Monsanto and friends vs. the rest of us

Can threats of lawsuits and millions in political contributions stop the surging GMO-labeling movement?

Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

When it comes to genetically modified organisms, more commonly known as GMOs, the U.S. is pretty far behind the rest of the world, but not in every category. We grow and eat more of these genetically engineered foods than anyone else. We’re easily number one. So much so that there’s really no other country in our rearview mirror. Nearly 80 percent of the global market for GMOs is in the U.S.

So why is it that we are so far ahead of everyone else in the consumption of GMOs? The answer is likely because we are so far behind everyone else in the regulation of GMOs. Or put another way: We wouldn’t be eating so many products containing genetically engineered ingredients if we knew we were eating them. At least that’s proven to be true for most of the rest of the world where GMO labeling is the law.

When consumers in places as diverse as Sri Lanka, Bulgaria, Australia, Russia, Europe, Japan, China and soon India are informed that a product contains GMOs, the research tells us that they tend to stop buying it in favor of products containing more traditionally grown, non-GMO alternatives.

That’s what has apparently happened in nearly all of the 40-plus countries that have already banned GMOs outright or require products containing them to be labeled. Even in countries where growing GMOs is legal, but labeling is required, nearly all crops are now non-GMO because there simply isn’t a market for those that have been genetically engineered.

It’s hard to believe that places like China, India and Russia are already giving their citizens the opportunity to know and choose what they are putting into their bodies when it comes to GMOs, and the U.S. isn’t. After all, these countries are better known for lead-paint toys, feces-contaminated drinking water and nuclear fallout than consumer protectionism.

It appears that the U.S. is winning the GMO-eating contest because it is the only country that hasn’t dropped out of the competition, but that could be changing.

As previously reported by Boulder Weekly (“Could consumer choice spell the end for GMOs?” Boulderganic, summer edition, UuSWE) several states are currently trying to force the food industry to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients, a move that for a variety of reasons could result in GMOs being labeled nationally.

Vermont was the first state to try for a labeling law, but its elected leaders backed down out of fear of a threatened Monsanto and friends lawsuit. Likewise, Connecticut created a GMO labeling bill that flew through its House Environmental Committee, receiving bipartisan support with a 23 to 6 vote, but as often happens when industry lobbyists get involved, the bill never came up for a vote in the House before the session concluded last May. The sponsors of the bill have pledged to try again later this year. But it is what is happening in California that has truly captured the attention of everyone on both sides of the GMO divide.

California has a ballot initiative that will be voted on this November that could well be the most substantial attempt yet to force GMO labeling. That’s because it was petitioned onto the ballot. By gathering nearly a million signatures, proponents of the labeling initiative were able to bypass the state legislature, which is awash in bio-ag money and industry lobbyists, and take their proposed new labeling law directly to the people for a vote.

Based on a recent national poll conducted by Mellman Group, the California initiative should pass easily, as 91 percent of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, want GMO labeling. But not so fast. This is the U.S., after all, and that means that no matter how popular something is, wealthy corporations still have the ability to influence a handful of politicians into doing what the company wants, not what a pesky few hundred million ordinary citizens want. For the bio-ag industry, stopping the California GMO labeling initiative is a matter of life and death, corporately speaking.

California is no ordinary state. It has 38 million people and consumes 12 percent of all the food products in the U.S. Printing labels on some products while not labeling others is likely to be an expensive proposition for the likes of Kraft, General Mills and the other major food products producers. Besides, if Californians get their labels, other states will quickly follow suit. And since GMO labeling is so popular with the public, what would keep a grocery store chain from setting up a distributorship in the Golden State and then shipping out GMO-labeled foods to its stores in other states in order to appeal to health-conscious shoppers? To put it bluntly, if the California initiative passes, it is quite likely that the entire nation will be getting GMO labeling as a result.

That’s why Monsanto and its pals are sparing no expense to protect themselves from informed consumers. Under an umbrella organization known as “STOP the costly food labeling proposition,” more than 55 groups representing all things pro- GMO — biochemical organizations to grocery store trade groups to the Farm Bureau — have banded together to scare California voters into defeating the labeling initiative. The groups are spending millions of dollars to tell voters that food prices will double if the initiative passes and that poor people will go hungry if voters don’t allow products to secretly contain GMOs. They don’t say it quite that way, but that’s their story.

Given that better than 90 percent of voters started out wanting GMO labeling, it seems a tall order to get a majority to change their minds based on sound bites and scare tactics, but stranger things have happened. But Monsanto and company aren’t taking any chances: They have already started implementing plan B, just in case California voters can’t be swayed.

Mother Jones recently reported that, according to Food & Water Watch, between 1999 and 2009 the ag-biotech industry spent $547.5 million in campaign donations and lobbying efforts. It employed “more than 100 lobbying firms in 2010 alone, FWW reports, in addition to their own in-house lobbying teams.” According to the magazine, Monsanto is helping to lead the way by dropping $1.4 million on lobbying in just the first three months of this year after spending $6.3 million to influence politicians in the previous 12 months. It may turn out to be money well spent.

In June, as the Senate was preparing to vote on its version of the farm bill, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, tried to attach an amendment to the bill. Having seen his home state pull back from GMO labeling out of fear of being sued by some of America’s most powerful corporations, Sanders created his amendment to allow individual states to require GMO labeling. If the opinions and desires of their constituents mattered, senators from both parties should have been eager to add the Sanders Amendment to the bill, but they weren’t. It seems a big industry’s big money swept away any chance of passage, and the amendment went down in a 73-to-26 landslide. But there’s still California, right? Maybe.

The bio-ag industry’s influence in the U.S. Capitol could spell a long delay or even outright defeat for GMO labeling regardless of the outcome in California. Should the initiative pass, Monsanto and its ilk can still attempt to thwart the public’s will because of the defeated Sanders amendment. The corporations will likely argue that California has no right to require any more stringent labeling than that required by the Food and Drug Administration. Sanders’ amendment would have neutered such an argument.

It’s too early to say how this clash between corporate political influence and voter empowerment is going to turn out. But it seems pretty evident that Monsanto and its peers will not be able to keep the U.S. population from enjoying the same right to choose what it eats as the rest of the world for much longer.

Americans just hate being second rate to the Bulgarias of the world and longing for the same consumer freedoms as China and Russia.