Food & Farm Justice Soil

GMO OMG WTF are we eating?!?!

Sven Eberlein
Written by Sven Eberlein

So there’s a proposition — Proposition 37 — on the ballot in California that would make the state the first in the nation to require the labeling of food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). When you turn on the TV here in the Golden State, you’d think these extra few words on our instant coffee, granola, canned soup, or soy milk containers are going to bankrupt poor food producers and send millions of people into instant poverty.

All of a sudden, the airwaves are swamped with doctors, researchers, farmers, and fake university professors predicting the demise of civilization were the poor people of California to be subjected to this truly radical concept of knowing what’s in their food. Apparently, the cost of adding a few more words to the ingredient list on the packaging is going to be so astronomical that each of our grocery bills is going to go up by a zillion dollars a year and farmers will drop out of farming like rain out of a monsoon sky.

Also too, everybody is going to be so confused about everything that the whole country will be spinning in circles: Logistics people will lose their minds over custom-labeling California-bound food, truck drivers will crash into supermarkets in utter desperation, and shoppers will be screaming in exasperation over their futile quest to understand which products are GMO-labeled and why.

Listening to these Monsanto-sponsored fables on the Teevee, you’d think it’s going to be the end of food and eating, and we’re all going to have to beam ourselves to another galaxy to escape the vicious fangs of labels and enjoy a sea of shiny big spotless grains and vegetables provided by a handful of caring, benevolent multi-billion dollar corporations. Awesome, trust us!

What’s the Big Deal?

Now at first glance it wouldn’t seem like a controversial issue: For one, people seem to appreciate knowing what’s in their food, not only out of basic human curiosity, but so they can make educated choices about what they’re putting into their bodies. For many, knowing how much sugar, salt, or fat is in a product is a matter of survival. Knowing which product contains what ingredients is an important choice the consumer has and needs in order to make the right decision that’s best for his or her health.

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Also, over 50 other countries — including all of Europe, Russia and China — require labeling of genetically engineered food, and last time I checked, they’re still eating food over there, quite happily so. In fact, I just got back from visiting my mom in Southern Germany, and the (GMO-free!) food was not only affordable, but delicious. Take a look:

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Another thing they do in Europe that takes up tremendous amount of label space but doesn’t seem to have bankrupted any food companies yet or driven up food prices is to not only write the ingredients on the product in several languages but include the country of origin for each ingredient. This is the label on a Swiss biscuit brand…

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Here in California, knowing what’s in your food and where it comes from has become a big deal and has become an actual selling point. My local Safeway now takes up a lot of store space featuring information about the origin of their produce, posting even snappy photos of the farmers who grow our avocados, peaches, and tomatoes.

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Other California companies who take a lot of pride in their products have made it their mission to tell consumers exactly what they’re buying. For example, Patagonia offers its Footprint Chronicles, mapping and providing transparency of their entire supply chain. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps tells you exactly where their ingredients come from, who produced them and how.

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And of course, anyone who’s ever held a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s in their hands knows how much info you can fit on a label…

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What’s Big Ag Hiding?

So, this really begs the question: Why are the makers of genetically engineered food so adamantly opposed to Proposition 37 that they have already sunk over $35 million into defeating it?

Why are agrochemical titans Monsanto and DuPont emerging as the top two opponents of GMO-labeling with contributions totaling $7.1 million and $4.9 million, respectively?

Why would Monsanto, a company that calls itself “A Sustainable Agriculture Company” and proudly claims that “food derived from genetically-modified crops is as safe as non-GM-derived food” not embrace the chance to have their safe and wonderful technology advertised on the product?

Why would multi-gazillion dollar “food” companies like Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Nestle, and Conagra not stand behind what’s in their product and let consumers make their own, free-market based decision?

Money (That’s What I Want)

The answer, of course, is pretty easy: MONEY. These food conglomerates are not very confident that their products would stand the test of consumer scrutiny and are afraid that they’ll lose a lot of money if people actually know what’s in their products. While the U.S. Senate, heavily influenced by Big Ag lobbyists, voted down a GMO amendment to the recent Farm Bill by 73 to 26, polls show that over 90% of Americans favor GMO labeling.

This doesn’t mean that 90% of Americans would refuse to buy food containing GMOs (just as they don’t refuse sugary, salty and fatty junk food), but people want to at least know what they’re putting in their bodies, which is exactly what a Yes on Prop 37 vote would do. But, with people finding out more and more reasons to avoid GMOs, chances are quite a few will choose GMO-free products if given the knowledge and the choice.

Because really, why on earth should we blindly trust the same companies that said tobacco, DDT and Agent Orange were safe when they say genetically engineered food is completely harmless?

As is usually the case with consumer protection initiatives, the big corporate interests who are fighting them tooth and nail — because the only thing worse for them than making a little less profit is to reveal their dirty big secret — are spending millions to nitpick over technicalities of the measure to sow doubt and fear in voters. It’s right out of Sarah Palin’s “death panel” playbook that inflates, distorts and misconstrues one little part of the proposition — in this case Big Ag is going gaga over certain exemptions — to discredit the entire spirit of the proposed law.

The reason Monsanto, Dupont, Dow and Co. are freaking out and are literally throwing the kitchen sink is that they know as California goes, so goes the nation. Since Californians consume about 12% of all food in the country and about 20 other states are considering similar legislation, passage of Prop 37 could have a profound effect nationally.

Farmers have as much of a stake in this as consumers, trying to escape from Big Ag’s tight grip and the vicious cycle of patented GMO seeds. Troy Roush, an Indiana farmer featured in the 2009 documentary Food, Inc. who grows GMO corn and soybeans explains why he would love it if his crops were GMO-labeled.

The stakes are as high for these industrial chemical corporate behemoths as they are for us citizens who have been forced to eat their frankenfoods without knowing. Both sides know that this is ultimately much bigger than food labels:

If they defeat Prop 37 they can go on using planet and people as their unwilling labrats to cement their twisted patents and monopolies on soil, seeds and crops to turn billions of dollars of profit in a dangerous and irrevocable genetic manipulation gamble.

If we pass Prop 37, we will finally be able to call attention to these dangerous games these companies have been playing with the diversity of the earth’s ecosystem and the health of our bodies, and through the power of knowledge and education push back on the secret sauce they’ve been feeding us.

An educated citizen and consumer is like garlic for the corporate vampire. As Just Label It Chair and Stonyfield Farm co-founder Gary Hirshberg quoted former Nixon counsel John Dean:

When people keep secrets, it’s usually for a reason.

So as always when contemplating two sides of a referendum, the key question to ask yourself is: “Who is benefiting?”

I’ll leave you with some facts from the Yes on 37 campaign…

Why Labeling GMOs is Important

What is Proposition 37? Proposition 37 is a common-sense November ballot measure that will help consumers make informed choices about the food they eat. Written with broad input from food groups, industry, science, legal and health experts Prop. 37 (The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act) requires clear labels letting consumers know if foods are genetically modified.

What Are Genetically Engineered Foods (GMOs)? A genetically engineered food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA artificially altered in a laboratory by genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria in order to produce foreign compounds in that food. This type of genetic alteration is not found in nature and is experimental. Many of the foods we currently eat and feed our families (including certain baby formulas and a high percentage of corn, soy, cotton and sugar beets commonly used in processed foods sold in the U.S.), but we don’t know which ones without labeling.

Example: Genetically Modified corn has been engineered in a laboratory to produce pesticides in its own tissue. GMO corn is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency as an Insecticide, but is sold unlabeled. [EPA Pesticides]. Walmart is now selling Monsanto’s sweet corn that has been genetically engineered to contain an insecticide, but consumers don’t know because it’s not labeled.

Are Genetically Engineered Foods Safe? GMOs have not been proven safe, and long-term health studies have not been conducted. A growing body of peer-reviewed studies has linked these foods to allergies, organ toxicity, and other health problems. These studies must be followed up. However, unlike the strict safety evaluations required for the approval of new drugs, the US Food and Drug Administration does not require safety studies for genetically engineered foods. The United Nations/World Health Organization food standards group and the American Medical Association have called for mandatory safety testing of genetically engineered foods — a standard the U.S. fails to meet.

GMOs Linked to Environmental Problems: Various environmental problems associated with genetic engineering have been well documented, including biodiversity loss, an overall increase in pesticide use, the emergence of super weeds that are threatening millions of acres of farmland, and the unintentional contamination of non-GMO and organic crops.

We Have a Right to Know What’s in Our Food: Fifty countries around the world—representing more than 40% of the world’s population—already require GMO labeling, including all of Europe, Japan, India and China. Polls show that more than 90% of Americans want to know if their food is genetically engineered. We are free to choose what we want to eat and feed our children. The free market is supposed to provide consumers with accurate information about products so we can make informed choices.

Who is in Favor of Proposition 37? Prop 37 was initiated by a grassroots organizing effort with the help of thousands of volunteers across the state, the Right to Know campaign gathered nearly one million signatures from California voters within a 10 week period. More than 2,000 organizations – including media outlets, food manufacturers and retailers, leading consumer, environmental, farming, health, faith-based, political and labor groups – have since endorsed Yes on 37: www.carighttoknow.org/endorsements.

Who is Opposed to Proposition 37? Not one human being has made a contribution to the campaign against Prop. 37.Instead, the campaign is funded entirely by giant pesticide and junk food companies with a track record of making false claims about the safety of their products. The “No” campaign’s two largest donors– Monsanto and DuPont—are the same companies that told us Agent Orange and DDT were safe. Further undermining the No campaign’s credibility is the fact that its biggest funder—Monsanto—produced a series of ads supporting labeling of GMOs in Europe in the 1990s.

A Simple Proposition for California in 2012: The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act is simple: The initiative would simply require food sold in retail outlets to be labeled if it is produced through genetic engineering, and would not allow these products to be labeled as “natural.” Prop 37 gives companies 18 months to change their labels, and allows for the GMO disclosure to appear wherever they choose on packaging.

No Cost to Consumers or Food Producers: Companies change their labeling all the time, and research shows that Prop. 37 will have no cost impact on consumers or food producers. In a recent study on the economic impact of Proposition 37, Joanna Shepherd Bailey, Ph.D., Professor at Emory University School of Law, concluded that there would be “no increases in prices as a result of the relabeling required.” In Europe, introduction of GMO labeling produced no increase in food costs. David Byrne, former European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection of the European Parliament, stated that when Europe introduced GMO labeling in 1997, “it did not result in increased costs, despite the horrifying (double-digit) prediction of some interests.”

Prop. 37 Doesn’t Ban the Sale of Any Foods: Despite opposition claims that Prop 37 would “ban the sale of thousands of groceries,” it would not ban any foods at all. It merely requires that GMO-containing foods be labeled with the phrase “partially produced with genetic engineering” anywhere on the front or back of packages.

Greater Legal Certainty For Businesses: According to an independent legal analysis by James Cooper, JD, PhD, of George Mason University School of Law, Proposition 37 has been narrowly crafted in a way that provides “greater legal certainty” for businesses than other California consumer disclosure laws. It won’t invite frivolous lawsuits. What it will do is help California consumers make more informed choices about the food they eat.

If Proposition 37 passes, it will be a huge step toward the transparency we deserve. This is about our right to know what’s in our food and the right to choose for ourselves what we eat and feed our families. These are fundamental American values. Join us in helping us win back our right to know about the genetic engineering of our food system. Vote Yes on 37 in November, join our campaign, share our ad, donate if you can (every little bit helps!).

Together, we can make history this November!

About the author

Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein

9 Comments

  • As you have reminded us before…how California goes…so goes the country. What harm is there in putting just a bit more info about our food on the packaging? This should be a no-brainer.

    • Thanks for re-posting, wanderingseniors. It’s going to be a close one, I think the polls are showing it 50-50 after all the money for negative ads was poured in by the GMO industry, so it’s going to come down to people making an informed decision.

  • I wish I could vote for it, but as with many “progressive” policies, the nation watches California first. A yes vote in CA could very well make the difference across the country.

    • We’ll see how it goes tomorrow, Ruth. Thanks to all the Monsanto money the proposition is 50/50 right now. And while California does often set the tone, there are plenty of examples where other states are the first ones to go the distance on an important issue. I think Washington State will be the first one to pass a marriage equality in a referendum, and both Washington and Oregon will be voting on legalizing marijuana, another thing Californians could’t get done in the last election.

  • Sven: It seems Colorado is a leader, too! I’m sorry to learn the outcome of Prop. 37. Would you suppose that people don’t understand that they are what they eat, that our connection to food runs deeper than spiritual or philosophical belief, that no amount of money can buy physical health. For those who do, however, is there an alternate way to find out the information (that you know of)?

    • Ruth, check out this site: http://www.nongmoproject.org/

      I think what’s going to happen until we get labeling laws in CA or other states is that there will be a stronger push for GMO-free labeling, similar to organic or fair trade. I’m not sure how far along such a standard system is along, but the nongmoproject website is a good start. I think Prop 37 was just the beginning, as so often it takes a while for new things like that to catch on. I took over 30 referendums in all kinds of states to finally pass a marriage equality proposition, so I think part of this process is also educational, getting people who are completely unaware of the issue to start understanding it and learning how it affects them and their loved ones. I feel good, but then again, it’s easy to not be too bummed out after this week’s election seen as a whole. : )

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