Last November, voters in California narrowly defeated Proposition 37, a law that would have required labeling of genetically modified foods (GMOs). Thanks in large part to a deceptive advertising campaign funded by almost $50 million in contributions from biotechnology and big food companies, the measure lost by a vote of 53 to 47.
What is a GMO Anyway?
Pro-Prop. 37 forces vowed to continue the fight, though, and it seems they've discovered that there's power in numbers. Environmental Working Group (EWG), the nonprofit behind the popular "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean 15" lists of produce with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residues, and Organic Voices Action Fund, which organized the pro-labeling Just Label It campaign, have just announced that they're joining forces to push the issue of GMO labeling beyond just the organic food aisle.
The new campaign's stated mission is to "advocate for GMO labeling and to advance support for organic foods," with its major goals focusing on clarifying what organic is—and what it isn't—to help consumers better understand the benefits of supporting organic farming and why GMO labeling is needed.
"Clearly, some consumers recognize that certified organic is the only guarantee that food is produced without genetically engineered ingredients and pesticides," said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at EWG, on a conference call announcing the initiative. But, he added, a lot of consumers are confused by the proliferation of "natural" labeling, which misleads people into believing that they're getting a quasi-organic product for a cheaper price than a similar product that's been certified organic. That isn't the case, of course, because "natural" is a completely undefined label, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows its use on anything from whole fruits to ultraprocessed TV dinners that are loaded with GMOs.
The Truth About Natural Foods
"It's important for the organic industry that we continue to remind consumers that only organic provides the guarantee that foods are produced without genetically engineered ingredients, pesticides, and antibiotics," said Gary Hirschberg, Stonyfield Farm chairman and the Organic Voices' board chair. "We're also trying to underscore that 'organic' has been a hard-won standard by people who spend an awful lot of money making sure we're complying with the law."
Not only does that mislead consumers, said Ken Cook, president of EWG, but it also weakens demand for organic food, which in turn leads to less demand for organic agriculture. As a result, our land, air, and water continue to be poisoned with pesticides linked to Parkinson's disease, certain forms of cancer, and hormone disruption.
And consumers are starting to wake up to food company tricks. Half a dozen lawsuits have been filed over the past few years against companies using the term "natural" on products that contain GMOs, though none of the plaintiffs has been successful yet. And, said Faber, the costly fight in California didn't do Big Food any PR favors with the public. Advocacy groups like the Organic Consumers Association ran aggressive social media campaigns revealing which multinational companies own which organic brands, and advocated for boycotts of those brands. "Food companies don't want to look like they're trying to hide something from their customers," he said, "and they're starting to realize that the fight [against GMO labeling] is worse than the label."
Is Your Grocery Store Lying to You?
"Large food companies realize that being on record as being against giving people more information about what they are eating, that's not exactly a warm and fuzzy brand proposition," Hirschberg added.
In fact, in early January, a closed-door meeting was held between food companies, retailers, and the FDA about the issue of GMO labeling. No details about the meeting have been released, but it does make clear the fact that Big Food companies are starting to take the issue seriously.
And they should. Legislation that would require some form of GMO labeling, similar to California's Prop 37, is now moving its way through 20 different state legislatures, which would become a regulatory nightmare for Big Food companies if they become forced to navigate a patchwork of state laws, says Faber.
The Organic Views campaign directors didn't release any details about how they plan to go about educating the public, only to say that the campaign will involve paid advertisements, social media, and political lobbying. The goal, said Hirschberg, isn't to get a new law passed but to force the FDA to do what is already in its power to do—require labeling for GMOs just as it has for country of origin and whether your orange juice is fresh or from concentrate.
• Do your own lobbying. Until the new campaign develops more of an online presence, you can still go to JustLabelIt.org and send a message to the FDA and to Congress demanding that GMOs be labeled and that you be provided the chance to exercise choice about what you feed your family.
• Demand GMO-free foods. Call the companies that make your favorite foods and ask if their foods are free of genetically modified ingredients, and force them to respond to consumer pressure.
• Demand organic. The more you support organic in your own life, the more readily available organic foods will be for everyone else.