The Call and Times, Column 21 – Just Label It: GMO Labeling in Rhode Island

27 05 2015

(May 24th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Just Label It: GMO Labeling in Rhode Island

Yesterday [Saturday], millions of people around the world took to the streets in the annual March Against Monsanto, including in our own capitol of Providence. All were united under a common belief – our food system is sick, and genetically modified (GMO) crops are a symptom, not a cure.

Last year, I wrote about GMOs, and why they might not be such a great bargain for the consumer. Without repeating too much, here’s a quick recap.

Genetic engineering is when the plant’s DNA is changed in such a way that would not otherwise occur in nature. Few legitimate safety assessments have been done on these crops, but in light of the modern understanding that of the complex expression of genes, and a study performed by French molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini that linked GMO corn to cancer and hormone imbalance, there’s genuine reason for concern.

These crops were first grown in the US in 1994, but have now dominated the market – upwards of 85% of the corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, and sugar beets grown here are GMO.

Around 70 countries worldwide have mandatory labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. These people and their governments are weary of GMOs for a variety of reasons, which mostly boil down to: the negative effect on human health of carcinogens, toxic chemicals, and novel allergens; the environmental dangers of increased topsoil loss, pesticide use, and crop monocultures, and uncontrollable “genetic drift”; and the social and political inequities involving Intellectual Property (IP) laws and lax federal regulation, which result in lawsuits and farmer suicides.

Monsanto is the biotechnology company that controls a significant portion of the seed market worldwide. While genetic engineering is more generally used to force crops into the broken mold of industrial agriculture, there are two major varieties of GMO seeds that Monsanto produces. Bt crops have been engineered so that the plant produces it own toxic pesticide, and RoundUp Ready crops are engineered to survive liberal applications of the toxic herbicide glyphosate – both result in toxic residues, destined for your dinner plate.

In response to all of this, concerned consumers have a simple request for their government – label foods produced with GMO ingredients so we can make informed decisions about what we eat. It’s a shame that this simple label has stirred up such controversy, and is opposed so strongly by (emphasis) industrial farmers and special interest groups. Here’s the simple, reasoned argument for the labeling GMOs:

1) Consumption of GMOs is risky for the consumers. As discussed earlier, our health, environmental welfare, and social equity are all negatively affected by GMO agriculture.

2) But it doesn’t provide us any benefit. Flavor and nutrition aren’t improved, and yields don’t really increase on the long-term, so the end product isn’t better, cheaper, or more abundant.

3) They’re easy to label. Farmers know what they’re growing, distributors and retailers know what they’re buying, and companies often change a few pixels of ink without so much objection.

4) Therefore, it’s reasonable to ask for labels. The society-wide benefit of truthful labels is much greater than the benefit of continued misinformation. For capitalism to function correctly, consumers need the information to make rational decisions.

5) People want labels! Polls consistently show 80 to 90% of people want their food labels to be truthful about GMO ingredients, because, surprisingly, they care about what they put in their and their families’ bodies.

6) The duty of the government is to provide for the common welfare. This is in our founding documents and is central to the definition of a representative democracy.

And so, labels are reasonable, they are desired by the people, and they are the government’s duty – in the paraphrased words of Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield yogurt, “just label it!”

So now, the question that I hope is on all of your minds: “What can I do about this?” I’m glad you asked.

Personal changes – buying organic or certified non-GMO when possible and growing your own food – are good ways to minimize risk to your family in the short-term. However, the most difficult battles are won by armies, not individuals.

There are currently bills in the Rhode Island Senate and House of Representatives that would mandate the truthful labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. They have a lot of support, but are currently sitting on committee tables, waiting for us – the consumers, the electorate, the eaters – to convince our elected officials to pass them. We have an opportunity to stand with Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont in a regional push for common sense transparency in food labeling, setting the precedent for the rest of the nation.

I’m working with Right to Know Rhode Island, the organization responsible for promoting the GMO labeling law in our state. Yesterday marked the beginning of our 2015 Week of Action: each day, we invite you to engage your family, friends, and elected officials in different ways, so that we can send a strong, unified message that we have a right to know what’s in our food.

Tuesday, you should Call Your Legislator; Wednesday, we want to Grow the Network of our institutional partners; Thursday in Movie Night, where we will host screenings of the documentary film, GMO OMG; Friday, we need to Stop the DARK Act, in which the federal government is attempting to illegalize state GMO labeling laws; and Saturday, we will be Targeting Leadership by canvassing the district Senator Josh Miller, and chair of the Senate Committee where the bill is being held.

Please go to http://righttoknowri.org/, and http://righttoknowri.org/woa2015/ for more information about each day of action, and to find out how to get involved.

I will be hosting a screening of GMO OMG in the Woonsocket Harris Public Library the next Monday, June 1st, at 7pm. There will also be a screening in the Rochambeau Library in Providence. We hope to see you there.

And now, like I often do, I’ll leave you with a bit of an enigma to ponder as you participate in our Week of Action. The opponents of truthful labeling argue that a mandatory label is as good as a skull-and-crossbones – “if we label it, people won’t buy it!”

Now, readers, if knowing a simple fact about their food would actually make people less likely to buy it, if people would choose not to consume something because their personal assessment, to which they are absolutely allowed in our free society, finds the risks too great and the benefits too few – how, then, is the appropriate, governmentally-endorsed response to withhold that information from them? At what point are we no longer entitled to make such decisions for ourselves?

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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