Sometimes We Win, Sometimes We Lose

Sometimes, as activists and humans in general, we win and sometimes we lose. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t prefer the former. Over the past year or so I’ve learned some valuable lessons about experiencing both.

Here in CT we’ve been fighting like mad to get a bill passed that would require labeling on all food sold here that contains GMOs, those nasty little DNA bits of viruses and bacteria that are introduced to our seed supplies by Monsanto and other biotech companies. I was so fortunate to find and join up with the dedicated people of GMO Free CT. I’ve learned about the legislative process in our state, diplomacy in the face of anger and frustration and the great work that can be done by collaboration between people of diverse experience and backgrounds.

I’ve grown comfortable in my role as a community educator through showing movies, participating on panel discussions and just plain talking to anyone who will listen, anytime and anywhere, to information about why we all have the right to know what is in the food we eat and that labeling of genetically modified foods is a must in our ability to access information. I’ve (hopefully) gotten better at putting my thoughts on paper in ways that will get others to think about this issue. I’ve learned that all of us can call our legislators on the phone, send them emails demanding a response and even speak out at public meetings and even at the FDA itself in Maryland.

What follows is my testimony at CT’s Legislative Office Building several months ago when the labeling bill was still in committee and there wasn’t any guarantee it would even come up for a vote in the Senate and/or House. I waited until almost 11:00 that night for my turn, after arriving at the LOB at 9:30 am. It was well worth the wait as I realized another facet of activism I wouldn’t have dreamed of just a few years ago – speaking directly to policy makers.

Testimony of Debra Cohen
in support of
HB 6519, An Act Concerning the Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food

Friday, March 15, 2013

Good afternoon, members of the Public Health Committee.

My name is Debra Cohen. I live in Wethersfield, CT. I am here today to urge you to support HB6519. I’ll keep my comments short as I am joined by so many other people today who are concerned, as I am, that we have the right to know what is in all of the food we buy and share with our families, old and young alike. I speak to you today as a member of the Early Childhood Education profession for over 35 years and as a citizen very concerned about the health not only of myself and my family but the health of human, animal and plant generations to come and, ultimately, the health of the very earth we depend upon to provide our food.

As I came to learn more and more about GMOs that are present in our food with neither adequate testing nor identification on food labels, I became convinced that keeping this information from consumers is wrong and irresponsible.

From a health perspective, I am worried about the lack of definitive evidence that GMOs are safe. Quite the contrary. I have paid close attention to evidence that just the opposite is true. No long term studies have been carried out by either GMO manufacturers or the FDA, each of whom says the other is responsible for proving GMO safety. The only studies sanctioned by the FDA are no longer than 3 months in duration and studies are needed on a longer time line to be definitive. From a consumer perspective, I am outraged that I am being told not to worry, everything is fine and that all I have to do is trust the people who supply the food on the store shelves to keep my family’s best interests at heart. The mattress on my bed has a label naming the contents, my clothing all has a tag naming material details, the gasoline I purchase at the gas station is all labeled regarding octane levels so I can make an informed choice about the best outcomes in my car. It is interesting that when it comes to labels about what I am putting in my body, I am most often denied the same level of information. When I first learned about GMOs, I called the companies of nearly every food item in my kitchen cabinets to ask about whether or not their products contained GMOs. Some companies responded by saying they didn’t know for sure but the majority of companies responded with the familiar company line that they could assure me their products were completely safe even though they contained GMOs because the FDA has identified them to be safe. I find that response to be laughable, infuriating and insulting at the same time. The connections between Monsanto and the FDA are so interwoven that to consider the FDA as being capable of making independent decisions on this matter is folly.

Long term studies not done by GMO manufacturers or the FDA point to health risks for our bodies and health risks for our environment due the ever rising need for stronger and stronger pesticides. In many cases, the scientists involved in these studies have lost their positions at universities as well as funding to continue their research. As a teacher of young children, I can testify to the growing incidences of allergies, asthma and autism in our very youngest populations. If there is the slightest chance that the unlabeled ingredients in the food being fed to our children may be making them sick, is it not our responsibility to make informed choices about what we feed them? And if the answer to that question is yes, is it not your responsibility to see to it that we are given the tools we need to make informed choices? It is possible that some of you will never be swayed by the results of scientific studies that show the horrendous health and planetary damage caused by GMOs. I am not asking you to accept those studies but I am asking that you honor my right to know as much as possible about foods that contain them, regardless of their possible impact.

I realize the purpose of our testimonies today is to tell you why we demand the labeling of all GMOs in the food on our grocery shelves so that we can decide what we will and will not put in our bodies. However, I am taking this opportunity to turn things around just a bit and put my final thoughts to you in the form of the following question: On what grounds do you think I am not entitled and do not deserve to know what is in my food? The inconvenience to food companies to make changes to their labels surely isn’t as important as the health and well being of the citizens of Connecticut. Please do the right thing and put CT in the forefront of states that demand transparency, clarity and honesty on all food sold within its borders. Please show other states around the country that are fighting for this very thing that CT is a pro-active leader by supporting HB 6519.

Thank you for your time and for doing everything in your legislative power to stand up for the rights of your constituents to make informed choices.

Since that night of sharing testimony, we’ve experienced the highs and lows of waiting to hear what our legislators thought and planned to do about this bill. As recently as May 21, at a rally at our state capitol, we got news that the Senate was going to vote on the bill that very day. We later learned they passed the bill by a margin of 35-1! Sometimes we win! But in the early hours of May 24, the House amended the bill in ways which make the prospect of our seeing a reasonable and successful bill come to fruition a mere dream. Sometimes we lose.

Citizens from around the state have rallied, voicing outrage, sadness, disappointment and a multitude of emotions over this turn of events. Today has been one of deep despair for many. But today was also a reminder that while sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, sometimes we also choose to return to fight another day and refuse to take a defeat as a final answer. I can already feel my own energy and that of so many here in our state surging toward renewal, already planning new tactics and avenues of influence. Whenever I think of what to write on this page and how to speak to its title, Pagan Activist, I look to how my Pagan thinking influences other spheres of my life. In this case it’s simple. Light, dark and light again; warm, cold and warm again; merry meet, merry part and merry meet again. These truths give me the energy to believe in win, lose, go on to win again; one step forward, one step back and another step forward again; act, recoup and rise to act again.

So, dear legislators in CT and elsewhere, those of us who are fighting for the right of every consumer to know what they are buying and to have the information necessary to make an informed decision about whether or not to indeed buy or leave something behind, we aren’t going away. The wheel keeps turning and we’ll return. And return. And return. And return… until things are right.