Labor icon stumps for mandatory labeling of genetically modified food

By Tiffany Stecker | 04/29/2015 07:33 AM EDT

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 the issue.

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).

Yesterday’s event at the press club was moderated by Frank Maisano of the government affairs firm Bracewell & Giuliani, which lobbies on behalf of EWG.