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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: What was Proposition 37 in California that concerns the labeling of genetically modified foods and that was just voted down in that state?
—Peter Tremaine, Euclid, OH

Proposition 37, or the “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” defeated by a narrow margin this past Election Day, called on food makers to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients on their packages -- and to not label such foods as “natural.” Proponents developed the proposition in lieu of federal action requiring labeling of GM foods…as exists in 50 other countries.

Photo © Hemera Collection/Thinkstock

Many healthy food advocates were disheartened on Election Day when Californians rejected Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods across the state. GM foods have had genes from other plants or animals inserted into their genetic code to optimize for one or another trait, such as resistance to pests, better taste or longer shelf life, and are controversial because scientists don’t know the ramifications of mixing genetic codes on such a widespread scale.

While it was close, those against the so-called “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” prevailed, with 53.1 percent of the vote. The proposition called on food manufacturers to label foods containing GM ingredients on the front or back of the packaging with the phrase “partially produced with genetic engineering”—and not to label or advertise such foods as “natural.” Proponents developed the proposition in lieu of federal action requiring labeling of GM foods…as exists in 50 other countries.

Proponents of the bill raised some $9 million and garnered some 46.9 percent of the vote, indicating that upwards of four million Californians fear the potential effects of GM foods and are in favor of greater transparency on the part of the food industry. But such efforts weren’t enough to overcome aggressive marketing by so-called Big Food companies including Monsanto, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, Nestle and Kraft, who poured some $45 million into the “No on 37” campaign.

Backers of the proposition are crying foul. Public health lawyer Michele Simon reports that some of the companies involved in defeating the bill engaged in lying, scare tactics, misrepresentation and various dirty tricks “to protect their profits and keep California voters uninformed about their food choices.”

“The No campaign listed four organizations in the official state document mailed to voters as concluding that ‘biotech foods are safe’,” she says. “One of them, the American Council on Science and Health, is a notorious industry front group that only sounds legit. Another, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, actually has no position and complained about being listed…” The other two groups, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, have more nuanced positions…than just “safe.”

Simon also criticizes Big Food for its claims about high food costs, “shakedown lawsuits” and “special interest exemptions” if the law passed: “While each of these claims is easily debunked, being outspent on ad dollars makes it hard to compete, especially when all you can really say is, ‘that’s not true’.”

The battle over GM labeling in California may be over for now, but the war rages on nationally. Just Label It, a nonprofit started by Stonyfield Farm magnate Gary Hirshberg, is trying to persuade the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require GM food labeling nationally. Readers can help by signing the campaign’s online petition. Beyond that, Just Label It recommends eating more fresh vegetables and unprocessed foods (the vast majority of processed foods in the U.S. contain either GM corn or soy) and looking for the USDA Organic label, which precludes any foods containing GM ingredients.

CONTACTS: Yes on 37; Just Label It.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: How can I have a greener, healthier laundry room?
—Billie Alexander, Topeka, KS

Three steps to a healthier, greener laundry room: Use natural, nontoxic detergents free of harsh chemicals, dyes and perfumes; lose the fabric softener in favor of vinegar; and swap out your old equipment for EnergyStar rated appliances that are more energy-efficient and will save money over time.

Photo © iStockPhoto/Thinkstock

While there are many ways to green one’s laundry room, one place to start is with detergent. Luckily, in 2009 the federal government phased out phosphates, harsh chemicals that help break down minerals and loose food bits during the wash cycle, because their presence in waste water causes algae blooms in downstream waterways. But mainstream detergents still often contain the surfactant nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), which researchers have identified as an endocrine-disrupting estrogen mimic, meaning exposure to it can cause reproductive and other human health problems. Bleach, a corrosive chemical known to burn skin and eyes on contact and damage lungs when inhaled—and which can react with ammonia to produce toxic gases—is also a common ingredient in detergents.

Sarah van Schagen tested and reviewed six leading eco-friendly detergents for Grist Magazine. To qualify for consideration, each needed to be “free and clear” of dyes and perfumes and also “concentrated” in order to save water, packaging and extra carbon emissions from transport. The contestants included detergents from Earth Friendly Products, Biokleen, Mountain Green, Planet, Seventh Generation, and All. Each did a respectable job getting clothes clean and smelling fresh, with most performing just as well as mainstream brands. Seventh Generation Free & Clear was the overall winner for its combination of eco-friendly ingredients, good stain fighting, pleasant but not “perfumey” scent and low price.

Another way to green the laundry room is to lose the fabric softener. Mainstream varieties, whether dryer sheets or liquid, contain harmful chemicals like benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen). Many dryer sheets also contain tallow, a processed form of beef or mutton fat.

“You can avoid these health risks, the animal fat and the waste simply by using vinegar to soften your clothing,” reports Josh Peterson of The Discovery Network’s Planet Green. “Add 3/4 cups of vinegar to your final rinse cycle and your clothes will come out soft.” And since vinegar “is ludicrously inexpensive when compared to fabric softener,” consumers can save money and the planet at the same time.

Of course, swapping out that old water-hogging, energy-gulping washing machine for a new model that meets federal EnergySTAR standards will save lots of electricity and water. EnergySTAR certified washing machines use about 20 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than regular washers, and also have greater capacity so it takes fewer loads to clean the same amount of laundry. Their sophisticated wash systems flip or spin clothes through a stream of water and rinse them with repeated high pressure spraying instead of soaking them in a full tub of water. Likewise, replacing an older clothes dryer with a newer EnergySTAR model will help reduce your household’s electricity consumption. And if you live in a place with a mild and often sunny climate, ditch the dryer altogether and hang your clothes to dry outside.

CONTACTS: Biokleen; Earth Friendly Products ECOS; Planet Inc.; Mountain Green; Seventh Generation; All Laundry; Grist Magazine; Planet Green; EnergySTAR.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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