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Massachusetts demands to KNOW if it’s GMO.

September 24, 2013

By Tanya Almeida

Nothing is more fundamental to human health and survival than food. The clout of big agriculture and biotechnology companies in Washington has nearly seized the power of the people to decide what we eat.

We’re talking about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Currently, there are no laws that require GMO foods be labeled in the United States. The movement to demand GMO labeling has been steadily growing in momentum. Activists and consumers have taken matters into their own hands, and have started local and state initiatives to demand to know what’s in their food.

The MA Right to Know GMO group is part of a national coalition of food advocates that are seeking to pass GMO labeling laws. They believe it is an inherent right of the people to know if their foods contain GMO ingredients.

Martin Dagoberto of MA Right to Know says he wants to “opt out of the GMO food experiment.” Dagoberto received his degree in biotechnology from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) so he understands the magnitude of what is happening with GMOs. He said, “Basically we are guinea pigs in a global experiment.”

Dagoberto said, “I’m not anti- science. I’m just against inserting novel sequences into our bodies and our biosphere. We do not have the resolution of understanding of the genetic landscape to be inserting these things.”

Massachusetts currently has five labeling bills in legislative committee. Dagoberto and MA Right to know have been meeting with legislators weekly trying to get these bills pushed through. There appears to be a lot of support for the legislation. Back in June, supporters packed the state house in Boston to support GMO labeling laws. National polls indicate more than 90% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains GMO ingredients.

Barbara Link, the owner of Agraria Farms in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, has been a certified organic farmer since the 1960’s. To use the certified organic label on her crops, she must go through a time consuming process of paperwork, and follow the National Organic Plans rules and regulations. Once her strategy of exactly what and how she will plant is reviewed, her farm is then inspected. While organic farmers adhere to this lengthy process, farmers who use pesticides and GMOs do not have to go through any labeling process at all.

Link says Monsanto, the largest corporation of GMO crops and seeds, “is doing what every large multinational corporation seems to exhibit, dominating their brand, using intimidation, money and power to protect that brand and their bottom line whenever necessary.” She said, “It’s outrageous that they spend 500 million lobbying, have an aggressive patent division, require royalties on the use of their seeds, and yet cannot or have not funded an in depth and comprehensive longitudinal studies on health effects.”

Monsanto and other biotechnology companies say GMO crops help increase food production and ensure access to food by helping farmers to increase their yields. This is done through the use of herbicides, pesticides, and GMO seeds. They say these products are needed to feed the growing global population of 7 billion.

Dagoberto said, “It’s funny to note that in the United States, half of the food goes to waste, and yet, we still have people going hungry. People aren’t starving because there’s not enough food; they’re starving because they can’t afford it.”

The use of pesticides for GMO crops has created a new problem as well: pesticide resistant bugs, pests, and weeds. In 2010, The NY Times reported on farmers who were trying to cope with their roundup resistant weeds.

“How convenient that their creations of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers weren’t doing enough, so they create a transgenic mutant seed that now needs more applications of these other products and opens a whole new market of sales” Link said. “These mutations have now created superweeds and superpests. Who takes the responsibility for that?”

Dagoberto also warns that once these GMO strands are out there, “they’re self-propagating and can’t be recalled. They mix together, for instance sugar beets cross with chard. So now we have roundup resistant chard.”

Kristen Santos, a shopper at Whole Foods Markets said she specifically seeks out organic and non-GMO labels on the food she buys. “I think that if they’re going to put anything on the shelf that we’re going to consume, they need to be honest about what’s in it. That’s it, period. I don’t even know how there are any shades of gray. I really don’t get it. What is the problem?”

The companies producing GMO foods insist they are the same as their natural counterpart and there is no health risks involved with consumption. However, Link said, “I’m not certain that we really know (the long term risks). There has not been a well-funded, recognizable, unbiased, long term study of any sort.”

“However,” she said, “warnings from the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, suggest that there could be risks of infertility, immune problems, hormonal and adverse affects to the gastrointestinal system.”

Dagoberto agreed. “There have been zero long-term human clinical feeding studies. But, multiple animal feeding studies have linked consumption of GMOs to infertility, immune problems, various tumors and cancers and systemic organ issues.” In one peer-reviewed study involving GMO fed hamsters, by the third generation, the hamsters were sterile and had hair growing from their mouths.

Back in November of 2012, California brought the issue directly to voters. A majority of voters, 65%, were in favor of mandatory labeling according to polls. However, a campaign funded by the major biotech industries, such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Bayer, spent nearly $45 million dollars to convince California voters to vote no on the proposition, and it was voted down.

Other contributors who helped fund the ad campaign against mandatory labeling were common household names, such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Post, Hershey’s, Kellogg, Welches, Ocean Spray, Bumble Bee, and Sara Lee, to name a few.

Monsanto’s website states, “We oppose current initiatives to mandate labeling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks.” Consumers are being asked to take their word for it that GMOs are safe because they don’t want those supposedly harmless foods to be labeled.

That explanation isn’t sitting well with advocates. In March 2013, several towns in Maine passed local ordinances declaring their right to produce, sell, purchase and consume foods locally.

Also back In March 2013, President Obama signed an Agricultural Appropriations Bill with a provision that protects GMO seeds from litigation due to health problems. Opponents dubbed it the Monsanto Protection Act. If there are any health issues caused by GMO crops, the consumer cannot seek legal reparations.

Regarding the Monsanto Protection Act Link said, “This type of favoritism to big multinationals should be eviscerated. It’s simply outrageous and I hope it will not stand.”

Dagoberto agreed stating, “That’s why we need to take it into our own hands and take it to the state legislative level because the federal government has been completely compromised by corporate interests. It’s all about power and control. Genetic modification is a vehicle to own world’s seed stock. And its been expressed in Monsanto share holder’s meetings that the goal of Monsanto is to own 100% of the worlds seed stocks.”

When it comes to GMO labeling, Catherine Neto, a nutritional biologist and chemist who teaches organic chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said, “I definitely think the foods should be labeled, and then let the consumer decide. I don’t understand the opposition to it. If it concerns our safety people should be informed. I don’t think people should jump to the conclusion that GMOs are all bad. It’s simply that we need more information.”

We, as consumers, expect the USDA and FDA will ensure our food supply is safe. However, the USDA and FDA have been criticized for hiring former Monsanto employees. Michael Taylor was the Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto before the Obama Administration appointed him to the FDA. “There’s a real revolving door. That’s something the environmental community has always screamed and hollered about.” Link said.

Activists, consumers, and concerned citizens are not giving up on this issue. On April 8th, 2013, there was a sit in protest at the FDA Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition in College Park, Maryland. On May 25, 2013, there was a worldwide “March Against Monsanto” where protesters in 436 cities and 52 countries rallied against the biotech company. An estimated 2 million people joined the cause.

“We’re never going to beat them dollar for dollar but we’ve got the people power. People across the world are waking up to this.” Dagoberto said.

The United States and Canada are the only two industrialized nations that do not require GMO labeling. Countries that have banned GMOs include Japan, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, and Peru, while most other countries have laws to limit their use for certain crops or require labeling.
“People living in communist China and Russia have more food democracy and a greater ability to have their food protected.” Dagoberto said. “That says something about the state of our democracy.”

Link stated that, “In many ways the EU is way ahead of us in protecting health and the environment. Hopefully the US will pay attention and follow suit.”
Monsanto and other biotech companies have said labels are unnecessary because their products are “substantially equivalent” to the original organisms. In other words, they are basically the same. However, under US Patent law, in order to obtain a patent on their seeds, they must prove that it is NOT “substantially equivalent”. In other words, it’s not the same.

According to Link they can use the language to their advantage depending on the circumstance, for patent law it is not equivalent but for labeling, it is. “It’s very schizophrenic and they get away with it” Link said.

Dagoberto cited the same hypocrisy, “Interesting that when they go to the FDA on one side they say, it’s completely the same, we don’t need regulation or labeling. Then when they go to the Patent office they say, no this is completely new and we deserve a patent on it. Something’s not right here.”

So what can consumers do? How can we ensure we have the choice to decide what we put in our bodies? Link says that’s partly why she became a farmer. She wanted to know there was good nutrient dense food out there. When she sees at the current state of food she said, “I just despair.”
One way to get ensure you are not eating GMOs is to buy only certified organic foods, or as some have called it, “vote with your fork.” However, this has been called elitist because not everyone can afford to buy these typically more expensive foods.

Locally, we are coming together to find solutions. The Annual Connecting for Change Conference held in New Bedford, MA will be addressing many of these issues. Joan Gussow, professor, environmentalist, and best selling food author will be a keynote speaker addressing food issues in our country. Tanya Fields, labeled an “Eco-Warrior”, who is working to create urban farm space in NYC, will also be in attendance.

The MA Right to Know organization will also be holding a workshop at the conference. They will be addressing myths about GMO labeling, and helping to connect local citizens who are concerned about this issue.

Dagoberto said, “Connecting for change is all about connecting people, building our network, and empowering people. It can be frustrating when you’re the only person in your town talking about these things. It’s always good to know what’s happening on a larger scale and be able to connect and work together, so that’s the big focus of our workshop.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2013 7:00 am

    Hi Paula!

    Great post. Ok if I reblog?


  2. September 25, 2013 7:50 pm

    Hey Laurie,
    Of course. Brooke Syvertsen, Connecting for Change Manager, asked if we would post this piece.Hope all is well. Let’s catch up soon.

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