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GMO Labeling Activists Protest Bill to Preempt States’ Rights to Label GMOs

From the minute the first bus arrived outside Washington D.C.’s Rayburn Building, and 50 sleep-deprived but enthusiastic activists spilled out onto the sidewalk, it was clear. This would be a day of grassroots greatness.

Outdoors, at least.

Indoors? It fast became equally clear that this would be another day of business-as-usual on Capitol Hill, of corporations running the show with the help of their hired-gun politicians.

By the end of the day we knew this: The road toward ending the corporate corruption of our food system—and of our Democracy—will be a long one. And we will need millions of indefatigable people to walk with us.

What happened inside

On Wednesday, December 10, about 600 farmers, consumers and citizens of all stripes traveled—many of them overnight on crowded buses—to Washington D.C. to voice their opposition to a federal bill that would, among other things, strip states of their right to pass GMO labeling laws.

The bill, H.R. 4432, was getting its first hearing, in room 2123 of the Rayburn Building, before the House Energy & Commerce subcommittee on Health (members listed here). Although more than a hundred of the people who traveled to D.C. for the hearing arrived early enough to line up inside the building to get one of the 52 spots, a mere four of our pro-labeling representatives actually got a seat?

Why so few? According to one of our activists, who managed to get inside, about 15 of those seats had already been grabbed by people paid to hold them, and who later gave them up to pro-Monsanto lobbyists. Another 10 had been snagged by members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which helped write the bill.
The rest of the seats were occupied by students who had been paid by Monsanto, the GMA or lobbyists to show up before dawn to take up as many seats as possible.

Once the hearing began, it didn’t take long for it to evolve into a pro-industry tirade about how foods containing genetically modified organisms are “scientifically proven to be safe,” how labels will “confuse” consumers and how we surely don’t want to pass any laws that might hurt (as in, hurt the bottom lines of) businesses—including (and especially) those businesses that have already spent more than $100 million to make sure consumers don’t win the right to know the truth about the ingredients these companies are putting in the food products they want us to buy.

You can listen to the entire hearing here. But the upshot was this. Democrats and Republicans alike regurgitated Monsanto and the GMA’s talking points, one after another. And anyone who dared refute those points was dismissed and/or bullied.
Be sure to watch the end of the hearing where Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), who introduced the industry-backed bill, flat out says that H.R. 4432 (which unequivocally would prevent states from passing GMO labeling laws) denies that the bill is designed to keep consumers in the dark:

“There is nothing in this legislation that denies any consumer in any capacity the right to know precisely what it is the food they’re eating.”

To which we say, baloney (a meat product made from animals fed GMO feed).

What happened outside

While our elected officials were inside singing the praises, and declaring the safety, of GMO-contaminated foods, outside, hundreds of us gathered on the lawn of the Capitol to hold our own “hearing.”

It was an inspiring crowd.

One young activist drove 18 hours, from Arkansas, with a few friends to stand in the cold and wind, so his voice could be heard.

Another woman drove by herself, from North Carolina.

Many arrived via buses that traveled all night. From New England and Indiana. From Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan and South Carolina.

They held banners. They shared stories, and later, an organic lunch at a nearby church.

They also heard from speakers who are on our side. Will Allen, a Vermont farmer and author who helped spearhead Vermont’s GMO labeling law, told the crowd that we have to protect the rights of other states to pass similar laws.

Randy Hartnell, president and founder of Vital Choice Wild Seafood, flew in from Washington State to represent business owners whose livelihoods will be threatened if the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved genetically engineered salmon.

Jonathan Emord, a Washington D.C. attorney, told the crowd that if industry wants to campaign for GMOs, they have a simple choice. “Tell us the truth.” The same goes for government, if they want to get involved. “It’s as simple as this. Just tell us the truth. Let the American people have the freedom of choice.”

Emord also said:
“This country is predicated on free and open debate. Don’t censor that debate by the use of federal legislation to shut down what we can know and what we can talk about, based on knowledge.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) also addressed the rally. She started out by snapping a photo of the crowd, to send to her constituents so “the 90 percent of Americans who support GMO labeling can see that you are here to speak for them.”

Pingree, who is also an organic farmer, told the crowd that this is “not just about the GMO food . . . It’s also about the farming practices and what they are doing to our environment.”

She closed by telling the crowd: “I’m here to join you in this fight.” And said that we must all continue to “make our voices heard until we can say that we’ve won this fight in every state in the country and right here in Washington.” 

From all reports on the December 10 hearing on H.R. 4432, this will indeed be a long fight. Politico reported this:

While Pompeo’s bill thus far has gained few Democratic sponsors— Matheson and Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina are the only three — the reaction to the hearing by members of the committee could be an indication that it is poised to gain more support next year.

Pompeo said he plans to reintroduce the bill in January in an effort to gain passage in the next session, and while he could not say who would sign onto the bill, Democrats seem to be warming up to the measure.

We have our work cut out for us next year. Thankfully, we have a strong and committed—and growing larger every day—grassroots movement that is in this fight for the long haul.

Watch a video of the outdoor rally here:

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.