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April 8, 2013 |
Big Food’s greatest fear is materializing. A critical mass of
educated consumers, food and natural health activists are organizing a
powerful movement that could well overthrow North America’s
trillion-dollar junk food empire. Savvy and more determined than ever,
activists are zeroing in on the Achilles heel of Food Inc. -- labeling.
as consumers demand truth and greater transparency in labeling, it
isn’t just Big Food whose empire is vulnerable. The biotech industry,
which makes billions supplying junk food manufacturers with cheap,
genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, has even more to lose. Monsanto
knows that if food producers are forced to label the genetically
modified organisms (GMOs) in their food products, they’ll reformulate
those products to meet consumer demand for GMO-free alternatives. That’s
why companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow, along with Coca-Cola and
Pepsi, last year spent more than $46 million to defeat Proposition 37,
California’s GMO labeling initiative.
The junk food and biotech
industries narrowly (48.5% - 51.5%) prevailed in California, but they
know it’s only a matter of time before one or more states pass a
mandatory GMO labeling law. More than 30 state legislatures are now
debating GMO labeling bills. And consumers have broadened the fight
just labeling. Five counties and two cities in California and
Washington have banned the growing of GE crops. In addition, given the
near total absence of FDA regulation, 19 states have passed laws restricting GMOs
is the biotech industry fighting back? By attacking democracy. Experts
say the laws are on the side of consumers. But consumers will no doubt
still have to defend democracy against an increasingly desperate, and
aggressive, industry bent on protecting the highly profitable business
of genetically engineered food.
The battle lines have been drawn. Will we cede our food sovereignty rights to a profit-at-all costs corporatocracy?
lobbyists are out in force in Washington, Vermont, Connecticut, and
several dozen other states. They’re lobbying politicians behind the
scenes and planting misleading articles
in the press. Attacking pro-labeling anti-GMO proponents as anti-technology Luddites. They’re repeating ad nauseum
their propaganda claims that GE foods and crops are perfectly safe and
therefore need no labeling, that transgenics are environment- and
climate-friendly, and that genetically modified crops are necessary to
feed the world.
One of Monsanto’s major propaganda points,
designed to discourage state officials from passing GMO labeling laws,
is that state GMO labeling is unconstitutional. Monsanto has repeatedly
stated that it will sue any state that dares to label. This threat of a
lawsuit was enough to convince lawmakers in Vermont and Connecticut in
2012 to back off
from labeling, even though there were sufficient votes, and overwhelming public sentiment, to pass these bills.
The same scenario
is unfolding again
in Vermont, where the Governor is refusing to endorse a popular
labeling bill that could easily pass through both houses of the
Biotech industry lawyers claim that Federal courts
will strike down mandatory state GMO labeling for three reasons:
1)because Federal law, in this case FDA regulations, preempts state law;
2) because commercial free speech allows corporations to remain silent
on whether or not their products are genetically engineered and; 3)
because GMO labeling would interfere with interstate commerce.
These claims simply don’t hold up. State GMO labeling, and other food safety and food labeling laws, are
constitutional. Federal law, upheld for decades by federal court legal
decisions, allows states to pass laws relating food safety or food
labels when the FDA has no prior regulations or prohibitions in place.
There is currently no federal law or FDA regulation on GMO labeling,
except for a guidance statement on voluntary labeling, nor is there any
federal prohibition on state GMO or other food safety labeling laws. In
fact there are over 200 state food labeling laws in effect right now in
the U.S., including a GMO fish labeling law in Alaska, laws on labeling
wild rice, maple syrup, dairy quality, kosher products, and laws on
labeling dairy products as rBGH-free. It is very unlikely that any
federal court will want to make a sweeping ruling that would nullify 200
preexisting state laws.
U.S. case law does indicate that
commercial free speech in certain instances allows corporations to
remain silent about what’s in their products. However federal courts
have consistently ruled that when there are compelling state interests
-- health, environment, economic -- states can require corporations to
divulge what’s in their products or how they were produced.
it comes to GMOs, states can clearly make the case for compelling state
interests, according to Consumer Union’s senior scientist, Michael
Hansen. Hansen says: “...there is a compelling state interest in
labeling of genetically engineered foods and that is due to the
potential human health and environmental impacts of genetically
Hansen also argues that Codex Alimentarius, a
collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice,
guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production
and food safety, guarantees nations the right to implement mandatory
labeling of GMO foods. The standards support the argument that GMO
labels do not constitute a restriction of free trade, as long as they
are applied to both domestic and international producers. Similarly
state GMO labels, as long as they do not discriminate against particular
producers, but rather apply to all producers -- state, national, and
international -- do not constitute a restriction of interstate commerce.
U.S. government, under massive global pressure, has signed on to the
Codex Alimentarius, which serves "as a risk management measure to deal
with the scientific uncertainty" associated with genetically engineered
foods. And according to Hansen, there most certainly is significant scientific uncertainty
about the potential health impacts of genetically engineered foods.”
and localities have the right and the power to pass their own
legislation, especially when the federal government fails or refuses to
act on matters of compelling interest. Although large corporations now
control the federal government, we still have room to organize and
govern ourselves, especially at the local level.
embedded in state constitutions and municipal charters across the U.S.,
provides the legal basis that has enabled several hundred cities and
counties to pass ordinances banning factory farms, the spreading of
sewage sludge on farmlands, fracking (which pollutes groundwater, farms
and gardens), and even GMOs.
Yet undeterred by 200 years of case
law and legislation institutionalizing states’ rights and local “Home
Rule,” corporations are brazenly attacking the rights of states and
localities to regulate Corporate America’s often reckless and criminal
behavior. They’re getting help from the infamous pro-corporate lobbying
group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC
lobbying states across the country to restrict counties or local
governments from passing any laws limiting pesticide use, GMOs,
fracking, or industrial agriculture practices.
ALEC and elements
in the Republican and Democratic Party allegedly support "federalism,"
or state's rights -- a theory based on the idea that state government
can better represent and respond to local interests than a more
centralized federal government. Yet ALEC apparently does not apply this
logic to relations between local and state government, at least not when
local control steps on the toes of corporate America.
engaged in a fundamental battle, for the right to know what’s in our
food, the right to choose what we buy and eat, and the right to regulate
out-of-control corporations that are threatening our environment, our
health and future climate stability. Without BioDemocracy there can be
no democracy. Without a balance of powers between the federal
government, states and local home rule, there is no republic, but rather
a corporatocracy, an unholy alliance between indentured politicians and
profit-at-any-cost corporations. The battle for food sovereignty is a
battle we cannot afford to lose.
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).
Katherine Paul is director of development and communications at the Organic Consumers Association.
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