I joined Right to Know MN at the start of this year because I couldn’t imagine any sensible person arguing against the right to know what’s in our food. I joined because I care about what I feed my family, and because I believe real food is worth seeking out and paying for. I joined because the science around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is inconclusive at best, and because the studies that tell us we can (or worse, that we should) eat them with abandon have been paid for by the companies with the most to gain. (I also joined because Tracy Singleton, owner of the Birchwood Cafe, asked me to, and she knows what she’s talking about.)
Here’s the official spiel:
Right to Know Minnesota is a campaign started by concerned citizens to make the labeling of GMOs the law in Minnesota. We are a coalition of farmers, health advocates, families, and others who support healthy foods. We're moms, dads, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons, from all different walks of life, who believe we have the right to know what's in the foods we eat.
As it turns out, Consumer Reports has some of the most accessible, easy-to-understand information I've seen regarding GMOs. Here's a short excerpt from an article published last year:
More than 70 percent of Americans say they don’t want genetically modified organisms in their food. The trouble is, it’s hard to avoid them. Consumer Reports’ tests of breakfast cereals, chips, soy infant formulas, and other popular products found that GMOs lurk in many packaged foods—including some that carry labels suggesting that they don’t have these controversial ingredients.
In more than 60 countries, manufacturers must label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. But GMO labeling isn’t required in the U.S. Yet our survey found that 92 percent of Americans want genetically modified foods to be labeled. And concerns about the potential health and environmental risks of GMOs coupled with an unwillingness on the part of the federal government to mandate labeling are leading many states to take action on their own.
So GMO labeling is required in "more than 60 countries," and "92 percent of Americans want genetically modified foods to be labeled." With that kind of support, labeling them should be a no brainer. And yet it’s not. Why? Consumer Reports continues:
There is fierce opposition to GMO labeling from many seed manufacturers and big food companies, which have spent nearly $70 million in California and Washington state alone to defeat GMO-labeling ballot initiatives. One of the major arguments they make is that stamping foods with a statement such as “contains GMO ingredients” implies those foods are inferior to other conventional or organic foods.
Got that? Seed manufacturers and big food companies have spent millions to fight GMO labeling efforts because they fear the labels might "imply those foods are inferior." Which, due to the potential “health and environmental risks” mentioned above, they are.
Much has been written about GMOs, and there's a lot of argument about what the “facts” tell us. But one indisputable fact is this: GMOs are everywhere in industrial agriculture today, and very few of us are likely to have experienced a GMO-free day, or meal, or restaurant experience in the last five years. Why should you care? Because according to Alternet (and dozens of other news sources):
Studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.
I’m not entirely sure what all of these things are, but I’m sure I don’t want them.
Consumer Reports isn’t the only smart, non-partisan group that sees the health and environmental risks GMOs pose. According to The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM):
Two recent developments are dramatically changing the GMO landscape. First, there have been sharp increases in the amounts and numbers of chemical herbicides applied to GM crops, and still further increases — the largest in a generation — are scheduled to occur in the next few years. Second, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate, the herbicide most widely used on GM crops, as a “probable human carcinogen” and classified a second herbicide, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), as a “possible human carcinogen.”
Carcinogens, to be clear, are things that cause cancer. Like asbestos and tobacco – and most of the food we eat every day. NEJM goes on to say:
We believe the time has come to revisit the United States' reluctance to label GM foods. Labeling will deliver multiple benefits. It is essential for tracking emergence of novel food allergies and assessing effects of chemical herbicides applied to GM crops. It would respect the wishes of a growing number of consumers who insist they have a right to know what foods they are buying and how they were produced. And the argument that there is nothing new about genetic rearrangement misses the point that GM crops are now the agricultural products most heavily treated with herbicides and that two of these herbicides may pose risks of cancer.
Drop. The. Mic.
By far the biggest threat, [to monarchs] is the lowered prevalence of milkweed, due to the increasing use of GMO crops that can withstand a heavy dose of herbicides.
Even Pope Francis is concerned about the environmental impact of GMOs, saying:
The spread of these (GM) crops destroys the complex web of ecosystems, decreases diversity in production and affects the present and the future of regional economies.
GMOs is an issue which is complex, and this requires at least one more effort to finance several lines of independent and interdisciplinary research… as we have seen, the technique is unlikely to be able to self-limit its power.
In other words, letting the fox guard the hen house is far too risky when to comes to our environment.
The DARK Act
The GMO labeling battle has intensified over the past few years, and especially the past few months. Mandatory labeling laws have been passed in Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut, and large food corporations continue to invest heavily in discrediting pro-labeling groups, calling them "anti-science" and far worse. (In fact, science is what tells us that eating poison is bad for us. It's big food that tells us we don't even need to know when we do it.)
This past July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1599, or what a growing number of people are referring to as the Deny Americans Right to Know, or DARK Act, by a vote of 275 to 150. The DARK Act, whose official — and ridiculous — name is The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, says that:
No food label can suggest that non-GMO foods are safer than GMO foods. A food can be labeled as non-GMO even if it is produced with a GMO processing aid or enzyme or derived from animals fed GMO feed or given GMO drugs.
In other words, a food can be labeled non-GMO even if it's made with GMOs. Does that make sense to you? It shouldn’t. But there's more:
The FDA must allow, but not require, GMO food to be labeled as GMO.
So if a company wants to let its customers know that a food contains GMOs (because "Now! With GMOs!" is a compelling marketing message, maybe?), the government can't stop them. This is like letting Philip Morris decide whether or not to include the Surgeon General's warning on their cigarette cartons, but worse. Not everyone smokes, but everyone eats. Finally, the bill also says:
This bill preempts state and local restrictions on GMOs or GMO food and labeling requirements for GMOs, GMO food, non-GMO food, or “natural” food.
Which means that – adding insult to injury – this bill seeks to undo the hard-won GMO labeling requirements that currently exist Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut.
In short, H.R. 1599 makes absolutely no sense at all. And yet, somehow, it’s not going away. Here's what you can do to help:
- Educate yourself on the issue. A quick Google search is a good starting point.
- Call or write your Senators now and tell them you have a right to know what's in your food. Here’s a link to the Right to Know MN Toolkit to show you how.
- Sign this petition now.
- Join Right to Know Minnesota and sign up for our email newsletter.
- Host a house party to rally your friends around the cause.
- Like our Facebook page for ongoing updates.
- Donate to the cause. Every single dollar helps.
Your legislators are hearing from the industry. It’s extremely important they hear from you too.
Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good & Tasty.