Federal “DARK Act” introduced in Congress: why you need to care

This week, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (Republican from Kansas) introduced legislation called the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a bill so mislabeled in my life, as what this bill would do is ensure that we never achieve safe and accurate food labeling.

Opponents have dubbed this the DARK (Deny Americans the Right-to-Know) Act, and the hyperbole actually seems to fit here. The bill aims to override state efforts to label GMO foods, as several states have taken up that charge and introduced labeling legislation. Rep. Pompeo’s bill would prohibit any mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods.

He claims that the “patchwork” of state GMO laws creates no standard and creates unnecessary fear on the part of consumers. And I agree with him on the first point – we do need a federal standard. But we need one based on science, which at the current moment means that we don’t know the long-term effects of GMO crops on health and the environment. So we need to be aware of where they are and how much we are consuming. If products aren’t labeled, the long-term effects can’t be assessed. Labels are like the informed consent portion of being part of a national experiment. People have a right to be afraid when we aren’t informed. We need to know.

To me, this bill is evidence that the bioengineering companies know that consumer confidence is flagging and that their lack of transparency is an issue. So instead of changing their business practices or allowing the American people to decide what they want, they will pour their money into Congressional pockets to take the decision out of our hands and into the federal government.

In the absence of any federal transparency legislation, state legislation is important. State legislation is where the voice of the American people gets to be heard more than lobbyist dollars and Big Ag. Yes, on the state level we also contend with lobbying and misinformation, but the vote comes to the people who are affected by it, instead of members of Congress who can be and are often easily swayed by corporate money.

This bill really matters. Enough that I’m contacting my legislators, and I encourage you to do the same. Even if you have no issue with GMO foods being unlabeled, the fact that the government is trying to preempt your right to have that distinct voice be heard in a state-level vote is troubling. And right now it’s biotech corn that’s at the center of this debate. But if this legislation passes, what’s next? Biotech fish? That’s on the horizon. Maybe Farmed & Dangerous wasn’t so far off with its 8-winged chicken.

So I’m sending the letter below to my federal legislators – and even some that are in my region, but not my specific area. It’s a modification of a letter that Just Label It, a national GMO labeling advocacy organization, put together. Feel free to use it and tweak or personalize it to let your legislators know that you want transparency and choice in our food supply.

I am urging you to not co-sponsor the new legislation introduced by Rep. Pompeo (R-Kan) that would deny consumers a right to know about genetically engineered or biotech foods and allow companies to voluntarily label genetically engineered (GE) foods. Until independent, third-party science can truly verify the long-term health and environmental effects of GE foods, the American public deserves transparency. If bioengineering companies are to be allowed to expose the public to GE foods, which can pose risks on many levels, we have the right to informed consent.

Rep. Pompeo’s bill would pre-empt states from taking any legislative efforts towards the labeling of GE foods and allow GE ingredients in products labeled as  “natural.”  It would also prevent the FDA from requiring GE labeling in the future. As one of the 93% of Americans who support GE labeling, I strongly oppose this legislation, and urge you to not sign on as a co-sponsor.

I am asking that instead you support the GE Food-Right-to-Know Act (S.809/H.R. 1699) sponsored by Sen. Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. DeFazio (D-OR) that would require food manufacturers to clearly label any product that has been genetically engineered or contains GE ingredients. Studies have shown that the majority of Americans regardless of race, religion, class, or political party support GE labeling, a right that people in 64 nations around the world already have. Lack of labeling also complicates our exports, as more and more nations are refusing to import GMO foods. Russia is just the latest.

Please endorse federal labeling of GE foods, and vote against any legislation that would bar the Food and Drug Administration, or the states, from mandating labeling of GE food. Do not support legislation that makes the American people, your constituents, the lab rats of corporate biotech.


If you don’t know who your representatives are, you can find out here. Same with senators, here. I’m contacting my senators too, in case this bill makes it to them.

We can’t expect legislators to know what we want them to do for us if we don’t tell them. Watching and reading the news and getting outraged isn’t going to do anything if you don’t push where it matters. Then we can hold our elected representatives accountable.

book review: Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter

I added this book to my list of reads after I realized that the author is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization I follow quite closely. I was expecting it to contain about the same types of information that I usually find in books about the food movement. Interesting and informative, but not much new.

Well, I was wrong. Foodopoly did have some familiar themes, but the level of research and explanation in this book blew me away. Hauter’s main argument is that while focusing on changing consumer behavior and “voting with your fork” is important and has its benefits, no large scale change will happen without complete reform of the faulty industrial, corporate-controlled agriculture system that we have now. 

What this book does really well is explain how we got to where we are, and what the factors are that contribute to it staying this way (and getting worse). I expected a book with such an extensive and thorough notes section to be dry, and while it did take me longer to read than some other food books, it’s because there was so much information to absorb. 

Reading Foodopoly really hammered home for me how much of a privilege it is to be able to buy food from local farmers, living in an urban area where many farmers are able to make a living by providing food direct to consumer. I was reminded that many small and mid-size farms across the country do not have direct-to-consumer sales as an option, and are forced to grow commodity crops where they are paid less than the cost to produce and to work within monopolistic corporate systems. 

This book covers antitrust laws through this country’s history and the impact that deregulation has had on food and farming in America. Though I knew that many organic producers have been taken over by giant food conglomerates and that only a handful of corporations control all sectors of our food chain, reading Hauter’s logical explanations of what happens behind the scenes makes you realize that this country has allowed business to be the watchdogs of our public health and welfare.  

Foodopoly also covers genetic tinkering – not just genetic engineering of plants and animals, but synthetic biology and the groups that are trying to use government money to actually create life for profit. Here as in other places in the book, compelling evidence and meticulous research support her arguments. 

The only thing I felt this book lacked was a “now what” at the end. I was waiting for a chapter on practical ways to support the kind of large scale political movement she describes, especially after the book fired me up so passionately about moving beyond just supporting our CSAs and avoiding processed foods, etc. I do have a goal to write to my legislators more often this year, and I’ll continue to try to read up on legislative and judicial instances where public comment is needed. If you’re looking for research and facts to back up the feeling that our system needs to be fixed and not just consumer behavior, Foodopoly is a fantastic place to start.

GMO culture war – is there a middle ground?

Recently, a reporter from Grist, one of the country’s premiere environmental magazines, finished a sixth month series on GMOs. He used the series to investigate the truth about GMOs outside of the two opposing narratives that are usually circulated. On one hand you have the pro-GMO people, who see GMOs are a feat of human ingenuity and technology/science that will save agriculture as we know it and go a long way to address starvation and hunger across the globe. On the other hand, the anti-GMO people, who see GMOs as a symptom of corporate control of our food system and the unsustainability of modern agriculture, not to mention a health risk.

His wrap-up piece, “What I learned from six months of GMO research: none of it matters” caused a huge stir, from both sides of the debate. He concluded that the cultural debate actually misses the mark. Since it talks about GMOs in a broad sense, it doesn’t allow for discussion of individual GMO plants or organisms. He argues there’s a difference between engineering rice to feed starving people and engineering corn to feed pigs in a nation that already eats too much meat. (I need to read the series to see how he feels about genetically engineered animals, like salmon.)

I haven’t read all of the pieces in the series (though I probably will start to go through them). And Civil Eats also addressed his piece on their site, with a compelling rebuttal. In particular, that essay addresses what agricultural priorities should be if we are trying to envision a sustainable future. And points out rightfully that the companies involved in GMO technology are also the ones that poisoned us with Agent Orange, etc. The writer acknowledges that the debate does obscure the technological innovations that do need to occur in order to move toward sustainability. 

For me, the GMO issue primarily comes down to the issue of transparency. If I believed that as a nation we could keep corporations accountable to make decisions in the public interest, it would be one thing. But we can’t, and we know that much of the scientific research being done about GMOs (all types) is controlled by parties with a financial interest. We need third party research that’s independent. That encourages human innovation and scientific development, but with an eye toward sustainability. That researches the health and environmental effects of these plants. And we need a system that errs on the side of caution, not risk, when it comes to public health. 

While I don’t agree with him entirely – I think we need to avoid adopting a flippant attitude about GMOs – Nathanael Johnson’s Grist piece is food for thought and encourages us to dig through the hype for what’s actually true when we talk about GMOs.

setting priorities for healthy living

The food world was buzzing last week with the announcement from General Mills that Original Cheerios are going GMO free. This is the only variety going GMO free, since original Cheerios are primarily made of oats, which are not genetically modified. The sugar and corn starches will be going GMO free.

The way that the media exploded with the announcement shows me that people are starting to demand GMO free foods, or at the very least, more transparency about what’s IN their foods. This is positive progress.

But I can’t help but feel that the hype can also distract from the most important parts of a healthy lifestyle. GMOs in food or parabens and other chemicals in soaps or household cleaners are important to understand and good to avoid when possible. But limiting your exposure to these is a secondary priority. It doesn’t matter if you eat GMOs in your breakfast cereal, if you’re also addicted to soda and fast food and processed junk. 

Sometimes it can be easy to grab on to the media’s soundbites and think that those are the most important indicators of health, since it’s what people are talking about. But the most important information is the most boring – that a healthy diet of clean foods, stress management and an active lifestyle are the largest contributing factors to your overall health and wellness. It’s a lot easier to just start buying hand soap without parabens than it is to give up soda. (I know. I’ve been there.)

As you’re thinking about setting priorities for your new year, focus on specific tasks that can help you hit those main priorities. Maybe it’s avoiding fast food, cooking more often at home, drinking more water, or getting exercise 2 or 3 days a week. Choose small things to tackle, so they aren’t so overwhelming. Take one step toward one goal, not 12 steps toward 10 goals. For example, if you want to cook at home more often, check out this post on where I get a lot of my clean recipes

reading this week

I’m still processing all that I learned and saw at the Mother Earth News Fair, but look for recaps on that soon. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been reading this week.

The USDA recently changed the process of exempting prohibited substances in foods labeled as organic, without having any public comment period. Previously, prohibited substances were given five year periods in which they could be exempted, while alternatives could be found. After that period, they’d expire unless a two-thirds majority of the National Organic Standards Board allowed it, AFTER a public comment period. 

Now, all of that has been erased and these substances can be allowed indefinitely, and with no public comment period, outside of the public view. Not only does it weaken the already relatively weak organic standards, but it pulls more of our food processes behind closed door and decreases transparency.  

CDC’s thoroughly convincing report on the threat of antibiotic resistance (Food Politics)
A great infographic on how antibiotic resistance is created, plus links to other stories explaining the issue.

A Washington state farmer’s alfalfa crop has been found to contain a GMO trait, which has stopped him from being able to export it (as European nations have much more strict laws regulating GMOs than the U.S.). How this plays out will be interesting, though I’d venture to guess the government will not go out of its way to protect the farmer.

Factory Food From Above: Satellite Images of Industrial Farms (Wired)
Enhanced images from satellites of the feedlots that house industrial meat production

Food banks are a ‘slow death of the soul’ (The Guardian)
A really interesting take on food pantries from someone who runs one. What he does? It’s my dream job. I was asked once in a job interview what my dream would be, and I said if I had capital, I’d open a food pantry that was a community garden and had cooking and gardening classes. To help people get on their feet and empower them to make good choices.

10 Reasons for Gardeners to Love Chickens (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Self-explanatory. :)

natural nonsense: why ‘natural’ is meaningless marketing

When you see or hear the word “natural,” what comes to mind? Something connected to the earth, unadulterated and in its ‘default’ state of being? Images of nature? Thoughts about health and wellness? Do you get an innate sense that “natural” is a good thing, in opposition to “unnatural”?

You do? Congratulations, you’re a marketer’s dream come true.

The federal government, through the USDA, certifies the term “organic” and regulates its usage. To label something “organic,” complex standards have to be met. Primarily this includes the method of production (no GMOs, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge), the items used in production (only those on the nationally approved list, e.g. no chemical pesticides) and inspection by a USDA certifying agent. You can read more about it here.  

There currently exists no standardized, legally enforceable definition of “natural.” Several agencies have tried over the years to define it, but industry push-back has succeeded in squashing those attempts. Why? Because if consumers equate “natural” with “organic” anyway, why would Big Food go to the expense of certification and paperwork and better sourcing of ingredients? They can make a better profit margin by calling something “natural” and getting the consumer to buy it because they think it’s a superior product, when in fact, it’s not at all.

Recently lawsuits have been brought against the companies that produce Naked Juice, 7Up, Vitamin Water charging them with misleading or false advertising for claiming their products are “all-natural” when they included additives. Naked Juice just agreed to settle their large class action this month. On the surface, this is great for consumers because it’s bringing awareness to the use of the term “natural” on products. But it doesn’t stop other companies from using it or work toward a legally enforceable definition. A suit ending in settlement doesn’t create any legal precedent. This article from Salon further explains these lawsuits.

So we’ll keep seeing products like this on the market:

Yes, those are Natural Cheetos. Just think about that for a second. Natural. Cheetos.

You don’t have to turn away all products that claim to be “natural,” though. Instead of signaling you to walk away, read the label. Do the ingredients listed seem appropriate and recognizable to you? Do you see corn or soy as one of the ingredients? If so, it’s probably GMO, unless the label says it is certified non-GMO. Common sense is your ally – call it the natural Cheetos test.

Another movement is happening to bring meaning to the term “natural” outside of government regulating – called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). Primarily for the produce and livestock industries, it’s a grassroots effort designed to help small farms and producers who sell their products locally get credit for the ways they produce without having to go to the expense of the national organic program. 

According to their website, to be Certified Naturally Grown, “farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

CNG farms are inspected by other farmers and all records are available for public viewing.

I’ve started to see CNG products more and more in this area. In particular, Marty’s Market in the Strip District carries produce from local farms that are CNG. (And they have a rockin’ brunch too. Check them out.)

All consumer products, particularly those purchased from a grocery stores and not directly from a producer, have a level of marketing. Big Food spends millions upon millions of dollars every year trying to manipulate your behavior through advertising and marketing – not just on the TV but in the stores and on the packages. Some of the things they tell you are true, but others are only true by the best possible legal stretch of the imagination. (For a fascinating book about this, read Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss which I reviewed here.)

By reading the labels of the foods you buy and consume, you’re taking the control back from those companies and not buying blindly. Don’t be a sucker for “health washing” – the trend of making items appear to be more healthy than they are. Remember that the healthiest foods – the clean, whole foods – don’t need marketing to convince you they are healthy. 

Or a creepy cartoon cheetah.

the known and unknown of GMOs

I’ve written about GMOs before and explained why I subscribe to the “harmful until proven safe” mentality as opposed to “safe until proven harmful” when it comes to my foods. This is one reason why I support mandatory labeling of GMO products. An interesting study was released recently which sheds more light on problematic GMOs.

Headlines appeared everywhere, calling the new study “alarming” and “groundbreaking.” The basic conclusion of the study? Pigs fed a diet of GMO grains were more likely to suffer from stomach inflammation and had heavier uteri, which is a sign of conditions that could affect their fertility. Anti-GMO groups hailed this as one of the studies they’d been waiting for that showed an adverse health effect on animals that we consume and not just animals in laboratories like rats. Industry leaders were quick to denounce the study and its research methodology. So who’s right?

Well, both. First of all, the scientific journal that reported the study is called the Journal of Organic Systems. One of their sponsors is the Organic Federation of Australia. Organic producers are often looked at as the “good guys” in agriculture, and I definitely am grateful for their contributions, as our family eats as organic as possible. However, organic producers are often corporations whose primary motivation is profit, not the health of consumers. So it’s in the best interest of organic food producers to have studies that show that GMOs are harmful. Since no GMO ingredients are allowed to be in any product labeled certified organic, they have a vested monetary interest in supporting labeling efforts and fighting GMOs. Because of this, research they sponsor is as tainted by suspicions of bias as the research that Monsanto backs saying GMOs are truly safe. The editorial boards of scientific journals are often made up of individuals who have a corporate interest on one side or the other.

The fact remains that there are very few studies (and virtually no long-term studies) on the health effects of GMOs at all, let alone truly independent, third-party studies. Why? Because the producers of these GMO seeds (ahem, Monsanto) have such strict patents on the technology that they are unobtainable for outside research. Growers are made to sign contracts stating that they won’t perform any research on seeds. So when someone wants to do a study, they have to buy retail products made from GMO plants and can’t directly grow their own.

Because companies like Monsanto have those intellectual property rights and are only required to do voluntary safety consultations on their products, there is currently no real or independent safety testing on GMOs. And there’s where the problem is. We need independent safety testing and we need long-term studies to begin. Because right now, when you eat a product that contains GMO ingredients, the safety testing is being performed on you as a consumer without your informed consent.

And this is why labeling is so vitally important. Let Monsanto grow all the GMO products it wants. Let the consumers be informed and make decisions about what they eat. Tell consumers the truth. Right now, we don’t know if GMOs are truly dangerous or unsafe. And until Monsanto stops hiding behind intellectual property laws and opens up their seeds for independent testing, we won’t know.

I’ve even thought that a label similar to the one that appears on dairy products would be appropriate. If a company wants to label their milk rBGH-free, they also run a disclaimer saying that the government has found no difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and those that weren’t. I appreciate the information, and choose as a consumer to not consume dairy with rBGH in it anyway. Because it’s my right.

GMO labeling initiatives are starting to make headway in America as many states have bills up for consideration in their legislatures. Here in Pennsylvania, a bill was introduced in the Pa. Senate in March called “An Act Requiring the Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food” (SB653). It is now in the Agricultural & Rural Affairs Committee. Surprisingly enough, PA is third in the nation for organic agriculture production, so I’m hoping that enough of a push exists to protect that industry that this bill will make it for full consideration. I plan on contacting my senators again on this one.

Here are some resources on the fight for mandatory GMO labeling:

GMO Free PA: Resources on the fight in Pennsylvania
Twitter @GMOFreePA

Right to Know GMO: Resources for each state
Twitter @RighttoKnowGMO

Just Label It: National campaign for GMO labeling
Twitter @Justlabelit

reading this week

CNN tells the story of Monsanto (Inspired Bites on Prevention.com)
2 million people across the world took part in the March Against Monsanto recently, and one of the only media outlets that covered it was CNN. Robyn O’Brien highlights their coverage in this blog entry and also links to this video, which does a great job of simplifying the issues that have been raised about Monsanto and GMOs. Definitely worth the 7 minutes to watch. (Even just to watch Michael Moss and his fierce eyebrows talk at the end.)

Speaking of Monsanto…

GMO Wheat Found in Oregon Field (NPR)
GMO wheat is not authorized for commercial planting, but an Oregon farmer found it on his land. Wheat is a huge export crop for U.S. farmers, which is why GMO wheat is not authorized to be planted. Other countries, particularly in Europe and Asia, won’t buy GMO products. More tests are being done to determine how the wheat got there and the extent of its presence, but it goes to show how easily these GMOs can sneak into our food supply.

Candy Won’t Make You Fat, Says Study Funded by Big Candy (PopSci)
This article showed up a lot on the Internet a week or two ago and was laughable. The National Confectioners Association funded a study that concluded that candy was not associated with any health risks. Wow! What strikes me, though, is that people are quick to laugh when a candy company funds research that promotes candy as part of a healthy diet, but we listen to soft drink manufacturers and other Big Food/Big Ag companies tell us the same things, with research funded by their own interest groups. When you see a new research study released that touts the health benefits of a food, look closely to see who sponsored the research  An independent or government group? Or industry? 

Too Many Repeat Violators in Hog Slaughter, Inspector General Report Says (Food Safety News)
This statistic is shocking, but not surprising: “The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service issued 44,128 noncompliance records (NRs), but only 28 of the nation’s 616 swine plants ever faced suspension.” Even those don’t stay suspended for long, and many are repeat offenders. Read the list of offenses and I doubt you’ll be drooling for conventionally raised pork anytime soon. This is why we NEED to fight Ag-Gag laws – our government “inspections” are meaningless.

4 Questions You Should Never Ask at a Farmers Market (Smith Meadows)
I am proud that I’ve never asked these questions at a farmers market, though this article sheds some light on what it’s really like for farmers to participate in these markets.

Scotts Miracle-Gro  – the bird killing company? (Guardian via @unhealthytruth) 
Scotts Miracle-Gro knowingly sold bird seed with unregulated and illegal pesticides for two years. These pesticides are poisonous to birds, but were added to control insects eating the seed in warehouses. Reason #562894 that I won’t buy anything from Scotts – not even their organic products.

Reading (and viewing) this week

I’ve written on GMO labeling before, and this is an issue that is constantly evolving and changing.
On Wednesday, we took another step forward as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) (otherwise known as my new heroes) with 9 Senate co-sponsors and 22 House co-sponsors, introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act that would require food manufacturers to label any product containing GMOs. If not properly labeled, the product could be classified by the FDA as “misbranded.”
It’s about time. I am working on drafting a letter to send to my legislators here in Pennsylvania, and when it’s ready, I will share so you can pass the word! 
Speaking of legislative advocacy, Ellen DeGeneres had a representative from the Humane Society on her show to talk about Ag-Gag laws. Ellen’s got a wide audience and huge following, not only for her general awesomeness but her advocacy work on the part of animals. I’m really happy to see someone like Ellen educating and encouraging people to take action.
Definitely looking forward to Mark Bittman’s new Flexitarian column. He says the goal is “to marry the burning question “What should I be eating?” with another: “How do I cook it?”
Michael Pollan talking to Stephen Colbert about his new book, Cooked
Yet more proof that eating antibiotics in meat is detrimental to our health: government researchers have found bacterial varieties in meat that are resistant to antibiotics.
Environmental Working Group has some great information on superbugs in meat.

Crossing lines we said we’d never cross

You may have heard some news recently about a so-called “Monstanto Protection Act” that was an Agricultural Appropriations Bill (HR 933) that contained a provision (in section 735) allowing companies to harvest GMO seeds, even if an injunction or other litigation is pending against them.
Watch as John Stewart brilliantly sums it up for us. You stuck what where now?
It should be noted that Senator John Tester (Democrat, Montana) stood up against this provision and called it out for what it was. At the time of this episode of the Daily Show, no one had fessed up to including the provision. Later, Senator Roy Blunt (Republican, Missouri) came forward saying he worked with Monsanto and was responsible for its inclusion. This is no surprise, as he is known to be a friend of Big Ag and has lobbyist ties to other processed food companies that do not support GMO labeling. He gets plenty of money in his war chest from Monsanto. (To read more on Monsanto, check out Food & Water Watch’s Monsanto: A Corporate Profile.)
All of the issues with GMO labeling and Big Ag aside, it makes me so utterly disappointed in our government that anonymous, secret riders can be snuck into any bill, particularly one that would avert a government shutdown, which are almost inevitably going to be signed into law. It represents the highest level of corruption, greed and fraud that politicians can be bought. It wasn’t even just votes that were bought on an issue that was out in the open, but Monsanto effectively purchased a law that benefits their business to the detriment of the environment and our health, behind everyone’s back. Even when Senator Tester stood up, not enough people listened. Our government is for sale to the highest bidder.
When you are making your choices about what kind of fertilizer to buy for your garden this summer, look into who makes those products. Are you buying Monsanto products (RoundUp, Scots, etc.)? If so, you’re helping to subsidize the purchase of our government. You might not think $20 here and there matters, but until Americans start standing up one by one and saying “here is the line and I will not cross it,” we can expect these companies to continue to buy their way into our government.
This probably sounds melodramatic. But I truly believe this is how democracy vanishes. Crossing the lines we said we’d never cross.