By Ronnie Cummins
Consumers know if the tomatoes they buy in the supermarket were imported from Mexico. They know if the sweater they purchased was made in Vietnam.
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"They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn." — Bob Dylan, 1975, Blood on the Tracks
The Darkest Hour: Degeneration
Welcome to Degeneration Nation 2018. The frightening truth is that our "profit-at-any-cost" economy and global empire, run by and for the one percent and multi-national corporations, aided and abetted by an out-of-control Congress and White House, is threatening our very survival.
"...the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope." — Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays.
It was a soil scientist who reminded me recently of something we self-obsessed humans often forget: We don't need to worry about saving the planet. The planet will save itself.
Last week the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) rejected the pleas of organic activists, farmers and many businesses to "keep the soil in organic" by voting to allow growers of hydroponic vegetables to label their produce "organic."
The NOSB's vote did little to shore up consumer faith in the USDA Organic label, especially after well-publicized news reports earlier this year that accused a few high-profile organic brands of giving "organic" a bad name by skirting the rules. And it had some industry pioneers so angry and disheartened, that according to the Washington Post they were even "threatening to leave the program they helped create."
One of the most politically charged debates today, especially in the U.S. and Europe, is the so-called "immigration crisis." There are approximately 250 million (3 percent of the world's 7.6 billion people) migrants in the world today. About 20 percent or 47 million of those, live in the U.S. Another 35 million live in Europe.
When finalized, the certification will go "beyond organic" by establishing higher standards for soil health and land management, animal welfare and farmer and worker fairness.
The most important thing we can do today as conscious consumers, farmers and food workers is to regenerate public health, the environment and climate stability. We can do this most readily by moving away from industrial, GMO and factory-farm food toward an organic, pasture-based, soil-regenerative, humane, carbon-sequestering and climate-friendly agriculture system.
What's standing in the way of this life-or-death transformation? Rampant greenwashing. The proliferation of $90 billion worth of fraudulently labeled or advertised "natural" and "socially responsible" food products in the U.S. confuses even the most well-intentioned of consumers and lures them away from purchasing genuine organic or grass-fed products.
A growing corps of organic, climate, environmental, social justice and peace activists are promoting a new world-changing paradigm that can potentially save us from global catastrophe. The name of this new paradigm and movement is regenerative agriculture, or more precisely regenerative food, farming and land use.
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.
Join 500,000 consumers who are boycotting brands owned by companies that refuse to label. https://t.co/jRMur2lJLh https://t.co/IuwKOyLyue— Organic Consumers (@Organic Consumers)1470261911.0
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.
Retweet if you agree with Jane Goodall. #ThursdayThoughts https://t.co/tvXKAeNWX8— Organic Consumers (@Organic Consumers)1470356423.0
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.
What do you know about the worldwide chemical fertilizer industry? If you're like most people, not much.
There's plenty of press coverage and consumer awareness when it comes to genetically engineered food and crops and the environmental hazards of pesticides and animal drugs. But the fertilizer industry? Not so much—even though it's the largest segment of corporate agribusiness ($175 billion in annual sales) and a major destructive force in polluting the environment, disrupting the climate and damaging public health.
The world's largest food corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars (some of it illegally) to avoid being required to label the genetically engineered (GMOs) ingredients in their products.
But with the July 1 deadline for complying with Vermont's GMO labeling law on the horizon, a handful of the largest multinational food corporations have announced they will now label GMOs—not solely because they will be forced to, but because as General Mills claims, they believe “you should know what's in your food and how we make ours."
Have consumers won the GMO labeling battle? Have these food companies that so fiercely fought to keep labels off their products really split with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the multi-billion-dollar lobbying group that is still trying to overturn Vermont's law in the courts, and preempt it in Congress?
To be sure, consumer pressure has had an impact on brands' decisions to label. We should celebrate that. But before we break out the champagne, it's worth noting that not all of the food companies that announced plans to label have taken a strong position on labeling. Equally important, four out of the five companies announced plans to label after a Senate bill to preempt Vermont's labeling law failed, but before the Senate has a chance to come back with an amended version of the bill after Congress returns on April 4 from Easter recess.
Is there something more to these recent announcements than just the need to comply with Vermont's law? As in, a strategy to lull consumers into complacency, while at the same time forcing Congress to give food companies what they've wanted all along—a free pass on labeling?
It's also worth noting that all of the companies that have revealed plans to label adamantly defend the “safety" of GMOs—without once mentioning the fact that the vast majority of GMO crops, from which GMO food ingredients are derived, are sprayed with glyphosate, classified last year by the World Health Organization as “a probable human carcinogen." Clearly, we have a long way to go before food corporations acknowledge the devastating consequences of the GMO monoculture model on the environment, human health and global warming.
Who's labeling, and why?
Campbell's Soup Co. CPB (NYSE), General Mills (NYSE:GIS), Mars and Kellogg's (NYSE: K) and ConAgra Foods(NYSE CAG) have all declared they will label GMOs in time to comply with Vermont's July 1 deadline, and in accordance with the Vermont law's standards. The companies say that any costs associated with labeling won't be passed on to consumers—a claim that deflates one of the industry's long-standing, albeit routinely debunked, arguments that GMO labeling will lead to higher food prices for consumers.
Cereal Giant @GeneralMills to Start Labeling #GMOs Nationwide as VT Law Looms https://t.co/Upsiux5voP @justlabelit https://t.co/uJbzUN7O6V— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1458392705.0
Campbell's was first out of the gate, and the first to break with the GMA on the lobbying group's non-negotiable stance against mandatory labeling. After spending a half a million dollars to help defeat California's Proposition 37 ballot initiative that would have mandated labels, Campbell's now says the company supports a mandatory federal labeling solution. Following Campbell's Jan. 1 announcement, we reached out to clarify what the soup company would do if Vermont's law were preempted at the federal level. A Campbell's spokesperson responded by saying that regardless of what happens in Congress, Campbell's products will be labeled, with the words “partially produced with genetic engineering," in all 50 states. On the surface, that's good news. But let's not forget that a federal labeling bill could forbid companies from printing those, or similar words on a label, in the interest of preventing food producers from "stigmatizing" biotechnology.
Similarly, we reached out to General Mills, Mars and Kellogg's this week asking for clarification on their positions. Kellogg's responded, but wouldn't provide answers to our direct questions, referring us instead to the official statement (which doesn't answer our questions). We haven't yet heard back from ConAgra, but we did receive responses from General Mills and Mars.
When asked if General Mills now supports a mandatory federal labeling solution, Mike Siemienas, manager of brand media relations, told us in an email that the cereal giant is “supportive of a model similar to what is used for organic products." In other words, voluntary, not mandatory. Asked if General Mills would label its GMO products according to Vermont standards even if Congress were to preempt Vermont, Siemienas wrote: “... we would comply with any law that Congress passes." We took that as a no.
But General Mills appears (so far) to be alone in continuing to side with the GMA on opposing mandatory labeling laws. Jonathan Mudd, Mars' global director of media relations, told us by email that Mars, like Campbell's, supports “the establishment of a mandatory national labeling system." Mudd also confirmed that Mars will label its products “consistent with Vermont" regardless of whether or not Vermont is preempted “because we believe in consumer transparency." Mars pitched in $376,000 to defeat California's Proposition 37. But after anti-labeling food corporations became boycott targets following the defeat of Prop 37, Mars sat out similar battles in Washington State (2013) and Oregon (2014).
Campbell's and Mars both cited the “need to avoid a 50-state patchwork" of labeling laws as their reason for supporting a mandatory federal solution, as opposed to supporting states' rights to pass GMO labeling laws. On the surface, the patchwork argument might sound rational—until you consider the fact that there are more than 100 state laws, governing food labeling, including a Vermont maple syrup labeling law, and a Minnesota law governing the labeling of wild rice. None of these laws ever created “chaos" in the marketplace, as U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned about Vermont's GMO labeling law. And none were ever opposed with the same relentless determination, much less lavish spending, as GMO labeling laws. Maybe because none of them affected Monsanto's bottom line?
Timing is everything
General Mills, Mars and Kellogg's all revealed their labeling plans after the Senate failed to pass S. 2609, a bill intended to preempt Vermont. It's possible that their announcements signal that these food giants have conceded defeat, especially as they all noted the need to comply with the Vermont July 1 deadline.
That's the optimistic view. But the timing of these announcements, made before the Senate returns to try again to try to pass a preemption bill, could also be part of a calculated strategy to win over more Senators to a compromise bill, one that will delay or outright preempt enactment of Vermont's Act 120.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), sponsor of the Monsanto- and GMA-funded S. 2609 (dubbed by opponents as the DARK Act—Deny Americans the Right to Know Act) is unwavering in his rejection of any legislation that requires labels on GMO ingredients. Though he is adamant about a “federal solution," Roberts outright, and illogically, rejects the idea of a uniform mandatory federal solution.
Roberts' rigid position on mandatory vs. voluntary cost him the support of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a key player in the GMO labeling drama. Stabenow says she would support a mandatory federal labeling law, though whether that support would include on-package labels, or some sort of QR barcode scheme or toll-free phone numbers, both of which have been floated as alternatives to on-package labels, remains unclear.
Still, Stabenow and other Senators representing Big Ag states are under tremendous pressure (by corporations, not voters) to keep Vermont's law from taking effect. The Big Food corporations know this. So is it possible that companies, by announcing, in quick succession that they will label voluntarily, hope to send the message that there's no need to pass a mandatory labeling law, because they've already volunteered? And could those big companies, or at least some of them, pull the plug on their labeling plans if federal legislation preempts Vermont? (Again, Campbell's and Mars have said they will proceed regardless of what happens in Congress—we know that's not the case for General Mills; Kellogg's and ConAgra haven't confirmed one way or the other).
Cereal Giant @GeneralMills to Start Labeling #GMOs Nationwide as VT Law Looms https://t.co/Upsiux5voP @justlabelit https://t.co/uJbzUN7O6V— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1458392705.0
That's one possibility. Here's another. General Mills told Politco's Jenny Hopkinson that while the company won't pass on the cost of labeling to consumers, the Minnesota-based cereal giant will have to spend “millions of dollars" to comply with Vermont's law. Could this “woe is me" message win enough sympathy votes from Senators who may still be on the fence (and who are being hounded by their corporate donors), that they'll be persuaded to betray consumers in order to stave off what General Mills or other companies allege is a “huge" financial burden?
It's also possible that this is just a public relations ploy by corporations that are banking on the fact that a federal law will pass before they have to label, and that that law will include restrictions that prohibit them from printing “produced with genetic engineering," or similar wording, on their packages. That scenario would allow them to say, gee, we tried to give consumers what they want, but Congress wouldn't allow it.
Whatever the new-and-improved version of the Senate bill morphs into, assuming the Senate passes a bill, it will have to go back to the U.S. House. There, members of a Republican-controlled Joint Standing Conference Committee will try to “reconcile" the Senate bill with the House version, H.R. 1599, which passed the House in July by a vote of 275 – 150. Guaranteed, the House won't sign off on anything with the words “mandatory" or “on-package." In fact, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), according to Politico, “declared just this week that he won't support on-package labeling, which he has said stigmatizes the technology." Whatever ends up coming out of the committee will have to go back to the House and Senate for a full vote.
That leaves consumers no choice but to continue to hammer our Senators with this message: No compromise. Let Vermont's law take effect. And if you really can't tolerate supporting states' rights to pass labeling laws, then pass a federal labeling law that meets, or preferably exceeds, the standards set by Vermont's law.
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association. Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association.
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