Refusing the DARK

Jennette Turner, a Right to Know board chair (left), Heather Flesland, campaign director, and Tracy Singleton, board member. Photo by Mary Turck.

I want to know if I’m eating these crops that are grown with massive doses of pesticide.
-Jennette Turner

Are you eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Probably, says Right to Know Minnesota (RTK), since more than 90 percent of all corn and soybeans planted in the U.S. is genetically modified, along with lots of sugar beets, canola and other crops.

Genetically engineered foods have been in U.S. grocery stores since 1994. RTK is fighting for a law requiring labels for foods containing GMOs, a move opposed by big agrichemical and agribusiness organizations.

“Why can’t we know what’s in our food? Why can’t we know what we are feeding our families?” asks RTK campaign director Heather Flesland. “You should be able to have that power, to know what’s in your food, to make that choice for your family.”

GMOs, food and the right to know are women’s issues, says Jennette Turner, a RTK board chair. “Ecofeminism is concerned with how we treat the land, how we treat all people and make those connections.”

Women lead the way in Minnesota’s Right To Know movement, building a coalition with hundreds of farms, restaurants, co-ops, groceries and other organizations.

GMO 101

GMOs are made by taking one or more genes from one organism and implanting them in a second organism. That’s different from the more traditional selective breeding to get desired traits, which takes longer and does not transplant genes across species.

People concerned about GMOs see four basic issues: food safety, farmer protection, environmental impact and – the biggest issue for Right to Know Minnesota – transparency about GMOs and about how our food is produced.

Health effects from genetically modified foods have not been shown, but the presence of pesticide residues in these products is a related food safety issue.

Roundup Ready seeds are genetically altered to survive the application of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Roundup Ready seeds constitute one of the biggest uses of GMOs, allowing massive applications of Roundup herbicide to fields. Roundup’s basic component is glyphosate, which has just been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

“I want to know if I’m eating these crops that are grown with massive doses of pesticide,” Turner says.

Other environmental issues raised by GMOs include contamination of non-GMO (and especially organic) crops by pollen drift from GMO fields, and a huge increase in pesticide-resistant weeds.

As for the impact on farmers, Turner notes that the use of GMOs “displaces small farms [and] environmentally friendly growing practices.”

The combination of GMO seeds and higher agrochemicals are important components of a global movement to increasing the size of farms and driving out the small farmers – including most women farmers – who produce food to feed their families. Around the world, women produce more than half of all food crops. Most of this is small-scale production.

The complex social and economic dynamics that are changing farming include not only GMOs and agrochemicals, but also land prices, mortgages, and decreased market access for smaller producers.

RTK leadership and legislation

Whether or not GMOs affect your health directly, RTK board member Tracy Singleton says, consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. While RTK board members and supporters “are at different points” in the overall GMO debate, campaign director Heather Flesland says they are united in support of labeling.

Singleton, the owner of Birchwood Café in south Minneapolis, says, “We’ve always encouraged people to know and connect to where their food comes from.”

Singleton was disappointed by the defeat of California’s Prop 37, the GMO labeling initiative back in 2012. Big agrichemical and food companies – led by Monsanto, Dupont, Pepsico, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Dow Agrisciences – poured intense lobbying and money into defeating Prop 37.

Singleton started looking for ways to channel disappointment and anger into action and joined Right to Know Minnesota.

Turner worked closely with natural-food co-ops and in dietary counseling before she went back to school for her masters’ degree in public health. She volunteered as a Right to Know lobbyist as part of a class on legislative advocacy, and then continued as a volunteer and became a board member.

Flesland, now RTK’s campaign director, heard about GMOs on social media a few years ago. Then, in a career transition, she “had time to focus on advocacy and thought this seemed like a good cause.” To Flesland, the right to know what’s in food is just common sense.

Minnesota State Representative Karen Clark introduced GMO labeling legislation in 2015, and RTK hopes that the legislature will hold informational hearings on the bill in the 2016 session. Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have passed GMO labeling laws.

Around the world, 64 countries require labeling. On a federal level, RTK opposes HR 1599, known as the Deny Americans the Right-to-Know (DARK) legislation that would outlaw state and local labeling efforts and any state or local regulation of GMOs. The House of Representatives passed the DARK Act in July; at press time, the Senate had not yet voted on it.

A few years ago, says Flesland, most RTK supporters were in the metro area. But now the word is getting out: in April she logged 1200 miles, sharing the message across the state. “We haven’t had a gathering in greater Minnesota that’s under 50 people,” she says proudly.

“The big issue is corporate control over our whole agricultural system,” Turner says, “and without transparency, people can’t choose whether to participate in that or to opt out.”

Call Minnesota’s U.S. Senators and ask them to oppose the DARK Act.
Al Franken: 651-221-1016
Amy Klobuchar: 612-727-5220

To find state-level representatives to voice support for GMO labeling:www.gis.leg.mn/OpenLayers/districts
“Like” Right to Know Minnesota on Facebook: facebook.com/RightToKnowMN