Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

Bill To Label GMO Food — Dr. Bronner And Biologist Weigh In

Genetically Modified
Bill To Label GMO Food — Dr. Bronner And Biologist Weigh In
GUESTS:Steven Briggs, Distinguished Professor, Section of Cell and Developmental Biology, UC San DiegoDavid Bronner, CEO, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Legislators in Washington now be considering a bill that mirrors the genetically modified labeling proposition, prop 37 that failed in California last fall. Sen. Barbara Boxer is sponsoring the bill in the Senate that would require labeling of food that contains genetically modified organisms or GMOs. The same bill is also the introduced in the house. Supporters say 90% of Americans support the labeling of genetically engineered food but the measure faces strong opposition from food manufacturers and some members of the scientific community. Joining me to talk about the new push for food labeling are my guests Stephen Briggs, a professor of biology at UC San Diego and Steve, welcome to the program. STEVEN BRIGGS: Thank you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And David Bronner is here. He is CEO of the Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap which has its headquarters in Escondido. David, welcome. DAVID BRONNER: Thanks for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, a research organization called the Mellman group recently published the results of the survey on GMO labeling says 90% of Americans would like to know if the food they eatcontains genetically engineered ingredients. David, why do you think that is? DAVID BRONNER: I think Americans fundamentally want to know what they are eating and what they're feeding their families labeling gives us important information not only about health and nutrition of the fund also important production related information, such as his orange juice from concentrate or not, one country does that food comes from and is also genetically engineered? People have concerns around genetic engineering, the weedkiller tolerance that is being blasted on their food, so that's generally what I think is driving them Americans the vast majority of which want to know MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Steve what do you think accounts for such support of GMO labeling? STEVEN BRIGGS: I think it is an ideological label. It's not a label about what is about your food, it is not going to require the listing of a single new food ingredient on the label. It is really about. The names of food and are you supporting model organization, modern agriculture when the organic food companies are saying is more agriculture MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As I said, the prop 37 initiative was narrowly defeated here in California. Steve you oppose the measure. In your opinion is our scientific reason for people to be concerned about genetically engineered food? STEVEN BRIGGS: No there is not. There's no product for human consumption has been used as widely as genetically engineered food without a single incidence of illness of any kind. In surmountable contrast to organic food, which kills people every year. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How do you mean it kills people? STEVEN BRIGGS: From food poisoning due to fecal contamination. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So your point, Steve, is that there's no scientific backing for this, so basically it's an ideological struggle? STEVEN BRIGGS: The label is an ideological label. It's not a food ingredient label because it will not have any food ingredients. Food ingredient label tells you what is in the food and how much and there is none of that in this labeling legislation. It's really ideological. It is for people who oppose modern agriculture and cooperation and patents and all that sort of thing, has nothing to do with health or agronomic benefits to the environment. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: David Bronner, you support GMO labeling. Is it really that the safety of the food or is it more as Steve says it is. This idea of corporate farming and Monsanto creating seeds that cannot be, that must be bought every year that farmers have to go to the incentive to buy the seeds they cannot just leave them in the ground and have them produced year after year. So what is it really about? DAVID BRONNER: I think it's about a lot of those resumes. Personally it is mostly about the method of agriculture. I mean, the most here is not being driven by the organic industry. Among the steering media 5522 in Washington state and its composed of fishermen who are opposed to GMO salmon entering the market of people ruining the perception of the average American consumer does not want to eat some weird fish made with eel genes. They want to know. And if they don't know they're not going to buy the fish and that's why the salmon industry is clearly opposed. Apple growers. There's a GMO apple coming down the pipe of the Botox Apple, it's nicknamed the Botox Apple. This is going to ruin the image of a healthy, organic apple consumption as far as others and (inaudible) people are concerned about their health. Personally, I think it is more regulated from the weedkiller residues that are being increasingly blasted on her food. The problem with genetic engineering is that they develop weedkiller tolerance that they can plant the same crop year after year on the same acreage. They are not interrupting the bad cycle you are breeding resistance to the weeds and pests and blasting FMR weedkiller and pesticides on our food. And now that the technology is feeding now they are breeding resistance to even more resistant talk sites like 242 Main ingredient in Agent Orange, die camera which is a non-urine toxin this is a chemical treadmill. We need to be getting off it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: do we have any real evidence of the foot is making us sick? DAVID BRONNER: No and that's not what motivates me and most people. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It is not that the foot is not making us sick? DAVID BRONNER: There's obviously something very wrong with the food supply. The incidence of asthma and allergies are going through the roof. Drawing a direct causal correlation to the genetic engineering, I mean, yeah, there are new compounds in our food that, you know, it's not like there's magical herbicide tolerance conferred. If some new compound, some new protein in our food and this has not undergone safety testing rigorous independent safety testing citing there are some valid questions about the safety of the students and definitely that is what is motivating a lot of people. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You say, Steve the genetic engineering is really like sex. What do you mean by that? STEVEN BRIGGS: I knew it wouldn't take long to get sex into the discussion. Well, sex between plants and between animals is a natural form of genetic modification, which is the material of evolution. It is essential for organisms to be able to adapt over time to a changing environment. And genetic engineering is a natural process that was discovered by scientists and used by them to but useful genes into plants bacterial eventually engineered plants and have for many, many millions of years but it's very important for your listeners to know that this labeling businesses an ideological argument nothing to do with safety. I have a problem with it because we already have ideological labels. We have the organic food label, which is ideological. Then we have food companies with their own private. No GMO, or GMO free labels. So consumers already have their ideological labels and this bill would impose an ideological label on all consumers and all of us make a much higher food costs and I don't want to do something most middle and lower income families want it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you another question about nature versus science. To modify food nature has been in the business of modifying food for hundreds of thousands of years and nature make some mistakes. Of course we all know that but scientists in the laboratory genetically modifying food is a little daunting to a lot of people because let's face it, you guys don't know as much as nature knows about how to change things, is that right, is that a fair statement? STEVEN BRIGGS: I don't think nature knows things. And obviously nature is something we have been fighting against throughout the history of civilization. To eliminate disease, to eliminate famine, to eliminate poverty. But, scientists worked very hard all around the world and independent government funded, government labs, and the data are very clear, and now we have an actual safety record. This isn't a hypothetical case record but on the first genetically engineered food. There's nothing that's been consumed by humans is widely and for as long time as genetically engineered food without a single incidence of illness. We'd know about it if there was a problem. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: David, let me go to what Steve said about the fact that genetically engineered food has kept the price of food low it's kept farming efficient and it's allowed farmers to feed more people at lower costs. If we got rid of genetically engineered food we might have a problem feeding everybody in the world. DAVID BRONNER: Right that's a common misperception about what genetic engineering is. Genetic engineering, the genetics that are driving yield have nothing to do with the weed killer tolerant traits or the pesticide producing traits that are genetically engineered. The underlying genetics driving yield our traditional crop breeding, genetics. Has nothing to do with anything about boosting yield. And the price of food did not go up in Europe, which has labeling. They have much less consumption of GMO crops, there's no difference in not price of GMO corn syrup versus non-GM corn syrup and in fact Monsanto put out ads in 2003 in the UK in full support of labeling and did support a coherent food labeling has Monsanto's fallback he positively supports food manufacturers and retailers at introduction of labels we should believe you should be aware of the facts before making a purchase. So it's like they've changed their tune and their sinking $1 million to keep Americans in the dark about the secret changes because when people get making informed choices and maybe I'll have to not genetically engineered apple, that's generally what they're going to do and that's why they are spending millions against us but it has nothing to do with feeding the world. It has to the short-term profit model and the nature is correcting that, you can't be blasting, germicidal beliefs about them developing resistance and that's what's happening. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Steve the name of the bill that's being introduced into Washington in Congress right now is genetically, the Americans right to know about genetically engineered foods. Why not just let people know? If indeed the food is going to be cheaper, it's going to be just as safe, why not put the GMO label on it? STEVEN BRIGGS: Because that's actually very deceptive description of what the bill really is. As I said earlier, it will not require or result in the listing of even one single new ingredient. It is not about the ingredients. That is a false claim designed to mislead the American public. The reality is this is an ideological inspired operation MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There are some people who genuinely would rather have something that was produced naturally, more organically rather than something that had been genetically engineered to resist a certain test, let's say. So, why not give the consumer that right to choose? STEVEN BRIGGS: The market gave the consumer the right more than a decade ago. We already have these labels, the organic food label and private GMO free label. They are there. Everybody who cares about this issue already knows where to go to buy the food they want. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know David, some people say the opposition to genetically engineered food is really just about a fear of science. Do you see it that way? DAVID BRONNER: Not at all. I think that obviously modern agriculture has achieved great things and is feeding the world, but genetic engineering is not part, needs not be part of the solution. You know, like modern organic farming methods adopt many, break scientific insights and breakthroughs, and in fact you don't even have to be pro-organic, you can be just conventional but belief in integrated pest management, where you take, you rotate your crops understand what crops to plant together to minimize pest pressure. So, no I don't think the pro-labeling consortium, the coalition is anti-science. It is just a pro-right to know. We have a right to know what's in the food and give us the right to make their own informed decisions. If we GMO is the bees knees we buy it. And if we don't, if we have concerns, we won't. Legally it's already happening in six different countries, including India and China. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask Steve about that. The people of the nations that have required genetically engineered food has seen a collapse in the genetically engineered food industry. People know that it's in the food, it seems that they will not buy. What does it tell you? STEVEN BRIGGS: You might not really be familiar with the details. The people in Europe, for example, have never had the right to buy genetically engineered food. They don't have the right. Their politicians took it away from and they took it away as a form of protectionism, to keep American companies that invented the technology from taking over their domestic agriculture industry. This is just pure protectionism. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But in places like Japan where they have labeling of GMOs, is that, they are also protectionism there is the same thing driving it? STEVEN BRIGGS: We say they have labeling, but the fact is there are no labeled products the marketplace. So the consumer has no freedom to choose what they want. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me get your feeling on this, David. Do you think if people saw the GMO label on foods that the consumption of that particular food item would go down? DAVID BRONNER: Right, just to correct Steve, you can sell genetically engineered food, you just have to label it and in fact you have to just disclose what ingredients have been genetically engineered Japan everywhere they have labeling. They are not banning the GMOs and in some countries they banned the farming of the GMOs STEVEN BRIGGS: That's what I was referring to. DAVID BRONNER: American companies are free to export genetically engineered food products into Europe the fact that they choose not to is they are reacting to consumer preference which I think is we will not have the genetically engineered tofu. So, yeah, obviously, for the anti-right to know, because you get people informed choice and generally speaking people are kind if not into eating artificially engineered food products. Especially when there are so many concerts after that raised around farming in the unsustainable practices that go with it, you start to see GMO salmon, GMO apples and these whole foods. It's moving into the produce aisle in the meat section people just get really alarmed. They are like, I have a right to know if this is genetically engineered or not. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you both to me start with you Steve do you think a bill requiring GMO labeling has a good chance of passing in Congress? STEVEN BRIGGS: It's got very powerful backers. Certainly Boxer is responding to the large organic food industry in California and her cosponsor is an organic farmer he will personally make billions off the bill. If it becomes law, so there's always a lot of motivation. But I think the scientific community to medical community will stand up and shine some light on this in that this bill will not inform the consumer about anything other than ideological issues. But, masquerading as knowledge. If it was knowledge it would add ingredients to the label, but it is not about that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And David, do you think the bill is going to pass? DAVID BRONNER: I think it's very difficult headwinds, the biotechnology industry, the pesticide chemical industry the strategy typically engineering, and Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, they spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying both parties with the very specific agenda, which is to get very specific people appointed to the key regulatory positions at EPA, FDA, USDA, who are all pro-GM. I think it's very difficult to pass that the federal through congressional effort. I think over time, we can do it, but I think that we know, punching through at a state level through the ballot initiative process which, in Washington state is a real key battleground for us in 2013. You know where we have a very powerful consortium and is not organic driven. This is the conventional wheat farmers in Washington state that want nothing to do with the GMO wheat that is coming down the pike that can contaminate the non-GMO wheat, ruin the export markets in Japan. This happened to the southern rice farmers in the US. They got contaminated MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're going to have to end it there. We're going a little bit over time. I've been speaking with Stephen Briggs professor of biology at UC San Diego and David Bronner CEO Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap thank you both very much. STEVEN BRIGGS: Thank you DAVID BRONNER: Thank you

New legislation has been introduced in Washington that would require labeling of GMO, or genetically modified, food. It mirrors California's Proposition 37 measure, which voters rejected last year.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act so "consumers can make informed choices about what they eat."

Supporters say 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of genetically modified food, but the measure faces strong opposition from food manufacturers and some members of the scientific community.


“Americans have the right to know what is in the food they eat so they can make the best choices for their families," Boxer said in a released statement. “This legislation is supported by a broad coalition of consumer groups, businesses, farmers, fishermen and parents who all agree that consumers deserve more — not less — information about the food they buy.”

Steve Briggs, biology professor at UC San Diego says he was against California's Proposition 37 because it was not "honest." He says a lot of push for GMO labeling comes from the organic industry and that it's political. Briggs says labeling will push the cost of food up making organic food more competitive.

Manufacturers do who do not use GMO ingredients are already labeling their food, says Briggs. "If people want to eat GMO-free, they can. If people want labeling of how the food is made they can do it voluntary, like Kosher foods are labeled."

Briggs says "everyone shouldn't have to pay more for labeling if they don't care if their food has GMOs."