Labor and environmental activist Dolores Huerta came to Washington,
D.C., this week to speak in favor of mandatory labeling of genetically
modified food, feeding the fire of the mounting effort to establish a
mandatory disclosure system for the products.
Huerta, 85, co-founded what is today known as the United Farm
Workers with the organization's renowned leader, Cesar Chavez. She
protested alongside Chavez in the 1960s and '70s to formalize rights for
California's farm workers, leading to the first collective bargaining
agreement between workers and an agricultural company in 1965.
It was this experience fighting for farmworkers' rights, including
efforts to protect communities living around agricultural fields from
pesticide exposure, that led Huerta to support the labeling of
genetically modified organisms (GMOs), foods from crops whose DNA has
been altered in a laboratory.
"It gives the average consumer the right to choose," said Huerta,
speaking at a conference at the National Press Club yesterday. Huerta
also attended a meeting at the White House to press President Obama on
Organizations like the Environmental Working Group, which helped
organize the event, have sought to tie GMOs to increasing use of one
herbicide -- glyphosate, better known by its trade name, Roundup. The
most common GMO crops are those that are resistant to glyphosate,
allowing a grower to spray fields without harming the crop.
Though glyphosate has long been considered less toxic than other
herbicides, its reputation was besmirched recently with a World Health
Organization finding that it is a "probable" carcinogen for farmworkers.
Other products in the same classification of probable carcinogen
include a common byproduct of fried foods and chemicals used in the
hairdressing industry (Greenwire, April 2).
EWG has also promoted mandatory GMO labeling in the wake of U.S.
EPA's approval of Enlist Duo, an herbicide that combines a choline salt
of the defoliant 2,4-D and glyphosate. Groups have sought to tie 2,4-D
to the Vietnam War-era chemical Agent Orange, though Enlist Duo's
manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, maintains that it was other chemicals in
Agent Orange that caused birth defects and other health problems.
The agriculture industry has historically pushed for the use of
harmful chemicals, Huerta charged. Field managers called pesticides
"medicine" for crops in the 1970s, she said. Though labeling wouldn't
directly affect how pesticides are used, it would allow consumers to
make more conscious decisions, Huerta asserted.
"Otherwise, people don't have any clue at all," she said.
Huerta spoke one day after a federal judge allowed a Vermont GMO
labeling law to stand. The Grocery Manufacturers Association sued the
state after its Legislature passed the law last year. EWG and other
environmental and health groups are also fighting H.R. 1599,
a bill from Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) that would pre-empt state
labeling initiatives like Vermont's. The bill is currently in limbo in
the House Energy and Commerce Committee (E&E Daily, April 21).