It’s nearly impossible to escape the ongoing genetically modified organism (GMO) debate. While many hold the strong opinion that genetically engineered (GE) foods are unsafe, unhealthy and downright evil, there are others who believe that they are the way to feed an ever-growing world population. This is, after all, America, and it is our right to have divergent points of view. However, over the past few years, the public battle over GE food has become more confusing and contentious, with the biotech seed industry and Big Ag on one side of the divide, and the 90 percent of Americans who want to see GMOs labeled on the other. It could be argued that the GMO issue has become less about the science, and more about the consumers’ right to know what is in their food.
With no federal laws requiring the testing or labeling of GE foods, American citizens, largely via grassroots efforts, have had to speak up for themselves on this matter. There are currently eight GMO-free zones in the U.S.: Trinity, Santa Cruz, Marin, Mendocino and Humboldt Counties (California); Jackson and Jefferson Counties (Oregon); and Maui (Hawaii).
The three states that have passed mandatory labeling laws are Connecticut, Maine and Vermont. There is legislation for mandatory GMO labeling pending in 35 states. All of these hard-earned laws and regulations are in constant danger of being overturned if federal legislation to the contrary is passed, because federal law trumps state or local law.
Americans recently escaped such a scenario when the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 was introduced to Congress, but failed to pass through the Senate. Opponents of this legislation coined it the “DARK” Act, an acronym for “Deny Americans the Right to Know.” Had this bill become law, it would have actually blocked states from labeling foods as containing GE ingredients, and further quashed any GMO legislation arising across the country. In March of this year, the Senate once again rejected a version of the Dark Act, but within the week, major packaged-food-producers, including Campbell’s, General Mills, Mars, Kelloggs and ConAgra, vowed to start labeling products that contain GE ingredients—mostly to satisfy the Vermont law, which will require this labeling by July. However, they still lobby for a “voluntary federal standard for GMO labeling.”
According to Steven M. Druker, public interest attorney and author of “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth,” the fact that GE foods are even on the market is illegal and in violation of federal law. “If federal food safety laws were properly enforced, all GE foods would need to be recalled and required to have their safety confirmed through rigorous testing via the formal food additive petition process,” says Druker. “Genetically engineered foods should be regarded as high-risk foods that have been inadequately tested. Their developers have shunned the type of rigorous scientific experimentation that is necessary in order to demonstrate that they are safe.”
Opponents of mandatory GMO labeling argue that individual state laws would create a “patchwork effect” throughout the country—confusing to the consumer and costly for food manufacturers. This, according to Druker, is untrue. “The various states which have already drafted laws for mandatory GMO labeling have established similar requirements that are comparable from state to state.” Furthermore, label-changing is routinely done by the food industry for new flavors, ingredients or for a variety of other marketing reasons. The food industry uses higher food costs as a scare tactic in an effort to manipulate the consumer against GMO labeling.
The absence of a mandatory GMO labeling system has also had an adverse effect on international trade. More than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan and the entire European Union, either require labeling or have imposed bans on the production and sale of GMOs. Lack of action on the part of the U.S. has created import and export problems with those countries. There have been instances when foods, or products containing non-approved crops, are refused entry at international ports for being in violation of the laws of the receiving country.
Is Our Right to Know Endangered?
It is widely known that a strong majority of Americans favor labeling of GE foods, and support for labeling is growing. We cannot accept it as “politics as usual” when our federal government pushes legislation in the opposite direction of the will of its citizens, especially when our food system is at stake. Should Washington cater to its constituents, or to the lobbyists who represent the corporate interests? Why do we vote if our interests are not represented by our chosen leaders?
The definition of food sovereignty is the right of all citizens to have healthful food, but also to be able to define their own food and agriculture systems. No matter what we believe about GMOs, the question we need to ask ourselves is: Shouldn’t we be able to make a choice when it comes to what we eat? While our reasons for wanting to know what’s in our food may be different according to our culture or the state in which we live, what should unify all of us is the belief that it’s our basic right to know. Food democracy is on the line.
by Michele Jacobson • Illustration by Cathy Matusicky of statecreativegroup.com