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May 28th, 2013
06:23 PM ET

Millions protest genetically modified food, Monsanto, organizers say

Two million people in more than 50 countries marched over the weekend in protest against a company called Monsanto, organizers claimed. CNN could not independently verify those numbers.

Monsanto is a giant, $58 billion multinational corporation with field offices in 60 countries. It was founded more than 100 years ago – and is best known for producing the chemical known as Agent Orange that scorched thousands of miles of earth during the Vietnam war.

Monsanto currently produces pesticides designed to deliver a death blow to living things, and also produces seeds designed to resist those lethal chemicals.

Now the company, with a history of questionable ethics practices and close ties to the government, may have received protection from future trouble. Slipped into a bill signed by President Barack Obama back in March is something called the "Monsanto Protection Act," which would shield Monsanto seeds and other genetically modified crops approved by the Agriculture Department to be grown - even if there is action in the courts against them.

The weekend protest was focused on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. GMOs are plants, bacteria, and animals whose genetic makeup has been scientifically altered.

Some opponents want GMOs banned, others say foods whose DNA has been changed needs to at least be labeled.

Monsanto is a leading producer of genetically modified seeds and herbicides. In the last quarter alone it sold seed – much of it modified – worth more than $4 billion.  The company said their business helps to feed the planet.

"It’s a vision that strives to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population," said a Monsanto ad.

Some of the outrage was sparked by shocking photos showing massive tumors that developed on rats that ate genetically modified corn over a lifetime.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Caen, France. It has been criticized by many in the scientific community, and by the European food safety authority, who said it is simply not up to scientific standards.

Even so, the disturbing tumor photos lead many to question their own standards about what exactly they are eating.

But consumers have no way of knowing if they are eating genetically modified food, or feeding it to their family.

Last week, U.S. senators debated whether states could require food labeling for products with genetically engineered ingredients. The legislation, introduced by Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, failed.

"When you take on very powerful biotech companies like Monsanto and large food corporations, who, in many ways, would prefer that people not know what is in the food that they produce, they're very powerful," said Sanders. "They were able to gather a whole lot of support in the Senate."

On its website, Monsanto states, “plant biotechnology has been in use for over 15 years, without documented evidence of adverse effects on human or animal health or the environment."

Legislators who sided with Monsanto say the company is improving on nature.

"I think it would more accurately be called a modern science to feed a very troubled and hungry world," Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts said on the Senate floor last week.

But Sanders said the company, and others like it, need to be more transparent, and that slipping protection for Monsanto into that March bill was wrong.

"People have a right to know what is in the food they're eating," said Sanders.

"You have deregulated the GMO industry from court oversight, which is really not what America is about.  You should not be putting riders that people aren't familiar with, in a major piece of legislation," said Sanders.

Law or no law, grocery giant Whole Foods said they will start labeling all genetically modified food by 2018.

"The fact is there are no studies, as yet, linking GMO to health problems,"said Michael Moss, New York Times investigative reporter and author of "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."

The flip side, said Moss, is there are few scientists doing that kind of research, and the agency in charge of GMOs is "the FDA, which has a real spotty record on food safety, which concerns people."

At the moment, the issue appears to be evolving into a matter of disclosure.

"People care about what they're putting into their bodies, and they want to know what is in the products that they're eating, so they can make that decision," said Moore.

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