Student Voices Series: Awareness, not Fear, in the Right to Know Debate

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The Minnesota Environmental Partnership is proud to feature the following post as part of a series of columns as part of a Student Voices Series issues. This is part of a continuing collaboration with Macalester College’s Geography Department and its students.

Today, in grocery stores everywhere, Minnesotans are not fully aware of the food they are placing in their shopping carts. Specifically, they do not know which foods contain genetically modified organisms, more commonly known as GMOs. A proposed bill at the Minnesota legislature for mandatory labeling of these ingredients will ensure that everyone has the information they need to purchase foods according to their values.     

The 2014 survey by Consumer Reports indicates that 92% of American respondents want GMO foods to be labeled. This does not mean that 92% of Americans want to put a stop to genetic engineering. Some believe the technology is the solution to ending world hunger while others believe it will lead to the collapse of crop diversity and an explosion of “super weeds”. Some people are opposed to GMOs simply because they only want to put in their body what naturally exists on Earth.

Putting the debate aside, GMO labeling is the middle ground everyone should agree on. If Minnesotans support or don’t see a harm in genetic engineering, they will continue to purchase their Frosted Flakes, frozen dinners, and veggie burgers with no economic burden on the company. Americans eat plenty of GMO foods without realizing it.  Let’s face it: they are hard to avoid.

On the other hand, those who do not want to eat GMO foods for environmental or health reasons will be able to put their dollar elsewhere. If concerned or confused about the information provided by the label, Minnesotans could read more about genetically modified foods, speculate the contents of their grocery cart, and understand the agricultural world outside of their pantry and fridge.

Labeling empowers moms, dads, college students, business men and women to make an informed choice between purchasing a product or not. For example, “USDA certified organic” labels allow individuals to support organic growers if they value natural agricultural practices over conventional. These every day decisions in the grocery store influence corporate success. Because corporations directly affect policy with their lobbying power, the foods people choose to buy affect social and environmental policy. So, every day is Election Day when shoppers are voting with their wallet to support particular companies or not. Minnesota can better harness this consumer power by expanding awareness of genetic engineering through labeling.

As of now, campaigns to label GMOs are focused on the state level. These were initially inspired by California’s Prop 37, a ballot initiative in 2012 to label GMO’s, which was narrowly defeated with 48.6% of California residents voting in favor. Vermont was the first state to successfully mandate labeling without any restrictions on neighboring states, as Maine had done.

The first steps to label have already been made in Minnesota. The Minnesota House of Representatives introduced bill H.F. 3140 in February 2013 to label foods – “Produced with Genetic Engineering” when necessary. The following month the State Senate introduced S.F. 2865 to label genetically engineered foods with the goals that labels would provide officials with better labeling of adulterated products, limit the economic burdens of non-GMO producers, and most importantly, raise consumer choice.  

I encourage Minnesotans to contact local legislators, especially those recently elected, and share their support of labeling. To have wider success, they can explain that even with much of the technology of genetic engineering unclear, the rights of consumers is a necessity. I encourage Minnesotans to reach out to Right to Know Minnesota, a non-profit organization run by volunteers to lobby the state government to support GMO labeling laws, in order to find out more about the campaign and become involved with their efforts. With a widespread citizen effort, this state could become the first in the Midwest to label GMOs giving Minnesotans the protection and awareness they constitutionally deserve. 

Not all Minnesotans are farmers, but these men, women, and children keep the farmers in business. So they have every right to know what processes and ingredients go into the food they purchase and more importantly- eat.

Megan Davitt is an Economics and Environmental Studies student at Macalester College. She volunteers with Right to Know MN and is starting up a student organization on campus to tackle issues surrounding food justice and consumer awareness.

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