How serious are we about GMO labeling?

Monday January 28, 2013

The campaign to have genetically engineered (GE, or GMO, genetically-modified organisms) food products labeled as such has typically been attempted through state legislatures and referendums, as well as federal regulatory agencies. Though different, they are all variations of a political strategy whereby people try to have their right to know made into law. They also share one other characteristic -- to date, these efforts have a batting average of zero.

At first blush, it would seem surprising that a GE labeling law doesn’t yet exist in the United States. After all, more than 60 nations -- including all of those in the European Union, China, Japan and Australia -- have labeling laws, and polls in the U.S. have consistently shown that over 90 percent want GMO food labeled. The national Just Label It campaign has submitted over a million signatures to the FDA asking the agency to require the labeling of GE foods. In short, there appears to be wide support for the notion that people have a right to know what’s in their food.

And yet, this hasn’t translated into an appropriate response at the political level. As it is with other matters, there is a serious disconnect here between the voice of the people, and those we elect to represent that voice.

That political efforts have failed is of no surprise, of course, to those of us who are well aware of the inordinate power exercised by multinational corporations in our nation’s political affairs. This is abundantly apparent in the struggle for GMO labeling. It’s evident, for example, in the $45 million that corporate opponents of such laws poured into a campaign of fear and misinformation to defeat California’s Proposition 37 last November. It’s also seen in the unwillingness of our own Gov. Peter Shumlin to sign such a measure, even though he agrees with it, because of the threat of an expensive court challenge by deep-pockets Monsanto.

There’s no wonder, of course, that Monsanto and their biotech allies fight such efforts. Informed consumers do not want to purchase or consume GE foods because of the increasing evidence that they present serious health risks. As a Monsanto executive acknowledged years ago, "If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put skull and crossbones on it."

So as the Vermont Legislature begins its 2013 session, with talk of a new labeling bill being introduced, it’s time for us to assess our approach. Knowing the track record of similar efforts, as we do, as well as the serious obstacles that lay ahead, should we support the campaign that is again being organized by VIPIRG, NOFA-VT, and Rural Vermont to push through a GMO labeling bill? Or do we put our time and energy into initiating local alternatives that would perhaps advance our cause more immediately and effectively? Or do we do both?

Certainly, it’s never wise to discard any possibility. While the past history does not allow for unbridled optimism, we nevertheless need to support the efforts of those activists and Vermont legislators who are willing to continue the struggle to make GMO labeling mandatory. If successful, it would be a major victory, with national implications.

Yet, at the same time, we need to empower ourselves and take greater responsibility for realizing our purpose through actions of our own, and not solely depend upon our representatives to do the job for us. After all, even if such a measure is signed this year by the governor, it would be years before it goes into effect

We can begin by educating ourselves and others about what we can do to avoid GE foods. Knowing that the best option is to buy USDA certified organic products, and that these standards prohibit the use of GMOs, is a first step. Arming ourselves and others with the kind of information found in the Center for Food Safety’s "True Food Shopper’s Guide: How to Avoid Foods Made with GMOs," (, while at the same time raising awareness about GMOs and the fact that 60 percent to 70 percent of processed foods available in grocery stores contain some GE material, can help people to take more control of the food they eat.

Secondly, a campaign could be organized around our two Windham County food co-ops, in Putney and Brattleboro, whereby a members’ petition would be presented to the boards of each requesting labeling of GMO products. Recognizing the challenge that this might represent for each business, the campaigns would be framed as a cooperative venture between co-op personnel and community volunteers who are member owners.

The chances of success for such an initiative would appear reasonable as the Putney Co-op is a Partner Member of the Just Label It campaign and the Brattleboro Co-op supported the Genetic Engineering Action Group a number of years ago, allowing members to label non-GMO food. Victories here could serve as an example for other local food outlets about the potential importance of GMO labeling for their customers.

Interested parties who don’t shop at the co-ops could explore the possibility of organizing neighborhood buying clubs that would source non-GMO and organic products from local and regional farmers, and food processors. Post Oil Solutions would be willing to sit down with interested parties to help develop such an alternative.

As imperfect as these steps might be, we nevertheless move beyond simply insisting upon our right to know what’s in our food, to empowering ourselves and this right through direct action. By so doing, we make our food choices now.

Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and can be reached at 802.869.2141 and


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