Why Europe Cares More About GMO’s Than The U.S.

In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) stated that, “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with genetically modified (GM) food.”   These include infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The AAEM has asked physicians to advise all patients to avoid GM foods. But how can people avoid GM foods when they are not labeled as such?

The United States has tried numerous times to pass GM labeling legislation, with the most prominent recent example being proposition 37 in California, which failed just like all prior attempts. Contrast this with the European Union, which passed GM labeling laws back in 1997 when the first Genetically Engineered (GE) corn (maize) crops were being planted.  Far fewer safety studies had been done back then, but the Europeans had strong feelings on the topic nonetheless.

Why do the U.S. and Europe have such diverging attitudes on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)? Here’s my list of the top 7 reasons followed by what those of us who want labeling legislation in America can do about it:

Americans Don’t Value Food As Much As Europeans

RegisterMichael Pollan writes in In Defense of Food, “For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority. We spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other industrialized society; surely if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars…”  

One of the concerns I hear voiced in the U.S. is that organic food is elitist and that there’s no way that people who rely on supplemental assistance (food stamps) can afford it.

I shared some ideas on how to eat healthy on a budget in this post, but let’s look at this differently. Consider the hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the U.S. Should the government address this by approving the building of rickety shacks that don’t conform to building codes, just to provide a roof over more people’s heads? Our government has apparently answered this question with “no,” or else it would be permitted. I suspect that the government has concluded that the risk of injury due to, say, building collapse or electrical fire outweighs the benefits of providing shelter to more people.  If that’s really how our government feels, then why don’t we have such standards for our food? Is there no limit to the risks we are willing to endure simply to reduce food prices?

You might argue that the risk/reward equation depends on the cost differential of junk vs. healthy food. That differential is greater in the U.S. than in Europe and that’s because our market is broken – at least more so than in Europe. In a normally functioning market, the less processed a food is, the cheaper it should be compared to its pasteurized, hydrogenated, fortified, bleached, dyed, powdered, deodorized, extruded and genetically modified counterparts.  But the bizarre reality today is that a fast food burger, which is comprised of an innovative amalgamation of over 20 different (mostly GMO) ingredients, is about half the price of a head of lettuce.

One reason for this market oddity  is Americans’ willingness to allow their food producers to take ever more shortcuts in their production processes. One example is the amount of land on which beef cattle spend their lives, which has been reduced by a factor of several thousand over the past 150 years (from 1-2 acres per cow 150 years ago to just a few square feet per cow today in factory farms).

The other reason for the price disparity of processed versus unprocessed foods in America is corporate-influenced and government-sanctioned market price manipulation, also known as agriculture subsidies.

Subsidies Cause GMO-Containing Foods to be Grossly Underpriced in America

Soybean FieldBillions of American taxpayer dollars go to subsidizing corn and soybean production. That means huge profits for companies like Cargill and ADM, who can buy up this cheap raw material that’s partially paid for by the government, process it, and then resell it at a huge premium as additives like high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, various vegetable oils, MSG and the more than 50 other food additives that are listed here.

Monsanto makes a killing too, naturally, thanks to their success in convincing American courts to allow them to patent the seeds that contain their genes. This guarantees Monsanto a recurring revenue stream from farmers who must re-license the seeds every year or else face a lawsuit if they’re caught saving seeds.

The price mismatch resulting from the subsidies is so high that even after the soybean moves from Monsanto to the farmer to Cargill to Coco-Cola to Coke’s bottler to their transportation/logistics provider and finally to the supermarket retailer, each of which make their profits, the consumer still ends up paying far less than they would if not for the subsidies. This is why Coke and Pepsi are more expensive in Europe, since they are made with non-GMO ingredients.

Americans’ Food Choices More Influenced By  Advertisers than Europeans

Last year, the “No on 37” campaign, led primarily by Monsanto, spent $46 million on ads trying to convince Californians that they didn’t want to know if their foods contained GMOs.  Polls before the media blitz showed that Californians were largely in favor of GE labeling. The change following the media campaign was stark – enough to convince the majority of voters to vote no on labeling.

Nielsen must not have been surprised. In their 2009 Global online consumer survey on Trust, Value and Engagement in Advertising, they found that Americans are 24% more trusting of TV and print ads than Europeans.

Now contrast this with what happened when Monsanto tried GMO advertising in Europe in the mid-1990’s. In this report by Diahanna Lynch and David Vogel of the Council on Foreign Relations, they state that:

“To redeem its public image and that of genetically-engineered food, Monsanto began a $1.6 million advertising campaign in the UK and France in 1998. In the UK, the campaign backfired: before the campaign began, 44% of British consumers surveyed had negative opinions of GMOs while after the campaign’s conclusion 51% did so…In France, the number of consumers who said they would not buy foods containing GMOs also rose during the campaign, though by a smaller margin. Monsanto also became the target of a number of demonstrations.”

Food advertising is also regulated more in Europe – especially when it comes to ads targeting children, which is big business in America because of how effective it has proven to be, not only in terms of driving short-term sales of advertised products, but also in developing brand loyalty that lasts well into adulthood.

Europeans Care More About Citizen Health While Americans Are More Business-Driven

In the book Exposed, the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, Mark Schapiro argues that the U.S. government is more lax on consumer protection than the Europeans. He contrasts the European view that citizen health is good for society and keeps healthcare costs low with the American view, which is more concerned with protecting jobs, strengthening the economy and helping America compete abroad.

To put this into perspective, let me compare the current GMO debate to the debate a few years ago over Phthalates, which are chemicals used to soften plastics. Numerous studies have shown that contact with Phthalates can have serious health consequences. It didn’t take long for Europe to go ahead and ban the use of Phthalates in baby products. Many manufacturers of other products went ahead and changed their formulas to remove this chemical from other products sold in Europe. It took almost 10 years for the U.S. to follow suit, thanks to activism from outraged mothers of infants who were sucking on Phthalate-containing teething rings and pacifiers. Unfortunately, however, Phthalates are still widely used in many other American products. Why? Because:

  • Many studies indicate that Phthalates are not harmful
  • Those studies that appear to show that they’re harmful should be discredited based on flaws in their scientific approach (e.g. most studies are on rodents and primates, the dose given is not reflective of the actual dose a person would realistically ingest, sample sizes are questionable, etc.)
  • A U.S. government agency has concluded that the risk to human health is “minimal” or “negligible.”

Don’t believe me? Well this is the party line towed by The American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry lobby group. Does the messaging sound familiar? If not, then look at this page on Monsanto’s website, which addresses the topic of GMO safety.  It essentially says the same thing: that many studies on GMO safety show no harm and those that do show harm should be discredited. While there’s no mention on this page of US government support of GMO’s, Monsanto took it upon themselves to lie to voters by misleading them into believing that the FDA supports their position on GMO labeling.

A more current example from just a couple of weeks ago is Europe’s decision to ban neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of insecticide in use today, due to the fear that they may be a cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD). This Washington Post article highlights the differences between the American and European views on this subject. Europe is going ahead with banning this chemical while EPA and USDA officials try to cast doubt on the science and instead are attempting to blame the problem on numerous other factors.

The difference here is quite stark:  Europeans don’t want to be the testbed for products of questionable safety, so when in doubt, they take the cautious approach. Americans have more the attitude of, “safe until proven dangerous beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

Different Food Agency Missions


Picture credit: Wikipedia

Read the following excerpts from food agency mission statements and see if you can tell which is different from the other two (I removed the parts that didn’t relate to food):

  • “…responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy and security of…our nation’s food supply…and by helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use… and foods to maintain and improve their health.
  • “…provide leadership on food,…nutrition, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management…expand economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural [regions] to thrive; to promote agriculture production sustainability that better nourishes [citizens] while also helping feed others throughout the world…”
  • …integrated approach to food safety aims to assure a high level of food safety, animal health, animal welfare and plant health … through coherent farm-to-table measures and adequate monitoring, while ensuring the effective functioning of the internal market…

Question: which is the mission statement of the Food Policy division of the European Commission (EC) and which other two must be the mission statements of either the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)? Ok, that was pretty easy (if not, then click on the hyperlinks above).

I could go on and on about the implications of the different messaging above, but I think I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Different Political Structures

Why has Europe had more success in enacting consumer health-oriented legislation? I think it has to do with the different legislative structures in the U.S. versus Europe. We have a two party system in the U.S. and neither party has adopted consumer health as a key focus issue. (Note that I consider healthcare, which could more accurately be described as “sick care,” to be different from true “health” care). In most countries in Europe, there can be 3, 4 or 5 or more political parties that, at different times, may have representatives in office.  These different parties sometimes have to team up and form coalitions if a single party doesn’t have a majority. Over the past 20 years, some of these coalition governments have included Green Party members.

Originally focused on environmental issues, European Green Parties later took up consumer health issues before other parties did, which helped them win more votes. The “Greens” have and still do hold various parliamentary seats, which means they can negotiate with other coalition members via “horse-trading” on issues. In the U.S., there actually have been attempts to build up a Green Party, but those attempts have never been very successful.

Deep-Rooted Food Traditions In Europe

ParmesanI am often amused by how dogmatic Europeans can be about their food. Try going to a restaurant in Italy and ordering spaghetti with pesto sauce or parmesan cheese on top of a seafood  dish or a cappuccino after dinner. See how the waiter responds. (I only know because I’ve done all of these things!) Consider all of the regulation around naming of foods and beverages like Limburger cheese, Champagne or Burgundy wine, Jamon Serrano, Black Forest Ham and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar.

Sure, Europeans appreciate innovative food as well, which is why elBulli in Spain holds the coveted triple-star Michelin rating for their high tech cuisine. But for the most part, Europeans cherish many of the ingredients and recipes that have been around for centuries and are an important part of the different European regions’ identities.

American diets are not nearly as tied to tradition, in part due to being a relatively young country. I think Michael Pollan explains it best in this New York Times article:

“The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat. Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating.”

What To Do About All This?

I think that understanding the motivations of consumers and politicians is absolutely helpful in being able to influence them to vote a particular way on a topic like GMO labeling. I’d be curious to hear what my readers would suggest we do based on the above insights, but some of the actions that I’m taking myself and I would encourage you to also consider are:

  • Vote with your dollars and stop buying foods that contain GMOs. While difficult to tell, this shopping guide will help you figure out which foods are likely to contain GMOs. 
  • Keep your children away from TV and other advertising as much as possible.
  • Ask to speak with the manager at restaurants, supermarkets and school cafeterias. Let them know that avoiding GMO’s is important to you and that you would be willing to pay more for non-GMO food products. I recently told the manager at my local Whole Foods that I was shocked that they not only didn’t carry non-GMO Masa (a corn product, used for making tortillas), but that the customer service person I spoke with didn’t even know what I meant by “non-GMO.” I also complained to the manager at a Mexican restaurant that I was reluctant to come back due to their inability to tell me whether their corn chips, tortillas and the oils they fry in are genetically modified (I’m 99% sure they were, but of course they will never admit it).
  • Learn to appreciate simple meals made with few good-quality ingredients and then take the time to really taste and enjoy your meal. Try to instill these values in your children. 
  • In order to help counter all of the pro-GMO advertising, donate to organizations that are focused on non-corporate-sponsored GMO education and advertising, such as: The Institute for Responsible Technology, the Non-GMO Project,  Just Label It! Campaign and the Organic Consumers Association
  • Write to your Representative to help change our laws. These might be around food labeling, agriculture subsidies, or ways to remove the financial and regulatory burdens faced by small, organic-based food producers who might not be able to afford organic certification. In your letter, try to describe the benefits of such actions in terms that matter to the person, whether that be around jobs, healthcare costs,  economic growth, etc.
  • Use social media to let friends know how you feel about this important topic. This is an incredibly powerful form of advertising, which is why corporations of all sizes and types are allocating more and more of their marketing budgets to paid bloggers, tweeters and the like. It’s up to us to counter that.
  • Start a blog or comment on blogs and news articles. I have google alerts set up for topics of interest to me. For instance, one alert is for articles that contain the terms “listeria” and “unpasteurized milk,” which usually lead to articles that are attempting to scare people from supporting the consumption and/or legalization of raw milk. By acting quickly, my comments about the safety and health benefits of raw milk shows up at the top of the comments list for future readers to easily see.

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