Leader in farm-worker issues lobbies for mandatory GMO labels

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, April 28, 2015- A leader in farm-worker labor issues lobbied Congress today for the mandatory labeling of foods derived from genetically modified crops, or “GMOs.”

Dolores Huerta, who founded the National Farm Workers Association with César Chavez, said during a press conference at the National Press Club that labeling GMO foods could raise consumer awareness about the widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate in the United States, which she said has damaged the health of farmworkers.

According to US Geological Survey pesticide use maps, the amount of glyphosate used on crops in the U.S. increased from 27 million pounds in 1996 to 280 million pounds in 2012.

Claiming that exposure to herbicides is causing increased rates of cancer as well as diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's in U.S. farmworkers, Huerta said it will “take years and years” for the effects of chemical use to effectively show up in the human population. Even so, she noted, “We were able to ban things like DDT,” an insecticide prohibited for agricultural use by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s. 

Lets Talk Food

When asked about data that links glyphosate to cancer in farmworkers, Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), pointed to the World Health Organization's recent classification of the herbicide as “probably carcinogen” to humans.

WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced last month that it categorized glyphosate in its Group 2A, which suggests the herbicide has “limited evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.

Group 2A is one rank higher than IARC's Group 2B, “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” which includes cell phones and coffee. Group 1 is the next highest category, “carcinogenic to humans.”

Monsanto, which introduced the widely-used glyphosate herbicide Roundup in 1974, said IARC “received and purposefully disregarded” dozens of scientific studies that say the chemical is not a risk to human health. The company requested WHO meet with global glyphosate taskforces and other regulatory agencies to account for the scientific studies used in their analysis as well as those that the agency disregarded. 

In the EPA's standing review of glyphosate, the agency concluded it does not pose a risk to human health if used according to the label. The German Risk Agency (BfR) is conducting a glyphosate registration review that began in 2012 for the European Union, and issued an update in January that its investigation “did not provide any indications that glyphosate has carcinogenic [effects].”

EPA reviews each registered pesticide every 15 years to determine whether it continues to meet Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) standards.

In a letter in March to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Environmental Working Group and five other groups asked EPA to heavily weigh IARC's analysis in its upcoming reregistration review of glyphosate.

Huerta and Faber said they asked members of Congress members as well as White House staff to consider mandatory GMO labeling laws, and urged the opposition to a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., that would block state labeling laws.

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The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015-dubbed the “DARK Act” by critics-would create a national, voluntary system of labeling for food made through genetic modification and set up a voluntary certification process run by USDA for foods labeled as non-GMO, modeled after the organic certification program. The Food and Drug Administration would remain in charge of a premarket notification process for new biotech crops. Under the bill, no labeling of GMO foods could be required unless there is a “material difference” between the biotech ingredient and its conventionally bred version.

According to a coalition of food and agriculture groups, state ballots initiatives requiring GMO labeling are filled with loopholes that exempt as much as two-thirds of foods that would be considered genetically modified. The coalition also says such laws would increase consolidation in the food industry, given that only larger companies would be able to afford catering to state-by-state regulations.

However, Huerta said opposition to mandatory GMO labeling is an “unreasonable position,” adding that food companies lobbying against the laws have plenty of money to provide labels that would “at least give the average consumer the right to choose and pursue information (about GMO crops).”

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