Last night, my neighborhood gathered for a community potluck. My neighbor David planned kid-friendly activities, including a piñata. He confessed to me that there was no candy inside it, only toys — he had originally bought a big bag of Tootsie Rolls, but when he read "this product made with genetic engineering" on the packaging, he decided to fill the paper maché Minion doll with trinkets instead. David looked at me incredulously: "Tootsie Rolls?!?" As in, how could something so classic include genetically engineered ingredients?
David's decision shows the power of on-package labeling of GE products. And it makes me all the more disappointed at President Obama's action this week to undermine real GE labeling.
Obama just signed a bill that simultaneously destroys all the progress made in state-level labeling laws and establishes a national program for GE labeling that is full of loopholes and has no teeth. Opponents of this bill have dubbed it the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act (or DARK Act), because its true purpose is to quash momentum for real, on-packaging GE labeling by offering the nation a weak and exclusionary alternative. That label on Tootsie Rolls, for example, may well disappear.
How did we go from Obama's 2008 campaign promise to label GMOs to his signing of this terrible legislation? It's been a long road of hardfought victories, losses and oh-so-much corporate lobbying money.
The labeling movement
Polls consistently show that 90 percent of Americans want on-package labeling, and the movement for GE labeling gained tremendous steam in the last few years.
State-by-state campaigns have popped up around the country, and some of them have been successful — despite extremely high opposition spending by the world's largest agrichemical companies. Some companies, like Campbell's and General Mills, saw the writing on the wall and have already agreed to label their packages. But Monsanto and other large agrichemical and manufacturing corporations refused to give up. They're afraid labeling will mean a real change for our food system, and they are fighting it tooth and nail.
After Vermont and other states passed legislation requiring GE labeling, Monsanto and others lobbied hard to stop these laws from going into effect by making them illegal. That's right, their plan was to simply outlaw the state-level labeling programs through national legislation. And they did. It took several tries, but Monsanto's latest dream bill, the DARK Act, finally passed. And it only cost Monsanto and friends about 101 million dollars.
The not-labeling bill
How bad is the DARK Act? Well, it technically "requires" "labeling" of "all" products made with genetic engineering. But let's break that down.
- "ALL" - The Dark Act defines "bioengineering" in such a narrow way, that the Food and Drug Administration warned it would exclude many products made from genetically engineered sources. So you still can't be sure that just because it isn't labeled, it isn't genetically engineered.
- "REQUIRES" - The Dark Act has no enforcement mechanism. No fines, no compliance program.
- "LABELING" - The Dark Act says that instead of on-package labeling, companies can opt to include a QR code or a 1-800 number, where the extremely sleuthy and economically priveledged consumer can scan or call to find out whether the crackers they want to buy contain GE products.
That last part is the real kicker for me. It so blatantly discriminates against people who can't afford smart phones. When I lobbied Senator Amy Klobuchar's office (who unfortunately voted YES on the final DARK Act), I also explained my hatred for the QR code proposal from my perspective as a mom. "Have you ever been grocery shopping with a toddler?" I asked her staffer. For those of you who have, you are already laughing at the idea that scanning a code with a smartphone and then reading a website for each product you are considering is a realistic option. Just. Tell. Us. On. The. Package.
PAN continues this fight because we know that GE corn and soy are dramatically driving up toxic pesticide use, and GE labeling would be a big step forward. But it always been just one step along the way to a healthier and more just food system — so it's time to reroute and keep walking.
The DARK Act gives the USDA two years to create specific guidelines. In those two years, some food and farming advocates will continue fighting for real, on-package GE labeling, and PAN will support those efforts. We're also looking at the bigger picture: how do genetically modified crops make it to the market in the first place? How do we get our regulatory agencies to put human health first, and weigh the economic interest of small farmers equally to that of corporate producers?
The Obama Administration is currently working to establish a new 'Coordinated Framework' to improve how GE crops are regulated. The problem is, by 'improve,' we're pretty sure they mean 'loosen.' So PAN is working with our farmer allies right now to weigh in on this process; stay tuned for our petition (coming soon!) so you can, too.