What is in Your Food?

“Do you read labels on the groceries you buy from the store?” This is a question that Angelina Garavente has asked hundreds of complete strangers over the course of a few months. It is a task that came with her internship at a non-profit organization called Food and Water Watch. I interviewed her to find out about an important issue that is affecting all of us. Food and Water Watch focuses on a variety of health and environmental issues, while proudly receiving no funding from government or corporate groups. All of their funding comes from members, donors, and grants.

The organization has launched numerous campaigns that counter unhealthy food and water practices. Recently, the Ban Fracking Everywhere campaign was successful in New York. Food and Water Watch was the first U.S. national organization to call for a ban on fracking, and in 2014, its members effectively lobbied government officials to legally ban this harmful procedure in New York State.

The recent Food and Water Watch campaign is the reason that Angelina has had conversations with a myriad of busy New Yorkers about the food in their grocery carts. A student at Pace University, she recently worked on the organization’s GMO labeling campaign. Angelina is a junior in the Pforzheimer Honors College, and she has gained valuable skills and experience in this internship that have affected her career considerations. After “improving her interpersonal skills and getting more experience interacting with people,” she is now considering a career in a non-profit organization for the first time.

Angelina, an Arts and Entertainment Management major with a minor in Sociology, was the Grassroots Coordinator for the campaign. Her role was to reach out to numerous New York communities and inform citizens about the issue. Angelina insists that she and all of her colleagues at Food and Water Watch strongly believe that this issue is crucial to the health and safety of all of her fellow citizens.

Angelina at a rally showing support for GMO labeling

So what exactly is the issue that is causing Angelina and many others to take action? Essentially, people want more transparency when it comes to GMO food. According to The Non GMO Project, “a GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified using recombinant DNA methods (also called gene splicing), gene modification or transgenic technology.” GMOs have only been used in the production of our food for the past couple of decades, but they have quickly become ubiquitous. Most packaged foods in the United States are created using crops that have been genetically modified.

One important aspect of this issue is the business implications. The company that has the largest stake in the business of producing GMO foods is Monsanto. This video provides an overview of the company’s involvement and how it benefits from GMOs:

o https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qMh9jJk4fQ

Essentially, Monsanto has used genetically modified food to conquer the food market. It has modified crops so that they are resistant to Roundup, the herbicide that Monsanto makes. Farmers can spray these modified crops with Roundup to kill the weeds without killing the crops. Monsanto claims that the herbicide is safe but, as the video notes, the company also vouched for the safety of Agent Orange. In a recent decision after some investigation, Roundup must now be labeled with a cancer warning. GMO food is therefore being doused in this cancerous chemical. At the very least, Monsanto is monopolizing the food industry. When farmers use GMO crops, they must then exclusively use Roundup. This is a burden on famers and defeats any of Monsanto’s competition.

The most immediate course of action to combat GMOs is to demand that they are clearly labeled so that people may decide for themselves whether or not to eat them. As the video explains, Monsanto has invested roughly $4,200,000 to fight labeling laws. In 2016, however, progress was made when President Obama signed a bill that set a national law for GMO labeling, rather than letting each state decide. The law “would require food packages to display an electronic code, text label, or some sort of symbol signifying whether or not they contain GMOs.” This was an important step in recognizing the importance of GMO labeling.

However, there are valid concerns that this law has shortcomings. Because of some ambiguous language, GMO corn and “food ingredients like beet sugar and soybean oil, which can be derived from genetically-engineered crops but contain next to no genetic material by the time they are processed, may not fall under the law’s definition of a bioengineered food.” When the very definitions are unclear, the law is limited in what it can successfully govern.

Bernie Sanders, one critic of the law, explained that “when parents go to the store and purchase food, they have the right to know what is in the food their kids are going to be eating.” He argued on the floor of the Senate that, not only did the law not go far enough, but that there is an attempt to purposely create confusion among the consumers. The idea of suppressing information from those that buy the products is one element that makes Monsanto’s practices seem so suspicious. We do not know for sure that genetically modified food has hazardous effects on health, but that is because Monsanto has gone to great lengths to keep information as secret as possible. What do they have to hide?

If government intervention proves to be fruitless, there are other ways of raising awareness about the GMO issue. GMO OMG is a documentary about a father searching for answers about genetically modified food. It highlights both the potential health hazards and how difficult it is to confront Monsanto about its practices. The documentary is available on Netflix. There was also an episode of the HBO show Vice that examines the GMO issue. You can watch it here. It is a telling sign that these endeavors to inform the public have become popular because it proves that people care about the issue.

Undoubtedly, we should all be aware of GMO food. At the very least, we must acknowledge that Monsanto has monopolized an industry and made it difficult for smaller businesses to thrive. The most harmful possibility, however, is that this food or the herbicides used on it can have severe health effects. There was progress made with the GMO labeling law, but unfortunately, it does not go far enough. Although it may be nearly impossible to be completely GMO free, it is important to always question the big corporations that impact our lives, especially about the very food we eat.