In the course of their two-person protest outside of the Waterford Lakes Starbucks on a recent Monday afternoon, Jerry and Gayle Bell struck up a conversation with one of the coffee giants' many customers, who was sipping a double latté with whipped cream.
The Bells, acting as part of a two-day national drive by the Organic Consumers Association, were handing out leaflets warning that some of the chain's products may be contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which big agribusiness adds to its foods as a means of increasing supply without raising costs -- meaning, of course, more profits.
The man read the leaflet, but told the Bells that while he appreciated the information, he would still patronize the chain. To Jerry Bell, that was fine: "At least he has the information to make the choice."
Most American consumers, however, don't. Indeed, agribusiness has devoted plenty of effort -- and millions of dollars -- to keep off labels that tell consumers whether or not their products have been genetically altered, even as it pressures universities, farmers, government and the media to support biotechnology, with increasing success.
These factors and the collusion between the government and industry have robbed American consumers of their right to choose if they want to be part of a national feeding experiment. And with widespread GMOs in foods, it might be impossible for consumers -- even those abroad -- to avoid them.
Even those who frequent organic foods and health stores aren't in the clear: Pollen drift and other factors can bring biotechnology to even the most carefully tended organic farm.
"If something is put in the food you buy, and the label doesn't say it," says Jerry Bell, "it isn't fair."
To create genetically modified foods, scientists use recombinant DNA to alter or move genes in living cells. In fact, this technology is useful: Scientists can make plants and seeds more resistant to herbicides or insects, or allow fruits to ripen more slowly, which allows goods to be shipped without spoiling. They also can treat cows with bovine growth hormone (BGH), derived from recombinant DNA, to increase milk production. In essence, GMOs are designed to increase profits, especially for large corporate farmers and the biotech industry.
But research has shown that altered crops are building up toxins in the soil, disrupting soil ecology and killing beneficial organisms and insects. The Lancet and other notable medical journals have linked BGH with an increase in prostate and breast cancer in humans.
Several studies have linked genetically modified (GM) foods with allergens, cancer, toxicity and antibiotic resistance. But more have tried to prove GMOs' benefits: University researchers often have a cozy relationship with corporations, and many scientists who've reported the adverse side of biotech have found themselves reassigned.
Due to the alleged health risks, at least a dozen foreign countries demand that GM foods be labeled. But in the United States, no federal agencies follow suit. Nor do they mandate premarket health, environmental or safety testing of GMOs, because genetically modified foods, according to the government and industry, aren't significantly different from their unaltered counterparts. Instead, companies provide their own data for the agencies to evaluate.
This lack of oversight flies in the face of a 1992 draft policy paper in which U.S. Food and Drug Administration scientists warned that foods produced with recombinant DNA entail different risks when ingested than those produced with traditional breeding.
Agribusiness and biotech companies oppose labeling, camouflaging their real motives in science. Farm Journal recently quoted a Pioneer Hi-Bred spokesman as saying, "Consumers have the right to make their own decisions, but at this point there is very little value in labeling and no scientific reason to differentiate."
But the real reason for agribusiness' reluctance is because consumers, given the freedom to choose, might not opt for GM foods, hurting corporate profits and investments in years of research. Ironically, agribusiness favors labeling if it purports to have additional mineral value, which also complies with FDA law.
Roll your cart down the aisles of any grocery store, and you'll see nutritional claims scream from the product boxes: Low-fat, sugar-free, low-sodium and so on. But no foods will own up to being made with GMOs, and without mandatory labeling, it's nearly impossible for consumers to avoid them.
A proposed FDA rule wouldn't force companies to label their GM foods, but it would prohibit other companies -- organic and mainstream brands -- that don't use GM ingredients in their products from using the terms "GMO-free" or "non-GMO." The label could say the food was made without using biotechnology.
According to the FDA, one of the reasons "GMO-free" terminology wouldn't be allowed is because such a label might imply there is something wrong with GM foods and that they are less safe.
Buying organic goods decreases the chance of eating GMOs, but lower-income families can't always pay the higher price for purity. But by an overwhelming majority, consumers -- according to nearly 20 recent polls -- say all foods, organic or not, should be labeled.
The Washington, D.C.-based Consumers Choice Council supports labeling for GM foods. "Consumers want it, and so do farmers," says spokesman Cameron Griffith. "They've developed export markets [most of which insist on non-GMO goods] and if they aren't able to market their non-GMO corn, those countries will turn to other export markets. It's a no-brainer."
People who lack the resources to grow their own crops have to rely primarily on grocery stores for their food, much of which is genetically modified, and none of which is labeled. But the invasiveness of GM crops means that it could be impossible to find food in stores without GM traits.
In April, the Wall Street Journal hired a lab to test 20 products claiming to be GMO-free. Sixteen tested positive.
"It's impossible to say ‘non-GMO' and ‘GMO-free' because of the world we live in," says Ellen Holton, marketing communications director for Quality Assurance International (QAI), which certifies organic food. According to recently passed national organic standards, GMOs and irradiation can't be used in or on organic food, but pollen drift or failure to segregate GM and GM-free crops can foil attempts to keep organics pure.
"We look at the ingredients that processors used, and whenever there is an area that might raise the GMO flag, we ask the supplier to guarantee that it's GMO-free," Holton adds. "We're doing our best to keep it out of the industry and products where we can. We don't have any solution at this time. This is uncharted territory."
For companies that don't want to carry GM foods, proving products are GMO-free is costly. Seed companies have to pay to have their goods tested and declared GMO-free (or close to it), and farmers pay extra for untreated seed. Farmers who want to segregate their crops -- necessary if they plan to export -- can pay up to $450 per test.
Processing companies then pay certification agencies for their stamp of approval. Eventually these costs trickle down to consumers, who pay more for the luxury of abstaining from the GM experiment. But the Journal's and QAI's findings prove what farmers have known for a while. Farm Journal reported last month that field contamination levels doubled from 0.9 percent in 1998 to 1.7 percent in 1999, even for fields several miles away, and despite buffer zones that had been planted around the GM-crops. Bees, the Farm Journal said, could be the "culprits."
Biotech companies and their lobbyists spend millions of dollars each year to ensure Congress and the president support the agribusiness agenda. But some politicians have heard the public outcry. Last year saw introduction of the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, a piece of legislation that, had it passed, would have given consumers information about the food they're eating, while forcing agribusiness to substantiate its claims. It's likely to come around again.
"People are just beginning to learn that biotech exists," says one congressional source. "The industry is pushing biotech, and corporate agribusiness is powerful in Congress. Most people want mandatory labeling, and at this point they are skeptical. But we do have a challenge where industry is spending $15 million a year in advertising telling people these foods are good for them."