“If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.” – Norman Braksick, president of Asgrow Seed Co., a subsidiary of Monsanto, quoted in the Kansas City Star, March 7, 1994
“Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” – Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications, quoted in the New York Times, October 25, 1998
For two decades, starting with the controversial introduction of Monsanto’s recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato in 1994, polls have consistently shown that U.S. consumers are wary, indeed alarmed, about the new technology of genetic engineering (GE). Surveyed regularly, the overwhelming majority of Americans have repeatedly stated that they either want these “Frankenfoods” banned, or at least clearly labeled.
In a March 2012 national poll, conducted by the Mellman Group, 91% of Americans said they wanted GMO foods labeled. When asked whether gene-altered foods were safe, 34% of consumers said they believed that gene-altered foods were definitely unsafe; 41% said they were not sure; while 41% said genetically engineered foods should be banned.
Five counties and two cities in California and Washington have banned the growing of GE crops. In addition, given the near total absence of FDA regulation, 19 states have passed laws restricting Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
Millions of consumers are purchasing over $30 billion of organic foods, and $60 billion worth of so-called “natural” foods, every year, in part because organic standards prohibit the use of gene-altered seeds or ingredients. But many consumers believe mistakenly that “natural” foods are GE-free as well.
The biotech industry and Big Food Inc. are acutely aware of the fact that North American consumers, like their European counterparts, are wary and suspicious of GE foods. Even though most consumers don’t fully understand the science of gene-splicing foreign DNA into plants or animals, they instinctively understand that they don’t want to be guinea pigs in a biotech food safety experiment. They don’t want their family’s health or environmental sustainability decisions to be made by notorious chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta or Dupont—the same corporations who have poisoned our communities and our bodies with toxic pesticides, DDT, Agent Orange, dangerous pharmaceuticals and PCBs. GE crops and foods have absolutely no benefits for consumers or the environment, only hazards.
This is why biotech and Big Food corporations spent more than $46 million to defeat Proposition 37, a November 7, 2012 California ballot initiative that would have required mandatory labels on GMO foods, and put an end to the routine industry practice of marketing GE-tainted foods as “natural.” In the wake of a scurrilous barrage of TV, radio and direct mail ads falsely claiming that GMO labels would significantly increase food costs, hurt family farmers, increase the scope and intrusiveness of state bureaucrats, and benefit special interest groups such as trial lawyers, California voters narrowly rejected mandatory GMO food labels 51.5% to 48.5%.
After Prop 37: Big Food Blinks
But Big Food apparently now realizes that Proposition 37 was a hollow victory, an inconclusive, albeit fierce, preliminary battle in a war against consumer antipathy and consumer choice, a war they will inevitably lose. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) immediately put a happy face on their narrow victory in California, reciting their standard propaganda: “Proposition 37 was a deeply flawed measure that would have resulted in higher food costs, frivolous lawsuits and increased state bureaucracies. This is a big win for California consumers, taxpayers, business and farmers.”
But Jennifer Hatcher, senior vice-president of government and public affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, came closer to expressing the real sentiments of the big guns who opposed Prop 37, a measure she had previously said “scared us to death.” In her official statement following the election, she said:
“This gives us hope that you can, with a well-funded, well-organized, well-executed campaign, defeat a ballot initiative and go directly to the voters. We hope we don’t have too many of them, because you can’t keep doing that over and over again . . .”
But we are doing it “over and over again.” More than 30 state legislatures are now debating bills on GMO labeling. Public awareness of the hazards of GE has increased significantly. Controversy surrounding a new generation of frightening and outrageous Frankenfoods and crops, including GE salmon and Agent Orange (2,4 D-resistant) corn, have intensified public anger. Monsanto is now the most hated corporation on the planet. In the wake of the California ballot initiative, the nationwide movement against Monsanto and GMOs is larger and stronger than ever.
But what is perhaps most alarming to the Big Food industry and their allies is the fact that the organic and natural health movement appears to be growing not only more popular, but also more radical. A majority of today’s organic and local food activists, supported by the powerful natural health movement, are no longer just mobilizing to label or ban GMOs, but are also speaking out against industrial food and farming practices in general—pesticides, animal drugs, junk foods, antibiotics, growth promoters, climate disrupting nitrate fertilizer, and inhumane, polluting, and disease-ridden factory farm. And they’re speaking out against the destructive practices of Big Pharma, which increasingly works hand-in-hand with Big Biotech and Big Food to supply the drugs and growth promoters that make factory farming profitable.
Millions of Americans are becoming aware that chemical- and energy-intensive industrial food and farming in general, not just GMOs, pose a fundamental threat to public health, the environment and climate stability. More and more critics and journalists are exposing the hazards and cruelty of factory-farmed meat, dairy and eggs, and the highly processed, chemical-laden junk food that constitute the bulk of America’s diet. Even the New York Times recently revealed that for decades, processed foods have been diabolically engineered and laced with synthetic chemicals and additives designed to turn consumers and children into obese, cancer- and heart disease-prone junk food addicts.
Big Food’s greatest fear is materializing. A critical mass of educated consumers, food and natural health activists are organizing a powerful Movement capable of overthrowing North America’s trillion-dollar junk food Empire. And they’re doing it by zeroing in on the Achilles heel of Food Inc.: misleading and outright fraudulent labeling and advertising.
Multinational food companies, like their biotech counterparts, are beginning to grasp the fact that GMO labeling is inevitable. They are aware that mandatory labeling will be the kiss of death for GMO-tainted products, and that they will have no choice but to reformulate their company brands by removing GMOs. They are aware that state labeling laws, likely to be passed in Vermont, Maine, Washington and other states in 2013, will have the same economic impact in the national marketplace as federal labeling. Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Kraft, General Mills and Frito-Lay won’t label their products as containing GMOs in Vermont or Washington, and then refuse to do so in the other 48 or 49 states. Alaska already has mandatory labeling for GE fish. Other states will soon follow, not just for fish but also for all products.
There is no doubt that major food corporations and retailers will remove GMOs from their product lines rather than suffer the consequences of affixing a skull and crossbones to their branded products. Once they stop buying GE ingredients, U.S. farmers will drastically cut back on their planting of GE crops. After the EU implemented mandatory labeling of GMOs in 1998, essentially driving transgenic crops and foods off the European market, every major U.S. food corporation, from General Mills to Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, removed GMOs from their EU product line, while continuing to sell unlabeled GMO-tainted foods in North America.
Big Food Inc. now appears willing to give ground on the U.S. GE labeling front, perhaps calculating that this tactical retreat will prevent or at least slow down the alternative food and farming movement from becoming even more radical. This is why Wal-Mart and 20 other large food corporations sat down in a closed-door meeting with intermediaries from the FDA In January in Washington D.C., to request that the FDA accept the need for federal GMO food labeling.
“The big food companies found themselves in an uncomfortable position after Prop. 37, and they’re talking among themselves about alternatives to merely replaying that fight over and over again,” said Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University who attended the meeting. “They spent a lot of money, got a lot of bad press that propelled the issue into the national debate and alienated some of their customer base, as well as raising issues with some trading partners,’ said Mr. Benbrook, who does work on sustainable agriculture.”
At that same meeting a number of large food corporations indicated that they will not be putting money and resources into defeating future GMO labeling ballot initiatives, such as the current initiative, I-522, in Washington State.
This is also why Whole Foods Market, under tremendous pressure from consumers, announced on March 8 that they would start to label all GMO products in their stores, albeit with a suspiciously drawn-out five-year (2018) implementation period.
Time is running out for Monsanto and the biotech industry. As Paul Rodemeyer, a biotechnology expert from the University of Virginia recently told the Los Angeles Times, food producers made a “tactical mistake” by opposing GMO food labeling in the U.S. “When you don’t label, you’re always raising suspicion you’re trying to hide something,” he said.
The list of what Monsanto is hiding is long:
• GMOs are laboratory-made, utilizing an imprecise and unpredictable technology called gene-splicing that is totally different from natural breeding methods.
• Numerous studies indicate that genetically engineered foods are toxic, allergenic and/or less nutritious than their non-GMO counterparts, posing major threats to animal and human health.
• GE foods are not adequately safety tested before they are put on the market. Instead, the FDA relies on the companies’ own, biased studies. And the industry hides behind patent laws to prevent independent testing..
• GMO crops do not increase yields.
• GMO crops increase, not reduce, the use of pesticides.
• GE crops create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-resistant “superweeds” which are now spreading across 61 million acres in the U.S., compromised soil quality, and increased disease susceptibility in crops.
• GMOs threaten the economic livelihood of organic and small farmers because of genetic pollution and seed monopolization.
• GMOs damage soil fertility, disrupt ecosystems, harm the soil’s ability to sequester carbon, and reduce biodiversity.
• GMO crops use vast amounts of fossil fuels and climate-disrupting chemical fertilizers.
• GE crops provide no solutions for the problem of world hunger but in fact distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.
The Biotech Bullies’ Next Moves
The sooner we force labels on GMO foods, the sooner we will drive them off the market. Monsanto and Big Food understand this full well, which is why they will continue to discourage, co-opt or delay labeling for as long as possible. The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) said it supports Whole Foods Market’s (WFM) March 8 announcement of voluntary labeling in their stores, no doubt because it gives Monsanto and BIO’s other members a five-year reprieve. Of course Big Food would now prefer for the FDA to propose GMO labeling regulations similar to those passed in Japan or Brazil, filled with loopholes, and/or regulations with a long implementation period, like WFM’s. This will buy them time to adjust their supply lines and, they hope, defuse the anger and rebellion of health and environmentally concerned consumers.
We as a Movement must support the crucial Nov. 5 Washington GMO labeling ballot initiative in Washington State, and pass it, to ensure full implementation of GMO labeling will be in place by July 2015. In the meantime we need to pressure coops and natural food stores to begin implementing voluntary GMO labeling immediately, by demanding legally binding GMO affidavits from all of their so-called “natural” food suppliers. We must also prepare to mobilize on a massive scale if the FDA puts out a watered down proposal for federal labeling of GMOs.
Monsanto’s minions are currently out in force in Washington State, Vermont, Connecticut, and several dozen other states, lobbying politicians behind the scenes. Planting misleading articles in the press. Attacking pro-labeling anti-GMO proponents as anti-technology Luddites. And repeating ad nauseum their propaganda claims that GE foods and crops are perfectly safe and therefore need no labeling, that transgenics are environment- and climate-friendly, and that genetically modified crops are necessary to feed the world. The U.S. and global anti-GMO movement must to respond to this propaganda offensive by stepping up our own public education campaign, especially calling attention to the mounting scientific evidence that GMOs are indeed hazardous.
One of Monsanto’s major propaganda points, designed to discourage state officials from passing GMO labeling laws, is that state GMO labeling is unconstitutional. Monsanto has repeatedly stated that the company will sue any state that dares to label. This threat of a lawsuit was enough to convince lawmakers in Vermont and Connecticut in 2012 to back off from labeling, even though there were sufficient votes, and overwhelming public sentiment, to pass these bills. The same scenario appears to be unfolding again in Vermont, where the Governor is refusing to endorse a popular labeling bill that could easily pass through both houses of the legislature.
Biotech industry lawyers claim that Federal courts will strike down mandatory state GMO labeling for three main reasons: 1)because Federal law, in this case FDA regulations, preempt state law; 2) because commercial free speech allows corporations to remain silent on whether or not their products are genetically engineered or not; and 3) because GMO labeling would interfere with interstate commerce.
These claims simply don’t hold up. State GMO labeling, and other food safety and food labeling laws, are constitutional. Federal law, upheld for decades by federal court legal decisions, allows states to pass laws relating food safety or food labels when the FDA has no prior regulations or prohibitions in place. There is currently no federal law or FDA regulation on GMO labeling, except for a guidance statement on voluntary labeling, nor is there any federal prohibition on state GMO or other food safety labeling laws. In fact there are over 200 state food labeling laws in effect right now in the U.S., including a GMO fish labeling law in Alaska, laws on labeling wild rice, maple syrup, dairy quality, kosher products, and laws on labeling dairy products as rBGH-free. It is very unlikely that any federal court will want to make a sweeping ruling that would nullify 200 preexisting state laws.
U.S. case law does indicate that commercial free speech in certain instances allows corporations to remain silent about what’s in their products. However federal courts have consistently ruled that when there are compelling state interests – health, environment, economic – states can require corporations to divulge what’s in their products or how they were produced.
When it comes to GMOs, States can clearly make the case for compelling state interests, according to Consumer Union’s senior scientist, Michael Hansen. Hansen says: “…there is a compelling state interest in labeling of genetically engineered foods and that is due to the potential human health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered foods.”
Hansen also argues that Codex Alimentarius, a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production and food safety, guarantees nations the right to implement mandatory labeling of GMO foods. The standards support the argument that GMO labels do not constitute a restriction of free trade, as long as they are applied to both domestic and international producers. Similarly state GMO labels, as long as they do not discriminate against particular producers, but rather apply to all producers – state, national, and international – do not constitute a restriction of interstate commerce.
The U.S. government, under massive global pressure, has signed on to the Codex Alimentarius, which serves “as a risk management measure to deal with the scientific uncertainty” associated with genetically engineered foods. And according to Hansen, there most certainly is significant scientific uncertainty about the potential health impacts of Genetically Engineered foods.”
States and localities have the right and the power to pass their own legislation, especially when the federal government fails or refuses to act on matters of compelling interest. Although large corporations now control the federal government, we still have room to organize and govern ourselves, especially at the local level.
“Home rule,” embedded in state constitutions and municipal charters across the U.S., provides the legal basis that has enabled several hundred cities and counties to pass ordinances banning factory farms, the spreading of sewage sludge on farmlands, fracking (which pollutes groundwater, farms and gardens), and even GMOs. Yet undeterred by 200 years of case law and legislation institutionalizing states’ rights and local “Home Rule,” corporations are brazenly attacking the rights of states and localities to regulate Corporate America’s often reckless and criminal behavior. They’re getting help from the infamous pro-corporate lobbying group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is lobbying states across the country to restrict counties or local governments from passing any laws limiting pesticide use, GMOs, fracking, or industrial agriculture practices.
ALEC and elements in the Republican and Democratic Party allegedly support “federalism,” or state’s rights – a theory based on the idea that state government can better represent and respond to local interests than a more centralized federal government. Yet ALEC apparently does not apply this logic to relations between local and state government, at least not when local control steps on the toes of corporate America. http://alecexposed.org/wiki/File:GMO.jpg
We are engaged in a fundamental battle, for the right to know what’s in our food, the right to choose what we buy and eat, and the right to regulate out-of-control corporations that are threatening our environment, our health and future climate stability. Without BioDemocracy there can be no democracy. Without a balance of powers between the federal government, states and local home rule, there is no republic, but rather a Corporatocracy, an unholy alliance between indentured politicians and profit-at-any-cost corporations. The battle for food sovereignty is a battle we cannot afford to lose.
By Ronnie Cummins at Organic Consumers Association
Ronnie Cummins is National and International Director of the Organic Consumers Association.