GMO Labeling: Where We've Been and Where We're Going
Here to kick off the annual GMO Awareness Week is Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). February 4th was the 22nd anniversary of the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) foods into the U.S. food system.
Twenty-two years ago, on February 4th, Monsanto's bovine growth hormone (BGH) was forced onto the market despite complaints from consumers and scientists warning that this technology is inherently dangerous.
"Despite the fact that consumers said they wanted labeling and independent safety testing, they just rammed it on through," Ronnie says.
"Here we are, 22 years later, [and] a large percentage of our farmlands and our foods in the United States now contain genetically engineered or genetically modified ingredients — 75 percent of all supermarket foods.
We've had an interesting 20-year battle with consumers asserting their right to know; their right to choose."
It really heated up in 2012 when OCA, Dr. Bronner's and I, and a number of other allies began putting GMO labeling initiatives on state ballots. California was the first, followed by Washington in 2013 and Oregon in 2014.
We came very close to winning all those state ballots, despite food and biotech companies outspending us many times over, pouring tens of millions of dollars into their anti-labeling campaigns.
Had lying to voters been illegal during those campaigns, there's little doubt we'd have won. During the 2012 campaign, the industry was caught misrepresenting academic affiliations, misusing federal seal of the FDA, and falsely quoting the agency in a mailer sent to voters.
The attorney general in Washington State also indicted the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) for carrying out an illegal money-laundering scheme to protect the identity of members who donated funds to the opposing campaign in 2013.
As explained by Ronnie:
"The Big Food companies had become so worried about consumer backlash by 2013 that they no longer were willing to go public with their donations to stop GMO labeling.
They set up a front group and laundered the money illegally and they got caught. Hopefully, they're going to have to pay millions and millions of dollars in penalties.
But the thing they really hate the most is that we beat them in the court of public opinion. We educated a critical mass of American consumers about the hazards of GMOs and the chemical toxins — the pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides — that always accompany them.
We've alerted the public to the dangers of GMO-derived foods, and the public have stood up and even the corporate media and the indentured politicians in Washington have had to listen."
In May 2014, Vermont passed a law requiring GMO ingredients to be labeled when sold in the state. The industry took the case to court, but the federal district court upheld the constitutionality of Vermont's law.
The court also noted that under our federal system, states do have the right to pass laws about food safety or food labeling when the federal government has no policy. Ever since then, industry concerns have mounted to new heights, as have their efforts to squelch further labeling efforts once and for all.
"In July 2015, they managed to pass a law in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Pompeo Bill [aka the DARK Act, or Deny Americans the Right to Know], which was totally outrageous.
It basically said, 'Hey, it doesn't matter that 90 percent of consumers want to know if there are GMOs in their food. It doesn't matter if we've had a hundred-year tradition of states being able to pass food labeling laws.
We're going to squelch all that, because Monsanto, Coca-Cola, and the rest don't want you to know.' They rammed through that bill," Ronnie says.
The House of Representatives' passing of the DARK Act provoked hundreds of thousands of phone calls, emails, and visits with congressional representatives all over the country. As a consequence, the U.S. Senate got cold feet, and didn't take up the bill in 2015.
In face of that failure, the food industry set up closed-door meetings with consumer organizations in an effort to reach a compromise. Naturally, neither I nor the OCA were invited, as labeling opponents know we're not willing to compromise on your right to know what's in your food, and your right to choice.
They did get a handful of people to meet with them though. The proposed compromise to mandatory labeling was to use so-called QR or smart codes on food packages.
By scanning the QR code using your smartphone, you could then look up information about the food on the brand's website. I've previously listed the many drawbacks of this "smart label" system, and why it's simply NOT a viable alternative.
Few consumers fell for this ruse, and polls show 90 percent of American consumers want clear labels on food packages, NOT user-unfriendly smart codes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced that a compromise with the consumer groups could not be reached.
Vermont's GMO labeling law takes effect on July 1 this year, and food companies are undoubtedly on edge about the fact that some 40,000 or 50,000 food products will have to bear the "contain genetically engineered ingredients" label or be reformulated.
Campbell's Soup Company broke ranks with the GMA and the rest of the food industry a few weeks ago when the company announced it will comply with the Vermont law. Campbell's executives also said they will remove GMOs from certain products. Moreover, Campbell's confirmed that food prices will remain unchanged—which is what we've been saying all along.
It DOESN'T cost anything extra to add a few words to the label. The argument that GMO labeling would result in a $500 price hike for the average American family was, and is, completely FALSE. Whole Foods Market has also announced that by 2018, any GE product sold in its stores will have a GMO label.
"The rest of the food industry cried out that Campbell's had stabbed them in the back. Although a couple of them like Hershey's, Hellmann's Mayonnaise, Cheerios, Ben and Jerry's, and then some restaurant chains like Panera and Chipotle had already said, 'We're getting GMOs out of our products.' Then, of course, some of them have started buying up as many organic brands as they can," Ronnie says.
"Basically, the Big Food industry is in disarray. They want this issue to go away because, according to Fortune magazine, they lost $4 billion last year. Consumers are mad at them; not only for having GMOs in their products, but for trying to conceal that.
Consumers are starting to say, 'How come they took out all their GMOs in the European Union, but in the United States, they haven't taken them out and they don't want us to know?...
I think when we look at all these food companies, like Kraft, who are taking artificial colors and synthetic chemicals out of even their non-organic products, and buying up every organic brand they can buy, we're seeing a change. American consumers are starting to not only take control of their health but take control of their food and their diets.
The food companies, the chemical companies, and Monsanto could ignore this for a while, but they can't ignore it anymore."
The food and biotechnology industries have fought hard to prevent you from knowing there are GE ingredients in your food. So what else are they trying to keep you in the dark about? For starters, they don't want you to know that some 95 percent of your meat and animal products come from animals that are fed GE grains, are drugged, and raised under horrific living conditions in feedlots and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
It's a dangerous system from a food safety standpoint, not to mention inhumane and cruel, which is why gag laws have been enacted, making it a felony to document and publicize what goes on in these massive factory farms.
"We need to demand the right to know which of our meat and animal products come out of factory farms," Ronnie says. "The next stage in this food fight to know what we're eating and to be able to choose what's healthy, sustainable, and humane, is to think a little bit more about meat, dairy, and eggs."
Let's also not forget that most Americans are spending half of our food dollars eating in restaurants ... Does the menu really tell you very much? No. You have to become not just a passive consumer. Ask that waiter 'Is this farmed salmon or is this wild-caught Alaskan salmon? You got this hamburger on the menu. Is this grass-fed? Does it come from a local or regional farmer,' and so on.
There exists this conversation and this food fight into the other sectors of food and farming economy, which are huge. One of them is meat and animal products, the other are restaurants ... Let's think before we pull out our wallets. Let's look more closely at these menus and labels. Let's exercise our right. It is a right to take control of our health and of our food."
Let's also not forget the issue of pesticides. Since the introduction of Roundup in 1974, 1.8 million tons of it has been sprayed on U.S. crops alone. Worldwide, nearly 10 million tons of glyphosate has been used. It's the most commonly used chemical in agriculture in the history of mankind.
This is truly outrageous when you consider that Monsanto deceived us yet again with this product. It's neither biodegradable nor safe. Instead, research shows it's a carcinogen. It also destroys critically important soil microbes, which has led to a reduction in food quality. We really need to double down and eliminate this toxic assault, not just to protect ourselves, but also to protect the environment.
Vermont's GMO labeling law takes effect this July. The GMA and its members, including Monsanto (which alone employs 300 attorneys), are appealing the federal district court decision to the circuit court. Ronnie is confident Vermont will prevail, but it's certainly possible that some of the circuit court judges might not look at the fact in the same way the first judge did.
Even the food industry recognizes they may lose, which is why they're pressuring the Senate to block all further attempts to label GMOs.
"The Senate Ag committee has a guy, Pat Roberts, from Kansas, who's never seen a pesticide he didn't love. He's never seen a factory farm he didn't love. He's never seen a big check from special interests that he didn't love to put in his bank account.
Even Roberts has said, 'I'm not sure we can pass this [denial of consumer right to know] in the Senate' ... They're going to try, perhaps until the last minute. But I think what it looks like at this point is that we can prevail.
If we don't — if the Senate dares to ram through a bill in the last minute to take away the right of consumers to know what's in their food, and the right of states ... then we have a surprise for them. That 4 billion dollars that they lost from their bottom line last year is going to get a lot bigger, because you can't just slap consumers around anymore.
We're preparing a great boycott of all the GMA companies and all their brands if they dare to preempt Vermont at the last minute. But chances are they're making plans. They've already decided like Campbell's to throw in the towel. They're going to either have labels on their products or they're going to have to reformulate it."
Remember, every time you pull out your wallet, you cast your vote for the kind of food system you want, and that terrifies the food industry. They know they survive or perish at the hand of consumers, which is the reason for all this lack of transparency. Up until recently, most people were simply too uninformed to ditch their brands for something better. This is rapidly changing, and as it does, the status quo can no longer prevail. The food industry must change or die.
Hopefully, they will decide to not only stop fighting us with regards to labeling, but also to take a long, hard look at the food they're serving to kids in schools, old folks' homes, retirement centers, corporate cafeterias, and veterans' hospitals. They must stop poisoning the American public for the sake of short-term profits.
Our health care system simply cannot bear all of this diet-induced disease. "If they don't, well, we'll just make the organic and grass-fed industry and the natural health industry grow faster than ever," Ronnie says.
The OCA has hired legal help to draft new bills that require factory farmed foods to be labeled as such, and they've talked to several legislators across the country. So far, no one has agreed to support such a bill. In fact, as Ronnie says, they're all "scared to death" of such legislation.
The factory farm industry, the drug companies that supply them with drugs, the genetic engineering and agribusiness centers that supply them with feed — these industries are massive, and they wield a lot of power.
"So far, we haven't gotten any headway in states like Vermont, Wisconsin, or Maine where we've tried to talk about this," Ronnie says."But we think there's another way that we can inform consumers about what's in their factory-farmed foods.
What we started doing over the last year is try to send in some samples of milk, meat, and dairy products to labs to test for GMO DNA ... animal drug residues ... pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide residues, and/or their breakdown compounds (metabolites)."
One major problem they encountered was that few labs were willing to work with them. To remedy this situation, I, the Natural Health Association, and other groups, have joined forces with the OCA to set up our own independent laboratory. We're also investigating labs around the world that might be willing to be objective.
"The industry likes to say, 'Organic and grass-fed are not worth the extra money and that it's all just hype. The Organic Consumers Association wants to take more of your hard-earned money to get you to spend it on organic or grass-fed when it's not really necessary' ... [W]e will get rigorous scientific testing done, and then we will explain to the public, 'Here's what's in your food. Here's in what's in your kid's food,' Ronnie says.
The agricultural industry uses some 20,000 different pesticides, many of which — despite being legal to use — act as hormone or endocrine disruptors. As explained by André Leu, author of "The Myths of Safe Pesticides," pesticides pose a significant health threat even in minute amounts. Research also shows that the synergistic action between various chemicals typically makes them FAR more toxic in combination than individually.
"People are not paying attention to the fact that the most commonly used herbicide in America on corn is not even Roundup; it's atrazine. How come atrazine is banned in the European Union and most industrialized countries?" Ronnie says.
"It's very clear: It's carcinogenic. It makes frogs develop extra legs. It turns male fish into female fish with eggs. It does damage to you when you drink that tap water or when you eat that food that's got the atrazine residue.
We've got to keep educating people about GMOs. But the next stage in this food safety campaign is the toxic pesticides that always accompany them. We can add (when we're talking about meat and animal products) the animal drugs that always accompany them.
Once we win consumers' right to know what's in their food, including the pesticides and the animal drugs, the big companies are going to stop using these things, and the organic and the grass fed sector will become what it used to be before the Second World War — the dominant part of our food and farming system."
We've made great headway, but there's clearly a lot more to be done. Ronnie and I personally thank you for everything you've done to further this cause, and hope you stick with us as we move forward. I strongly encourage you to give OCA your financial support, because we are making a difference.
Food companies have to start being honest and truthful in telling us what's in our food, and we will not quit until they do. We can't do it alone, however. We need your help, and this week, you can double the impact of your donation, as I will match each and every dollar you donate to the OCA.
In closing, Ronnie notes:
"The most encouraging thing about in the United States and North America these days is that we've got a hundred million people occasionally buying organic and grass-fed food products. A lot of them are buying them more than occasionally. That's why we have this 55-billion-dollar industry of organic, non-GMO, and grass-fed.
But we also have a hundred million natural health consumers out there who are taking control of their health, who are at least occasionally buying supplements and visiting alternative practitioners.