Dear EarthTalk: Can you fill me in on what the “Just Label It” campaign is and what it is trying to accomplish?
— Eric Altieri, Columbus, OH
Just Label It is an effort spearheaded by organic farmers and food producers, consumer and public health advocates and environmentalists to persuade the federal government to require that foods with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients be labeled accordingly. Consumers have a right, they believe, to be able to make informed choices about which foods they put into their bodies and support with their pocketbooks.
Most Americans aren’t aware that some 80 percent of processed foods at grocery stores contain GE (also known as “genetically modified,” or GM) ingredients—yet in polls 93 percent of us support the notion of mandatory labeling of such foods. At present the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require labels for foods with GE ingredients.
Proponents of Just Label It worry that genetically engineered plants (and animals) could wreak havoc on human health and natural ecosystems, given how little we know about them and their ability to proliferate beyond our control. Among the concerns: There has been no long-term health safety testing on GE ingredients because they are so new; unexpected mutations can occur which can introduce unknown toxins into the food supply; the increasing use of herbicide-resistant genes in crops is leading to the overuse of herbicides in general; and the planting of GE crops that are programmed to generate their own pesticides means that more pesticides are in our farms and fields than ever before. Perhaps most worrisome of all is that, unlike chemical pollution or even nuclear contamination, so-called “genetic pollution” (as some critics refer to GE) cannot be cleaned up after the fact once the proverbial genie is out of the bottle.
“What unifies many of us is the belief that it’s our right to know,” Just Label It organizers report. The idea for the campaign grew out of a 2011 meeting of organic stakeholders organized by Organic Voices, a project that documents the oral history of organic farming and sustainable agriculture.
The first order of business for the “Just Label It” campaign was to submit a legal petition—written by attorneys at the non-profit Center for Food Safety—to the FDA in September 2011 calling for the mandatory labeling of GE foods for sale in the United States. At this point, FDA is taking public comments on the petition and will issue a final ruling on it later in 2012.
Consumers can make their opinions on the topic heard by FDA regulators by customizing and submitting the form letter available at the JustLabelIt.org home page. To date some 600,000 people have sent along comments to the FDA due to the campaign’s outreach efforts. Just Label It aims to get that number to one million by the end of spring 2012, and is now working with 450 different partner groups to help spread the word. Campaign organizers are hoping that this outpouring of support will resonate with FDA regulators when it comes time for them to decide whether or not the U.S. should join almost 50 other countries–including South Korea, Brazil, China, and the European Union—in requiring GE labeling across the board.