Q & A: Wenonah Hauter on GMOs and Activism
By Marissa Sherman, for GMO Inside
Wenonah Hauter has worked extensively on food, water, energy and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Her book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America looks into the corporate consolidation and control over our food system and how that affects farmers and consumers. She is a skilled and accomplished organizer. She’s lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans concerning many food and environmental issues. She has an M.S. in Applied Anthropology from the University of Maryland.
Q: In your opinion, what is the root of the GMO problem? Why should people care?
A: People should care because very little unbiased, independent scientific research has been done into the health and environmental implications of GMOs, and the industry works hard to keep it that way through inappropriately influencing our academic institutions and bullying scientists who don’t comply with their worldview. What we do know about GMO crops is troubling: the vast majority are designed with the sole purpose of withstanding large quantities of toxic pesticides and herbicides that pollute our environment and are linked to serious health problems. This overuse of agrichemicals is also giving rise to uncontrollable superweeds that cost farmers thousands to deal with. But the root of the problem is that GMOs are a tool that giant agribusinesses like Monsanto have used to dominate multiple sectors of agriculture and make the marketplace less competitive and more expensive for farmers.
Q: Do you see GMO labeling happening anytime soon? How do you think it might happen? State-by-state or at the national level?
A: A huge grassroots movement is gaining ground around the country. I’m excited about the grassroots state legislative campaigns going on now that are advancing GMO labeling and have the industry on the defensive. While strong national labeling legislation is the end game, we believe that Oregon’s ballot fight for labeling can be won this November and are on the steering committee of that effort. The legislative fights we’re involved with in New York, Illinois, California and Florida also look promising and coalitions in several other states are making great progress as well. The industry is on the wrong side of history on this issue – eventually this labeling will be required.
Q: How would GMO labeling help midsize family farmers?
A: GMO labeling will help level the playing field for all farmers. Organic and non-GMO midsized family farmers are already responsible for taking preventative measures on their farms to avoid contamination, like establishing buffer zones, record-keeping, testing and surveillance, segregation, maintenance and cleaning at all steps of the supply chain. GMO labels will make the biotechnology companies that profit from this technology own up to it in the marketplace, and give all consumers (not just organic consumers) basic information we all have a right to know.
Biotechnology companies would be responsible for labeling seeds throughout the food chain, and food companies would only have a small additional cost to change their packaging materials. Requiring labeling across the board by making it mandatory would also avoid singling out certain producers or products, because it would apply to all GMO foods.
Q: What major food corporation infuriates you the most?
A: If I had to pick one, I would have to agree with the popular consensus that Monsanto is one of the most ruthless. As the world’s largest biotechnology seed company, Monsanto’s control over seeds harms farmers, the environment and the global economy. The runner up would have to be Walmart with their “bigger is best” business model that exploits workers, hurts farmers and has forced other grocery chains to consolidate in order to compete. A few years back, we created Walsanto: a fictional social media romance between Monsanto and Walmart as part of our wider campaign to pressure Walmart to refuse to sell Monsanto’s GE sweet corn.
Q: How do you feel about the word “natural”? Why can food corporations label GMO food as natural?
A: Putting the word “natural” on food packaging is one of the most deceptive marketing ploys that processed food corporations use and it’s completely unacceptable that the FDA allows GMO foods to be labeled as such. We are working with our allies to pressure the FDA to change this, but in the meantime, we created a fact sheet to help consumers decode “natural” labels and other misleading labels.
Q: Your book, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, discusses how major food corporations and chemical giants influence government policy to allow for more deregulation. Do you think campaign finance reforms and stricter anti-trust laws would help the movement more than a GMO labeling bill?
A: We must do all three to restore fairness to our food system and to our democracy. It is critically important for consumers to have basic information about the food they buy and feed their families. GMO labeling will remove the shroud of secrecy that the agribusiness industry uses to keep consumers in the dark about how our food was produced, which will give the power of information and choice to consumers. We should be able to decide for ourselves whether or not to partake in the GMO experiment.
Through the movement to label GMOs, more people have been educated and empowered to fight the consolidation of our food supply and learn more about the need for antitrust and other important regulations needed to shift the balance of power from the small handful of agribusiness back to people and communities.
Q: You’ve said that people have to be more than consumers. Would you please elaborate?
A: Ultimately, to create a fair and healthy food system and reclaim our democracy, we need to build the political power. Part of building this power includes creating common sense regulations – and enforce them – for food safety and labeling, antitrust policy, biotechnology and other new technologies used in the food system. Inspiring the kind of political activism necessary for taking back our democracy means that we must be visionary about the kind of world we want and the food system that will provide the nourishment. This means having our eye on the long-term prize of a regulatory system that really works.
Laying out what this ideal regulatory system should look like also creates more political space for achieving short-term goals and mobilizing more people. Activists are really tired of fighting for just the best they can get in the latest fight over some terrible deregulation scheme. We want to fight for what we really want.