Illinois and The Right to Know What’s In Our Food: Labeling Genetically Engineered Food

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Illinois has jumped into a food fight! Some even call it the food fight of our lives. It is the fight for our right to know what ingredients are in our food and to have those ingredients clearly and truthfully labeled. It is about control by Big Food, Big Ag, and the Biotech industry over our food system. It’s about democracy. This fight is about labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods.

In February Senator David Koehler (D, Peoria), Chairperson of the Agriculture and Conservation Committee, introduced S.B.1666, the Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act. Three hearings are being held this summer to gather expert testimony and public comments that will hopefully lead to an Illinois GE food labeling law. I drove to the first two hearings, at ISU, Normal, on June 20 and at SIU, Carbondale, on August 7. Both were well attended by the pro-labeling public, which at times was shushed into silence when emotions ran high and angry or incredulous outbursts could not be muffled.

During both hearings testimony concerning the costs involved with labeling GE foods was offered by both sides. The anti-labeling side uses scare tactics on the public, telling it that labeling will raise a family’s yearly food budget $400-$800. Actually, according to an impartial consulting firm, costs to consumers would be between $0.33 and $5.58 annually for a household. That’s not much. Wendel Lutz, a third generation farmer in northern Champaign county, explained that the infrastructure to separate, store, sell and label products is already well in place and available to all farmers, debunking the claim by anti-labeling advocates that creating such an infrastructure would be too costly and cumbersome to implement. We heard threats of loss of range and selection of food items on our shelves. Mistakes. Disruptions. Consequences. All leading to higher food costs and even shortages! Profits will be hurt! It’s interesting that they make no mention of the significant costs to farmers from Monsanto’s patents, increased use of toxic chemicals to combat superweeds and super bugs, and issues of contamination.

There is more at stake here than just costs and profits. It’s the very food that we eat. The five major commodity GE crops in America that go into our “food” are corn, canola, cotton (used as cottonseed oil), sugar beets and soy. They make up to 95 percent of all these crops grown in the U.S. and are found in some form in the majority of the thousands of processed food products that fill our grocery store shelves. There are now straight-to-consumer GE crops such as sweet corn, papaya, zucchini and yellow squash that are not labeled. GE salmon could be the first animal sold directly to consumers who would have no idea what they were eating. For anyone trying to avoid foods with GE ingredients, it takes real effort and determination. And the demand is growing. Jerry Bradley, of the Neighborhood Co-op Grocery in Carbondale, talked of coming through the recent recession to renewed and remarkable growth in the organic and natural food industry. People are catching on.

We’ve grown accustomed and even expect to see labels for sugar, fat, salt, nutritional content, ingredients, chemical-additives, date of expiration, even country of origin. Why is labeling GE ingredients such a problem? We heard in Carbondale that Americans do not care what is in their food. No? What about the latest New York Times poll, released July 27, finding 93 percent of Americans support mandatory labeling of GE foods. In fact, since genetically engineered food first became a cause for concern in 1996, polls have consistently shown that Americans want GE foods labeled. Just as consistently, our elected officials have ignored us. Why? What’s the payoff for denying what so many Americans say they want? Where’s our democracy in this issue?

Dave Bishop, owner of PrairiErth Farm in central Illinois, testified that labeling GE foods is an issue of leveling the playing field for farmers, making all the players in the food industry play by the same rules. The biotech industry claims that GE organisms and crops are no different from non-GE crops and therefore need no special labeling, but yet when it comes to ownership and patenting life forms suddenly these GE organisms are unique and deserving of corporate ownership. That’s a pothole-filled playing field.

Illinois is not alone in this fight. Connecticut and Maine have passed GE food labeling bills this year. But, written into these bills is the requirement that some number of other states must also pass labeling bills before their bills go into effect. Why is that? In March 2012 Vermont’s hugely popular H.722 died in committee because of corporate intimidation. Monsanto threatened to sue the state if it dared to pass the bill. It was easier to sink the bill than “go it alone” against Monsanto. In May Vermont’s House of Representatives passed a labeling bill, which will be taken up its the Senate in January 2014. Voters in Washington State will have their say in the fall when they take to the ballot box with initiative 522. Many other states have also been working on legislation this year. We are in good company.

Big Food works very hard to keep us in the dark about what is in our food. Last fall, opponents to California’s labeling initiative, Prop 37, spent $46 million dollars on their anti- campaign – 5 times more than the supporters raised. This includes Monsanto, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, Pepsico and Kraft Foods, to name just a few. People are waking up with the knowledge that these companies are not our friends and do not have our health and best interests at heart, no matter how gooey, yummy, enticing, and heart-felt their advertising ploys portray them.

One of the anti-labeling witnesses predicted that this period will be a “blip in time,” that future generations will look back on this moment and wonder why we ever questioned biotechnology’s role in feeding a hungry world. Maybe. But as Wesley Jarrell, owner of Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, said, “This is the perfect opportunity to apply the precautionary principle.” There is much we do not know about GE organisms. We need proof that these laboratory-engineered creations are a benefit to the world, not harmful to humans and the environment. That proof can only come with full disclosure and unbiased research, a strong FDA and USDA, and labeling laws.

The final hearing will be held in Chicago, September 17, 10:00-12:00, in the Michael Bilandic Building, 160 LaSalle Street. Please go to Food and Water Watch ( for fact sheets and information on the issue. Add your name to the petition to label GE foods in Illinois.

LoisKain-head shotLois Kain grew up along the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, moved to the Sonoran Desert where she earned a Masters Degree in Classical Archaeology from the University of Arizona, and is now a transplant to Urbana. She has spent many summers on archaeological excavations and is an archaeological illustrator and custom cartographer. Being the local coordinator for Food and Water Watch has been a good fit.


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