They make all sorts of exceptions for their own products so things that range from vitamins to wine to cheese do not have to be labeled as GMO.
REHMHis comments on increased herbicide use are not right either. What has happened is there has been a substitution effect. The herbicides they used from World War II 'til 15 years ago got replaced by newer ones. Mr. Hirschberg must also realize no farmer is going to burn up his profits and spare time by applying unnecessary herbicides. And in the end, GM crops are the most tested, studied and analyzed products in history." Gardiner, you want to comment?
HARRISWell, yeah, I mean, Diane, I think that you get to see sort of a gap between science and perception. I mean, farming is one of those things where the image and reality could hardly be great -- the distance between them could hardly be greater. Obviously, the industrialization of farming, particularly in raising cattle, in pigs and the rest, chickens, you know, you do not wanna go into a chicken farm or one of these feedlots because it will contrast sharply with what you want it to be.
HARRISAnd it's one of the reasons why we pour huge subsidies into agriculture, is because we have this image that we're subsidizing these nice small family farms, when in fact we're pouring money into these agricultural conglomerates.
HIRSHBERGYeah, I just need to point out that there's as much science on arguing -- there's science on both sides. And the debate is going on. And I've been observant and participant to many of these debates. On December 29 the Associated Press just reported that G.E. corn that makes it own insecticides may be losing its effectiveness now because a major pest, the corn rootworm, is developing resistance faster than scientists thought.
HIRSHBERGAnd that's our point, is I don't think all the science is in. I think, in 2012, we ought to have the humility to recognize that we don't know it all, that as we manipulate with technologies, which ideally will have long-term benefits to feed the 9.2 billion people, and as we look at this notion of coexistence, we, at the same time as we're developing this technology, at the same time as we have this debate, we've got to -- consumers have gotta have the ability to choose whether to be a part of this system or not.
REHMGary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, Inc. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show". Thomas Redick, where do you think this argument is going?
REDICK...see that with 9.2 billion people showing up, we need to have all the technologies that are safe and that increase the yield. And while the crops that we've been growing have mainly benefited the production system, that does lead to lower-priced food. As growers save billions of dollars growing a crop overall, they probably are selling it onto -- for not as much as they would if they spent a billion dollars. So those studies are really clear.
REDICKAnd it's clear that we'll probably have a mix of sustainable organics, sustainable bio techs, sustainable nano whatever that's gonna be in the future agricultural system. And I don't see any place for the government putting labels on any of that if the voluntary system is providing consumers what they want.
HARRISYeah, I mean Tom brings up actually the next great debate, which is gonna be what are we gonna do about nano particles and nano technology in food, which is coming down the line to a grocery store near you, Diane. And the FDA, frankly, doesn't really know what it's gonna do about nano particles and nano technology in food and how it could impact the food supply from processors to consumers. So this debate will not only continue about bio tech, but will then begin to go into this whole new area of technology called nano particles and nano technology.
REHMSo, Gary, where is all this going? I know you're releasing a new book. Titled?
HIRSHBERGIt's called, "Label It Now: What You Need to Know About Genetically Engineered Foods." It's an e-book that's going live today. In fact, your listeners can find it on your website. Let me just summarize, Diane. At this point, where are we? We have no consumer benefits yet determined, yet demonstrated, but nearly 100 percent of the evidence on health and safety has been provided by those who are profiting from these crops. The debate is going to rage on.
HIRSHBERGAnd indeed, we need the full mix. I agree with Tom Redick on this. We're gonna need the full mix to solve the problem. And unfortunately, the U.N., FAO and many other institutions around the world are demonstrating -- University of Michigan just came out with a study that organics will be a critical part of feeding the world.
HIRSHBERGBut the bottom line is we're not opposed to research. We're not opposed to new technology. We will be delighted to see objective findings that demonstrate the benefits without jeopardizing health and safety. But we need to be watchful of the externalities, of the externalized costs. While profits are made from these technologies right now, at the same time if we're postponing and pushing costs down the road, health and environmental concerns, consumers need to have the choice, while we're debating, whether to participate in the process or not.
REHMGary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm, Inc., Gardiner Harris, science reporter for The New York Times, author of the mystery novel, "Hazard" and Thomas Redick, Global Environmental Ethics Counsel, thank you all so much.
HIRSHBERGThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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