Local support for a nationwide campaign to label genetically modified organisms in the food supply picked up steam again this month.
On Oct. 12, as many as 150 people, including children and out-of-towners, gathered on the Highway 49 overpass at the bottom of Broad Street in Nevada City holding colorful handmade signs denouncing biotech companies.
The event was the first “March Against Monsanto” hosted in Nevada County and part of the second annual global march that took place in more than 500 cities and 50 countries.
Monsanto is a large agricultural and seed products company with strong lobbying power in Washington, D.C.
The biotech company spun from a chemical company that produced the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, according to the Monsanto website.
“If the food was good for us, how come they won’t tell us what’s in it,” asked Charmian Railsback, a resident of Grass Valley who stood on the bridge waving a sign at passing cars shortly before the march paraded through downtown Nevada City.
“They’re pouring millions of dollars into preventing us from knowing what’s in our food, part of the dumbing down of America, all for dollars, all for the bottom line,” she added.
Last week, there was a community planning meeting for concerned citizens and a screening of the film “Genetic Roulette,” followed Friday by “The World According to Monsanto” at the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains in Grass Valley.
“I am so appalled at the lack of attention this is drawing,” said Mary Cahill, who watched “Genetic Roulette” and learned that a growing rate of health problems in pets and high allergy rates in children can be traced to GMO products like soy and corn found in the American diet.
At the meeting, organizers of Nevada County Label GMOs Campaign discussed a plan to work with local eateries to develop a restaurant guide complete with window and menu stickers at establishments where non-GMO options can be found.
A right to know
Controversial GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms,” are created through the gene-splicing techniques of biotechnology allowing the DNA from one species to be injected into another. Their use was first approved in 1995 for human consumption in the U.S.
GMO technology allows scientists to create combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that could not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.
Supporters of GMOs argue they are safe for humans and guarantee greater crop yields needed to provide enough affordable food for a growing world population.
Critics say more studies need to be done to determine risks to humans, animals and the environment.
Those who want to see GMOs labeled say its less about science and more about food transparency, a right to know what’s in food similar to listing things like salt or fat content or country of origin.
“My biggest goal in this campaign right now is to get genetically modified organisms labeled in this country … It’s part of our right as Americans,” said Stephenie Chague, coordinator of Nevada County Label GMOs Campaign, who attended the Oct. 12 march with her son, Harvest, 5.
Chague, like many, believes genetically modified organisms are dangerous, and she is actively working to help educate families in the community about the potential risks associated with buying mainstream processed foods.
“I cannot sit back passively and let this happen,” she said.
Chague is not alone. A 2012 Mellman Group poll found that 91 percent of American consumers wanted GMOs labeled.
While the U.S. does not require labeling GMOs in food, more than 60 countries around the world have placed significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs, including Australia, Japan and all of the countries in the European Union, according to the Non-GMO Project website.
Just this month, a Mexican judge suspended GMO corn plantings, a big step for a nation with a strong maize-based food culture.
The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that offers third-party verification of products as an alternative to the lack of mandatory labeling in the U.S.
In recent years, the Non-GMO Project’s enrollment has witnessed “explosive growth,” said board member Michael Funk, known locally as the founder of Mountain People’s Warehouse and the chair and co-founder of United Natural Foods Inc. He works with federal agencies to gain acceptance of the Non-GMO Project label.
“Consumers are able to avoid GMOs by choosing non-GMO verified products. There are currently over 12,000 products verified with several thousand more being enrolled. Retailers like Whole Foods and the NCGA (National Cooperative Grocers Association) are pressuring food manufacturers to get their products verified non-GMO, and no one wants to have ‘may contain GMOs’ on their label,” Funk said.
In 2012, California voters defeated Proposition 37, a ballot measure that would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods. Big-name food and biotech companies poured millions of dollars into opposition of the “Right to Know” campaign. Funk says another labeling initiative in California is more than likely, but such efforts will be expensive.
There are currently 37 states organizing mandatory labeling initiatives. This summer, Maine and Connecticut passed GMO labeling laws that will kick into effect when surrounding states do the same.
In November, Washington State voters will vote on mandatory labeling, that if passed could put pressure on the FDA to follow suit with federal standards.
Local farmer Amigo Cantisano was at the March Against Monsanto rally. He doesn’t want to eat GMO foods or have GMO foods grown anywhere around him or his farm.
He says buying directly from local farmers is a good start for change but doesn’t solve a nationwide problem.
“Local farmers produce a very small amount of the food consumed in our county. Virtually no grains, rice, beans, canola, cotton are grown in the area, so these crops are consumed either directly or via animals that contain GMOs,” he said.
Local farmer Rowen White of Sierra Seeds Cooperative believes labeling GMOs is an important first step that will help to educate people about the reality of what is in their food.
She cites the use of GMOs found in commercial agriculture at all-time highs — as much as 90 to 95 percent of all soy and corn seeds planted in the U.S. That is one reason she co-founded Sierra Seeds — to create a sustainable alternative for farmers.
“The bigger issue is the existence of these techniques and seeds at all. I hope that raising consciousness through labeling of GMOs will help to facilitate a widespread boycott of these products … I personally feel these foods are not safe for consumption. We should all have a choice whether we want to participate in the grand experiment that these corporations are playing with our food,” White said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at email@example.com or 530-913-3067.