Why GMO labeling matters

I admit to being confused about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Like many Americans, I’m challenged to understand the consequences of genetically engineered organisms in my body, family, and in the environment. Knowing the facts will help guide us in the choices we make for all the things we care about.

While a long-term study of genetically engineered organisms is still lacking, significant parts of the world are concerned about their impacts: All 27 countries in the European Union now ban or limit GMO crops. Egypt and Algeria also restrict GMOs, as do Peru, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.

With over 75 percent of all non-organic foods in the U.S. containing genetically engineered ingredients, why haven’t the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, guardian angels of the nation’s food supply, moved in that direction – or at least taken a more cautious approach? And why aren’t GMO foods labeled so we can make informed choices?

Some things to know about GMO:

GMO foods are made with new, uncertain technology: Older methods of crossing plants, including hybridization and selection, have been used for centuries. These methods are natural and safe. They don’t try to splice flounder DNA into tomatoes to resist frost. (No one has ever tasted the infamous “fish tomato,” a genetically engineered failure of the early ’90s.) Long-term impacts of GMOs are unknown.

GMOs are everywhere: Much of our food, though not labeled as such, is already GMO: Eighty-five percent of soy, 40 percent of corn, 75 percent of canola and 76 percent of cotton grown in the U.S. are GMO, reports the USDA. (footnote 1)

Mostly Roundup: Eighty percent of food-crop GMOs are bred for tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup, made by Monsanto, according to the Journal of Agrobiotechnology Management and Economics. (2) A Roundup-resistant plant lives while the herbicide kills competing weeds. The problem is that glyphosate stays in the plant. If you eat GMO corn or soy, you’re eating the herbicide, too. In 2009, a French court found Monsanto guilty of falsifying an advertising claim that glyphosate is biodegradable, reports BBC News. (3) A 2011 European study found glyphosate in 44 percent of volunteers from 18 countries. You’re even exposed if you eat organically: A 2011 study written up on GreenMedInfo.com “detected glyphosate in 60-100 percent of all U.S. air and rain samples.” (4) Another 2012 study found it widespread in groundwater, reports Reuters. (5)

Problems with Roundup: Glyphosate has been linked in scientific studies to breast cancer, Parkinson’s disease, autism, MS, infertility, gastrointestinal diseases and Alzheimer’s. (6) The American Academy for Environmental Medicine says that GMO foods “pose a serious health risk” and has called for a moratorium on the use of GMOs until further studies are done.

If GMOs are risky, why are they everywhere? Someone left the barn door open – a revolving door between industry and government. Michael Taylor, for example, is both the former vice president of public policy at Monsanto and the current deputy commissioner for foods under the Obama administration. As a regulator, Mr. Taylor approved use of rGBH, bovine growth hormone – a controversial GMO – despite links to cancer, allergies and higher rates of childhood asthma (7).

Everyone knows not to put a fox in the chicken house, because while Mr. Fox may know more about chickens than anyone alive, knowledge does not imply honorable intentions.

When I was farming, a peahen, Penelope, escaped from a farm up the road and moved in with our chickens. Eventually she sounded just like a chicken, and blindfolded, you’d never know. GMO proponents would like us to stay blindfolded and believe genetically modified salmon is the same as its wild brethren. They want us to stay blind to potential problems by fast-tracking GMO approval and stacking the regulatory deck. They would like us to turn a blind eye to the growing number of negative GMO studies and continue to trust that Monsanto, guilty of lying and polluting, can protect our health while telling us a peahen is a chicken.

With more states compelling food producers to make GMO labeling mandatory, it’s clear that the awakening American public opposes the abuse and manipulation of our food system.

It’s time for Congress to pull off the blinders for good and pass a responsible GMO labeling bill that protects the health of everyone. Safety comes first.

Karen Johnston is an ayurvedic consultant, former farmer and community food activist living in Hardwick, Vt.


1. “Top 7 Genetically Modified Crops,” Margie Kelly, Huffington Post, Oct. 30, 2012, huffingtonpost.com/margie-kelly/genetically-modified-food; USDA, ERS, Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US, ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us.aspx

2. “Glyphosate-Resistant Crops and Weeds: Now and in the Future,” Stephen O. Duke, Stephen B. Powles, www.agbioforum.org/v12n34/v12n34a10-duke.htm

3. “Monsanto guilty in ‘false ad’ row,” Oct. 15, 2009, BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8308903.stm;

4. “GMO and Monsanto Roundup: Glyphosate Weedkiller in our Food and Water?” Colin Todhunter, June 16, 2013, www.greenmedinfo.com

5. “U.S. researchers find Roundup Chemical in water, air,” Carey Gillam, Reuters U.S. edition, Aug. 31, 2011, U.S. GSO, U.S. Department of Interior, P. Capel (environmental chemist)

6. “Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases,” Guerrero-Andrade, O., et al. “Expression of the Newcastle disease virus fusion protein in transgenic maize and immunological studies.” Transgenic Research 15, 455463(2006) doi:10.1007/s11248-006-0017-0; Dr. Nancy Swanson: “Dr. Swanson: ‘GMOs Cause Increase in Chronic Disease, Infertility and Birth Defects,'” Sustainable Pulse, sustainablepulse.com/2013/04/27/dr-swanson-gmos-and-roundup-increase-chronic-diseases-infertility-and-birth-defects/#.UfKaNeC3mEU

7. Holmes, Pollak, et. al. “Dietary Correlates of Plasma Insulin-like Growth Factor I and Insulin-like Growth Factor Binding Protein 3 Concentrations,” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention, September 2002, p. 852-861; Chan, Stampfer, et. al. “Plasma Insulin-like Growth Factor-I and Prostate Cancer Risk: A Prospective Study,” Science, January 1998, p. 563-566; Yu, Jin, et. al, “Insulin-like Growth Factors and Breast Cancer Risk in Chinese Women,” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention, August 2002, p. 705-712.; “Report on Public Health Aspects of the Use of Bovine Somatotropin,” issued March 15-16, 1999, p. 17, and available from The European Commission – Food Safety