Activists Across PA Join Global Monsanto Protest, Could Help Achieve Statewide GMO Labeling

Photo: Cheryl Biren. Monsanto Protest - Philadelphia

On October 12, people across Pennsylvania and around the world hit the streets to protest against the food mega-corporation Monsanto. Their production of genetically engineered (GE) foods or genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) was a chief focus of the protests both within and without the borders of the commonwealth. Over 60 countries have mandated the labeling of genetically manipulated food products, but the United States is not one of them. We don’t have those laws on the national level or, so far, any statewide level. But the latter is about to change.

A small fraction of the states in our union are seemingly on the verge of requiring GE foods to be labeled as such, and while Pennsylvania isn’t as close to passing ours as they are, we have our own statewide proposal that is steadily gaining momentum. To be able to know and choose what we put into our bodies ought to be a human right. Of course, if all these activists that came crawling out of the woodwork in PA to join the worldwide Monsanto protest also hit the streets for the political campaigns of candidates that support their position on GE food labeling, that momentum could culminate in enacted law a lot sooner than it otherwise would.

October 12 was the second worldwide protest against Monsanto organized by the group March Against Monsanto. Millions of people participated in protests in over 50 countries and over 400 cities, which according to their official list included seven different protests in Pennsylvania. They were in Bethlehem, Harrisburg, Indiana, Lancaster, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and my own stomping grounds of Stroudsburg (though I very regrettably was not able to make it).

Susan Koomar wrote a piece called “Protestors ‘March Against Monsanto’ in Bethlehem: March Against Monsanto in Bethlehem protests the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)” for the Bethlehem Patch, but it didn’t contain any Bethlehem-specific information that couldn’t be gleaned from the sole picture it contained:

photo by Kim Fallon / Bethlehem Patch
They’re a little hard to make out, but you can see several signs with anti-GMO messages here, some with messages demanding labeling. Betsey Piette reported for Workers World that hundreds of people participated in the Philadelphia March Against Monsanto, and you can see plenty of anti-GMO signs in this video of it from YouTube’s Fenstermaker Films.

You’ll notice a lot of the anti-GMO signs in Philadelphia have messages calling for mandatory labeling as well. There are already a whopping 64 countries that require GMO labeling, including such human rights luminaries as China and Russia. The people in these countries effectively have the human right to know and choose what they’re putting in their bodies, but right now no one in the United States does. So, for example, if you don’t want to eat Monsanto’s US-grown-and-consumed NK603 GE corn that the controversial Seralini study (whose research methods were recently validated by the European Food Safety Authority) showed gave rats at least a 50% chance of premature death and a 200% – 300% increase in large tumors, pictured here:

…and you want the human right to know if the food you’re buying and consuming has been genetically manipulated, GMO labels give you that knowledge and that choice. Without labels, you can’t tell if a food product has GMO’s when you look at it in the supermarket, and consumers can’t choose whether or not to risk winding up like these rats.According to Right to Know GMO’s map of US states’ progress on GMO labeling, it looks like Washington, Connecticut, and Maine are very likely to be the first. A statewide ballot initiative to mandate GMO labeling will be voted on in the election coming up very shortly on November 5 in Washington, while both chambers of the respective state legislatures of Connecticut and Maine have all passed GMO labeling bills but neither state has yet seen a bill signed into law. Pennsylvania isn’t moving anywhere near that fast right now, but we’re at least on the radar thanks to Daylin Leach, a Democrat who describes himself as “Pennsylvania’s leading progressive state senator.”I blogged about his GMO labeling bill, SB 653, when he introduced it in the PA Senate earlier this year. I recently reached out to his office to ask how he thinks the Seralini study being validated by the EFSA impacts the fight for his bill here in Pennsylvania, and this was Daylin’s response:

I think that there is a lot of back and forth about the science, and instead of wading into this particular discussion — and as a non-scientist — it is all the more important that we label GMO food. [SB 653] will allow consumers to decide for themselves whether or not they want to take the risk of eating something that may be hazardous or cancer causing as one study suggests.

And this is the updated list of the bill’s cosponsors they provided me with:

1. Senator John Wozniak
2. Senator James Brewster
3. Senator Wayne Fontana
4. Senator Stewart Greenleaf
5. Senator Lawrence Farnese
6. Senator Timothy Solobay
7. Senator Jim Ferlo
8. Senator Vincent Hughes
9. Senator Matt Smith
10. Senator LeAnna Washington
11. Senator John Yudichak
12. Senator Anthony Williams
13. Senator Andy Dinniman

This list is looking really solid because of the numbers and because of the names. The PA Senate is made up of 50 state senators, and right now there are 27 Republicans and 23 Democrats. So over half the Democratic caucus in the PA Senate has now cosponsored the GMO labeling bill, and if every Democratic state senator supported it, it would only need a tiny fraction of the Republicans’ votes for it to pass. I think it’s a realistic possibility that this could be supported by every Democratic state senator because the current list already includes the names of pure progressives and people with some conservative positions. Jim Ferlo is about as solid a progressive as they come, having introduced bills in the PA Senate for a statewide universal health care system and a moratorium on the natural gas drilling process fracking, while Vincent Hughes and Anthony Williams proved themselves to be more conservative when they signed a letter to the PA Democratic Party chairman opposing a resolution calling for a moratorium on fracking that the state party officially adopted.

That’s a great start, but we’ve still got quite a ways to go before we’ve achieved mandated GMO labeling. The good news is that the Pennsylvania activists who took part in the March Against Monsanto can help us get there. I’m sure there are some among them who already recognize the importance of other forms of activism, but I’m equally sure there are others who don’t. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly not an either/or proposition and I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from making their voice heard by storming the streets in peaceful protest, but there are other forms of activism people can also participate in to push along GMO labeling in PA even more forcefully. Or, for that matter, those of us who are passionate about the issue but didn’t make it out to one of the protests.

The first step is something you can do right now. Contact your state senator, tell them why you think GMO labeling is so important, and pressure them to support SB 653. Admittedly, even if a majority in the PA Senate supported it, right now the Republican governor and much bigger Republican majority in the PA House we have would still make it very unlikely to pass. But building that momentum each step of the way is crucial to attaining the desired final result. That’s where the second step comes in.

Governor Corbett’s dismal-and-still-sinking reelection prospects are making the chances of a Democratic sweep of state government in 2014 seem more likely all the time. (Far from certain, but definitely more likely.) The second step is finding state legislative candidates that support GMO labeling where you live and helping them get elected next year. That’s a lot more complicated and takes a lot more effort than making a phone call, but it’s really not much more demanding than participating in a protest. Candidates are always trying to get their names out there and taking all the help they can get. If you can find your local GMO protests, you should also be able to find your local candidates who support labeling, and if you can spend an afternoon marching, you can spend an afternoon knocking on voters’ doors or calling them on the phone.

I believe marching in the street can make a difference, but I know this kind of electoral activism can make more of a difference. Similarly, I believe Pennsylvania will eventually have mandated GMO labeling whether or not there’s a surge in electoral activism around the issue, but I know if there is such a surge, that eventuality will be upon us much sooner.

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