Label GMOs? It’s time to get involved!

Speak upWhen I was at Expo West in March, I heard a plethora of discussions on GMOs in our food supply. What struck me was the losses we have suffered in California and Washington states have in many ways helped raise awareness with consumers across the nation. Those losses can be considered wins in sentiment and momentum, but they also present risks. The three-strikes-you’re-out rule doesn’t exactly apply, but the Obama administration and members of Congress are watching to see what happens next. What we do in the next few months is critical to the outcome.

In late February UNFI’s National Director of Digital Media, Jennifer Skibo, stood up and made her voice known. Jennifer showed up at a public hearing in Providence, Rhode Island, and gave public testimony on a bill that would require GMO labeling in that state, but only on products produced in Rhode Island. Her thoughts below outline the empowerment she felt and the difference she made.  Jennifer wrote:

“I thought that being aware of the topics that affect us on this planet, taking time to get more educated on both sides of issues that are particularly important, and then mostly voting with my ballot and wallet was enough to satisfy my civic responsibility. I was incorrect.

When given an opportunity to testify last week before the Rhode Island State Senate Committee on behalf of UNFI and in favor of a GMO Labeling bill, I will admit I was a bit out of my comfort zone. I had two days to prepare for something I had never experienced: a Senate forum accessible to anyone interested in making or hearing testimony on draft bills prior to being discussed and/or passed as potential new laws. With some encouragement from others and a little preparation from the experts on the topic and the process, I passed through the white marble arches of the State House and was transformed from an interested party on the issue of GMO Labeling to a participant.

I stuck to the primary positions I share with UNFI: everyone has the right to know what’s in the food they eat. The bill, as written, puts Rhode Island businesses at a disadvantage and is not as comprehensive as the one passed in Connecticut, which requires all GMO foods sold in the state (not just those manufactured within) to be labeled. Connecticut’s bill also requires surrounding states to pass similar motions in order to take effect.

One of the arguments against labeling underscores the costs associated with traceability, should GMO labeled products be expected to meet the same standards of traceability for Organic. The reality is that there is no need to incur costs of traceability if the GMO label is applied to everything unless it’s certified otherwise. Negative perception of costs to consumers associated with changing packaging to accommodate the GMO label are also shown to be a red herring, as packaging change costs driven my marketing changes are already part of the cost structure borne by consumers.

I’m no Roger Williams or JFK, but I spoke on what I believe to be true. And that is all that is required.

While I’m not sure how I want to participate in the shaping of policy as an ordinary citizen, I learned a lot by just giving it a try. I am proud to be a part of a company that supported me in this first experience. If you want to participate in driving the direction of things that matter to you, maybe you are ready for such an opportunity. Speaking out is louder than a bumper sticker. It’s your chance to influence policy well before the vote.”

The landscape of GMO labeling initiatives is vigorous and growing. There are currently 34 states with some form of GMO labeling legislation in various stages of development. The Right to Know GMO website has an interactive map. Click on the state you live in to get up to date links on what is happening in your state. Once you identify your local representative, it is vital that you reach out and get involved just as Jennifer Skibo did.

Rhode Island State House jpegIn the coming months, as state and federal efforts get underway, there will be many opportunities to make a difference. The chemical companies that stand to lose profits if we gain the right- to-know are well funded, and they are lobbying with great gusto and vast resources. I pledge to do my part and blog post “calls to action,” as we reach critical milestones in states such as Colorado, Oregon and California. There will be additional opportunities on the federal level with Congress, the Obama Administration and the FDA.  It is through our grassroots actions that change can happen. We may be outspent, but we will not be outnumbered. It is time to get involved.

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