[The California Ballot Initiative to label genetically engineered food is] “a serious, long-term threat to the viability of agricultural biotechnology. Defeating the Initiative is GMA’s single highest priority this year.”
— Pamela Bailey, President of Grocery Manufacturers Association, speech to the American Soybean Association, July 9, 2012
This November, Californians will vote for or against Prop 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act. The outcome of that vote will likely determine whether the U.S. will one day join the nearly 50 other countries that allow their citizens to choose between genetically engineered and non-genetically engineered food through the enactment of laws requiring mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The election is three months away, but the battle lines were drawn months ago. Lining up against the consumer’s right to know — and throwing plenty of money into the fight — is a long list of industry front groups, food conglomerates and biotech companies. Near the top of that list is the powerful Washington, DC-based Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA), a multi-billion-dollar trade association. The GMA represents America’s $1.2 trillion “Big Food” industry, led by supermarket chains, Monsanto and other biotech companies, animal drug companies, multinational food manufacturers, and junk food restaurants — all of whom rely on the use of dangerous chemicals, pesticides, animal drugs, and GMOs to produce cheap, contaminated food.
So far, the GMA has contributed a handsome $375,000 to the campaign to defeat Prop 37. Making the pot even sweeter are some hefty direct donations to the anti-labeling campaign from individual GMA members, including ConAgra Foods, J.M. Smucker, Hormel Foods, Kellogg Co., Coca-Cola North America and PepsiCo. and others.
The GMA’s list of dues-paying members tops 300. How many more thousands – or millions — of dollars will members spend in a desperate attempt to keep Californians from knowing what’s in their food? And the bigger question: Why? Why spend millions of dollars to keep ingredients secret – ingredients food manufacturers claim are perfectly safe – instead of spending a fraction of that amount to just list those ingredients on the labels they already put on every food product?
According to its Web site, the GMA is looking out for consumers:
Making smart food choices for yourself and your family is critical to good health. GMA and its members are constantly working to provide consumers with helpful, easy-to-understand and essential information about grocery products and nutrition.
But they aren’t. National and California polls show overwhelming consumer support for GMO labeling. Yet in California, the GMA is clearly working to prevent consumers from being able to make “smart food choices.”
Not surprising, if you take a look at the GMA’s long history of being on the wrong side of consumer rights. Over the years the GMA has earned an anti-consumer reputation in Washington and state legislatures for opposing just about every food safety, fair trade, animal welfare, and consumer right-to-know legislation put forward by public interest groups. It has opposed food irradiation labels, nutrition labeling, country-of-origin labeling, the banning of hazardous chemicals such as BPA from food and food packaging, and of course, labels on genetically engineered food.
Here’s a short history of GMA’s anti-consumer positions:
1993-94: Opposed labels on dairy products derived from cows injected with Monsanto’s controversial Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH).
1998: Supported, along with Monsanto, the use of GMO seeds, food irradiation, and sewage sludge in organic agriculture, spawning a nationwide organic consumer backlash.
2001: Along with the chocolate industry, lobbied against legislation in the U.S. Congress that would have exposed slave-like child labor practices on cacao plantations in Africa.
2004: Helped defeat a California bill that would have set nutrition standards for school food.
And while the GMA Web site feigns concern for consumer health, its lobbyists have fought every proposed state bill over the last two decades to restrict the sale of junk food or soda in schools. GMA lobbyists have routinely banded together with restaurant associations to oppose the posting of calories on menu boards. With its vast lobbying resources and money to contribute to political campaigns, the GMA is often able to beat back nutrition or consumer right-to-know advocates.
Behind every organization working furiously, and spending liberally, to keep consumers in the dark, is a fierce determination to protect profits. The GMA and its members know that a nation of informed consumers and truthful labels on grocery store products would sound the death knell for “profit-at-any-cost” food manufacturers, grocers, and corporate agribusiness and biotech companies. These industries understand that if foods are properly labeled, millions of consumers will read the labels on so-called “conventional” and “natural” foods, note the presence of GMOs, complain to store managers, and in many cases seek out non-GMO and organic marketplace alternatives. This is why Monsanto has described labels on genetically engineered foods as equivalent to painting a “skull and crossbones” on them.
And of course, this is why the GMA has described California’s ballot initiative to label genetically engineered foods as a “serious, long-term threat to agricultural biotechnology” and their “single highest priority.” This despite mounting evidence, including a recent report by genetic engineers that includes a large body of peer-reviewed scientific and other authoritative evidence citing potential health hazards of GMOs.
It’s clear that the GMA will do everything in its power to defeat Prop 37, and deny consumers the right to know what’s in our food. But will it be enough? Maybe not this time. Prop 37 was initiated and continues to be propelled by a massive grassroots organization that has proven its ability to raise money, raise awareness and rally support. If it passes, the U.S. may finally catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to granting its citizens the basic right to know what’s in their food.