By Ronnie Cummins
“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 nearly two decades, Monsanto and corporate agribusiness have exercised near-dictatorial control over American agriculture, aided and abetted by indentured politicians and regulatory agencies, supermarket chains, giant food processors, and the so-called “natural” products industry.
Finally, public opinion around the biotech industry’s contamination of our food supply and destruction of our environment has reached the tipping point. We’re fighting back.
This November, in a food fight that will largely determine the future of what we eat and what we grow, Monsanto will face its greatest challenge to date: a statewide citizens’ ballot initiative that will give Californians the opportunity to vote for their right to know whether the food they buy is contaminated with GMOs.
A growing corps of food, health, and environmental activists – supported by the Millions against Monsanto and Occupy Monsanto Movements, and consumers and farmers across the nation – are boldly moving to implement mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods in California through a grassroots-powered citizens ballot initiative process that will bypass the agribusiness-dominated state legislature. If passed, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act will require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods and food ingredients, and outlaw the routine industry practice of labeling GMO-tainted foods as “natural.”
Passage of this initiative on November 6 will radically alter the balance of power in the marketplace, enabling millions of consumers to identify – and boycott – genetically engineered foods for the first time since 1994, when Monsanto’s first unlabeled, genetically-engineered dairy drug, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), was forced on the market,
As Alexis Baden-Mayer, Political Director for the Organic Consumers Association, pointed out at an Occupy Wall Street teach-in in Washington DC in early April: “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act ballot initiative is a perfect example of how the grassroots 99% can mobilize to take back American democracy from the corporate bullies, the 1%. By aggressively utilizing one of the last remaining tools of direct democracy, the initiative process (available to voters not only in California and 23 other states, but in thousands of cities and counties across the nation), we can bypass corrupt politicians, make our own laws, and force corporations like Monsanto to bend to the will of the people, in this case granting us our fundamental right to know what’s in our food.”
Moving the Battleground
This is not the first time Monsanto has been challenged by citizens’ initiatives or state and local legislative efforts. But this time, the momentum is in our favor.
In the past, GMO “right-to-know” activists have been outmaneuvered and outgunned by Monsanto and its minions in every state, except Vermont and Connecticut, where passing a labeling bill is still, at least theoretically, a long-shot. (Monsanto recently threatened to sue the state of Vermont if legislators there pass a GMO labeling bill).
Efforts to pass GMO labeling laws at the federal level have gone nowhere, despite the fact that more than one million consumers have emailed “Just Label It” petitions to the FDA, demanding mandatory labeling. (The FDA counted only 394 of the signatures, claiming that the main petition was submitted as a single document, or docket, and therefore counted as only one signature.)
Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has introduced his perennial GMO labeling bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, though everyone knows it will never make it out of committee and come to a full House vote on the floor. Similar symbolic bills have been introduced in 18 state legislatures.
The battle has been raging for decades. But this time, it’s different.
Behind this historic California initiative is a broad, growing and powerful health, environmental, and consumer coalition, which includes the Organic Consumers Association, Organic Consumers Fund, Food Democracy Now!, Mercola.com, Nature’s Path, Lundberg Family Farms, LabelGMOs.org, Eden Foods, Alliance for Natural Health, Dr. Bronner’s, United Farm Workers Union, American Public Health Association, Cornucopia Institute, Institute for Responsible Technology, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, California Certified Organic Farmers, and scores of others.
This time, the industry faces informed – and alarmed – consumers who understand the danger of allowing out-of-control chemical and biotech companies like Monsanto, Dow, or Dupont – the very same corporations that have assaulted us with toxic pesticides and industrial chemicals, Agent Orange, carcinogenic food additives, PCBs, and now global warming – to dictate their food choices.
Keeping Consumers in the Dark, Keeping Farmers and Scientists Intimidated
Why has it taken so long to get this far? How have Monsanto and its cohorts been able to grow and maintain market supremacy while force-feeding unlabeled “Frankenfoods” to the public for decades?
By buying off politicians, bullying farmers and scientists, and keeping consumers in the dark.
Monsanto has sued more than 150 farmers across the US and Canada, and threatened thousands of others, for refusing to pay for “intellectual property theft” after their fields were contaminated by Monsanto’s patented genetically engineered crops.
The company has harassed and used the media to bully scientists who have exposed the public health and environmental hazards of genetically engineered foods and crops in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Europe. The renowned scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai from the UK, was pressured and discredited for reporting on the dangers of genetic engineering until he was eventually fired from his job. The same thing happened to the UK’s Environmental Minister, Michael Meacher.
In a number of other cases, scientists such as Ignacio Chapela, have received death threats. Chapela also said he received death threats to his children from “a high government official” in Mexico after he showed contamination of native corn with Monsanto’s GMOs. Other scientists, most notably Andres Carrasco from Argentina, have been assaulted by thugs. Monsanto has even hired the notorious mercenary gang, Blackwater, to spy on its opponents worldwide.
Why has Monsanto gone to such great lengths to thwart GMO labeling laws and initiatives? Because it understands the threat that truth-in-labeling poses for GMOs – and biotech industry profits. As soon as genetically engineered foods are labeled in the U.S., millions of consumers will read these labels and react. They’ll complain to grocery store managers and companies, they’ll talk to their family and friends. They’ll switch to foods that are organic or at least GMO-free. Once enough consumers complain about GE foods and food ingredients, stores will eventually stop selling them. Farmers will stop planting them.
Europe Shows Labels Can Drive GMOs off the Market
In Europe, there almost no genetically engineered crops, while here in the US, nearly 75% of all supermarket foods – including many so-called “natural” foods – are GE-tainted. Why? Because Europe requires labeling of genetically engineered foods – and the US does not.
This is exactly why activists have launched the California Ballot Initiative. Passing mandatory GMO food labeling in just one large state, California, the eighth largest economy in the world, where there is tremendous opposition to GE foods as well as a multi-billion dollar organic food industry, will ultimately have the same impact as a national labeling law.
If California voters pass the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, the biotech and food industry will face an intractable dilemma. Will they dare put labels on their branded food products in just one state, California, admitting these products contain genetically engineered ingredients, while withholding this ingredient label information in the other states? Will they allow their organic and non-GMO competitors to drive down their GMO-tainted brand market share?
The answer to both of these questions is likely no. What most of them will do is start to shift to organic and non-GMO ingredients, so as to avoid what the Monsanto executive 16 years ago aptly described as the “skull and crossbones” label.
Can you imagine Kellogg’s selling its Corn Flakes breakfast cereal in California with a label that admits it contains or may contain genetically engineered corn? This would be the kiss of death for their iconic brand. How about Kraft Boca Burgers admitting that their soybean ingredients are genetically modified? How about the entire non-organic food industry (including many so-called “natural” brands sold in Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s) admitting that a large proportion of their products are GE-tainted?
Once food manufacturers and supermarkets are forced to come clean and label genetically engineered products, they will likely remove all GE ingredients, to avoid the “skull and crossbones” effect, just like the food industry in the EU has done. In the wake of this development American farmers will convert millions of acres of GE crops to non-GMO or organic varieties.
What Now? The Campaign Needs Volunteers and Money
Monsanto, the Farm Bureau, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association – under the guise of its front group, the so-called Coalition Against the Costly Food Law – are building up a massive war chest up to defeat the California Ballot Initiative. They will literally spend millions to spread lies and disinformation that GMO foods and crops are perfectly safe – and that we need more, not less GMO food and biofuel crops in this era of climate change and growing population.
They will lie and say that GMO labels will be costly to the food industry and raise food prices. They will say that it is the job of the FDA to decide whether GMOs are labeled, not the states. Yet we already know that this battle will never be won in Washington DC, where Monsanto and Food Inc. lobbyists have politicians in their back pockets. It will only be won in places like California (or Vermont), vital centers of organic food and farming and anti-GMO sentiment, where 90% of the body politic, according to recent polls, support mandatory labeling.
Originally published on: AlterNet
Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins is author of numerous articles and books, including “Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers” (Second Revised Edition Marlowe & Company 2004).