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By Carey Gillam
News that President-elect Donald Trump has asked U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo to be CIA director shows just how dark the days ahead might be for America's burgeoning food movement, which has been advocating for more transparency and fewer pesticides in food production.
Pompeo, a Republican from the farm state of Kansas, was the designated hitter for Monsanto and the other Big Ag chemical and seed players in 2014 when the industry rolled out a federal effort to block states from mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods. Pompeo introduced the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act" in April of that year with the intention of overriding bills in roughly two dozen states.
In bringing the bill forward, Pompeo was acting on behalf the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents the interests of the nation's largest food and beverage companies. The bill, which critics called the "Deny Americans the Right to Know" Act, or the "DARK Act," went through two years of controversy and compromise before a version passed and was signed into law by President Obama this summer. The law nullified a mandatory labeling bill set to take effect in Vermont in July of this year, and it offered companies options to avoid stating on their packaging whether or not a product contained GMO ingredients.
Pompeo has shown himself to be a "puppet" for special interests. If he accepts Trump's offer to head the CIA, it could spell a significant setback for consumers, according to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.
"The worst choice I can think of," Kimbrell said of Pompeo. "Far from draining the swamp, Pompeo is the ultimate "swamp" creature. He is little more than a puppet for the big chemical and biotech companies."
Consumer groups have pushed for mandatory labeling for years because of concerns that genetically engineered crops on the market now carry potential and actual risks for human health and the environment. A chief concern has to do with the fact that most GMO crops are sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup. The World Health Organization has declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen, and residues of glyphosate are increasingly being detected in commonly consumed foods.
The Trump transition team answer for those consumer concerns about pesticides doesn't look reassuring either. Trump has named Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to lead transition efforts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That's happy news for the agrichemical industry because Ebell appears to be a big fan of pesticides. His group's SAFEChemicalPolicy.org website champions the safety and benefits of chemicals used in agriculture and elsewhere, and discounts research that indicates harm.
"The EPA is supposed to protect us from dangerous chemicals, not defend them, as Ebell would almost certainly do if he ran the agency," the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement.
On March 12, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi and a small band of supporters set off on a 241-mile march across western India. Gandhi had devised the walk as an act of nonviolent protest against the British colonial government's salt monopoly, which placed tariffs on the mineral and forbid Indians from producing it. Upon arriving at the coastal city of Dandi in early April, he illegally collected salt from the seaside as a symbolic act of defiance against the British Raj. His actions sent shockwaves across the subcontinent, inspiring scores of Indians to flout the salt tax and launch strikes and boycotts against colonial institutions. Gandhi and some 80,000 others were soon arrested, but not before their peaceful protest had captured the world's attention and demonstrated the power of mass resistance to British rule. — Remembering Gandhi's Salt March, by Evan Andrews
The deed is done. On July 29, President Obama signed a bill that was written by corporations, paid for by corporations and that serves no one in this country—except corporations.
S.764, known by its opponents as the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act, preempts Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law and substitutes in its place a federal bill that, no matter how Obama and his Congress try to spin it, is not mandatory and does not require labels—at least not labels that anyone can read. Not to mention that most GMO ingredients will be exempt under this fake "law."
I could, once again, list all the reasons this bill fails consumers. But I and others have already done that countless times, to no avail. The bill is a sham, a slap in the face to the 90 percent of Americans who support labeling. It's an attack on states' rights. It's another "gift" to Monsanto and Big Food.
And, for anyone who still harbored any doubt, S.764 is proof that our Democracy is broken, that our lawmakers answer to Corporate America, not to us, the people who elect them.
It would be easy, after four-and-a-half years of non-stop fighting for labels, to cave in to despair. But let's not give Monsanto the satisfaction. Because the truth is, while we may not always be able to win in a policy arena awash in corporate money, we, as consumers, still have tremendous power to influence the marketplace.
It's time to wield that power. Against poison-peddling biotech corporations. Against food companies that hide the truth about what's in their products. Against those "leaders" in the organic industry who sold us down the river on GMO labeling.
It's time to launch a Gandhi-style boycott.
If Vermont mounts a legal challenge to the DARK Act, we will endorse that effort. But in the meantime, we will channel our anger, our disappointment and above all, our energy, into the marketplace. Because that's where we as consumers will have last word.
What We've Accomplished So Far
Before we get on to what's next, let's look at what the GMO labeling movement accomplished, despite passage of the DARK Act.
We educated a critical mass of American consumers about the health and environmental hazards of GMOs and the toxic chemicals that accompany them. When we started this battle, public awareness of genetically engineered food and crops and the damage they inflict on the environment and human health, was marginal at best. Today "GMO," "Monsanto" and "glyphosate" are household words.
We've doubled demand for organic and grass-fed food in the U.S. over the past six years. Organic food and grass-fed meat and animal products are now a $50-billion-a-year powerhouse, the fastest-growing segment of the food system. The market for non-GMO labeled products has grown to $25 billion. Organic, grass-fed and non-GMO foods now constitute approximately 10 percent of all grocery store sales and represent a growing segment of restaurant sales as well.
We forced multi-billion-dollar junk food conglomerates, including General Mills, Kellogg's, Campbell's, Mars, Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Dannon, Con-Agra and others to start labeling their products as GMO or else remove GMO ingredients, ahead of the July 1 date for the (short-lived) enactment of Vermont's GMO labeling law. Now that Vermont's law has been preempted, we need to pressure these companies to keep labeling—or we'll call for a boycott of all of their organic products, including their organic brands.
We've alerted millions of consumers that they can't trust the mass media, regulatory agencies or the scientific establishment. If consumers or farmers want truthful information about food and farming they need to tune in to the alternative and social media. This alternative media includes the mass circulation newsletters, websites and Facebook pages of groups like Mercola.com, the Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety, Food Democracy Now, Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network, Moms Across America, Regeneration International, Seed Freedom and hundreds of others that refuse to regurgitate industry propaganda. We need to keep supporting the truth-seekers, like U.S. Right to Know, as they continue to expose Big Food's dark secrets.
Where We Go From Here
It was worth fighting for labels on GMO foods. But we've always known that labels were just one tool in the toolbox. And that the GMOs in the food in our grocery stores are just one piece of a big, bad, dangerous puzzle.
Only about 20 percent of GMOs go into the food we buy. The other 80 percent of all GMO crops go into either animal feed or ethanol fuels. The growing of those crops, which requires millions of tons of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, exacts a terrible toll on our soils, our waters, our health, our future.
It's time to mobilize public consciousness and market pressure and transform our entire degenerate chemical- and energy-intensive industrial food and farming system into a system that regenerates—a system that can restore biodiversity and revitalize public health, animal health, the environment, rural communities and the body politic, while drawing down billions of tons of excess CO2 from the atmosphere and safely sequestering this carbon in the soil and forests, where it belongs.
It's time to drive GMOs off the market, for good.
In the coming weeks and months, we will launch critical new campaigns, some of them international in scope, designed to pressure the bad actors in the food industry to clean up their acts—or risk plummeting sales.
In the meantime, consumers can join the 500,000 people who have already begun exercising their marketplace clout by choosing to boycott brands, including organic brands owned by junk food giants who helped defeat labeling laws. You can download our Boycott/Buycott app here.
As we look to the future of this movement, let's not forget the past. Now would be a good time to take a page out of Gandhi's playbook.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Turning Green
Today, four passionate young leaders from the Bay Area-based non-profit Turning Green wrote and recorded a letter to fellow millennials, Malia and Sasha Obama. The purpose of the letter is to ask them to urge their dad, President Obama, to veto S. 764 (aka. the DARK Act) and protect the "Right to Know" of all Americans. These young leaders believe it to be one of the most important decisions of any president, as it will significantly impact their health and wellbeing and that of future generations.
The letter reads:
Dear Sasha and Malia,
My name is Ashley Ugarte. I am a student. A daughter. A sister. I care about my health, my future, the health of our environment, of all Americans. We know you and your family, care too. Your dad has been a bold leader these past 8 years. He's passed impressive health care reform, worked for equal rights, ended the war in Iraq. But right now, today, he could leave a legacy of keeping consumers in the DARK.
There's a bill on his desk, waiting to be signed, that compromises our basic right to make a choice. A choice for health. Senate Bill 764, the "GMO Labeling Bill", compromises our right to know what's in our food by protecting the multi-billion dollar corporations that are controlling our food system. Nine out of 10 Americans support transparent GMO labeling. Over 60 other countries have heavy restrictions (or bans) on GMO's
It's time for the country who fights for other people's democracy to recognize the rights of their own people. We want GMO ingredients to be clearly labeled. QR Codes? What about the hundreds of thousands of consumers without smartphones?
As a graduate. A friend. A sister. An American. I want true transparency. Real labeling. The right to choose. Please urge your dad to VETO the "GMO Labeling Bill." It's up to our generation to protect the future and the health of my family, my friends, myself, all Americans. In labels we trust and we hope you and your family, do too.
Tell your dad to VETO S. 764.
We're in this together.
Ashley Ugarte, Graduate, Rice University
Missy Martin, Junior, Belmont University
Megan Fuerst, Senior, The Ohio State University
Bailey Delacruz, Junior, The Ohio State University
In 2014, Vermont passed the first legislation in the U.S. to require labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. A year earlier, Connecticut and Maine passed GMO labeling bills though these were dependent on several other states passing similar laws.
Best of Democracy: Lawmakers Respond to the People
Passages of these three bills were textbook examples of democracy in action. The states' citizens lobbied their legislatures to introduce the bills, public hearings were held, experts spoke for and against the bills and lawmakers debated the measures. The bills ultimately passed because the lawmakers recognized that the People wanted them approved.
Vermont's bill passed overwhelmingly in both the state's House of Representatives and Senate and Gov. Pete Shumlin signed the bill shortly thereafter.
This is how democracy is supposed to work, right? Citizens see an issue of concern that needs to be addressed and they contact their elected representatives who respond by passing a law. This is what happened in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine.
As Tara Cook-Littman, who spearheaded Connecticut's labeling initiative, said: "GMO labeling is about people taking back power and getting lawmakers to take action in the interests of the people and not corporations. If we don't use our voices it's not democracy. We proved in Connecticut that we do have power and can make democracy work."
Worst of Democracy: Lawmakers Pander to Corporations
Contrast those initiatives with U.S. federal government action on GMO labeling in the past year. Heavy lobbying by large food and agriculture corporations and groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association led the U.S. House of Representatives to introduce the Orwellian-named "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act."
The bill, dubbed the "DARK Act" (Deny Americans the Right to Know), aimed to stop Vermont and other state GMO labeling laws and establish a meaningless system of voluntary GMO labeling. The DARK Act passed the House but a similar bill failed to pass the U.S. Senate this past March mainly because the people told their senators to vote against it.
Following the Senate defeat and with Vermont's GMO labeling law set to take effect July 1, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) drafted a compromise of the DARK Act, making GMO disclosure mandatory and not voluntary as in the House bill. But there was no requirement for an on-package statement as the Vermont law mandated.
Stabenow's compromise essentially snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for labeling supporters because many major food companies were already putting GMO labels on their products sold nationwide to comply with Vermont's law.
The Roberts-Stabenow bill has been described as a "non-labeling GMO labeling bill" since, among its many flaws, it allows food companies to continue their stonewalling of GMO information by putting QR codes on products that can only be read by smartphones. Imagine a busy mother at a supermarket with several children in tow pulling out her smartphone to read QR codes on 20 or 30 food products. Or imagine the many mothers that don't even have smartphones trying to get GMO information. According to marketing communications expert Peter Quinn, the use of QR codes has virtually been abandoned because they have proven to be so ineffective and a "technology wild goose chase."
"Needs of the People Have Been Ignored"
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said: "The Stabenow-Roberts GMO bill is confusing, misleading and unenforceable. It does nothing to make sure consumers know what they're eating."
In contrast to Vermont's GMO labeling bill—the Roberts-Stabenow bill had no hearings, no public input, no committee debate and was rushed to be introduced—and passed in both the Senate and House. Behind the push were Big Food and Ag and their millions of dollars in lobbying.
So while the GMO labeling efforts in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine demonstrated the best of democracy—working for the people as America's founders intended—the Roberts-Stabenow bill showed us the worst of democracy—with its pandering to the narrow interests of big business at the expense of the wishes of the people. And the bill makes the successful democratic efforts in those states null and void.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) said the bill was "not what's in the interests of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want."
With their support for this bad piece of legislation and continued obfuscation of GMOs, Big Food and Ag have assured themselves more years of consumer distrust and targeting by advocacy groups, leading to PR disasters. A few food companies, such as Campbell's and Dannon, have decided that transparency is the best policy, but for many others this may be a tough lesson to learn.
As of July 22, the Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling bill, S.764, has not yet been signed into law by President Obama but the White House said after Congress passed the bill that he would sign it. More than 80,000 people have petitioned the White House urging Obama to veto the bill. Florida Republican Congressman Vern Buchanan also urged the president to veto the bill. In a letter to Obama, Buchanan called the legislation a "sham bill that pretends to offer disclosure but in truth has so many loopholes that it is meaningless."
Today, Congress chose to favor the interests of the food industry over consumers' right to know what's in the food they eat and feed their families when the House approved the Senate's version of the DARK Act. The bill now goes to President Obama.
With this legislation, both the House and the Senate have voted to do away with basic transparency about how food is produced. They've also revoked a popular and clear state labeling law that is already in effect in Vermont, nullifying future state labeling requirements.
The majority of Americans support labeling for GMOs and will hold their elected officials accountable for stripping away this transparency.
If this bill becomes law, the food and biotech industries win what are essentially voluntary requirements. This so-called "compromise," does not mandate recalls, penalties or fines for noncompliance and many loopholes in the bill will likely leave many GMO ingredients exempt from any labeling requirements. The bill gives companies the option to use discriminatory and cumbersome QR codes that require a smartphone to access basic information about the food on store shelves.
We urge President Obama to remember his campaign promise to let consumers know what they are eating by rejecting this bill. This is his final chance to get it right when it comes to food policies that protect people over corporations. He'd do just that by vetoing the DARK Act.
Despite Vermont's historic GMO labeling bill coming into effect June 1, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) are vigorously lobbying to get their industry-approved GMO labeling deal passed before Congress's summer break.
Senate Ag leaders Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow hope to pass legislation allowing food companies to label their products containing GMOs with a QR code instead of on-package labels.
According to POLITICO's Morning Agriculture blog, the Senate Ag leaders are using "every part of the lobbying playbook," with "letters being sent, staffs briefed, reports and FDA assessments flaunted, and farmers and consumers are being encouraged to inundate lawmakers with phone calls."
Roberts has been reportedly distributing a flier touting that the bill will nullify the "dangerous"Vermont law and stop other states from passing similar legislation.
Even though Vermont's mandate comes into effect Friday, the Senators's bill still has a small window of passage as Vermont's attorney general will not start forcing producers to label their food products containing genetically engineered ingredients until the start of 2017.
A confident Stabenow told POLITICO that enough votes will be secured for the deal to move forward, while Roberts said, "We had 46 [Republicans] last time, and we're hoping to get a few more." Last March, the Senate voted down Roberts's previous bill that would have prohibited states from requiring genetically modified food labels. The bill required 60 votes for passage but failed 48-49.
Roberts said his latest GMO bill will be the first order of business next week and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will set up a cloture vote, according to this tweet from Agripulse senior editor Philip Brasher.
While Democrat Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Sherrod Brown of Ohio announced support for the bill, it is not clear if it will gather enough votes to pass. And not to mention, the bill has to pass the House and be signed by President Obama before it becomes law.
Vermont's own Sen. Bernie Sanders has announced he will try to block Senate consideration of the bill. In a statement on Tuesday, the Democratic presidential candidate said:
I am very proud that Vermont has led the country in GMO labeling. This bill would preempt what Vermont and other states have done. GMO labeling exists in dozens of countries around the world. It is not controversial. Already major food companies in our country have begun labeling their products. People have a right to know what is in the food they eat. I am going to do everything I can to defeat this legislation.
By putting a hold on the bill, Sanders can block it from coming up for debate unless the proponents can muster up 60 votes.
The Roberts-Stabenow bill has been described by opponents as another version of the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act as it includes provisions that would establish a federal program based on QR codes, a symbol, 1-800 numbers or a statement on packages referring people to websites.
While many major food companies have already started labeling their products to comply with Vermont's labeling mandate, under the new federal scheme proposed by the Senators, food makers can change their labels to a QR code.
"We need consistency across the country. And without this national solution, we risked having a system of 50 different regulations impacting our packages," General Mills' Mike Siemienas told The Olympian.
"We will continue to comply with Vermont's law until Congress and the president enact legislation that pre-empts and replaces it," Tom Hushen of Campbell's said. "With or without new federal legislation, the Vermont label will continue to appear on shelves across most of the country and well into the future."
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