Matthew Lickona 2:29 p.m., May 24
Tom Newmark and Jeffrey Smith made the last San Diego stop on their Speaking Out for Healthier Food lecture tour yesterday afternoon at the San Diego Central Library. The lecture series is organized in support of, though not officially backed by, the Yes on Proposition 37 campaign, which would require food suppliers to disclose whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were used in their products. A crowd of about three dozen attendees dotted the library’s third floor auditorium, and pamphlets supporting the measure or advising consumers on how to avoid genetically modified food were distributed at the door.
First to speak was Newmark, a Greenpeace USA board member and owner of an organic farm in Costa Rica, was first to speak.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am not on the sidelines. I am partisan, I don’t like GMOs,” Newmark clarified right off the bat. The rest of the lecture focused on reasons to fear genetically modified foods in general, in addition to presenting arguments in favor of Prop 37. Newmark did admit, though, that if consumers were given a choice whether or not to purchase genetically modified food and chose not to, his business could potentially benefit.
“What you’ve got to be prepared to answer,” Newmark warned, “is the disinformation campaign that’s about to start from the millions and millions of dollars being funneled into California from multinational agricultural and biotech companies.”
“This is not a hard regulation,” Newmark insisted, saying it pales in comparison to the hurdles he’s had to clear to get his products certified organic both under Costa Rican and U.S. standards. “This is a walk in the park. If anything, Proposition 37 lets the biotech companies and the whole industry off too easy.”
Despite fears expressed by Prop 37 opponents that food producers would be flooded with lawsuits and costly testing to determine whether genetically modified substances are present in a product, Newmark says that “there is nothing in the proposal that puts an obligation on anyone in the food supply chain to do that testing . . . read the proposition – it is not in there.”
Instead, he said that a signed affidavit from a farmer supplying a crop testifying that no modified plants were used in production would be sufficient to protect manufacturers from liability – if all farmers guaranteed that they were supplying crops free from genetically modified products, this would be sufficient to protect a producer.
Smith, a consumer advocate, author of two books on genetically modified crops, and executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, gave the keynote address, touching on dangers of genetic modification both known and unknown.
“We don’t have the ability to recall self-propagating genetic pollution,” Smith warned, implying that once new lab-created species of plants have been introduced to the ecosystem mankind faces an insurmountable challenge in removing mutations from nature if they prove harmful.
Smith expressed little confidence in leaders of genetic modification research such as Monsanto to put safety before profit.
“They actually have bad science down to a science,” accused Smith, citing a study to determine the differences between genetically engineered soy crops and traditional ones. In all study samples except one, modified crops were grown in different locations under different conditions, according to Smith in order to allow researchers to write off differences in crops as due to outside factors, thus rendering the data intentionally useless.
But one study sample featured two crops grown under similar conditions in Puerto Rico. This example was left out of the final research, though it found that the modified seeds produced crops with a sevenfold increase in known allergens, a doubling of an “anti-nutrient” that blocks the human body from absorbing nutrients, and a decreased level of protein and amino acids. Thus, Smith argued, consuming genetically engineered food could actually cause consumers to develop allergies to natural foods.
After touching on other known and potential health issues, the subject again turned to the anticipated high-intensity negative advertising blitz from Prop 37 opponents. Smith predicted that any cost estimates for complying with the law would be drastically overstated.
“It’s an infinitesimal amount cost per product, but they’re going to say it’ll cost you hundreds,” Smith told the audience, saying that the only requirement for producers wishing to produce “natural” products would be to buy from farmers willing to certify that their crops were not genetically engineered, and that for those wishing to continue to do business as usual the cost would be as simple as re-designing a label, “which is about a thousand dollars per product, at the high end . . . this is just about disclosing, it’s not forcing anyone to do anything.”