On January 3, Rosa Rashall and some 20 volunteers will meet upstairs at Calico’s in downtown Garberville for the third session of training to collect signatures for a petition that will require food manufacturers to label products containing Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. Rashall and the local volunteers are part of a statewide effort to mandate labeling so that consumers will know when GMOs are present in food products and be able to make an informed decision as to whether or not they wish to buy those products.
Rashall says she expects that the petitions to get the question on the November, 2012 ballot will be available at the Jan. 3 meeting. Trainings such as the ones that have been held in Garberville are going on all over California. The petition’s backers have until April 18 to collect 550,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot and bring the question to the voters of California.
"It is a well organized campaign," Rashall says, "and what is amazing about it is that it started with one woman, Pamm Larry, waking up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘No one is going to come do this for us; I have to do it.’ She put up a website with no backers, no funding, no anything, in the middle of January (2011) when she woke up and had that epiphany."
The website was up in the middle of February and by the middle of March Larry was traveling around Southern California gathering people like Rashall to join her campaign. The initiative campaign got the support of the Organic Consumers Association and the Institute for Responsible Technology.
Like Rashall, Larry is a nutritionist and like Rashall, she has serious concerns about the impact of GMOs on human health.
"This is something that has been worrying me and so many people," Rashall says. "That’s why it’s so well organized and why there’re so many people who just jumped on board. We have over 90 leaders around the state who are donating hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours to make this happen. We are all worried for a variety of reasons, from health effects to sky rocketing food sensitivities that have started to come about in the last 20 years. There has been an incredible 400% increase in food sensitivities that coincides pretty well with the unlabeled introduction of GMO food into the marketplace."
Rashall has been researching and reading about GMOs and what she has learned raises concerns not just for the present generation but for generations to come.
"In the few studies that have been done, they have fed GMO food to rats in the laboratory prior to conception, during pregnancy and during lactation. The babies were found to be infertile. They couldn’t mate with each other and produce offspring. They could mate with a rat that hadn’t been fed GMO food and produce a litter, but it was a smaller size litter. Pamm Larry had been reading up on these things, like we all have who are interested, and thinking this can’t go on."
The study that found the mice were made infertile was done in Russia and although the researcher wanted to continue, she was not allowed to due to political and economic pressure.
Independent research on the impact of GMO food has been very limited because the corporations that patent the GMO organisms consider the information proprietary. The independent scientists who have researched the impact have had to create their own organisms to study as using an organism owned by corporations such as Monsanto, Du Pont, Syngenta or Avantis would get them sued.
Rashall says that the process of genetic engineering involves either a bacterial invasion or a "gene gun" or metal nano-particles that are used to introduce GMO genes into a cell.
"It’s all very high-tech and you don’t really need to know that much about it other than that it’s not natural and produces something that never existed before in nature," she says. "Viruses have an ability to splice themselves into the DNA so that’s why they attach a viral promoter to every gene they’re trying to insert into the host animal.
"There’s only been one human feeding study. Women were fed GMO soy milk shakes and they found that there didn’t seem to be any change from that one feeding, but a few of the volunteers were found to already have had horizontal gene transfer from GMO soy just from their regular diet. These women didn’t know they were eating GMO soy but it was found in their intestinal flora. They were already inhabited by these Roundup Ready genes. Roundup is marketed as something that reduces the use of pesticides on soy crops because it only kills the weeds. But the weeds have developed resistance to the Roundup glyphosphates. The farmers who have signed agreements to grow Roundup crops are forced to use other herbicides to kill the weeds."
Farmers who grow genetically engineered crops are not allowed to save seeds as the manufacturers of the GMOs also own all the seeds produced by their crops. At this point in time, about 67% of the world’s seeds are owned by major chemical corporations.
Rashall disputes the claim made by the corporations that they are improving the world’s food supply.
"They say their high vitamin A rice is going to save children from blindness but you’d have to eat so much of that rice to get your beta carotene - it’s not even vitamin A; it’s beta carotene which needs to be converted to vitamin A in the body - that it would be much cheaper to just give the kids some vitamin A supplements. And commercially, at this point, there’re pesticide resistant crops, herbicide resistant crops and crops that are resistant to viruses. That’s it. There’s nothing that increases nutrition or drought tolerance.
"In studies, it’s been found that traditional farming practices, integrated pest management and building soil produces better yields. The Union of Concerned Scientists has put out a report titled Failure to Yield that debunks the claims that GMOs are better."
The most common GMO foods on the market in the U.S. are alfalfa (fed to meat animals), canola and canola oil, corn, cotton, cottonseed oil (which is in most processed foods), papaya, soy and soy oil, sugar beets, zucchini and yellow squash.
"We are all eating GMO foods without being aware of it," Rashall says. "Labeling doesn’t ban GMOs but it does give the consumer the right to know what they are buying. What the initiative will do is require all food to be labeled if it contains GMO products so the consumer can make a choice as to whether or not they want to eat GMOs. There are brands that say they are GMO-free but if they aren’t organic, they very likely contain some GMO. GMOs have even contaminated some organic farms. This was one of the predictions - that once GMOs are in the environment there is no way to prevent their spread. Some GMOs contaminated corn in Chiapas.
"To my mind, this is letting the free market work the way it’s supposed to. Informed consumers decide what they want to buy. The hope is that when people know this is GMO and this isn’t, they will choose GMO-free and the demand for GMO will fade and planters will no longer plant it. The risk of contamination will diminish. These are powerful companies, and an outright ban is probably impossible."
In the meantime, she says, expect that most processed food sold in stores contains GMOs. It’s estimated that 70% of food contains GMOs. In Europe, where GMO foods are required to be labeled, only 5% of the food contains GMOs.
"Some people have given up," she says, "because they think it’s too late to do anything about the GMOs in the food chain and because the corporations that own them are so powerful. It’s true that there is some contamination but it’s not universal and it can be kept to one to two percent with labeling."
Intense opposition from Monsanto and the other corporations is expected to sweep into California if the measure qualifies for the ballot, but polls show that voters overwhelmingly support knowing what is in their food.
Note: The signature gathering kickoff has been postponed until early February due to concerns about wording in the initiative.