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How the International Food Information Council Trains Junk Food Companies to Hide the Truth about GMOs

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Millions Against Monsanto page and our Genetic Engineering page.

Editor's note: This is an edited version of a presentation made on Sept. 10, 2013, by OCA political director Alexis Baden-Mayer, at the American Frozen Food Institute's (AFFI) Government Action Summit. Presenting opposite Baden-Mayer was David Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council (IFIC). AFFI is a trade group that opposes mandatory GMO labels. AFFI's largest and most influential member is ConAgra, which contributed $1,176,700 to defeat Prop 37, California's 2012 ballot initiative to label GMOs. ConAgra hasn't yet donated to oppose I-522, the 2013 Washington ballot initiative to label GMOs. But the company is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which has so far donated $2.2 million to the NO on 522 campaign. ConAgra's CEO, Gary Rodki, is the GMA's chairman.

Soylent Green, the 1973 science fiction film starring Charlton Heston, depicts a dystopian future where a population suffering from pollution, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and climate change survives largely on processed food rations produced by the Soylent Corporation. Soylent Green is a green wafer advertised to contain "high-energy plankton."  

The climax of the film occurs when one of the characters reveals the truth: The world's polluted oceans no longer produce the plankton from which Soylent Green is reputedly made. Soylent Green is made from human remains.

Like all great science fiction, the story of Soylent Green sticks with us because it provides a glimpse into the future. Today, only 40 years after Soylent Green debuted in movie theaters, we have a population suffering from pollution, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans and climate change. And we're surviving largely on processed foods derived from plants that have been genetically modified by the Monsanto Corporation.

Very few of us, only 26 percent, know that there are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food. Yet when polled, 93 percent of Americans say that they want the right to know. Yet the International Food Information Council (IFIC), which is supported by companies like Monsanto, Dow, Coca-Cola, Dannon, Kraft, McCormick and Mars, works on behalf of those companies to block the will of the nine out of 10 people who want the right to know what we're eating.

Could it be that the truth about GMOs, just like the truth behind the protein source in Soylent Green, is a science-fiction horror story? One that the food and biotech industries will go to any lengths to hide from consumers?

The IFIC has produced a handy, nicely Orwellian guide for food manufacturers on what to say, and what not to say, when talking about GMOs. Its very own GMO Newspeak. IFIC's "Food Biotechnology: A Communicator's Guide to Improving Understanding" contains a list of "Words to Use, Words to Lose." The guide instructs readers to "lose" phrases like "not a direct danger to human health" or "most research has not found an adverse effect" and replace them "safe, healthful, sustainable."

Is lack of safety testing evidence of safety?

The genetically engineered food we're eating today has never been safety tested for human consumption, using reliable, independent long-term testing methods. Yet the IFIC, which opposes the pre-market safety testing of GMOs, insists that the lack of safety testing is evidence of safety.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), GMOs have been "consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature." So, no scientist has proven that GMOs are causing disease in humans. Does that mean that GMOs don't cause disease? Is it proof that GMOs are safe?

Here's how two different doctors' associations answer that question:

The AMA has a glass half-full approach, but they acknowledge that the reason we think everything's fine is that we haven't adequately addressed the potential harms of bioengineered food. The AMA wants U.S. regulators to do something they've never done before: require companies to submit to mandatory pre-market safety assessments instead of relying on the current voluntary notification process.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) has a glass half-empty approach. While the AMA talks about "potential harm," the AAEM talks about "probable harm." Just like the AMA, the AAEM supports a change in U.S. law to require mandatory pre-market safety testing. But in the meantime, rather than wait another decade or two for federal agencies to require pre-market testing, the AAEM encourages doctors to recommend non-GMO diets.

Despite the difference in policy positions between the two groups of doctors, there's one thing they can both agree on: GMOs haven't been safety-tested yet. And they need to be.

IFIC says: "Consuming foods produced through biotechnology is safe for children and women who are pregnant or nursing." Wow, that's reassuring. Wouldn't we all love for that to be true? But now that we know that to IFIC "safe" just means "hasn't been safety tested," let's look into this.

IFIC's reference for that statement is: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Genetically engineered plants for food and feed, 2012. I wasn't aware the FDA had issued a statement on GMOs in 2012, so I clicked the link.

I found the old FDA statement of policy that hasn't been updated since 1997. I had read it before. But I read it again, and found that it says absolutely nothing about the safety of biotechnology for children or women who are pregnant or nursing. But I did notice something I hadn't before. A little asterisk at the bottom of the page that says, "Effective June 18, 2001, the Office of Premarket Approval is now the Office of Food Additive Safety."

Once the FDA had decided against putting GMOs through premarket safety tests, the agency could no longer claim to have an office of premarket approval. I suggest an additional entry to the IFIC's GMO Newspeak Dictionary, on behalf of the FDA: "Lack of premarket safety testing is food additive safety."

So what do we know about the safety of GMOs for children and pregnant or nursing women?

According to a study published in 2011 in the , genetically engineered DNA survives in our bodies and is passed on to our children before birth. The study found that 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their babies have genetically engineered DNA in their blood.

Is this causing disease? We don't know yet. The researchers in this study said that babies developing in the womb are highly susceptible to the adverse effects of xenobiotics, chemicals found in an organism which are not normally produced or expected to be present in it. In this case, they're talking about crops that are genetically engineered to produce their own insecticides inside the plant. The researchers warn that GMOs could disrupt the biological events that are required to ensure normal growth and development. They say we need a new field of multi-disciplinary research, combining human reproduction, toxicology and nutrition.

In the meantime, we need to label GMOs and let people make their own choices about what they want to eat.

Many people are finding that their health and their children's health improves when they go non-GMO. The type of person I most frequently meet through my activism these days is a mother who had to address a health problem of her own, or a health problem in her children, and who found that going non-GMO improved that condition. This is case for Robyn O'Brien, who started Allergy Kids; Kathleen Hallal, who co-founded Moms Across America (her son had an autoimmune problem that was relieved with a non-GMO diet); Tara Cook-Littman, who is responsible for passing the country's first GMO labeling law with GMO Free CT (she got rid of a variety of her own health problems, including headaches, gastrointestinal issues, tingling fingers and anxiety by going non-GMO); and Diana Reeves, who started GMO Free USA (she treated health problems in her two daughters by going non-GMO after her son died from cancer at age 4).

Better nutrition from foods with no nutritional value?

Now, one question you might have is, if we label GMOs, and more people start eating non-GMO diets, could we be steering people away from healthy food? Is there nutrition that only GMO plants provide? IFIC says: "Food biotechnology is being used to improve nutrition."

Not really. Unless you think high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and refined sugar provide nutrition.

Genetically engineered crops are used to make the worst junk-food ingredients. GMOs are primarily used to produce high-fructose corn syrup made from genetically engineered corn, refined sugar made from genetically engineered sugar beets, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils made from genetically engineered corn, soy, canola and cotton. If you don't think you're eating cotton, look at the ingredients on a box of Ritz crackers.

Beyond talking about what genetic engineering might produce someday in the future, there's really no way for IFIC to spin the fact that genetic engineering hasn't produced any uniquely nutritious foods. IFIC's list of "Foods from Crops & Animals Raised Using Biotechnology" is "sweet corn, papaya, dairy products [from cows given genetically engineered growth hormone], sweeteners (e.g. corn syrup, sugar), vegetable oils, corn starch, soy protein, and more." By "more" they mean more processed food ingredients made from corn, soy, cotton, canola and sugar beets. Where's the "improved nutrition" on that list?

More pesticides equals fewer pesticides?

IFIC says that GMOs have reduced the amount of insecticide used on crops. But where's the proof?

Independent scientists have reviewed industry's claims of insecticide reduction and found that overall, when you balance a supposed reduction in insecticide use against how GMOs have increased herbicide use, GMOs have actually increased the use of pesticides on average by 404 million pounds per year.

Herbicides used to be sprayed around your food. Now, thanks to genetic engineering, they can be sprayed directly on your food. Insecticides used to be sprayed on your food. Now, thanks to genetic engineering, they're produced by your food. And, as we've learned from the Journal of Reproductive Toxicology study, the genetically engineered insecticide gene stays in your body and can be passed on to your children before birth.

Contrary to Monsanto's marketing, RoundUp, the herbicide used on genetically engineered crops, is not benign. Ask the people who live in Argentina in what have come to be known as the "crop-sprayed towns." They live so close to the genetically engineered "RoundUp Ready" soy plantations that they are regularly sprayed with the herbicide. They have extremely high rates of birth defects, cancers and other serious health problems.

If consumers knew about genetically engineered food, would they still eat it? The New York Times poll that showed nearly unanimous support for GMO labels also revealed that about half us would not eat genetically engineered food if we knew how to avoid it. This is why IFIC has to hide the truth about GMOs.

Consumers' growing distrust of GMO foods is also why IFIC's "Words to Use, Words to Lose" guide advises proponents of GMOs not to say "genetically altered" and instead use the word "enhanced." Why it suggests GMO proponents drop the word "pesticides" and talk about "crop protection" or even "organic" It explains why the IFIC recommends replacing "transgenic" with "high-quality." And substituting "chemical" for "natural." And dropping the words "insect- or drought-resistant" in favor of "plentiful."

It also explains why the IFIC wants the purveyors of GMOs to talk about "ancestors" not "DNA," and why they substitute "biology," "genetically modified."

Obviously, I think the way IFIC talks about GMOs is ridiculous and deceiving, but I'll give them this: Talk about GMO food any way you like, just label it.

It's possible that I'm in a room filled entirely with people who are outside the 93 percent who want GMOs labeled. But just in case anyone here agrees with me, you can help make history this year by supporting the Yes on 522 campaign for GMO labels in Washington State.

 Alexis Baden-Mayer is the political director for the Organic Consumers Association.