The battle for food sovereignty is a battle we cannot afford to lose.
Big Food’s greatest fear is materializing. A critical mass of educated consumers, food and natural health activists are organizing a powerful movement that could well overthrow North America’s trillion-dollar junk food empire. Savvy and more determined than ever, activists are zeroing in on the Achilles heel of Food Inc. — labeling.
But as consumers demand truth and greater transparency in labeling, it isn’t just Big Food whose empire is vulnerable. The biotech industry, which makes billions supplying junk food manufacturers with cheap, genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, has even more to lose. Monsanto knows that if food producers are forced to label the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food products, they’ll reformulate those products to meet consumer demand for GMO-free alternatives. That’s why companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow, along with Coca-Cola and Pepsi, last year spent more than $46 million to defeat Proposition 37, California’s GMO labeling initiative.
The junk food and biotech industries narrowly (48.5% – 51.5%) prevailed in California, but they know it’s only a matter of time before one or more states pass a mandatory GMO labeling law. More than 30 state legislatures are now debating GMO labeling bills. And consumers have broadened the fight beyond just labeling. Five counties and two cities in California and Washington have banned the growing of GE crops. In addition, given the near total absence of FDA regulation, 19 states have passed laws restricting GMOs.
How is the biotech industry fighting back? By attacking democracy. Experts say the laws are on the side of consumers. But consumers will no doubt still have to defend democracy against an increasingly desperate, and aggressive, industry bent on protecting the highly profitable business of genetically engineered food.
The battle lines have been drawn. Will we cede our food sovereignty rights to a profit-at-all costs corporatocracy?
Monsanto’s lobbyists are out in force in Washington, Vermont, Connecticut, and several dozen other states. They’re lobbying politicians behind the scenes and planting misleading articles in the press. Attacking pro-labeling anti-GMO proponents as anti-technology Luddites. They’re repeating ad nauseum their propaganda claims that GE foods and crops are perfectly safe and therefore need no labeling, that transgenics are environment- and climate-friendly, and that genetically modified crops are necessary to feed the world.
One of Monsanto’s major propaganda points, designed to discourage state officials from passing GMO labeling laws, is that state GMO labeling is unconstitutional. Monsanto has repeatedly stated that it will sue any state that dares to label. This threat of a lawsuit was enough to convince lawmakers in Vermont and Connecticut in 2012 to back off from labeling, even though there were sufficient votes, and overwhelming public sentiment, to pass these bills.
Biotech industry lawyers claim that Federal courts will strike down mandatory state GMO labeling for three reasons: 1)because Federal law, in this case FDA regulations, preempts state law; 2) because commercial free speech allows corporations to remain silent on whether or not their products are genetically engineered and; 3) because GMO labeling would interfere with interstate commerce.
These claims simply don’t hold up. State GMO labeling, and other food safety and food labeling laws, are constitutional. Federal law, upheld for decades by federal court legal decisions, allows states to pass laws relating food safety or food labels when the FDA has no prior regulations or prohibitions in place. There is currently no federal law or FDA regulation on GMO labeling, except for a guidance statement on voluntary labeling, nor is there any federal prohibition on state GMO or other food safety labeling laws. In fact there are over 200 state food labeling laws in effect right now in the U.S., including a GMO fish labeling law in Alaska, laws on labeling wild rice, maple syrup, dairy quality, kosher products, and laws on labeling dairy products as rBGH-free. It is very unlikely that any federal court will want to make a sweeping ruling that would nullify 200 preexisting state laws.
U.S. case law does indicate that commercial free speech in certain instances allows corporations to remain silent about what’s in their products. However federal courts have consistently ruled that when there are compelling state interests — health, environment, economic — states can require corporations to divulge what’s in their products or how they were produced.
When it comes to GMOs, states can clearly make the case for compelling state interests, according to Consumer Union’s senior scientist, Michael Hansen. Hansen says: “…there is a compelling state interest in labeling of genetically engineered foods and that is due to the potential human health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered foods.”
Hansen also argues that Codex Alimentarius, a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production and food safety, guarantees nations the right to implement mandatory labeling of GMO foods. The standards support the argument that GMO labels do not constitute a restriction of free trade, as long as they are applied to both domestic and international producers. Similarly state GMO labels, as long as they do not discriminate against particular producers, but rather apply to all producers — state, national, and international — do not constitute a restriction of interstate commerce.
The U.S. government, under massive global pressure, has signed on to the Codex Alimentarius, which serves “as a risk management measure to deal with the scientific uncertainty” associated with genetically engineered foods. And according to Hansen, there most certainly is significant scientific uncertainty about the potential health impacts of genetically engineered foods.”
States and localities have the right and the power to pass their own legislation, especially when the federal government fails or refuses to act on matters of compelling interest. Although large corporations now control the federal government, we still have room to organize and govern ourselves, especially at the local level.
“Home rule,” embedded in state constitutions and municipal charters across the U.S., provides the legal basis that has enabled several hundred cities and counties to pass ordinances banning factory farms, the spreading of sewage sludge on farmlands, fracking (which pollutes groundwater, farms and gardens), and even GMOs.
Yet undeterred by 200 years of case law and legislation institutionalizing states’ rights and local “Home Rule,” corporations are brazenly attacking the rights of states and localities to regulate Corporate America’s often reckless and criminal behavior. They’re getting help from the infamous pro-corporate lobbying group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is lobbying states across the country to restrict counties or local governments from passing any laws limiting pesticide use, GMOs, fracking, or industrial agriculture practices.
ALEC and elements in the Republican and Democratic Party allegedly support “federalism,” or state’s rights — a theory based on the idea that state government can better represent and respond to local interests than a more centralized federal government. Yet ALEC apparently does not apply this logic to relations between local and state government, at least not when local control steps on the toes of corporate America.
We are engaged in a fundamental battle, for the right to know what’s in our food, the right to choose what we buy and eat, and the right to regulate out-of-control corporations that are threatening our environment, our health and future climate stability. Without BioDemocracy there can be no democracy. Without a balance of powers between the federal government, states and local home rule, there is no republic, but rather a corporatocracy, an unholy alliance between indentured politicians and profit-at-any-cost corporations. The battle for food sovereignty is a battle we cannot afford to lose.