By Clare Howard
Grassroots organizers, organic farmers and environmentalists in central Illinois are joining groups around the country taking on a global Goliath and demanding that genetically modified food be labeled. More than 70 percent of food sold in grocery stores contains genetically modified organisms linked to a host of illnesses. More than 90 percent of American consumers say they want mandated labeling, yet the federal government has failed to take on this issue.
Organizers are not calling for a ban of GM food, referred to as “Frankenfood” by Europeans. Rather than a ban, they are demanding mandatory labeling. “Just Label It,” and the “California Right to Know Campaign” have attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. In Illinois, Food & Water Watch is working with grassroots organizers statewide on their campaign “Let Me Decide: Make GE Labeling the Law.” The goal is to pass state legislation to mandate labeling of genetically engineered food.
Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, said, “The whole issue with transparency goes deep with the public and private sector. I don’t think there is anyone in American who thinks this issue shouldn’t be transparent.”
He said people can argue on both sides about the safety and need for GM food, but the argument against just labeling goes against people’s right to know. However, Koehler said he’s concerned about any additional cost labeling might incur.
“I will work with the Senate leadership and both sides of the aisle on this issue, but if Illinois stands alone with mandated labeling, will it hurt consumers?” he said. “If California passes this, it makes it easier for the rest of us to address this issue.”
Californians will vote Nov. 6 on Proposition 37, the “California Right to Know Campaign.” Early polling showed more than 65 percent of state residents approve Proposition 37 despite millions of dollars pouring into the state to defeat the measure. According to published reports, Monsanto, PepsiCo, Kellogg, Hershey, Hormel Foods, General Mills, Pinnacle Foods Group, Cargill, ConAgra Foods and other opponents of labeling have already spent $25 million opposing the referendum and could approach $50 million by election day. Major biotech firms like DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, BASF Plant Science and Bayer CropScience are also funding opposition to the referendum.
There will be no additional cost for Illinois or any state that mandates labeling, said Emily Carroll, Midwest Region Director for Food & Water Watch.
“Major corporations are already forced to label food exported to Japan, the EU and other countries,” she said. “The U.S. is behind the rest of the developed world on this.”
According to a new report from Food & Water Watch, the Grocery Manufacturers Association claims labeling will cost as much as $825 more a year per family. That is countered by an impartial consulting firm in the United Kingdom that found an increase of less than $5 a year per family. The increased cost does not come from adding a few words to the label but from segregating non-GMO from GMO food throughout the entire food chain from seeds to harvest and processing.
“Major corporations are already doing this,” Carroll said.
State Rep. Deborah Mell, D-Chicago, introduced legislation to mandate labeling in February 2011. Food & Water Watch is working with her.
“Labeling GMO food is what America should be all about. Give people information so they can make choices. We think we’re living in an open society, so what’s the big secret,” said Terra Brockman, founder of The Land Connection and advocate for organic farming practices. “If GM food is such a great thing, let us know.”
In January, India will join a list of about 50 countries requiring GM labeling including the 15-nation European Union, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The World Health Organization says GMOs pose no human health risk, but opponents argue there is no independent science confirming this. U.S. regulators rely on data supplied by corporations that develop and sell GM seed. Independent scientific research is not being done because GM seeds are patented and owned exclusively by corporations that control the patent.
Almost 90 percent of corn is GM. Bt corn is genetically modified by splicing the bacteria bacillus thuringiensis into the corn plant. Bt corn produces a toxin that causes the stomachs of insects eating it to explode. Opponents of Bt corn contend a host of human digestive issues from food allergies to ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease and intestinal permeability or “leaky gut” have increased dramatically since the introduction of GM corn in the mid-1990s. Food labeled organic does not contain any GMOs.
Food & Water Watch organizer Brinkley Hutchings has been sent to Peoria to organize the local effort. More than 50 people attended a meeting with her at the Peoria Public Library Lakeview branch in late September.
“It was a large, diverse and enthusiastic group,” she said.
In the works are plans to do mailings, phone calling, legislative contacts and a media campaign. Hutchings plans to hold weekly public meetings in Peoria beginning Oct. 3. She can be reached by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.
The Monsanto press office did not return a phon