GMO: ‘If You’re So Proud of This Technology, Put It on the Label’

19 August 2016 — FAIR

Janine Jackson interviewed Patty Lovera about GMO labeling for the August 12, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Patty Lovera (image: Food & Water Watch)

Patty Lovera: “If we’re going to tell people that they are voting with their dollars and they’re making decisions, you have to give them all the information. And when we came to that line, the industry wasn’t willing to do that.” (image: Food & Water Watch)

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Janine Jackson: “Obama Signs Bill Requiring Labeling of GMO Foods” was the headline in the Washington Post. But then why are many of the activists who’ve been fighting for the labeling of genetically engineered foods calling the legislation the DARK Act, for Denying Americans the Right to Know?

We’re joined now by Patty Lovera. She’s assistant director of Food and Water Watch. She joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Patty Lovera.

Patty Lovera: Hi. Thanks for having me.

JJ: What does this bill that Barack Obama signed late last month—and to very little fanfare; there were a lot of other things going on—what does the bill say it does?

I Want to Know if It's GMO (cc photo: Alexis Baden-Mayer)

Activist for GMO labeling (cc photo: Alexis Baden-Mayer)

PL: This has been a fight for a while. This is the end of one phase of a very long fight about whether or not people get to know if there’s generally engineered ingredients in the food that they’re buying. Several states—Connecticut, Maine and Vermont—have passed laws saying, in our state, you’re going to have to label these GMO ingredients. So there’s things like corn and soy, some sugar comes from GMO sugar beets, so it’s a lot of ingredients in processed foods. And Vermont’s law went into effect on July 1.

This caused a lot of angst in the biotech industry that makes GMO seeds, and the food-processing industry, that they didn’t want to label at all, and they really didn’t want to label for one state. And they created, we think, a false crisis that we were going to have a patchwork of laws around the country, that they couldn’t handle that, they couldn’t deal with differing state laws, and they came to Washington to make Vermont’s law go away. That’s what this bill actually does, and it replaces Vermont’s law with a yet-to-be-defined, incredibly weak standard, that we’re afraid is not going to give people real labeling.

JJ: That expression “patchwork of laws,” I came across that more than once, and it made it sound as though that really was the concern, a kind of “process” concern, that different states would have different rules. But different states have different rules for things in other situations, and, of course, for many activists, working at the state level has been a place where they can have more effectiveness.

PL: Absolutely. And I can’t even convey the sense of hysteria that was created in the halls of Congress by these companies that is not accurate. We were not embarking on a crisis in Vermont or anywhere else. Vermont was the first state whose law went into effect. Connecticut and Maine had waiting periods. And folks have been working all over the country in lots of states to pass these laws, and they were working together, and they were using very similar language. There wasn’t ever going to be a patchwork these companies couldn’t live with. It was a very convenient talking point for them to block a requirement that they didn’t want to comply with.

JJ: Well, it’s interesting, because it’s not about even the safety of GMOs. I mean, we have labels about gluten and vitamins and heart-healthiness. It’s an argument against information.

Kellogg's Corn Flakes

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (yes, they’re GMO)

PL: It is. And these same companies, these are big—the biggest proponent of the bill that the president signed was the Grocery Manufacturers Association, so they’re representing huge food processing companies who operate all over the world. You know, Kellogg’s is not just making cereal here and selling it here, they’re selling it all over the world, and over 60 countries around the world have some kind of GMO labeling law. We’re actually very late to this issue in the United States.

And meanwhile, the GMO producers, the companies Monsanto and DuPont that make GMO seeds, maintain they’re different enough that they should be able to patent those seeds. But when it comes to us eating the finished product, it’s not different at all and you don’t need to know that it’s there. So they’re trying to have it both ways. And it’s really an absurd amount of money and effort that we just spent having this fight, like a ridiculous amount of money. And if you’re so proud of this technology and the products that it makes, put it on the label and make your case. Tell us how great it is, and we can choose it.

JJ: Absolutely. Or failing that, from media’s perspective, to not call that out? Then, in trade, I want to never hear about the glories of unfettered capitalism again.

PL: [laughs]

JJ: Because that relies on an informed consumer making economic choices. But now, in terms of some of the information that we have about the labeling solution that this legislation calls for, my understanding is that there’s a class bias implicit in it as well, or just a kind of class cluelessness, in that it’s going to rely on information that you get through your smart phone? What’s happening there?

PL: I know, it sounds made up. So there were many attempts to pass this bill. The House passed a version last year that pretty much just blocked the state bills and didn’t do much else. Then we moved to the Senate, and the Senate tried in the spring to bring a bill forward that kind of looked like that, just pretty much blocking the states. And we were able to defeat that, and that’s when the really behind-the-scenes negotiating began. And with lots of Democratic support, unfortunately. Because lots of Democrats in the Senate drew the line in the right place in March, and they said no, you’re taking away these state labels and people need them.

And then the negotiating began. And Sen. Debbie Stabenow from Michigan was involved in that with Sen. Pat Roberts from Kansas. And they came out with a deal that we know was supposed to be a compromise we were all supposed to live with. And a key part of that was that companies get to choose how they’re going to make a disclosure.

QR code (image: Wikipedia)

QR code (image: Wikipedia)

And one of the choices is one of those QR codes, which is that box with the black-and-white squiggly print that you’re supposed to scan with an app on your smartphone. And we know that big companies will take that when they’re given the choice, because they lobbied for it. They spent the last year saying we don’t want a mandatory requirement, but if you do a mandatory requirement, we should be able to do it with these codes.

That’s not labeling. You have to have a smartphone, have a data plan that you’ve paid up for the month, have a signal in the store—which is not a given in most urban areas, when stores are in basements of apartment buildings and things like that—and, really, have an extra hand. If you’ve got a shopping cart and a kid and a couple boxes of cereal you’re looking at, I don’t know how you’re supposed to hold the smartphone and scan the code and look at a website and see if it contains GMOs. It’s not a label, but yet that’s where all those headlines came from that they created this national standard for labeling.

JJ: It sounds very much like turning information into a luxury, and I can’t think of anything more anti-democratic than that.

But I want to pull you back to a point that you made that’s fascinating, that GMO makers patent these things because they are different enough for them to be able to patent, and yet when it comes to labeling… And I understand that the back story here is that the FDA decided decades ago that GE foods didn’t need to be labeled because they weren’t “materially different.” Is that the idea, that industry’s run a long way with that?

PL: Right. The GMO experiment began in the mid-’90s, when the first GMO crops came onto the market. And the FDA was the one that said yes, they’re acceptable, you can put them in the market, people can eat them. And they made a decision at that point not to require labeling, and we’ve been in a hole ever since, trying to get some labeling requirement.

So this starts with the federal government’s failure to require labeling, which is in large part why people went to the states, you know, to get a better response from a legislative process and a democratic process that was working better for them than the feds who dropped the ball on this for 20 years.

So it’s very frustrating, it’s a very frustrating issue. And when you get right down to the core concept you mentioned earlier—people making an informed choice—that’s all we’re asking for.

We have a whole other list of critiques and concerns about how GMOs are regulated. We don’t think they’re the same; when you look at the whole food chain that uses them, we think there’s a lot of differences.

But if we’re going to tell people that they are voting with their dollars and they’re making decisions, you have to give them all the information. And when we came to that line, the industry wasn’t willing to do that.

JJ: Let me ask you, finally, what now for activists? There is a large community of people who care very much about this set of issues. I can’t imagine everyone’s just going to lay down for this. Where does the fight go next?

PL: The first thing is, there’s still accountability to be had on this, so people need to go look at how their members of Congress voted on this issue. And despite the headlines and what comes out of the food industry, voting for this bill was a mistake, and people need to let their members of Congress know that. There are steps that the USDA is going to take, to take this bill and put it into action. They have to define some of the terms. We’re going to do the best we can in that process, and we’re going to need the public to help us with that.

But in terms of the immediate thing of what do I do as a consumer, the things to keep an eye out for are certified organic foods. Organic farmers cannot use GMOs; they’re not allowed to grow them. And there’s also a label called the Non-GMO Project; it’s a third party saying, this product doesn’t have GMOs in it. So those are options for people, in the meantime, if they’re looking to avoid GMOs.

But we would prefer to say where they are. That was the whole point of this, not to label around it, but in the meantime, that’s kind of what we’re left with.

JJ: All right, then. We’ve been speaking with Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch. You can find their work on this and other issues on line at FoodAndWaterWatch.org. Patty Lovera, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

PL: Thanks for having me.

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