Dan Quayle and Michael Taylor's nightmare lives on
Popular resistance is boiling over on the GMO labeling issue, as the New York Times reported last week in a front-page story.
More than a million people have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food on a legal petition in March and on May 2, nearly a million voter signatures were submitted in California to place a GMO labeling initiative on ballot in November. Clearly, Americans believe strongly in their right to know what's in their food. Ninety percent of U.S. voters want this type of labeling. Yet we still don't have it. Why?
Twenty years ago this week, then-Vice President Dan Quayle announced the FDA's policy on genetically engineered food as part of his "regulatory relief initiative." The policy, Quayle explained, was based on the idea that genetic engineering is no different than traditional plant breeding, and therefore required no new regulations.
Five years earlier, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush visited a Monsanto lab for a photo op with the developers of Roundup Ready crops. According to a video report of the meeting, when Monsanto executives worried about the approval process for their new crops, Bush laughed and told them, "Call me. We're in the dereg businesses. Maybe we can help."
And help he did -- more than anyone could have ever imagined. Today, the politically motivated policy lives on, even though it contradicts modern scientific consensus.
How is it possible that the U.S. is making critical decisions about our food system with a decades-old policy that is at odds with global opinion? In a word: politics. As Quayle explained in the 1992 press conference, the American biotechnology industry would reap huge profits "as long as we resist the spread of unnecessary regulations."
Politics not Science Set the Agenda
Dan Quayle's 1992 policy announcement is premised on the notion that genetically engineered crops are "substantially equivalent" to regular crops and thus do not need to be labeled or safety tested. The policy was crafted by Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lawyer who was hired by the Bush FDA to fill the newly created position of deputy commissioner of policy.
In an ironic twist, the Obama administration appointed Michael Taylor as the deputy commissioner of foods in 2009, where he now oversees food safety policy for the federal government. Taylor's appointment was highly controversial, not only for crafting this pseudo-scientific policy, which laid the groundwork for helping GMOs avoid rigorous scientific testing and common-sense labeling, but also for his role in guiding the approvallof Monsanto's genetically engineered synthetic hormone rBGH.
From the start, the policy of "substantial equivalence" had many critics. The concerns by the FDA's own scientists were summed up in a memo by FDA compliance officer Dr. Linda Kahl, who protested that the agency was "... trying to fit a square peg into a round hole... [by] trying to force an ultimate conclusion that there is no difference between foods modified by genetic engineering and foods modified by traditional breeding practices."
As Kahl wrote, "The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks."
The FDA itself admitted as much in 2001, with a proposed policy that companies should notify the government at least 120 days before commercializing a transgenic plant variety and provide data on each separate genetic transformation event -- information they said they did not need for foods derived through traditional cross breeding.
In other words, the FDA said there is a difference between genetic engineering and traditional plant breeding. In spite of this, the FDA is still following the Dan Quayle/Michael Taylor-inspired policy instead of its 2001 policy to set the agenda.
Out of Step with World Opinion
Across the world, there is now agreement that genetically engineered foods are different from conventionally bred foods and that all genetically engineered foods should be required to go through safety assessments prior to approval.
These positions are spelled out by Codex Alimentarius, the food safety standards organization of the United Nations, which the World Trade Organization considers to be the global, science-based standards, and thus immune to trade challenges.
But, at present, none of the genetically engineered plants on sale in the United States can meet this global standard, because -- unlike all other developed countries -- the U.S. does not require safety testing of genetically engineered crops.
The U.S. stands nearly alone on the issue of labeling, too. More than 40 other countries require labeling of genetically engineered foods, including European Union member nations, Japan, Australia, Russia and even China, allowing consumers in those countries to make informed choices about whether or not to buy these foods. Yet we haven't been able to get labeling here in the U.S., thanks to Dan Quayle and Michael Taylor's deceptive policy.
Growing Pressure for Change
The FDA position on GMOs is also out of step with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Americans, 90 percent of whom want labeling. The issue is so reasonable and makes such common sense that in November 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama felt compelled to make a promise to Iowa farmers that if elected he'd label GMOs, saying he'd "let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified because Americans should know what they're buying."
But lacking the courage or political will to get this done at the federal level, and stymied in the state legislative area -- nearly 20 states have tried to pass labeling mandates and failed due to intense lobby pressure by special interests -- all eyes are now on the California ballot initiative that will take the issue directly to voters.
As the Times reported, "The most closely watched labeling effort is a proposed ballot initiative in California that cleared a crucial hurdle this month, setting the stage for a November vote that could influence not just food packaging but the future of American agriculture.
The 20th anniversary of Dan Quayle's announcement fell on Memorial Day weekend, a fitting symbol for the question before us: Will democracy win out and will Americans have the right to know what's in our food? Or we will continue to let our food policy be ruled by political decisions engineered last century in a Monsanto boardroom by corporate lobbyists?