You’d think that having a food-industry monster like Wal-Mart talking to federal regulators about labeling products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) would have anti-GMO types jumping for joy.
The New York Times and other publications reported last month that Wal-Mart was having talks with other food corporations, and some closed-door talks with federal officials, about GMO labeling.
The trouble is, say activists like Connecticut’s Tara Cook-Littman, the history of the cozy relationship between the federal government and the giant corporations that control the American system of food doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
“I think any [action] by big corporations like Wal-Mart… is an attempt to squash our movement,” says Cook-Littman, the head of GMO Free CT. “I just don’t think they have the peoples’ best interests in mind.”
Bill Duesing, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, is another skeptic. Like other food activists, he worries Wal-Mart is looking for federal action on GMO labeling that would halt the rapidly growing movements across the U.S. for state labeling laws.
Duesing, Cook-Littman and others fear a namby-pamby federal GMO labeling law or regulation would simply overrule much stronger state laws. “The states would be pre-empted from doing anything more,” Duesing says.
Connecticut is one of 37 states now considering passing legislation to require products containing GMOs to be labeled that way. A bill in the 2013 General Assembly is now being written to do just that, says state Rep. Phillip Miller, a Democrat from Essex. But he adds passage in this state won’t be easy.
“We may have a tough row to hoe because our own legislative leadership may not see the significance of this issue,” says Miller. A similar bill in last year’s legislature never stood much of a chance, but food activists are hoping their 2013 campaign will have a better shot.
Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of GMO seeds, and other agri-business and food industry giants spent $49 million last year to defeat California’s Proposition 37, which would have required GMO labeling. But that election battle in California only seemed to energize the anti-GMO movement across the nation.
Some experts are suggesting companies like Wal-Mart may be rethinking their strategy, hoping to sidestep a tidal wave of consumer sentiment in opposition to genetically modified foods.
Monsanto and federal Food and Drug Administration experts insist there is no difference between genetically modified foods and so-called natural foods, and that labeling produces containing GMOs would only “confuse consumers.” Critics insist there is lots of circumstantial evidence indicating GMO crops may be bad for humans and for the environment.
By some estimates, nearly all processed foods in the U.S. contain ingredients that come from GMO crops. The FDA is reportedly close to approving a genetically modified salmon, and the feds are also weighing giving the go-ahead to GMO apples.
Duesing says the fact that the Wal-Mart’s of the world are even considering changing their position is an indication of how strong that consumer attitude is becoming. “If there wasn’t such widespread pressure… they [officials at big companies like Wal-Mart] wouldn’t care,” he says.
Except a lot of activists on the GMO issue simply don’t trust Corporate America.
“My biggest fear is that federal action will be taken that has no teeth, and there will be no enforcement, and it would pre-empt any state action,” warns Coo-Littman. “From all the indications, it’s pretty clear… that some bargain would be struck [between the corporations and federal officials] and I don’t think it would have the people’s best interests in mind.”
“The opposition is so slippery in the way they talk and deal with things,” agrees Duesing.
Duesing says this wave of anti-GMO in America is “an opportunity for consumers to take back control of an out-of-control food system, or a corporate controlled food system.”
“It’s a chance for consumers in Connecticut and the nation to flex their muscles,” he insists, citing polls that show vast majorities of Americans favor labeling of GMO foods.
Earlier this month, supporters of the Connecticut GMO labeling campaign conducted a news conference at the state's Legislative Office Building to urge lawmakers to get behind the GMO bill.
Miller points out that 62 other nations already require GMO foods to be labeled.
He adds that American’s just aren’t use to mistrusting the companies that have produced their favorite foods for so long.
“It’s difficult for anyone to think that Big Agri-Business would do anything that’s not in our best interests because we’ve trusted them our whole lives,” Miller says.
But maybe not any longer.