November 5, 2013

GMO Labeling and Preemption (Strategy Notes 2 of 6)


1. Detroit today lies prostrate under the jackboot of direct corporatist rule. Under a Michigan law passed two years ago, the state government can, at will, nullify all democratic government at any level below itself, and impose a dictator called an “emergency manager”. This dictator answers to no one but the governor, and rules by autocratic fiat. Under this emergency management, the state is presiding over the wholesale gutting of what’s left of Detroit’s public property and the transfer of all power to favored corporations. It’s occupied territory, completely beyond the reach of democracy or the rule of law.
This is just the most extreme example of where the anti-democratic preemption of government power and authority by higher levels of government will lead. It’s also a typical example of the radically destructive and criminal corporate agenda on whose behalf these preemptions are always undertaken. It’s the most extreme, but not by much. Here’s two recent examples.
A grassroots movement in Pennsylvania has been educating people about the economic lies and environmental and social devastation of the fracking which has been ravaging the state. Among this movement’s organizing feats has been the passage of anti-fracking laws at the local level. In response to this growing movement, and under federal government pressure, the state legislature passed an aggressive preemption law gutting not only such local laws but many of the community prerogatives which already existed.
Oregon has been a vibrant laboratory of democracy, with several counties voting this year on ordinances banning the cultivation of GMOs. This is in response to the wholesale contamination of the state’s organic sugar beets and the recent outbreak of illegal GM wheat, as well as neighboring Washington’s outbreak of alfalfa contamination. Here too it’s been the state legislature to the rescue of alien corporations, passing a bill which would preempt all such exercise of home rule.
These examples demonstrate how preemption is one of the evils of our time. Louis Brandeis on the Supreme Court once lauded the states as democratic “laboratories of experiment”. But in our time of corporate domination and authoritarian-minded government, the laboratories of democracy are odious. Much like the way the Bolsheviks usurped all power within a centralized hierarchy and turned the soviets and trade unions into powerless conveyor belts of top-down policy and propaganda, so today’s corporate state wants to do with lower level governments. These are never supposed to engage in their own policy wherever this might conflict with the corporate and federal prerogatives. In particular, lower level government must never do the bidding of bottom-up grassroots democracy movements, like that for the right to know about GMOs in our food.
As the GMO labeling example shows, grassroots democracy is critically important for its own sake in a time of undemocratic corporate-dictated policy-making and the corruption of all regular politics into a combination of monolithic state propaganda and passive consumerist “elections”. Grassroots movements constitute real participatory democracy, democracy in action. Anything that enhances the grassroots, nurtures it, is good. Anything that stifles or tramples it is bad.
Taking back our politics and economies through the vehicle of grassroots democracy movements is especially pivotal in the case of food production and distribution. These are naturally mostly local/regional, and centralized government policy regarding them is likely to be at best incompetent and a hindrance to rationality and safety, and usually actively harms these. By its very nature it’s illegitimate. For every problem which faces our food freedom and safety, the solution will be found at levels of action much closer to food’s center of gravity.
The GMO problem perfectly sums up everything that’s stupid and malign in central government policy. GMOs were undemocratically forced into the food supply under these circumstances, with zero economic or political mandate, boosted along the way by government lies, secrecy, corporate welfare, and simple force. Democracy is now trying to reassert itself, starting by confronting the secrecy which has always been an essential part of the system’s strategy.
Therefore it’s no accident that by its very nature the anti-GMO movement is a bottom-up, democracy-driven idea and practice. It relies on its soil-based, grassroots nature as the source of its vibrancy, intelligence, and moral legitimacy. These are all the things we the people have and the corporations and central governments lack.
All they have is their lies and brute force. That’s why like clockwork, as soon as grassroots democracy becomes enough of a menace to their malign prerogatives, they resort to preemption. This always has the twofold goal of stifling and/or co-opting a particular grassroots movement, and of crushing grassroots movements as such, keeping the political game within their sterilized, kettled “free speech zone” bounds. 
Today the movement to label GMOs, the right to know, is facing the same monster. It’s likely that preemption will become a major battleground, as we who truly fight for the right to know will have to fight both our external enemies from industry, as well as sellouts from within the movement who want to collaborate and “cut a deal” with Monsanto. This piece is dedicated to explaining why preemption is an evil, and why it must be a law of the movement to always oppose ANY preemption in any form. 
2. All concepts of a federal government labeling policy would repose this power with the FDA. Many supporters of the right to know are inclined to think this makes sense. But this is on account of a misconception about what the FDA is and what its record is. The FDA has always been notorious for its pro-corporate bias and its willingness to go the extra mile to assist the corporate prerogative. Some seem to think there’s two FDAs, the “corrupt” one and the underlying good one which can be reclaimed by the people for good civics purposes. Thus we have the bizarre spectacle of how several of the same NGOs who are the best at reporting on the food-related crimes of the corporate state turn around and want to give the FDA MORE power under legislation like the Orwellianly named “Food Safety Modernization Act”, more accurately called the Food Control Act.
In reality, there’s only one FDA, not two, and it’s a Monsanto and Big Drug adjunct, 100%. The FDA’s record on GMOs is clear-cut, uniform, and malevolent. Any added power it gets it’ll use on behalf of GMOs.
A. It was the FDA which promulgated the foundation Big Lie of GMO legalization, that they are “substantially equivalent” to real crops. This was a lie on its face, since how can an ear of corn which exudes its own insecticidal poison be the same as one which doesn’t? How can a soybean plant which assimilates the Roundup poison while sustaining only partial harm to itself be the same as one which would die? And in fact the subsequent evidence has documented the vast array of ways in which GMOs are structurally, genetically, nutritionally, and behaviorally different from their non-GM counterparts.
But to this day the FDA persists in its version of flat earth dogma. This is because the alleged equivalence of GMOs to real crops was meant to justify the fact that the FDA approved their commercialization without ever conducting or ordering a single safety test. The fundamentalist assertion, “they’re the same, so they’re automatically safe, so we don’t need to test them”, continues to be made by the FDA to this day. With the FDA’s imprimatur, the cartel also asserts this.
B. When a large number of FDA scientists objected to both the “substantial equivalence” (SE) dogma and the commercialization of GMOs without safety testing, their protest was suppressed, and the FDA went on to lie in claiming a bureaucratic consensus on SE. The internal documents on what the scientists really thought only came out in a lawsuit years later.
C. Even though the FDA’s position is that GMOs don’t need to be tested for safety, and that’s why they never were so tested, pro-GM flacks often implicitly or even explicitly tell the lie that the FDA did test them. The FDA never corrects these lies, and therefore implicitly endorses them. This is a good example of the FDA being complicit in public obscurantism.
D. The FDA has always claimed it has no jurisdiction over GMOs anyway. It’s typical bureaucratic whack-a-mole. The USDA claims jurisdiction only over “plant pests” and “noxious weeds”, and technically it approves GMOs on the basis that they are not such pests or weeds. (Ironically, this jurisdiction if sincerely enforced would be sufficient to ban them completely, since it’s proven that GMOs contaminate surrounding crops and plants. But here the USDA would dodge and weave and cite the FDA’s “SE” assertion as justification for not worrying about contamination.) The EPA has authority over pesticides including Bt-expressing GMOs, but has never taken this role seriously.
Meanwhile even in principle no one has authority over the combined effect of an herbicide-tolerant GMO and its companion poison.
The FDA could have asserted authority over all this, since GMOs are clearly “foods”. But it chose the most derelict path it could possibly follow. Monsanto doesn’t even have to inform the FDA that it’s field testing or commercializing a GMO variety. If it chooses, it’ll send the FDA a letter saying, “We’re commercializing this product which we think is safe.” The FDA will write back saying, “We understand that you say this product is safe.” Then Monsanto will go on to publicly state, “The FDA says this product is safe.”
That’s exactly how it works.
E. The FDA’s revolving door with the GMO cartel never stops spinning round and round. “Food czar” Michael Taylor has become notorious even beyond food issues as a textbook and extremely malign example of a permanent denizen of the revolving door. But he’s only the best known. The FDA is riddled with Monsanto cadres.
F. In the case of GM salmon we have a rare case where the FDA does acknowledge its approval authority, and all the evidence is that the rubber stamp has been poised from day one. The FDA’s been hesitating only for political reasons, because this product has a large constituency against it, including the salmon industry and its congressional delegations from Alaska and Washington.
Meanwhile the FDA clearly declared its attitude toward labeling when it dismissed the demand for labels on Frankensalmon, which it had the power to impose. 
G. All this comprises a textbook case of how the FDA is a typical corporatist triangulator bureaucracy. Under no circumstances does it do something like weigh public safety and health against corporate interests. On the contrary, it starts with the assumption that the corporate project must go forward. The bureaucracy then may or may not attempt some meager amelioration of whatever harms the project will cause, but only within that corporatist framework. (In the case of GMOs, the FDA never even did this, but on the contrary has been the head cheerleader chanting “GMOs are safe!”) Then the bureaucracy puts its imprimatur of “safety” and “health” upon the project, and implicitly or explicitly tells the people they should go back to sleep and not worry about or become active over the issue. Our betters in government are looking out for us, and we don’t need to know or do anything.
In the case of FDA preemption of state GMO labeling, we’d have an explicit assertion of this anti-knowledge and anti-democracy prerogative.
This is the know-nothing, flat-earth, Monsanto-adjunct FDA. And this is the corporatist bureaucracy which many legislators and NGOs want to put in charge of labeling. This is clearly misguided in itself. There can be no doubt that the FDA would impose the most minimal policy it could get away with, and then would never enforce it. So even wanting central government labeling as such is a bad idea.
But when we consider the prospect that the sham FDA policy would PREEMPT much better state policies, we see how the concept of FDA labeling is not only inept but malign. We see how the call for a federal policy is really a scam intended to smother the labeling movement completely.
As the movement gathers force, and as it teaches more and more people to become not just labeling advocates but GMO abolitionists, it strikes fear in the minds of corporate and political elites. That’s why more and more of them want an FDA policy. It’s meant to ensure an ineffectual labeling policy rather than continuing to run the risk of an effective one. It’s also meant to crush the growing grassroots movement as such, by lulling enough of its activists back to sleep.
This would be the most extreme example yet of the FDA serving its corporatist triangulator role of controlling anti-corporatist opposition.
So it’s clear that even leaving preemption aside, FDA labeling is not a desirable goal. FDA labeling in itself would never be effective. If in addition to being too weak it were also preemptive, it would become an evil.
The right to know movement should reject FDA labeling in itself as worthless, and must reject FDA preemption as the death of the movement.
3. Although so far industry has focused on opposing any labeling whatsoever, the Right to Know campaign in California and the rising groundswell across the country toward labeling have caused the corporations enough fear that they’re already working on an FDA preemption policy in case they need it.
In January 2013 Gary Hirshberg’s AGree organization (an outfit set up for collaboration between the industrial organic sector and the broader corporate establishment) brought together FDA personnel with a consortium of twenty food manufacturers and retailers led by Walmart, General Mills, and Coca-Cola, where according to reports the corporations lobbied for a preemptive FDA labeling policy.
This was followed shortly an explicit call from the National Products Association for FDA preemption. Just Label It, also co-run by Hirshberg, applauded this proclamation.
[From its inception Just Label It has been explicit in its call for FDA labeling, though it carefully dodges the preemption issue. The role of Just Label It, in addition to raising consciousness about labeling as such, is to propagandize the people that an FDA policy is the necessary and desirable end goal, when in fact it is neither of these. On the contrary, any grassroots democracy movement is a good in itself and ought to be perpetuated, and we’ll get the most effective labeling policies through the state-level laboratory of democracy.
In general, it seems that NGOs dodge the issue. Of the ones I checked, only the Center for Food Safety explicitly opposes preemption. Food Democracy Now and the Environmental Working Group (partnered with JLI) both seem silent. Since they’re all aware of how critical this problem is, I think we have to assume that anyone who dodges discussion of it is at least willing to consider making a deal which would sell out the movement and crush the grassroots.] 
While continuing officially to oppose any labeling at all, both the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) have made noises about how, if there is to be labeling at all, the FDA is the proper place for it.
The GMA went further and was involved in lobbying congressman Fred Upton in support of a preemptive FDA labeling bill he may introduce.
There’s also the King amendment to the pending Farm Bill which would broadly preempt a broad range of state-level agriculture- and food-related laws, potentially including Right to Know laws.
Even “freelance” hack number one Mark Lynas issued a double-edged labeling statement which was rather foolishly applauded by many of the pro-labeling people. Lynas’ typically turgid and confused statement was more sarcastic than sincere, but he explicitly calls for preemption as a better outcome for the cartel than letting this continue to be fought out among democracy. That’s the takeaway.
Almost all of the preemption calls include the same canned argument and terminology: A centrally imposed policy is better than a “patchwork” of state and local rules. This anti-democratic meme was first propagated by Republican spinmaster Frank Luntz. (It’s beloved of Democrats as well.) “Patchwork” was one of his “Words That Work”. So wherever you see that term and any version of that argument, you know where it came from. It’s conservative, big business rhetoric.
4. When GMO labeling becomes a preemption battleground it’ll be the latest in a long line of such battles. The history is clear and repetitive. Industry opposes a rational and low-cost safety or public health measure. The central government and/or the states refuse to take action. Grassroots democracy rises to fill the void. At the state and/or local level the people form grassroots organizations, engage in public education, advocacy, lobbying, getting initiatives on ballots, and other forms of activism. They start to get localities and states to pass laws and rules on behalf of public health and safety. At this point industry gets scared of the measures, and governments get scared of grassroots democracy. Industry, usually with the assistance of turncoat NGOs, lobbies for a federal or state level preemption policy. Depending on the issue, it’ll be either a phony “uniform” policy which preempts stronger lower-level measures, or simply an autocratic fiat forbidding lower level government from touching the issue.
(The US Constitution allegedly contains such a fiat in Article VI, the “supremacy clause”, wherever the central government cares to exercise this alleged supreme power. But this was overridden by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments of the Bill of Rights, in the same way the First Amendment overrode Article I’s original injunction limiting freedom of speech only to congressmen while at the assembly.)
Over recent decades this has been played out on such fronts as public smoking, alcohol policy, drug policy, reproductive health, restaurant menu labeling, residential fire sprinklers, education policy, farm worker health, school food, environmental justice, and many others.
I list all those not to agree with every kind of local/state initiative which has ever been attempted, but to give an idea of the broad range of issues where industry or other interests used or tried to use preemption to repress grassroots action. Regardless of the issue, the rule is we must always trust democracy. That means letting the grassroots accomplish what it can without looking to upper-level hierarchy to crush it.
I’ll single out the restaurant labeling issue because it involves an NGO which has already been playing a malevolent role where it comes to GMOs. This is the so-called “Center for Science in the Public Interest”, which has stood apart from other consumer groups on the right to know. The CSPI is actually a de facto Monsanto front group which regurgitates straight cartel propaganda, opposes the right to know in typically elitist terms (the people are too stupid), and vouches for the integrity of revolving door personnel like Michael Taylor. Although the CSPI claims not to take corporate donations, its “biotechnology director” is a hack lawyer (with zero scientific credentials) with a long history of shilling for Monsanto. So maybe Monsanto doesn’t give them cash, but it gives them a cadre.
All this is in bizarre juxtaposition to the CSPI’s seeming commitment to every other kind of labeling. But in fact we’ve seen the CSPI help gut at least one labeling drive before.
The movement to get nutrition labels in restaurants followed the trajectory I described above. The grassroots was getting good results. At this point the industry, with help from the CSPI, got a federal preemptive bill passed. This top-down preemption was much weaker than the actual laws the grassroots was successfully getting passed. And since then, the industry has continued the fight at the bureaucratic level, and the great preemptive “compromise”, as its sellout supporters called it, has barely even been enacted according to its own meager terms. Meanwhile the vibrant grassroots labeling movement withered and died following its preemption. This is preemption’s intended goal. NGOs like the CSPI may want some kind of watered-down standard, but they also agree with industry on reining in grassroots democracy, since this is a threat to system NGOs just as much as to corporations. System NGO funding and influence depends on their being able to “deliver” an anodyne result which overrides the real results grassroots movements fight for and do in fact achieve.
As we can see, the CSPI’s an old pro at this kind of scam. We can expect to see them become involved in fighting against the GMO right to know as well, if it comes to a preemption fight.
One movement which fought its way to widespread victory, including fighting and rolling back a preemption counterattack, was the movement for smoke-free workplaces and public accommodations. There’s many reasons they succeeded where others failed, but one of the main reasons is that a coalition of grassroots organizations all agreed, as a basic law of their movement, “NEVER AGREE TO PREEMPTION” (caps in the original).
So this must also be a law of our GMO labeling movement, if we too wish to win.
5. There are already GMO preemption fights going on around the world.
India’s constitution, far more rational on this point than that of the US, explicitly declares agriculture to be a matter of state rather than central government policy. This is in the right direction, since food production and distribution is naturally local/regional, and so the closer to food’s natural level of gravity a government is, the more legitimate its policy is likely to be. A state will perforce have more legitimacy to make policy than a central government.
This has generated a big headache for Monsanto and for India’s pro-GMO central government. As India endures its ongoing catastrophic experience with GM cotton, the rising anti-GMO movement has gained significant traction in many state governments, which have revoked their “No Objection Certificates” (NOCs) which the central government must procure before it can authorize GM field trials in a state’s territory.
In response to this rising movement, the central parliament has repeatedly broached (but not yet voted upon) a radically pro-GMO “Biotechnology Regulatory Authority for India” (BRAI) bill which would, among other things, override the constitution, preempt all state agricultural authority, and gut all GMO protections including labeling.
This is the same kind of preemptive struggle we’re likely to be facing.
6. The grassroots democracy movement is part of our general need to decentralize power. All our problems are caused or aggravated by the evils of concentrated power, which also offers no solutions to any of these problems, only shams which double down on the destructiveness.
This is most true where it comes to agricultural and food problems. This stands to reason, since agriculture and food distribution and marketing are naturally part of local and regional economies, while commodification is always a destructive planned economy measure which could never naturally arise, but depends completely on corporate welfare and government force.
Since GMOs comprise the most extreme manifestation of this unnatural planned economy (they serve no real world purpose, benefit only a handful of big corporations, and there’s zero real demand for them among farmers or consumers, only a “market” based on corporate welfare and monopoly muscle), it’s also natural and rational that the GMO labeling movement, and the broader movement to impose democratic responsibility upon this rogue product, is a bottom-up grassroots movement.
Like the broader Community Food and Food Sovereignty movements, the anti-GMO movement is naturally close to food’s own center of gravity, which is close to the soil, physically and figuratively.
That’s why food freedom movements like that for the right to know are superb exemplars of the laboratory of democracy which a federalist system is supposed to foster.
The fact that the so-called federal government has so often quashed grassroots movements and smashed up the laboratories of democracy proves how undeserving it is of that term, and how much of a centralizing, tyrannical imperative it seeks to enforce. This also proves that to seek good labeling policy, or any other kind of pro-democracy policy, at this central government level is to look for something in the last place you’ll ever find it.
No, true supporters of the right to know must recognize and cherish the fact that the grassroots nature of our movement isn’t a purgatory we endure until the FDA swoops in to save us. On the contrary, any “leader” type who tells us this is what we should want is just shoveling another version of the same old elitist lie, “your betters will handle this for you, so the rest of you can go back to sleep.”
Did we awaken and fire up this movement in the first place only in order to go back to sleep? If not, then let’s extend our awareness and alertness to the truth that we not only are a grassroots movement, but this is what we want to be and must remain, all the way to our final necessary goal of GMO abolition.
Preemption is a mortal enemy of everything we stand for. It’s the enemy of democracy as such. It’s the enemy of effective policy, as state and local policy will always be stronger than anything the FDA ever lets itself be dragged into doing. It’s anti-business, in that it’ll help continue to enforce the economic bottleneck which is killing all agricultural and food-related innovation. For anyone who truly cares about transparency, food safety, and democracy in general, there are zero benefits in preemption, and every kind of evil.
The pro-democracy project Grassroots Change lays out some basic guidelines:
*Expect preemption attempts at the federal/state level. These may be surreptitiously added to bills.
*Decide in advance what’s your bottom line.
*Pay attention to what corporate lobbyists are doing. Mark how they start changing their line from opposition to calling for a “uniform” standard which will obliterate the hated “patchwork”. This means they’re scared of the patchwork. It’s proof that the patchwork is a good thing – effective as well as democratic.
*If you have any doubts about a proposed “compromise”, just look at the industry groups who support it. Why would they support it if it would effectively limit their prerogatives? Aren’t they really trying to quash an alternative which would place far more effective limits? Why are they switching from straight opposition to seeking this alleged compromise? Isn’t it because grassroots democracy is gathering force, and the corporations are afraid? (As for any NGOs who support it, are these grassroots groups? Or are they also system institutions whose interest is in the perpetuation of the system as it is, and who also feel threatened by grassroots movements?)
*Who will enforce this policy? It’ll be an agency which is incompetent and unwilling to enforce any policy other than the preemption itself.
*Never trust those who want to go behind closed doors to “represent us” in secret while we go back to sleep. We can openly push our fight, and practice transparency in fighting for transparency.
*Will preemption improve public health and democracy? It never has and it never will. On the contrary, it’s meant to negate the former and crush the latter.
*Always keep in mind that preemption is the death of grassroots democracy. This is common sense, and it’s the historical record.
*Corporate enemies of democracy take the long view. We must do so as well. Grassroots movements take time to win. We must be patient and never be stampeded into bad decisions because we feel like things are taking too long. We must let things take as long as necessary in order to achieve what’s necessary, and never sell this out for the quick cheap high of an insufficient “compromise”.
This battle will be fought and won at the grassroots political level. No matter what your other views on the rightful forms of government, it’s an established fact that any top-down central government policy is going to be pro-GMO. So to the extent we try to work through government at all, we have to do it primarily at the lower levels. At the federal level we should focus on blocking bad policy, not vainly dreaming of getting good policy. 
While there’s lots of diversity in the right to know movement, we must unite on this point, and make it a law for the movement. To repeat the law the smoke-free movement laid down for itself: Never agree to preemption.



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