1. We are what we eat. If we agree with this classical imperative of philosophy, Know Yourself, then to know ourselves we must also know our food.
This philosophical proposition turns out to have immediate physical and political applications. We live and eat in the time of industrial agriculture. This agriculture is 100% dependent on cheap fossil fuels and the technology these fuels enable, from machines to genetic engineering. It’s organized by immense, unaccountable corporations and governments of uncanny size and bureaucratic complexity. In this agricultural time we’ve become dangerously alienated from the wellsprings of our physical health and the vitality of our democracy. Is it any wonder our politics have become a cesspool, our real economy a shambles, and ourselves, more and more, physically sick?
It’s not always easy to know how to act against this enervating and imprisoning trend. But at least where it comes to our food the answer is clear, our path wide open before us. We must grow, process, and distribute our own food, as individuals, families, communities, and regions. We must get to know our local farmers and processors, becoming social and cultural partners in food production. We must relocalize food production and distribution as much as possible. This means the bulk of it, since by nature food markets are predominantly local/regional. We must learn all we can about what we eat.
It’s this last point I’ll be discussing here. The transparency of our food system and our right to know what’s in our food are under assault as never before. The continued ability of the corporate food system to represent itself as legitimate depends on its ability to suppress knowledge of how it’s poisoning our food. It does this in many ways. It controls research institutions and funding so that true information isn’t gathered in the first place. It censors and represses the real information that does exist. It shouts down the truth where this does come to light. It slanders truth-tellers and whistleblowers. It drowns all real information in the overwhelming noise of the media propaganda machine. Throughout it incessantly lies.
One of its favorite methods is to keep secret from us information about what’s really in our food. The corporate food system (as well as with tobacco, drugs, body care goods, etc.) has always resisted every kind of truthful labeling. Sodium content, sugar content, fat content, the presence of additives, the dangers of particular additives, the provenance of ingredients – these have all been the scenes of fierce battles between corporate secrecy and our right to know what’s in OUR food. Corporations and government have also sought to censor truthful labels touting the absence of dubious ingredients like GMOs and bovine growth hormone.
Today we’re embroiled in the most ferocious labeling battle of all, the fight to require that corporations be honest about the GMOs they force into our food. This labeling fight is different from previous ones. Prior labels dealt either with natural ingredients which may occur to excess, like sugar or salt, or ad hoc additives like aspartame. The system could handle these issues without threatening the structural integrity of corporate food itself.
But GMOs as a genre are different. Corporate agriculture is under increasing pressure from its own limitations, vulnerabilities, and contradictions, and from rival sectors like organic and local food. It looks to the GMO genre as a way to enforce itself permanently upon all agriculture through a combination of seed sector monopoly, vertical integration, market power over the production and distribution chains, debt indenture of farmers, and the genetic contamination of all other crops, bringing all food production under its iron curtain of intellectual property, to be enforced by state and private violence. Only in this way shall corporate agriculture be able to perpetuate itself. GMOs comprise its one and only hope for the future.
But this plan for total control will take time. In the meantime the GMO cartel must assert itself in the regular consumer marketplace. Here alternatives do still exist. If enough people choose these alternatives, the GMO curtain can be shredded and corporate control can be broken. Therefore GMOs, for all their market share and illusion of invincibility, are highly vulnerable. They could go down to destruction even more quickly than they rose to dominion.
This is why the cartel is so afraid of GMO labeling and has cast such huge gouts of money into the fight. Its fears are the same as the great hopes of many labeling advocates: As we the people people learn more about our food, we’ll learn enough about ourselves as parts of a food ecosystem and as citizens of a democracy to shun and revile GMOs. Know Yourself has always been the great fear of every sort of tyrant, and so today’s tyrants fear this self-knowledge and the actions that will follow from it.
2. All over America a great and diverse movement is fighting for honesty and truth in our food system. Citizens, consumers, moms and dads, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, businessmen, health care professionals, teachers, scientists, environmentalists, civil society activists, transparency and civil liberties advocates, politicians, and everyone who cares about what we eat. We fight to make corporate food be honest in a simple, straightforward, common sense way: They must tell us where they’re forcing GMOs into our food.
This information is our right and property as consumers and as citizens of democracy. Knowing this information is our obligation as parents, farmers, food sector workers, and as anyone who holds political views. Fighting for it is our duty as citizens. It’s common sense, and it’s about reclaiming control from the corporations and restoring it to where it belongs, in the hands of we the people. While GMO labeling won’t accomplish the liberation of our food and the restoration of democracy all by itself, it’ll be a great positive step.
Labeling will greatly simplify our work to learn about our food and teach others about it. It’ll serve as an example enshrining our democratic right to transparency in a time where the trend everywhere is toward ever greater government and corporate secrecy. It’ll be a victory for honesty, common sense, and simple human decency. The fight itself, and the subsequent work of ensuring the policy is faithfully enacted, will provide an excellent experience of bottom-up participation politics. It’s an opportunity to begin organizing the permanent grassroots formations we need in order to work toward the ultimate, necessary goal of the complete abolition of GMOs.
We’re no longer willing to be the unconsenting, ignorant guinea pigs in history’s most extreme feeding experiment, an experiment run by unaccountable, antidemocratic elites for power and profit. We label everything else. Sixty-four countries and counting label GMOs. It would cost nothing. There’s no argument against it. How long shall we remain a (genetically modified) banana republic? Everyone who cares about food, and democracy, should support the labeling imperative.
3. The right to know is basically an issue of common sense and core democratic rights. Any opposition to it boils down to a dispute between transparency and shame-faced secrecy. It demonstrates how opponents are forced to hide their actions and spread lies. They desperately want to avoid public debate altogether by obscuring information and denying the public’s right to know what’s in our food. This information is a democratic right and a civil liberty, the same as freedom of speech. We must rend this curtain of obscurantism.
It’s also a bedrock premise of consumerism and of the “free market” philosophy. How could anyone legitimately oppose it? GMO labeling is a handy litmus test to distinguish real supporters of consumer choice from those who actually hold these in contempt. The arguments against labeling all boil down to, “the people are too stupid to understand such labels”. But the fact is the people understand GMO labels perfectly well. We’ll make our own decisions, based on our self-education including availing ourselves of ALL the information, not just the corporate-dictated version which is riddled with lies, shrouded in secrecy, and propagated with an elitist sneer.
The vitality which comes from healthy eating goes beyond our physical bodies to encompass the whole human experience. But it all starts with food. GMO secrecy is an enemy of this humanist and democratic cuisine. Corporations and governments have tried to evade consumer preferences based on long-standing culture and tradition though this information blackout. They simply hide the fact of this unnatural infiltration of our food. This blackout in itself proves the system’s bad faith and its anti-democratic, anti-health, anti-choice, anti-freedom attitude. GMO labeling, by contrast, will help us sustain our food culture and use our knowledge to protect and enhance our health.
Morally, we don’t need to argue this at all. Our information is our right and prerogative. It’s our property. Our demand for our democracy, for our freedom, justifies itself. In the same way, the shame-faced secrecy of corporations and governments speaks for itself. The labeling movement wants to take back what’s ours and force government to do what’s supposed to be its job.
4. The right to know isn’t just about a democratic principle. We have a practical need as we learn about all aspects of the corporate food system. We’re learning about how food is grown, the massive poisons used, the way this depletes and poisons our soil and water. We’re learning about the way this affects the safety and nutritional quality of our food. We’re learning about how corporate practices harm critically important pollinators and other beneficial species. We’re learning about its other malign environmental effects, how it damages and destroys whole ecosystems. We’re learning how all these things are bound together, and how our health and the future of our food depend upon preserving healthy soils, water, air, wild plant stocks, and the encompassing ecology. We’re learning how GMOs are corroding and destroying all of this, everything which is so critical for the future of humanity.
We’re learning about the economic destruction of American farming, the plight of indebted farmers and impoverished workers, the gutting of rural economies, the corruption of politics at every level, the grotesque political, economic, agricultural, and environmental distortions which stem from a planned agricultural economy based on corporate welfare.
We’re self-educating about GMOs. We know they’re unnecessary, antiquated products. They’re shoddy products that don’t work. They serve no purpose, but only tremendously aggravate the general bottleneck which is stifling agricultural innovation. Since the 1980s corporations have seized control of almost all public breeding resources. The incestuously narrow range of the corporate interest (how to organize agriculture to require ever more poison) has sucked up almost all of the funding, while the vast range of agroecological knowledge and practice, a realm of study, creativity, and innovation which can benefit all of humanity, has gone starving.
GMOs don’t yield more than conventional or organic crops, add no benefits, require vastly greater use of herbicides and insecticides, and generate poison-resistant superweeds and superbugs. They inevitably contaminate all organic and conventional crops, as well as the wild relatives and ancestors of these crops. They escalate an economic model which forces agriculture to relinquish its necessary biodiversity and strait-jacket itself within a very narrow range of crop genetics. At the same time they contaminate the natural biodiversity, threatening to wipe it out. Although not yet commercialized, the Terminator seed technology exists and threatens to sterilize any crop or wild plant, with incalculable but potentially catastrophic consequences.
GMOs have dire health effects on humans and livestock. The ever-expanding body of independent studies links GMOs and their companion herbicide glyphosate with the surge, since the mid-1990s, of allergies; autoimmune diseases like asthma, autism, Crohn’s, gut inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, and celiac disease; infertility, miscarriages, birth defects, developmental diseases, other diseases from hormonal disruption; circulatory diseases; organ toxicity in the liver, kidneys, lymph nodes, and brain, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; cancers such as leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cancers of the prostate and breast.
We’ve been learning about which foods are secretly made with GMOs. To extend this information to everyone, we need to rend this iron curtain of secrecy and put clear, simple, honest labels on these foods.
5. We’re doing our part as citizens of a democracy. We’re living up to our responsibility. Labeling our food to strip away the system’s secrecy shall be a major step in our educational and democratic process.
This isn’t any kind of government “interference” in the market, the way some detractors claim. This is the citizenry forcing the government to do something against its will. GMO labeling is a minor tweak which would put an end to one of the system’s worst abuses, the government-enabled secrecy and deception about what’s in our food.
As things are, we have the government helping to force GMOs upon us without our knowledge, against our will, rendering us unconsenting, uninformed guinea pigs in history’s most monumental feeding experiment. What’s more, the government’s corporate welfare system, really a planned economy for agriculture, built industrial agriculture in the first place. Government regulation actively constructs and sustains the commodified food economy. So it’s wrong to view this minor tweak as some escalation of regulation.
While it would be great to get the incompetent and malicious federal government out of our naturally local/regional food system, given the current framework of a corporate welfare planned economy we can only seek this reform at the moment. It doesn’t add to government action, but takes part of what government’s already doing and turns it from bad to good.
Also, government-enforced secrecy, where consumer knowledge is the natural default, is a market barrier set up by the government in favor of corporate food and against organic, direct retail, and local farmers and processors. GMO labeling would make the government remove this barrier, helping to free up real agricultural and processing creativity, which are currently cramped within the system’s oligopoly bottleneck. Of course labeling won’t fix this problem by itself, but it’s a good step.
Anyone who believes in democracy and freedom mustn’t disparage the people’s fight to seize one of our fundamental rights, our right to system transparency, especially where it comes to our food.
6. Those who oppose labeling have nothing but lies and bogus “arguments”, which they regurgitate over and over. All the propaganda of these elitists boils down to, “We’re keeping this secret from you for your own good. You’re too stupid and immature to know what’s in your food. You’re better off not knowing. Leave it in the hands of your betters.”
Let’s shoot down the most common lies.
*”Labeling is too complicated.”
GMO labeling does nothing but add one simple piece of information to the labels that already exist. Typical proposals like that of I-522 in Washington don’t require a new nutritional label where there’s not already a label there. So the GMO label doesn’t add something completely new, but just improves upon the labels that already exist.
*”The labeling proposal has too many exemptions.”
Typical labeling propositions are written to be in accord with the standards of the over sixty countries which already label GMO products. No one’s trying to make a state’s policy run way out ahead of the world standard. We’re only trying to catch up to that standard. (We leave the extreme experiments to the GMO supporters, those who are forcing us all to be guinea pigs in a massive secret feeding experiment.)
That fraudulent argument contradicts this opposite one:
*”Labeling will hurt the state’s farmers.”
Now suddenly there’s not enough exemptions! In fact, most farmers support labeling. Organic and direct retail farmers support it because it removes one of the market barriers against them, the fact that their industrial competition can be secretive about its inferior product quality. Farmers in general see labeling as a step toward breaking corporate control of agriculture and restoring control to farmers and consumers.
This overwhelming preponderance of support is summed up by the fact that hundreds of Washington farmers, ranchers, orchardists, beekeepers, and fishermen formally support and endorse I-522, while no one but out-of-state corporations and industry groups oppose it.
*”Enforcement is too severe.”
Typical policies include long grace periods to phase in the labels, and small producers would get only a warning for a first offense. The goal of GMO labeling is not to raise money for anyone, in government or out, but to make truthful information available. We hope never to assess a cent in fines.
*”It’ll cost shoppers more.”
This is the opposition’s Big Lie. In fact labeling would cost shoppers nothing. Manufacturers are constantly changing their packaging. Just look at how many versions of a box of Corn Flakes exist at any given time! Does the price go up every time the box changes? Adding one detail to the existing packaging clearly adds nothing to the cost.
*”This is funded by out-of-staters.”
Every labeling campaign to date has been funded overwhelmingly by small, in-state donations. I-522, for example, has raised $6.3 million from over 7000 individual donors. The vast majority of donations have been for $25 or less. On the contrary, it’s the opposition which is always completely from outside the community. That stands to reason, since the opposition is nothing but big multinational corporations and their flunkeys. As of October 8th, the opposition to I-522 had amassed $17.2 million, ALL of it from big corporate contributors. The average expenditure was $1.5 million.
*”Labeling is something forced upon us.”
On the contrary, GMOs have been forced upon us by seed monopolies, commodifiers, manufacturers, retailers, and governments. This has been done in secret. We the people never asked for or wanted GMOs, and we’re now acting in self-defense.
*”Labeling will hurt the economy.”
On the contrary, what hurts the food economy is the growing distrust of the corporate food system. For a state’s economy to embrace transparency would be a refreshing, reinvigorating change. It would signal to farmers and consumers everywhere that a state has a political and economic culture which cared about their concerns. In the long run this can only strengthen an economy. Meanwhile, the kind of ulterior motives and surrender to fear which wants to double down on shame-faced secrecy and lies can only hurt an economy. We see everywhere in America today the way corporate control is gutting all productivity and smothering all creative potential. Imagine what breaking this control would accomplish.
7. It’s obvious why big corporations like Monsanto and General Mills and their front groups like the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA) and the Farm Bureau so rabidly oppose the people’s right to know. GMO labeling is a threat to their profits and control of our food and, through our food, us. That’s why Monsanto and its colleagues spent $46 million in California in 2012 and this year have spent over $17 million to date in Washington. The goal of all this spending is to spread lies and misinformation, drown out democracy and science, and in general present a facade of omnipotence. All this fraudulent sound and fury is meant to intimidate and demoralize voters to the point that enough of them believe the lies and vote against their own right to know and their own health. Indeed this was the result in California.
But we mustn’t conclude from this that the people united have any doubt about their right to know. So far the corporate front has been able to prey on the disorganization of an atomized electorate. But the very brazenness of the lies and the corporations’ elitist pretensions, in addition to the intrinsic merit of the right to know, is helping we the people with our drive to educate and organize. Our efforts will become ever more coordinated, disciplined, and relentless. We the people are becoming united in fighting for our right to know, and beyond that toward the abolition of GMOs. Meanwhile the very loudness of the lies, intended all too clearly to cover up for how absurdly flimsy those lies are, will help motivate the people against them.
Globally, humanity rejects GMOs. We’ve always rejected GMOs on the rational grounds of the Need, Alternative, and Precautionary Principles. We know we don’t need them in the first place, we have much better and less expensive alternatives, we don’t know if they’re safe, on the contrary there’s growing evidence that they’re not safe, and that they stand for the escalation of a corporate food system already proven to fail according to its own promises.
That’s why all around the world, in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe, we see this great pan-human movement against corporate control of our food. While things have gotten off to a slow start in America, the labeling movement is a clear signal that we’ll no longer sit still in the dark as obedient guinea pigs. We’re joining the global movement for democracy and justice. In some parts we may still be in a minority, because the forces of corporate control and those who have surrendered to them, themselves a tiny minority on earth, have concentrated there. But we’re part of the earth’s great majority, and we fight for humanity as humanity fights for us.
We have to take any temporary setback, like that in California in 2012, as an example of this anti-democratic, corporate cultural concentration. This is the bottleneck we have to break open, to liberate every kind of creative force.
In that case, the answer isn’t to become disheartened and doubt democracy. The answer is MORE democracy, more assertive practice of it, more publicity for it. We have to keep fighting, but become more grassroots, more soil-up, less willing to accept any decree from above. We have to form permanent organizations along these lines to carry on the fight for everything from labeling, the first step, to full abolition, the necessary end goal.
GMOs have already lost all the reality-based battles, and still maintain their political and existential position solely through Might Makes Right. Only massive corporate welfare, media lies, and government force keep them in existence at all. The earth already rejects them, and the people everywhere are trying to reject them. The immediate task of the grassroots organizations, in addition to organizing labeling campaigns and other actions, is to counter any demoralizing effect of the propaganda (people don’t believe it, but are numbed into passivity by the volume and omnipresence of it) by giving the facts and moral truths of GMOs. The more the people understand, not just in a vague way but with precision and clarity, the failure and evils of GMOs, and how simple and pragmatic is the agroecological alternative for truly feeding the world and redeeming the environment, the more self-confident we’ll become about taking action to reject GMOs and the corporate system itself.
8. To achieve any of the things I discuss here today, a GMO labeling policy has to be a well-designed policy. Above all, a basic law for the movement must be that we reject and oppose any federal policy which would pre-empt stronger state policy. We can also take it as a litmus test that anyone who supports pre-emption is an enemy or turncoat, someone opposed to the right to know. Since the US government is the most aggressively pro-GMO organization on earth, short of the GMO cartel itself, we can take it for granted that any federal policy will be a sham whose only real teeth will be its pre-emption of real labeling exercised at the state level. The FDA in particular, in whose hands federal labeling authority would repose, has never been anything but a Monsanto flunkey. It was the FDA which originally promulgated the foundation lie of GMO commercialization, that GMOs are “substantially equivalent” to real crops and therefore don’t need to be safety tested. To this day the FDA has never once either tested or required a test for a single GMO. No one who truly believes in the people’s right to know would trust this Monsanto-adjunct bureaucracy to do anything but obscure the truth.
In this connection, it’s always worth remembering that food production and distribution are naturally and logically local/regional. It follows that no centralized government has either the competence or the legitimacy to impose its power over that of governing bodies closer to food’s natural center of gravity. This is especially important when we consider the community food movement rising to challenge industrial agriculture. These are two completely different sectors, and the former cannot legitimately be regulated according to policy geared to the benefit of the latter. The same is true of our challenge to Big Ag, the right to know movement.
So what’s the bare minimum for a labeling policy? It must require labels for processed foods, raw agricultural commodities like corn and soybeans, any genetically engineered animals like the GE salmon whose FDA approval seems imminent, and GM seeds. These are labeled according to the global standard.
Labels for meat and dairy raised on GM feed is a more tricky question. Globally these usually aren’t labeled, and like I said today’s propositions aren’t trying to drive a particular state out ahead of the rest of the world.
Still, the right to know encompasses these as well, especially since independent scientific studies have proven that GM material and such related material as glyphosate residues persist in the flesh of animals who feed on GMOs. We need to aspire to full labeling, including of meat and dairy.
So while current propositions are crafted in accord with the world standard and therefore exclude meat and dairy, these will be the next step, once labeling has proven its economic, political, and health benefits in action. Like GMO labeling for processed foods and GE salmon, sweet corn, apples, etc., so the labeling of GM-fed factory farm meat and dairy will prove to be an economic boon for the region which adopts it as part of a general economic renewal based on creative new actions and the rejection of calcified, cramped old ones like the industrial agricultural model.
As I said earlier, we can’t view GMO labeling as a panacea, or as sufficient in itself. Even if the voters pass a good policy which is then faithfully carried out in practice, labeling will still be a supplement to affirmative movement-building. It’ll be most effective where it’s part of rebuilding community food systems and building the Food Sovereignty consciousness.
Right to know is a useful tool for breaking free of corporate agriculture. But it’ll have to be systematically used as such a tool, not treated as a panacea which will magically dispel Monsanto. To assume that passage of any labeling initiative or bill means victory, and so we can go back to sleep, is to degrade this to the realm of standard passive consumerist politics. But it’s this passivity which put us where we are today, to the point that we need a whole uphill campaign just to claim the right to our most basic information. What we need now is more democracy, more action. These are among the reasons why we must use the occasion of labeling campaigns to build permanent grassroots organizations. These must exercise the vigilance and apply the pressure needed to ensure the policies are enforced. These must also take the lead going forward, publicizing the facts and truths about GMOs, promoting the abolition imperative.
And to repeat, we must unconditionally reject federal pre-emption. This will be the subject of Part 2 of this series.
9. GMOs have been forced upon us through a combination of lies, secrecy, corporate welfare, and brute force. In fighting for the right to know and beyond, we’re acting in self defense and toward affirmatively taking back our food. We’re fighting to break the stifling informational and economic bottleneck which is restraining all human creativity in our primary economy, agriculture, and liberate these forces in favor of the only productive way forward, agriculturally and politically: Community food, agroecology, food sovereignty.
GMO labeling is not the end goal, just a significant step forward. The knowledge we’ll gain and the experience of the fight itself will help build the consciousness and the organizations we need to take the next steps toward the necessary and desirable end goal – abolition.
Are you unsure about this being the necessary end goal? Well then, join the fight for the right to know and see what you learn about GMOs and democracy. Along the way you’ll reclaim your right to know what’s in your food and make your own choice about it. This is a worthy place for anyone to get started.
We have the right to know. This is a core element of democracy, and necessary for freedom. In the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, are we the people capable of handling the knowledge of what’s in our very food? Corporations, the federal government, and the elitist media say we aren’t capable.
Shall we bow down before such an absurd, lying, anti-American way of thinking and doing? We must not. Join the boycott of the corporations who fight to keep us in darkness – Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kraft, Nestle, and others. Get together to organize labeling campaigns in your state. And start forming the permanent grassroots abolition organizations which shall serve as the units of final victory.