Fighting for Our Right to GMO-Free Food:
Coming Together to Empower the Public Voice
By Kat Schuett
Throughout the aisles of grocery stores and menus of fast food restaurants, they are hiding everywhere, disguised as normal food: genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—unnatural plant DNA that biotech companies have genetically diced and spliced with genes from toxic bacteria and other foreign organisms in order to develop “technologically advanced” seeds.
Although these “frankenfoods” have never been required to undergo independent testing to prove they are safe for human health or the environment—the U.S. government, convinced by biotech lobbyists with deep pockets, has allowed GMOs to proliferate like bad weeds without any substantial federal regulation. Today, 93 percent of soybeans, 93 percent of canola, 86 percent of corn and many of the sugar beets grown in the United States are genetically modified. It’s said that at least 75 percent of processed foods now contain GMO ingredients.
While other countries around the world have practiced caution—banning GMOs until proven safe, or allowing only restricted growth and requiring testing—the United States has taken the opposite approach, giving biotech companies free rein. Based on statements and limited research provided by the biotech industry itself, the U.S. government has even gone so far as to make official statements that there is no difference between GMOs and natural foods. More and more studies are proving this terribly wrong, linking GMOs and the chemicals used with them to a long list of health and environmental issues, from allergies and birth defects to “superweeds.”
What is worse is that unsuspecting Americans have no real way to tell if a product contains GMOs. Unlike most other developed countries, such as the EU, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and others, the United States doesn't require labeling to inform consumers that a product contains GMOs. Currently, the USDA organic regulation, which forbids the use of GMOs, is the only legislation that protects consumers from GMOs. Yet, even organic is being threatened as the U.S. government continues to allow GMOs to be grown without restrictions, increasing the risk of contamination on organic farms.
With over 300 million people unknowingly ingesting hundreds of thousands of products containing GMOs, Americans have become the guinea pigs in one of the largest science experiments ever performed.
Today, many events are exposing the biotech experiment for what it is. Several studies have come out recently that directly debunk the safety and sustainability claims that biotech companies have made about GMOs (see page 34), and polls are coming back with a clear message from consumers: We want the right to know what is in our food.
In a recent MSNBC.com online survey, people were asked if they believed genetically modified foods should be labeled, and the resounding answer, totaling 96 percent of 45,698 votes at time of press was, “Yes. It’s an ethical issue—consumers should be informed so they can make a choice.”
It’s time for the American consumer to demand the right to know what is in their food and for the organic industry to combine its energy and passion to lead this effort. With the shocking complete deregulation of GM alfalfa this past January, many are getting fired up and the organic community is coming together like never before to support both policy and consumer awareness efforts. These efforts include everything from supporting state-level GMO labeling initiatives, now launched in 14 states, to getting behind the first national demonstration to demand GMO labeling---the Right2Know March. This 16-day March---which starts in New York on October 1st, the first day of Non-GMO Month, and ends at the White House in Washington, D.C. on October 16th, World Food Day---is set to be one of the most powerful consumer activism campaigns in the United States since the industrialization of food.
GMOs and the Organic Movement
While the energy to address the many issues posed by GMOs is greater than ever before, the organic industry faces its own unique challenges. One of the largest is contamination. As the percentage of deregulated GMO crops rises, so does the chance that these crops will contaminate organic fields. Unless something is done to stop the “rubber stamp” approvals of GM crops, the situation is going to continue to get worse. According to Reuters, following the USDA’s recent controversial approvals of GM alfalfa, sugar beets and biofuel corn, the agency has received 23 more petitions for deregulation, most of them from Monsanto and Syngenta.
While USDA organic regulations strictly prohibit the use of GMOs in organic, preventing unintentional contamination is of utmost concern to both the organic industry—and the organic consumer. According to research from Stonyfield Farm and Organic Valley conducted last fall, the lack of GMOs is a major driving factor for the purchase of organic products. When 12,899 consumers who purchase organic food or beverages at least one time a week were surveyed:
• 98 percent of organic meat consumers said they purchase organic meat because “I want to avoid meat from animals whose feed includes chemicals and GMOs.”
• 83 percent of organic food consumers said they purchase organic food specifically to avoid GMOs, and 29 percent said avoiding GMOs is the main reason they buy organic food.
• 79 percent of organic food consumers would stop buying organic food if it contained GMOs.
Taking Action at the Policy Level
One way that the organic industry is working to protect organic farms from GMO contamination is through changing policy in Washington.
In the past five years, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) has filed and won several cases overturning approvals of GM crops, such as sugar beets and alfalfa. A public patent lawsuit has also been filed on behalf of a coalition of organic farmers and NGOs, arguing that the patents Monsanto and other proprietary entities use to sue farmers for patent infringement are an unlawful application of the U.S. Patent Act.
In addition to litigation, the organic industry has also tried negotiation. Prior to the USDA’s deregulation of alfalfa, a group of organic leaders sat down at the table with the USDA and biotech leaders to discuss “coexistence” with questions such as: Who pays for the farm that gets contaminated? How can seed sources be protected? Who pays for all this DNA testing? Shouldn’t regulations consider how GMOs affect other forms of agriculture?
“These conversations need to find their way back on the table,” says Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, who was part of the coexistence discussion group. “For example, there needs to be insurance for farmers paid for by the patent holders that affect nonusers and a policy for buffer zones—there is a long list.”
The National Organic Coalition (NOC) also offers a “7 Steps to Fair Farming” plan for GMOs,” which sums up many of these demands.
George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley, who was also part of the coexistence conversations, says that before many of these questions can even be addressed, the USDA needs to fully apply the Plant Protection Act (PPA), legislation which could give the USDA much more power to regulate GMOs. The PPA addresses the “detection, control, eradication, suppression, prevention or retardation of the spread of plant pests or noxious weeds necessary for the protection of the agriculture, environment, and economy of the United States.”
“Right now, the regulation, or lack of regulation, of GMOs is based on laws from over 50 years ago,” says Siemon. “The USDA has its hands tied politically until this is changed. They need for us to yell and scream to implement real regulations. Right now there are no GM regulations, period. Zero, zip, none.”
The most important message on the policy front may be to remind people that it is not to late to reverse the trend, says George Kimbrell, senior staff attorney at CFS. “Some people start thinking that GMOs are in everything and nothing will change this, but right now GMOs are really only limited to four major crops,” he says. “The biotech industry thinks that through threats of contamination and government control, they will get us to surrender—but things are not undoable. We can change policy through activism. Look at our record in court. Over the last six years we’ve won a series of cases. Right now, we are an outlier compared to most of the world on GMO policies, but organic is one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture in the United States for a reason. I believe all this together will drive regulation of these crops and GMO labeling.”
Taking Action at the Farm Level
Another approach many in the organic industry are taking to prevent contamination is DNA testing, which is a requirement to earn the seal from the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit that offers voluntary third-party non-GMO verification. Some even advocate that this kind of DNA testing for GMOs should be added to the organic regulation as a way to ensure organic integrity.
For Organic Valley’s Siemon, testing is a way to address two of his top concerns: ensuring that there is GMO free seed stock years from now and protecting farmers from being innocent victims of contamination. “We’re finding that 90 percent of contamination comes from seeds rather than pollen. Therefore, if we ensure that seeds are GMO-free, we can likely avoid having organic farmers be victims of contamination. The answer comes down to protecting seed.”
Siemon believes that part of protecting seed is to have the USDA require that an alternative seed stock be maintained. Organic Valley has also launched a new policy that requires GMO testing of all seed and is working on developing organic seed sources for all of its products, many of which are not currently available.
“I think one thing that everybody can do is to start requiring GMO testing on seed. Every organic company in America can do that today. To me, that’s a way to avoid over-regulating this difficult situation.”
Stonyfield Farm’s CEO Hirshberg also points to a future of DNA testing, “I consider it a given that we’re all going to need to be involved in genetic testing at some point in the not-so-distant future in order to provide consumers with assurance,” he says. “The last thing we need to do, however, is make organic even more expensive—that’s why I believe that the patent holders need to be held accountable for some of these costs. The problem is that while they’re plenty ready to spend money on campaign contributions and on lobbying, they’re not ready to take responsibility for the fact that it’s their profit machine that’s causing all the rest of us a loss in choice and, in some cases, a loss in livelihood.”
Inspiring Citizen Consumers to Drive Change
Consumer awareness and activism has the potential to not only support policy change, but to drive market change. Here are some of initiatives that are getting consumers to join the fight.
Demand the Right2Know—Join the March. One of the most exciting events to inspire activism is the Right2Know March. The event kicks off in New York on October 1st at the Green Festival and United Nations Headquarters and works its way down through parks and municipalities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland and then culminates on October 16th, World Food Day, with a rally in Washington’s Lafayette Park across from the White House.
The march was inspired by Joseph Wilhelm, organic pioneer and managing director of the organic brand Rapunzel Naturkost, based in Germany. Wilhelm has organized and led two marches for a GMO-Free World in 2007 and 2009 in Europe that were very successful in raising awareness. The U.S. march is being spearheaded by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), The Non-GMO Project, The Sustainable Roadshow, Dr. Bronner’s and Rapunzel, with lead sponsors so far that include United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI), Organic Valley, Nature’s Path and Stonyfield Farm. While the Organic Consumers Association’s (OCA)“Millions Against Monsanto” rallies have inspired activism in many cities—this is the first U.S. event set to bring the entire country together to fight for this cause.
Katherine DiMatteo, president of IFOAM, says at this point the Right2Know March has a simple message—GMO foods should be labeled. “We don’t want the message to come off too left or radical. We can get into details later, but right now the message is that there is a difference between GMO and natural seeds—one is developed in a lab and released without studies that prove it’s safe for long-term human health, and the other is developed on a farm using time-tested breeding practices. The consumer should have a right to choose how their food is grown, just like they have a right to choose organic,” says DiMatteo.
The Non-GMO Project’s executive director Megan Westgate agrees with keeping the message simple, “Although there are many messages being put out by different groups, we can all get behind the public’s right to know what’s in their food and the right to choose Non-GMO,” she says. “This march is going to be a great opportunity to raise awareness on the issue of GMOs. When people find out that they’re part of this science experiment without their agreement they are outraged—no one likes being a guinea pig. This march is set to be the most powerful public demonstration against GMOs the country has seen yet.”
The Right2Know March has a website (www.right2knowmarch.org) where people can sign up for the event as well as a Facebook page.
The Second Annual Non-GMO Month. In addition to the march, companies can also help spread awareness through other events during Non-GMO Month, which was created by the Non-GMO Project primarily to reach out to consumers via retailers. Last October, over 600 stores participated in the first ever Non-GMO Month by hosting events, putting shelf tags on verified products, handing out brochures and fundraising. To facilitate collaboration, the Project offers contact lists for both retailers hosting Non-GMO Month events and participating manufacturers who have agreed to supply samples or other support. The Project has created Retailer Tool Kits with everything from sample press releases to POS artwork. Buttons, stickers and tote bags can also be ordered through the Non-GMO Project.
Additionally, the Project is working with manufacturers to offer discounts to encourage retailers to set up non-GMO end caps, and both UNFI and Tree of Life will have non-GMO sections in their October catalogs, including free ads for Non-GMO Month sponsors. UNFI is also offering free one-third-page ads to companies with Non-GMO Project Verified products.
This year the mission of Non-GMO Month is expanding beyond the Non-GMO Project itself. “We are seeing many other organizations take off with the idea of Non-GMO Month and make it their own,” says Westgate. “This summer we’re launching a new website which we’re hoping will serve as an umbrella for all of the groups that have non-GMO events and help inspire and support grassroots movements.” The new website, www.nonGMOmonth.org, will allow local groups to post events and will allow people to search by date, location and/or organization.
The Non-GMO Project alone has over 41,000 Facebook fans—the majority of whom actively check the page and post comments, says Westgate. “Many people don’t even know what a GMO is, so getting this label out there on products is also a way to get people to look into the issue more. The Non-GMO Project is coming at it from one direction that if the government won’t mandate labeling, we will create an alternative.”
Creating a Tipping Point. Jeffery Smith, author of Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette, and founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, says that consumer awareness is not only a critical step, but could be an easier approach than changing policy given the history of influence that biotech companies have had on governmental leaders.
“While fighting the battle in Washington is important, creating a tipping point of consumer rejection to force GMOs out of the food supply can actually be a short cut,” he says. “In Europe, consumer rejection was achieved after a single high-profile food safety scandal in 1999 turned the use of GM ingredients into a marketing liability for food companies. Within a week, most companies announced that they would stop using GM ingredients. GMOs were kicked out of Europe based on consumer concern and reaction by the food companies, not based on legislation. In the United States, rBGH was kicked out of most U.S. dairies, even thought it remains legal. This again demonstrates the power of the tipping point of consumer rejection.”
To do this, IRT has established the Non-GMO Tipping Point Network which helps establish local non-GMO working groups around the country and national non-GMO working groups that focus on outreach to a particular demographic, including health care practitioners, patient advocacy groups, youths, campuses, parents, chefs and restaurants and non-English-speaking populations, etc. IRT has also developed a Speaker Training Program, through which it has already trained over 330 activists. “Some are being interviewed on radio. Some have written articles. Some are deployed by local action groups for events,” Smith says. IRT also offers a Non-GMO Speakers Bureau that connects groups with local IRT-trained speakers.
Through all its outreach efforts, the focus is on the tipping point. “We believe that 5 percent of U.S. shoppers avoiding brands that contain GM ingredients would be sufficient to push GMOs out of the marketplace altogether. GMOs offer no consumer benefits. The major companies have already removed them in their European and Japanese brands, and if they see a drop in U.S. markets, they are likely to abandon GM ingredients to protect their sales,” Smith says. “As we tell people about the tipping point and invite them to participate in various ways, we can make this thing viral.”
Both the IRT and CFS have created Non-GMO shopping guides which stress the importance of looking for certified organic products.
Action Alerts. In addition to its litigation work, CFS has also helped lead virtual Right to Know efforts, asking activists to write congresspeople about the top three concerns—labeling, liability and safety testing. CFS True Food Network action alerts go out to close to 200,000 people. Heather Whitehead, True Food Network director at CFS, says that consumer awareness is key in the work CFS does. “The proliferation of new media through the internet has really helped the cause by empowering people to educate and organize. It has also given us and others the ability to reach out to the public with an independent message that’s not controlled by a few corporations,” says Whitehead.
CFS's True Food Network has been instrumental in pushing legislative action on GMOs, most recently on state and federal bills to ban or label genetically engineered salmon, currently under review by the FDA and slated to be the first genetically engineered animal meant for human consumption.
Bringing Everyone Together
Ever since the shocking announcement about the complete deregulation of alfalfa in January, there has been a growing realization among the many groups fighting the various GMO battles that we need to join forces—and this collaboration is happening on many levels.
Creating Organic Cohesiveness. One need is to bring those within the organic community—both industry and nonprofits—together to represent the unique needs of the organic movement. To do this, a group, tentatively called the Organic Community Council, has been created that includes The Organic Center, NOC, The Non-GMO Project, CFS and OFRF as well as OTA and several organic businesses. The Council recognizes that while the industry and NGO community have different purposes, neither group’s interests are strictly exclusive. Building on shared goals, the hope is to create an infrastructure for cross- sector decision making, collaborative strategy development and effective conflict resolution mechanisms. Currently efforts are focused on key areas including policy, legal, contamination prevention, grassroots awareness and
organic/sustainable community building.
“We see this group as the hub of a wheel with spokes going out to different efforts. Rather than trying to support 20 great ideas all going on at once started by several different groups, we would like to use the strength of this Council to focus on five ideas that we can all get behind and support,” says Missy Hughes, Organic Valley’s director of government affairs and one of the Council’s facilitators.
Speaking With One Voice. In addition to building internal infrastructure in the organic community, there is also a need to develop a strong voice of organic consumers—one that can speak loud enough that our government officials listen. “It hit us in the face over the past year that organic doesn’t have a big enough citizen’s voice in Washington,” says Nancy Hirshberg, VP of strategic initiatives for Stonyfield Farm. “GM alfalfa was a perfect example. If they had heard from millions of people, we might have seen a different outcome.”
Thus, a group currently called The Organic Voices Collaborative was formed to bring concerned stakeholders and new organic constituents together to build a louder consumer movement. Founding Advisory Committee members come from a diverse group of stakeholders including manufacturers, retailers, NGOs and consumer groups such as Rodale, the Center for Food Safety, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Organic Coalition, National Cooperative Grocers Association, Amy’s Kitchen and Allergy Kids.
The first initiative of the group is to achieve the policy objective around GMO labeling, but the long-term goal, Nancy Hirshberg says, “is to create a voice that will be able to advocate for organic on any number of issues.” One of these projects may include working to get politicians on record about the GMO issue during the upcoming election.
The Voices Collaborative will work with the Organic Community Council; as the Council decides the policy or action to focus on—for example, GMO labeling—the Voices Collaborative will trigger grassroots campaigns to mobilize consumers to get the message out. The Collaborative is calling all of the organic community—and any groups that are concerned about the future of our food system—to get involved. In the interim of hiring a campaign director, questions can be directed to Nancy Hirshberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Right now, more than any other time I’ve seen during my involvement in the organic world, we’re really working together to synergize our efforts—from the Right2Know March to labeling initiatives in California. We’re all taking cues from the policy group, which is a very diverse group of industry and NGOs working to craft a policy platform and trying to work together hand in hand,” says Hirshberg.
Robyn O’Brien, founder of Allergy Kids and author of The Unhealthy Truth, sees her organization as an “onramp,” she says. “We are so little, yet people come to find out the information about the broken food system through many different entry points. People come to my organization for a different reason than they come to an organic organization, yet we are all vehicles to share the message.”
When people come to Allergy Kids, O’Brien says they aren’t usually looking to be activists—they are just worried about the health of their children. “But once people learn about what is making their child sick, they want to create change,” she says. “It may start with baby steps in the kitchen or being an informed consumer, and sometimes it leads into more.” For example, O’Brien is currently working on webinars to teach parents how to reach out to local media and write to Congress. “That is the power of mothers protecting their children,” she says.
All in all, the fight is about organizing our efforts and getting the message out. “We’re up against a highly organized and funded group,” says Organic Valley’s Siemon. “We can’t fight it the way Monsanto fights it. We don’t have a multimillion dollar public relations or lobbying arm—but the hope is that if we work collectively, we can make change happen.”
Kat Schuett is the editorial director for Organic Processing Magazine. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Editors Note: Special thanks to all who helped bring this article together including Ken Roseboro who is the editor and publisher of the “Organic and Non-GMO Report,” “The Organic and Non-GMO Sourcebook” and a regular contributor to Organic Processing Magazine. You can check out this publication for regular news on GMOs at www.non-gmoreport.com.