Substantial Equivalence: The Who, What, When, Where, and Why

Submitted by ameyer on
Written by Zuri Allen. Zuri is an agent for change in social media activism for the good food movement. She is a California-raised organic farmer's daughter with a passion for clean living and sustainable sourcing. Zuri has been a driving force behind the GMO labeling activity across the US.
What is substantial equivalence?
If you are familiar with GMOs but not the term “substantial equivalence,” this blog should give insight about how these experimental bioengineered crops ended up growing on roughly 172 million acres of US farmland, and how they do not have to be labeled when they show up in our food supply.
Substantial equivalence in this case means that if a GMO crop contains comparable amounts of a few basic components, such as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, as its non-GMO counterpart, then the GMO crop is substantially equivalent to the non-GMO. Under this paradigm, GMOs and non-GMOs are the same; therefore, no compulsory safety testing is required by the regulatory agencies. Even though GMOs are made in a lab using biotechnology, substantial equivalence states that they are considered to be equal to a traditional crop produced by farmers.
When did this happen?
GMOs were first introduced in the 1990s. The American Substantially Equivalent Policy on GMOs originated in the 1980s. At the time, health and environmental safety testing were problematic for Monsanto and millions of dollars were being spent on GMO technology, which had not received clearance from the USDA. Luckily for Monsanto, the Reagan Administration was in the “deregulation business,” and helped speed up the approval process.
Vice President Bush’s tour of Monsanto’s biotechnology facility in 1987 proved to be a part of the scheme to keep GMOs unregulated. Later during George H. W. Bush’s presidency, Vice President Dan Quayle, announced the substantial equivalence policy in his speech dubbing it the Regulatory Relief Initiative. Coverage of Bush’s visit to Monsanto’s facilities and Dan Quayle’s announcement were captured in the movie, “The World According to Monsanto.” View the short clip of the “dereg business” Bush was responsible for here.
Who benefited from this decision?
Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lawyer hired in the Bush era, crafted this brilliantly one-sided policy. The revolving door for Monsanto continued turning when President Obama appointed Taylor the Deputy Commissioner of Foods in 2009. Taylor currently oversees all food safety policy for the federal government and continues to keep GMOs from rigorous independent scientific testing and off of US consumer food labels. GMO labeling pioneer and ally, Food Democracy Now!, captured Obama’s 2007 campaign promise “to label GMO foods upon becoming president” here. Unfortunately that campaign promise was in conflict with the substantially equivalent policy already in place once Obama was elected.
Where else is this happening?
Outside the US, there is wide agreement that GMO foods are different from conventionally bred foods, and that all genetically engineered foods are required to go through safety assessments, prior to approval for commercial use. This agreement was established by the Codex Alimenatarius Commission, an international organization jointly established by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, to set worldwide food safety standards.
At present, none of the genetically engineered plants on sale in the United States meet this global standard. Unlike almost all other developed countries, the US does not require safety testing of genetically engineered crops. Essentially, the rest of the world uses the precautionary principle with GMOs, while we enjoy (or rather suffer from) our junk food wearing substantially equivalent blindfolds. Just recently a Japanese research team uncovered serious discrepancies in safety reports submitted by Monsanto to the Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry.
Why are GMOs regulated as being “substantially equivalent” but patented because they are “uniquely” different?
Here is where it gets awfully confusing! See, genetically engineered seeds are patented and cannot be grown without the strict contractual agreements with the makers of that seed, nor are they allowed to be tested by independent parties.
These genetically engineered seeds are patented because they have traits that make them unique from their natural counterparts. These traits are so unique that Monsanto sues farmers for infringing on patent rights, yet so similar that the FDA deems them substantially equivalent to their natural non-GMO, non-patented counterpart. Therefore, these GMO commodity crops used in over 80% of US processed foods are unlabeled and untested. This happens simply because of the deregulation process, led by an administration with direct and continued ties to biotech.
In other words, Monsanto bypasses unwanted regulations by pulling the substantial equivalence card, and pulls the patent seed card to keep anyone from using their product, without paying! Monsanto chooses whatever is the most convenient at any particular time, and for any particular purpose. Essentially then, substantial equivalence (deemed to be regulatorily the same) applies to consumers, whereas seed patents (uniquely different according to the Supreme Court) apply to competitors and customers.
In reviewing Monsanto’s track record since the introduction of genetically modified crops into the food chain in 1997, Monsanto has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers. On average, that is about one lawsuit every three weeks, for 16 straight years. Of those lawsuits, Monsanto has won every single battle.
What can we do about this?
The natural solution, no pun intended, would be to avoid GMOs. The problem for American and Canadian consumers is, how? We know that biotech companies maintain that GMO ingredients do not need to be labeled because they are not different from other foods. We also know that those profiting from GMO usage have spent a lot of money to keep GMO labels off of consumer products. In the US, the Grocery Manufactures Association and the big six biotech companies, including Monsanto, have spent millions of dollars fighting GMO labeling laws, even though polls show that over 89% of Americans want to know what they are eating.
In over 60 countries, GMOs are labeled thanks to the Codex Alimentarius Commission agreement. This agreement allows countries to adopt GMO labeling without fear of a legal challenge in the World Trade Organization. Currently, the only way to opt out of the US food experiment is to eat certified organic food, which is labeled and does not allow GMO seeds to be used in production. This sounds simple enough for those of us living in bountiful fresh food regions; however, many consumers are living in food deserts and are subjected to high amounts of processed foods.
Many predict, as GMOs become more readily known through successful labeling laws like the one just passed in Vermont, that we can expect the demand for non-GMO to shift, just as it did in the European Union. It simply should come down to consumer choice, but for the past 20 years Americans have been kept in the dark by a substantially equivalent law that has benefited only those profiting from these crops. A quick Google search will show any newcomer the negative GMO related issues of contamination, superbugs, super weeds and super problems from farmers that do not want to partake in the genetically engineered experiment.
Studies agree that the substantially equivalent rule is clearly flawed. Health studies have pointed to concern over GMO usage, both for human and animal consumption, yet substantial equivalence is still the status quo. These findings bring up a new stream of questions. Since independent studies show how GMOs damage the environment and the ill effects GMOs have on animal health, why does our government think substantial equivalence works?
A shift in US policy needs to happen, but who has the power to do it? We all do! In researching substantial equivalence you can see where we went wrong, and by knowing that we can steady the ship and change our course of action. Just this week Oregon passed two countywide bans on the growth of GMOs and the “vote with your fork” movement is growing. Organizations like GMO Inside, Food Democracy Now!, Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Millions Against Monsanto, and thousands of localized chapters are working on the issue of GMO awareness. You can also work on it by sharing the truth! As George Santayana said, “Those who are unaware of history are destined to repeat it.” Let us create a new agreement about GMOs, one that supports consumers’ right to know, future generations, human health, animal welfare, food security, sustainability, and organic farmers.
To learn more about substantial equivalence please review these additional sources:
Food Democracy Now Video
Bush touring Monsanto video


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