I moved here last month as the Champaign-Urbana field organizer for Food & Water Watch, the national consumer advocacy organization working to protect our food and water resources. We are working to return the power of choice to consumers by getting genetically engineered (GE) foods labeled in Illinois. At the kickoff meeting for our “Let Me Decide: Make GE Labels the Law” campaign here in Urbana on September 19, approximately 50 community members gathered to join the fight to take back control of our food system and our basic right to know what we eat.
The food system is not working for most Americans. At the heart of it all, we don’t know what we’re eating because corporations are hiding information from consumers. Without consumers’ consent, biotech companies use genetic engineering – inserting genes from one plant, animal, or microorganism into the DNA of an entirely different species – to patent life and grow their profits. The vast majority of corn and soy in America—which are the key ingredients in most processed foods—is genetically engineered, and we eat these foods every day.
From a consumer advocacy perspective, the key problem is that there are not enough long-term studies indicating whether or not GE foods are safe for human consumption, and yet the Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling of these potentially unsafe foods. We are a living experiment. In a world where corporate profits triumph over the consumer right to know, we have lost our core American value of having the right to choose for ourselves.
I want a world where I can walk down the grocery aisle and know whether the cereal for my breakfast, the papaya for my lunch, and the sweet corn for my dinner are grown naturally, or whether their DNA was engineered in a laboratory. I want a world where farmers do not have to choose between growing natural food and making a profit, and a world where farmers can engage in the timeless, life-sustaining practice of saving seeds without getting sued for violating patent laws. I want a world where parents can choose what to feed their children, a world where friends can choose what to feed each other, a world where we can all choose what to feed ourselves. I want a world where policy makers do not have to choose between keeping their constituents safe and having the money to get re-elected.
I lived in England for a year, which ignited my interest in this issue. There I noticed that supermarket products were labeled as genetically engineered or not. Over 50 countries require similar labeling of GE foods, and yet the United States does not. Just as consumers can choose products based on fat or calorie content, consumers have the right to know whether a product contains potentially unsafe GE ingredients. We deserve labeling here in America, here in Illinois, and here in Champaign-Urbana.
As we speak, biotech companies are dumping millions of dollars into a misinformation campaign to defeat a grassroots ballot initiative in California that would make GE labeling mandatory. In the advocacy organizing world, we often speak of “organized money versus organized people,” a concept that applies particularly well to this issue. Organized money wants to keep us in the dark about our food. Yet I believe that organized people can overcome organized money. Moreover, the power of organized people is the strongest, and perhaps the only, force that can.
This is the perfect time for organized people to take a stand on GE food. There is never-before-seen national momentum for this issue with Proposition 37, California’s ballot initiative, and the Food & Water Watch “Let Me Decide” campaign across the country. Citizens everywhere are becoming more aware of what they are eating and are beginning to speak out: we have the right to know what’s in our food! Here in Illinois, this is also the perfect time to act. Just this September, Representative Deborah Mell committed to introducing an Illinois House bill that would require the labeling of all GE foods in Illinois. We need to get a companion bill introduced in the Illinois State Senate before the start of the next legislative session in January 2013. This means that we need a commitment from our elected officials here in Champaign-Urbana before the end of this year
Within the first six weeks of this campaign, over 700 C-U residents signed petitions in support of a statewide bill requiring the labeling of GE foods in Illinois. With enough pressure from local residents like you, we will win. We must build a groundswell of public support to take back our right to know what we are eating.
Come get involved! Our “Let Me Decide” campaign uses a variety of tactics and events, both to win this campaign and to build a sustainable food community here in Champaign-Urbana. In the past month, we held a kickoff meeting to strategize about the campaign, a call-in day of action, a documentary screening at Tiny Greens Organic Farm, petitioning events, socials in downtown Urbana, and two campaign strategy meetings. The people involved in this campaign bring diverse backgrounds, passions and reasons for caring about this issue. Join us to learn more, to discuss why you care, to share your creativity, to meet other people in this community, and to take action.
Join us at these exciting upcoming events:
Film screening and letter-writing party: Thursday, Oct. 11, 6:00-8:00PM, Lincoln Square Mall (Space 114). At this event co-sponsored by Food & Water Watch, Strawberry Fields, and Common Ground Co-Op, come watch the new documentary “The World According to Monsanto” while eating non-GE food! After the film, we will write handwritten letters to our local representatives, showing our support for GE labeling.
Campaign Strategy Meeting: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 7:30-8:30 PM, Urbana Free Library lower level conference room. Come learn more about the campaign, meet people involved, and help us to strategize about upcoming events and long-term goals. We’ll have non-GE baked goods!
Want to learn more or ready to volunteer today? We also have frequent volunteer opportunities, where you can make a difference while learning how to do various grassroots organizing techniques! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, please see www.foodandwaterwatch.org, and watch for our events on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FWWillinois.
Hanna is the Champaign-Urbana field organizer for Food & Water Watch, the national consumer advocacy non-profit. She graduated in anthropology from Williams College in Massachusetts.