New battleground in fight over genetically engineered food labeling

By Betsy Herbert

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Posted: 10/17/13, 12:00 AM PDT

Even though Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, was defeated in November's statewide election, a nationwide movement forges ahead to require labeling of genetically engineered food.

According to the Center for Food Safety, nearly half of all U.S. states have introduced bills requiring labeling or prohibiting GE foods.

GE foods are grown from seed that has had genes from other species inserted into their genetic codes. This type of genetically modified organism produces a genetic code that could not occur in nature. There is growing controversy about the health and environmental impacts of these foods, which are ostensibly produced to increase crop yields and drought resistance. Labeling GE food would allow consumers to know what's in a food product before they buy it.

The current battleground for GE food labeling is the state of Washington, where ballot initiative I-522 goes before voters Nov. 5. Though proponents of I-522 currently have a slight edge in the polls, Ronnie Cummins, director of National Organic Consumers Association, fears Monsanto and other deep-pocket opponents of GE food labeling will greatly outspend supporters on last-minute advertisements. That same strategy worked to defeat Proposition 37 in California.

Miguel Robles, co-founder of San Francisco-based California BioSafety Alliance, worked hard to educate Spanish-speaking communities in California in support of Proposition 37. Though the measure failed, Robles was encouraged to learn that 61 percent of Latino voters in California supported it.

"As Latinos, we have a very strong connection with soil, food, and corn," he said.

On Sept. 29, California BioSafety Alliance launched a new campaign to get 1 million signatures in support of the group's Non-GMO Tortilla Campaign. "We'll be seeking support of our Latino elected officials. We'll ask them if they think their children should be eating tortillas made from GE corn," Robles said.

Labeling of GE foods is now required by more than 50 countries and the European Union, but has been vehemently opposed by chemical companies, which market GE seed and the pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals that GE food depends upon.

Mexico, the genetic home of maize, has thousands of varieties of indigenous corn. As Mexico's corn seed has been increasingly imported from the U.S., studies have shown that GE corn contaminates native varieties. In Mexico, farmers, citizens, scientists and community groups have filed class-action lawsuits to prohibit the importation of GE corn.

Last week, a Mexican federal judge issued a ban on the importation and planting of GE corn in Mexico until these pending lawsuits can be heard. Judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo V., Twelfth Federal District Court for Civil Matters of Mexico City, based his decision on "the risk of imminent harm to the environment," according to Accion Colectiva, a group of plaintiffs.

A global protest, known as March Against Monsanto, occurred in dozens of countries May 26 to voice opposition to GE foods. Despite little media coverage, a second round of global protests took place on Oct. 12. In Santa Cruz, some 100 protesters gathered around the Town Clock to hear Ocean Robbins, CEO of the national Food Revolution Network.

Robbins urged the public to participate in an online GMO Mini-Summit ( Oct. 25-27 to get informed about GE issues. The summit, hosted by food movement leaders Jeffrey Smith and John Robbins, will feature more than 20 speakers.