Larry Cooper describes he and his wife Tryna simply as “concerned citizens” — proud grandparents seven times over, owners of a meeting and event company. Their concern over the safety of American food became so great, however, that the couple placed themselves at the helm of a citizen-led movement in Colorado to require labeling products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.
“I didn’t even know what a GMO was two and a half years ago,” says Larry Cooper, co-chair for Right To Know Colorado, a campaign that’s been working to get a GMO labeling measure on this November’s statewide ballot since 2012. When a documentary keyed them into the pervasiveness of GMOs, Larry says he and Tryna were “completely shocked and couldn’t walk away.”
“I was like, ‘It’s not even possible our government wouldn’t already have things in place to protect us and have done long-term testing to validate whether this is safe or not.’ And no testing of that sort has been done. And I’m serving that to my little grandkids? That’s crazy,” Cooper says.
The notion is so crazy to so many people that this year 20 states have introduced 35 new GMO food-labeling bills, according to the Center for Food Safety. Colorado joins three other states — Oregon, Nevada and Washington — in gathering signatures for ballot initiatives. While Connecticut and Maine were first to place GMO labeling laws on the books, those won’t take effect until other states pass similar legislation. Vermont, however, took the plunge on May 8 and became the first state to create a mandatory GMO labeling law with no stipulations, set to take effect in July 2016.
While the Coopers have experience in politics and community organization — Larry has served as a city councilman and county commissioner and Tryna’s served on numerous nonprofit boards — much of the recent activism against GMOs in the U.S. has come from those who could most aptly be called impassioned: mothers, grandmothers and health advocates without backgrounds in politics or campaigning.
Each state has its own story, but one belief unites them all: Americans have a right to know what’s in their food.
But the biotech industry — GMO producers like Monsanto, hiding behind trade groups such as the Grocery Manufactures Association — is already on the defensive, taking Vermont to court over its newly penned law, and seeking federal legislation that would preempt states from requiring labeling of GMOs.
So can a patchwork collection of activist Davids defeat the money and influence of the food industry Goliath? Many feel that Vermont has thrown the stone.
The national scene
Estimates about the percentage of processed foods that contain GMOs vary, but most place the number between 75 percent and 90 percent, primarily from genetically engineered corn, soybean, alfalfa, canola, cotton and sugar beets.
Oregon was the first state to place a GMO labeling measure on their statewide ballot in 2002. The measure was ultimately defeated. Then, as now, opponents poured money into campaigns against the measure, $5.5 million to be exact, tying the record for the most money ever spent on an initiative campaign in Oregon. Proponents spent around $200,000.
It was a decade before another state attempted to mandate labeling of GMOs, with California stepping up to the plate in 2012. The measure failed narrowly, as did Washington state’s measure the next year — both, once again, fought tens of millions of dollars had by the food industry.
But 2013 saw some victories for labeling proponents. Connecticut and Maine passed genetically engineered food labeling laws within days of one another, but the laws contain “trigger clause” provisions, which prevent their laws from going into effect until certain conditions are met (namely that a number of surrounding states pass similar legislation). Ultimately, a trigger clause shields a state from the burden of legal fees when the food industry inevitably sues.
Now there’s trigger clause-free Vermont.
Despite the tiny state’s big victory, Vermont’s battle to secure its labeling law kicks into high gear as it prepares to challenge a lawsuit filed by four national food industry organizations. Leading the plaintiffs is the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which counts among its 300-plus members Monsanto, Dow and Coca-Cola.
Vermont was prepared for the backlash, so the law itself creates a $1.5 million legal defense fund, to be paid for with settlements won by the state.
But so far, nothing’s stopping the mighty Goliath.
“Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law — Act 120 — is a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a press release. The statement goes on to say that the Vermont labeling law violates the First Amendment by creating “burdensome new speech requirements” that will affect “eight out of every 10 foods at the grocery store.” As it did to combat labeling measures of the past, the food industry has argued that labeling would lead to higher food prices for consumers.
“First of all, with the patchwork of policies concern, there isn’t a patchwork. All we have is one law. Any idea that there would be a patchwork is speculative,” says Laura Murphy, associate director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at the Vermont Law School. Murphy and the clinic were instrumental in crafting the labeling law with their client, Vermont’s Public Interest Research Group.
“But when it comes to the price, there are a couple of studies that have been done on how much it costs to change the label. It’s really not that much,” if anything, says Murphy, who cites a 2013 study by independent consultant Kai Robertson for GMO-labeling campaign group Just Label It, which found “no evidence that changes to a food processor’s product labels affect the prices paid by shoppers.”
“This idea that mandatory labeling is somehow going to cause an increase in food prices just doesn’t hold water,” agrees Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety. “We know companies change food labeling all the time to reflect regulatory changes, consumer preferences or just to rebrand.”
As for violations of First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court has two tests that determine whether corporate speech has been infringed, and legal analysis memos from both the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic and food and drug law firm Emord & Associates agree that labeling laws should stand up to the tests.
“The way we look at the issue is when the government is requiring a company or person to disclose something, which is what the GMO label would be, then the government needs to have a legitimate interest,” explains Murphy. “So the labeling requirement needs to be reasonably related to a legitimate governmental interest. When we look at the issue, our analysis is that Vermont has several legiti mate interests in this bill and labeling would advance those interests.”
What federal oversight?
And while legal experts believe that Vermont’s law will hold up against Big Food’s lawsuit, that doesn’t mean the food industry will stop there.
“I think they’ve already started working on their other strategy, which is to get a law or policy at the federal level that meets their desires, which is voluntary labeling, allowing the word ‘natural’ to be used on any and everything,” says Andrea Stander, a registered lobbyist and director of Rural Vermont, a grassroots organization that supports family farms, local foods and environmentally conscious farming practices.
“Mike Pompeo introduced a bill that would essentially pull the rug out from under the states,” Stander says, referring to the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) this April — a measure backed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
“They are also going at [state labeling laws] from their well-entrenched tentacles in the regulatory scheme in the [U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration] to get them to come out with rule-making to give them what they want,” says Stander.
O’Neil of the Center for Food Safety agrees, saying that the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other opponents of labeling have made it clear, through massive funding against state labeling efforts, that they want to “keep Americans in the dark.”
“We are now seeing their ultimate wish come to fruition in the introduction of the DARK Act, which is what we’ve called it: Deny Americans the Right to Know Act,” O’Neil says of Pompeo’s act, adding that since companies can already voluntarily label whether or not their products contain GMOs, the federal act will do nothing to change that behavior.
Precious little federal oversight is in place to influence the behavior of GMO producers. The FDA regulates genetically engineered food through a coordinated network of federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA. The FDA’s policy on “Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties” hasn’t changed since it was introduced in May of 1992.
“Producers of new foods have an obligation under the act to ensure that the foods they offer consumers are safe and in compliance with applicable legal requirements,” reads the 22-year-old guideline. “Because in some cases the regulatory jurisdiction of a new food product, including those produced using innovative methods, may not be clear, producers can informally consult with FDA prior to marketing new foods to ensure that the safety and regulatory status of a new food is properly resolved.”
Ultimately, the FDA guideline granted genetically engineered foods “generally regarded as safe” status, and created no obligations for conducting long-term safety studies.
As a result, a quick search for studies on human health or environmental impacts from genetically engineered foods shows that most research comes from outside of the U.S., or American scientists publishing in foreign journals — equally unsurprising considering more than 64 countries restrict, label or outright ban GMOs.
“Monsanto is U.S. based and they are very powerful,” says Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research over the past seven years has focused on the impact glycosphate — the herbicide in Monsanto’s Roundup product — has on a number of diseases. “[Monsanto] funds all these agricultural universities where the research would logically happen and I think the people at the universities have their hands tied.”
As for labeling, Seneff is behind the movement. While she admits that science hasn’t proven whether GMOs themselves are toxic, she firmly believes the insecticides and herbicides used to treat genetically engineered crops are noxious.
“The GMO stuff is so original that we don’t really understand it. I think it’s shocking that we put this out in our food system without understanding it,” she says.
Colorado demands its right to know
For Larry and Tryna Cooper, their time leading Colorado’s labeling initiative has been “a heck of a learning experience,” according to Larry.
“My wife and I are donating most of our time to the campaign. My wife’s putting in 100 to 120 hours a week. I’m putting in between 70 and 80 a week,” he pauses to laugh. “I’m feeling that way today.”
The hours they commit are necessary. To secure the labeling measure, known as Initiative 48, on this November’s ballot, Right To Know Colorado must petition 86,105 signatures — that’s 5 percent of the total number of votes cast for the Secretary of State in the last election.
Larry Cooper says the campaign has collected more than half the needed signatures, nearly 50 thousand at this point, but their goal is 150,000 by the August 4 deadline to ensure enough valid signatures to place the measure on the ballot.
Things are going well, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing. After ballot language was approved and a legislative council set a title for the measure, the Grocery Manufacturers Association appealed and asked for a second hearing, appealing to the Supreme Court after the second state hearing still didn’t result in the GMA’s desired outcome.
“They brought forth two pages of their own [ballot measure] language that I did not understand, and I don’t think other voters in the state of Colorado would understand,” Larry says. “The Supreme Court ruled completely in our favor. But in the meantime, it cost us a number of months. And it cost us tens of thousands in legal fees.”
Cooper says Right To Know Colorado has received “amazing” support from local organic retailers, namely Natural Grocers, Whole Foods Market, Alfalfas and Lucky’s Market, who are all hosting petitioners in their Colorado stores.
“We’re not asking to ban GMOs, we’re simply asking that people have a right to know what’s in their food by a simple label,” says Cooper, “And then people could decide for themselves whether they want to purchase GMOs.”
Cooper adds that Colorado’s GMO labeling law would work with current labeling laws, regulations and regulating bodies, allowing the Department of Health to more easily implement GMO labeling.
The measure won’t allow private citizens to sue grocery stores, restaurants or other food sellers for serving GMO food.
“In other words, we put this back to the producer and manufacturer, not to local restaurants or local grocers that may or may not know their products contain GMOs,” says Cooper. “It’s up to the manufacturer to disclose that information.”
There will be no trigger clause in Colorado’s legislation if it comes to pass in November, and Cooper says he doesn’t expect the food industry to sue Colorado, “but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
Beyond freedom of choice, Cooper says he believes that GMO labeling will help bolster the economy.
“We’re an agricultural state,” Cooper says of Colorado. “All major countries outside of the U.S. have banned GMOs or require labeling, including China and Russia. The U.S. recently sent 640 million pounds of corn to China and it was rejected because it tested as being GMO. So what did it cost? What if the Colorado farmers decided to grow non- GMO corn? It would be a huge bonus to our economy and to our farm community to provide those as exports to other countries.”