Genetically modified crops are failing to live up to their promises to produce higher yields at less environmental cost, yet they are showing up in everyday food without customers even knowing it. During this legislative session, Maryland lawmakers have the chance to empower consumers to make informed decisions by approving a very important bill (House Bill 1191/Senate Bill 778), which would require labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients.
Sen. Karen Montgomery, a Montgomery County Democrat and the sponsor of the proposal to label genetically modified food, argues that individuals have a right to know what is in their shopping carts. If passed, her bill would call on the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to implement the labeling of all foods containing genetically modified ingredients beginning July 1, 2015. Maryland and other states have an opportunity to catch up to the more than 60 countries, including China, Japan, Russia and South Africa, that have already required the labeling of food with genetically altered ingredients.
But more than transparency, consumers and farmers deserve to know that genetically modified ingredients are not a successful strategy for producing food. Contrary to popular belief, yields from genetically modified crops are not higher compared to non-modified ones, farmer incomes are not higher due to the planting and harvesting of these crops, nor does their use decrease the dependence on harmful agrochemicals. Moreover, most genetically modified crops being grown today feed animals and cars, not people. Forty percent of the U.S. corn crop goes to ethanol production, and more than 33 percent is fed to livestock.
A review of corn and soybean crop yield data by the Union of Concerned Scientists from the National Agriculture Statistics Service has shown that soybeans and corn yields have not increased since the early 1990s. Any increases have been marginal, according to group, and any gains seen are due to the improvement of existing agriculture practices.
Supporters of genetically modified agriculture argue that these crops allow farmers to use less of potentially harmful herbicides and pesticides. But the opposite is true. Chuck Benbrook of Washington State University has found that the use of herbicides in the production of cotton, soybeans and corn has actually increased based on an analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One hundred million pounds of glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the United States, is applied annually to farms and the land. This substance is a major ingredient in Roundup — a herbicide (weed killer) produced by the Monsanto Company that is spread onto a plant and absorbed into the leaves; when combined with Roundup's other ingredients, it can have toxic effects, even in small quantities. This is a major concern for the state of Maryland, as Roundup-treated crops include alfalfa, corn and soybeans. Maryland produced 17.9 million bushels of soybeans and 46.9 million bushels of corn in 2011 alone.
Maryland farmers and politicians need to continue working with organizations such as GMO Free Maryland, a grassroots action campaign, to increase the awareness about genetically modified organisms, and work with legislators in Annapolis and Washington to pass labeling laws.
Genetically modified ingredients should to be labeled in Maryland because consumers deserve to know what they are eating. Lawmakers need to support this legislation and give consumers a chance to invest in the type of agriculture that supports Maryland's economy.
Danielle Nierenberg (email@example.com) is president of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank. Michael Colella is a Food Tank research assistant.
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