Called “"Frankenfoods” by critics because they’re designed in a lab, genetically engineered foods are increasingly drawing attention and raising concerns among Berkeley residents.
Friday, environmental group Greenpeace transformed a Berkeley backyard into a teach-in, seeking to share information about the unknown safety risks of using genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, in food.
“The [biochemical] industry likes to say [GMOs are] an extension of traditional breeding but it’s not,” said Heather Whitehead of the San Francisco Greenpeace office. “It’s an extension of green revolution pesticides and monoculture farming.”
Between 60 percent and 70 percent of processed food in American supermarkets contains genetically modified ingredients, according to Whitehead.
Greenpeace wants to bring this number down. Last year it pursuaded local Trader Joe’s chain management to eliminate GMO ingredients in all of the store’s brand products.
Now they’ve stepped up the battle by taking on the supermarket giant Safeway. Greenpeace has set up tables in front of the supermarkets in San Francisco and Berkeley, and has gathered more than 600 signatures. It has held demonstrations at Safeway corporate offices in Pleasanton.
As for the cultivation of GMOs in California, Whitehead said that little is done commercially. She sees greater danger in university’s partnerships with certain industries.
“UC Berkeley has a partnership with Novartis, doing mostly genetics research. Last year they did genetic studies on the corn crop,” she said. “A lot of initial genetic research is needed by industry... and what industry is making money off on their proprietary products is that initial research. They are using our land grant, publicly-funded universities as their research grounds.”
The health effects remain an issue.
“I think people are really concerned about it,” Whitehead said. “All of us are guinea pigs right now. There have never been any human tests. They haven’t asked us, they haven’t told us.”
A recent ABC news poll showed that 93 percent of Americans would favor the labeling of genetically modified foods.
Whitehead was pessimistic about a recently-introduced Congressional bill that would require labeling. She was more positive about spreading the non-GMO gospel.
“The goal of this meeting was to share ideas about why GMOs are bad and talk to parents,” she said. “Parents are a group that is very concerned about it.”
Judith Barish was one such parent. As her children Sasha, 4, and Rafael, 1, ran around at the backyard teach-in, she said, "As a mom, I just got really concerned about the food that my kids eat. We’ve always eaten organic but now we have a heightened concern about the scary chemicals and organisms that might be in our food.”
Barish was realistic about education and labeling.
“I think there’s a huge, slow process of educating people,” Barish said. “I think we do need bigger meetings and mass tools of communication but I also think these smaller gatherings where people can sit down and talk face to face is an important part of this.”