Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Label GMOs
distributed 9/12/14 - ©2014

Yesterday, the Board of Directors of Eco-Justice Ministries voted to endorse the "GMO Labeling" initiative that will be on Colorado's ballot this fall.

Colorado's Proposition 105 is similar to Oregon's Measure 92. (Our colleagues, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, are supporting the measure in their state.) For 2014, our two states are the setting for the battle over mandatory labels on food products specifying whether they contain genetically modified ingredients. It promises to be a noisy, well-funded, highly polarized fight.

The support of Eco-Justice Ministries for the Colorado initiative (we're based in Colorado) is -- I hope -- more nuanced than the sound-bite arguments that will be on TV ads and postcards this fall. The ballot measure raises significant issues about our economic system, informed choices, public health and ecological sustainability. Today, I'll touch on some of the factors that have influenced my support.

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Right to Know Colorado says, "Our movement is built on the foundation that we have the basic right to know what is in our food and what we are feeding our families." To which I say, yes, but there is far more at stake than that.

We do have a right to know what is in our food. One of the core principles of a free market economic system is that buyers and sellers are both to be "fully informed" about their transaction. If purchasers consider the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) important, they should have access to that information.

"Fully informed" does not mean that the seller gets to define what is meaningful information. Many food producers assert that there is no significant difference between conventional crops and the GMO counterparts. The US Food and Drug administration -- which does not require labeling -- says, "The use or absence of use of bioengineering in the production of a good or ingredient does not, in and of itself, mean that there is a material difference in the food."

But the science about the long-term health and safety of GMO foods is not settled. There are unresolved questions about the cumulative impact of pesticides and herbicides that are carried by the modified organisms. (Most of the labeling controversy is about crops -- corn, soybeans, etc. -- that are modified to withstand herbicides like Roundup, or that produce systemic pesticides like the BT toxin. There are different issues about GMO animals, such as salmon.) A dietician writing on the topic calls the presence of GMO in our food since 1996 "the largest research study ever conducted in the United States" -- we're still finding out whether there are health effects, including organ damage, infertility, and immune system changes.

At the most basic level, the GMO labeling question is a power struggle -- do buyers have a right to demand that sellers disclose information that the buyers believe is important? I stand firmly on the side of disclosure.

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I am frustrated, though, that the political framing of the ballot initiatives is so tightly focused on "what we are feeding our families." Larger issues of environmental health are far more compelling to me.

A column on LiveScience says, "Although the impact of GMOs on health and nutrition is unclear, the impact on the environment seems much more definite -- and detrimental." A leading example of far-reaching GMO impacts is the plight of Monarch butterflies, which are in a rapid decline toward extinction. Monarchs depend on milkweed as an essential part of their remarkably complex lifecycle and migration. But agricultural methods that now douse fields and bordering land with Roundup are making milkweed scarce. And the BT toxin that now infuses corn pollen is deadly to Monarchs when it blows onto milkweed plants.

I am concerned not only about the health effects of GMO food on my family, but on the ecological world in which we live. If GMOs are degrading our environment, then I want to have labels that allow me to use my shopping dollars to support non-GMO agriculture.

This gets into a question that is important in international trade agreements like NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. The language in that debate is about "product standards" vs. "process standards."

Dealing with product standards means that only the qualities of the final product can be considered. Are two things sitting on the store shelf functionally equivalent? Then regulators should not be allowed to differentiate between them. Process standards, though, take into account differences in the way the product was made or harvested, and contend that those differences are important, even if the final products are the same.

There is a long tradition of environmental and justice communities insisting on process standards. "Dolphin safe tuna" gives us the same fish as "unsafe" tuna that needlessly killed dolphins in nets, but we choose the safe version by labels on the can. Clothing made in a sweatshop may look the same as clothes coming out of a responsible factory, and "sweat free" labels help us make that choice. Churches choose to serve fair-trade coffee because of the economic and environmental benefits. (I dealt with this product/process distinction in more detail in Money, Morals and Trade.)

In the GMO labeling controversy, agribusiness and US regulators tends toward product standards, putting the emphasis on whether GMO and conventional foods are pretty much equivalent when the shopper buys them. The labeling initiatives fall into the product standards trap when they put all the focus on food safety issues.

The most compelling arguments for me are about process standards. Is there a significant difference in how the food was produced? Are there environmental, social justice and moral differences in our world between GMO processes and conventional crops? Is it ethically important to me whether the food I buy come out of a system that floods fields and communities with pervasive herbicides and pesticides? Yes, it is very important to me.

Eco-Justice Ministries' endorsement of the Colorado initiative affirms the right of people to the information needed to make responsible choices. We need to be able to decide if we want to participate in "the largest research study ever conducted in the United States", or if we prefer to opt-out of that study. And we need to be able to act on our desire for healthy and sustainable ecological communities, and refuse to support the agricultural processes that wipe out Monarch butterflies and destabilize natural communities.

Voters in Colorado and Oregon have the opportunity to vote on GMO labeling this fall. Eco-Justice Ministries and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon urge you to vote YES on those initiatives.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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