“We lost the battle but we will win the war”

Published: January 4, 2013

By Ken Roseboro

Category: GM Food Labeling and Regulations

Gary Hirshberg and Arran Stephens

Gary Hirshberg and Arran Stephens

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Gary Hirshberg and Arran Stephens on the way forward after Proposition 37

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm, and Arran Stephens, CEO of Nature’s Path, are leaders in the fight to label genetically engineered foods in the United States. Hirshberg is chairman of Just Label It, a campaign to establish GM food labeling at the national level. Stephens worked extensively on the Proposition 37 initiative to label GM foods in California, and his company donated $660,000 to support the effort, the largest sum donated by any organic food company.

Ken Roseboro, editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, interviewed Hirshberg and Stephens on the next steps in the fight to label GM foods in the US and Canada. (Though the interviews were conducted separately, they have been combined into one article.)

What are your thoughts on the outcome of Proposition 37?

Gary Hirshberg: I think we actually won. To have 6 million people vote yes in the face of $46 million in spending to defeat it is astonishing. We were outspent five to one. If the opponents hadn’t spent that much money we would have won.

It was David versus Goliath, and money won it. It’s understandable that people are angry. It’s the right reaction. We aren’t having elections, we are having sales.

But people need to take heart. We are just getting in the game. We may have lost the battle but we are winning the war.

Just Label It is getting far more attention because of Prop 37. Journalists are calling us, celebrities are coming forward to support labeling, and donations are coming in. Prop 37 has been extremely positive for Just Label It.

Arran Stephens: Prop 37 consumed most of my time for several months, and we contributed $660,000. We moved the needle closer (in favor of labeling).

We may have lost the battle, but it’s just one battle, and there will be many more to come. I’m convinced we will win this. Six million consumers spoke very loud that they wanted right to know. That sent a signal to Washington, DC, and people there have to notice this. Awareness of GMOs has raised one thousand fold.

Monsanto and big food companies were willing to stoop to any depth to win this and dumped $46 million to defeat it. We did not have the money to counter the dirty tricks and misleading ads of the opponents. The enemies of truth do criminal things to muzzle voices of dissent that demand freedom of information.

If our opponents think we are going to give up, they are very mistaken. The battle has just begun, and we will keep going until we win.

What are the positives you see coming from Prop 37, the lessons to be learned?

AS: The fact that so many people supported it. Consumer activism against GMOs reached greater heights. There are also boycotts against traitor (organic and natural food) brands controlled by major food companies that spent millions to defeat consumers’ right to know. Kashi and Cascadian Farms have received thousands of emails from irate customers.

Our approach was to not talk too much about science and health risks (of GMOs) but to focus on the right to know. I’m more deeply radical on the issue and want so see a ban. I’m not against science but I’m against something that hasn’t been tested for safety. GMOs are a very fundamental threat to ecology and biodiversity.

I was troubled to see some people in the organic industry that sat back and watched when they could have made a difference (with Prop 37). Those that didn’t provide support are likely to suffer some backlash.

Our customers know where Nature’s Path stands on the GMO issue. We aren’t muzzled by Wall Street.

What will be the focus of Just Label It going forward after Prop 37?

GH: We will resume our focus on changing the federal labeling policy at the FDA. It’s time to take a fresh look at a 20-year-old policy (towards GM food labeling) to see whether these guidelines, which were developed before GM crops were on the market, are in the best interests of our citizens. We believe that a lot has changed, and there is new scientific data that needs to be taken into account.

The government has been AWOL on the health and safety impacts of GMOs.

We need more robust independent research on GM crops and chemical use. There is an application for 2,4-D resistant GM corn. This is an environmental train wreck and will cause chemical inflation. Weeds are becoming resistant to herbicides and now chemical companies are encouraging the use of stronger chemicals.

There are no yield increases (with GM crops). A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed no yield benefits. The only increase in yields is in chemical use and profits for chemical companies.

Will Just Label It be working with the state labeling initiatives, such as those in Washington, Vermont, and Connecticut?

GH: We are clearly supporting state labeling efforts, but given what we just witnessed in California, it is not economically viable for our side to mount a state by state fight. We know now that our opponents are likely to spend whatever it takes because labeling is a major threat to them. We can’t put all our eggs in that basket. We need a federal solution.

Will Nature’s Path be supporting the labeling initiative in Washington, I-522? What is the progress on that initiative?

AS: We are considering joining a coalition of organizations and individuals in Washington to support the labeling effort. No doubt we will be outspent again by Monsanto. Many people in Washington feel more hopeful because the governor and several state senators as well as conventional wheat and apple farmers support labeling

More organizations are starting to rally around that effort, including the Center for Food Safety and Organic Consumers Association. I hope Whole Foods and others who came out late in the game in California join.

The language in the Washington initiative is also more simple and palatable than Prop 37, and I think it has a better chance of passing.

Gary, I heard you speak at the Organic Summit about how big food companies that opposed Prop 37 have “drunk the Kool-Aid” on the promises of GMOs. Do you think food companies may start to question their support of a technology that provides them little benefit and many potential downsides?

GH: It’s not a smart way to build an identity by denying people the right to know what is in their food. There needs to be serious reflection (within these companies). Brands should ask themselves: does it make sense that now we have to spend millions of dollars to tell consumers they can’t know what’s in their food? If I heard that in a boardroom, I’d be asking questions.

Do you think food companies may start sourcing non-GMO ingredients to avoid having to deal with the controversy and trying to gain a marketing advantage to meet consumer demand for foods without GMOs?

GH: It’s not a question of whether; it’s a question of when. It is inevitable. That would be smart branding. The polls remain the same: more than 90% of people don’t want to eat GMOs.

AS: The same companies that fought Prop 37 sell non-GMO versions of their products to other countries (that have GM food labeling laws). For them to say they can’t produce non-GMO products here is a totally fallacious argument.

I read an article recently in the Chicago Tribune where an attorney who had represented biotech companies said there was a tipping point coming in favor of GM food labeling. Do you also see a tipping point coming? How do you see it happening?

GH: It’s not a question of if we win this; it’s a question of when.

I want to emphasize that we aren’t asking for the abolition of GMOs. I’m not even saying I’m opposed to them. My argument is that these crops shouldn’t be released until we understand their impacts. And while science sorts this out, people absolutely have the right to know if foods contain GMOs. It’s ironic that China and Russia have right to know and American’s don’t. All we are asking for is transparency, and it’s hard to argue against transparency. The war of logic is being won here.

I’ve been covering the GMO issue since 1999 and I’ve never seen such grassroots action on labeling as I’ve seen in the past two years. Why do you think it is happening now?

GH: We have hit a tipping point; people have woken up to what we are doing with GMOs. Think about what happened with tobacco. It took decades for something to happen. This is an evolutionary process. If you know more you will get active.

For me the tipping point was genetically engineered alfalfa, which is a clear threat to organic dairy. GE alfalfa was introduced purely in the interests of creating a new profit stream for chemical companies. This technology got through with so little resistance. For me it was a life changing moment. It woke me up to how broken our regulatory system and democracy is. That’s why I became involved.

This is more than just about GMOs; it’s about transparency and citizens’ rights and about the influence of corporations on the government.

What do you see as the way forward to establish mandatory labeling in the US and Canada?

AS: More of the same. Continue the struggle and learn from mistakes and successes. Build a strong coalition. Make the language (of labeling laws) easy to understand. Seek allies in high places.

This is a movement where we have started to awaken the sleeping giant of millions of people who are becoming aware of GMOs in their food and want the right to know. It’s a basic democratic right to know what’s in our foods.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, December/January 2013