Gateway Green Alliance/Green Party of St. Louis

Genetically Modified Food Labels and the Right to Vote: A Local Petition Initiative Sparks Debate Over Both

by Tammy Shea, Gateway Green Alliance

The question of “Should you have the right to know what you are eating?” is fast becoming the question of "Do you have the right to ask?" Gateway Green Alliance (GGA) members and residents of Webster Groves, Missouri are finding the answer to both questions is "NO!"

Since December of 1998, the Webster Groves City Council has had before it, a petition from its citizens and the GGA to consider an ordinance that requests the State of Missouri and the U.S Congress to pass a mandatory labeling law for all genetically modified food and crops. GGA members and residents of the city made the request of the council and shortly after, the city council made it clear that they were not interested in passing such an ordinance and suggested that the request be taken to the state or federal level were such an issue had more relevance.

The Council also suggested that municipal governments do no traditionally take up matters of federal policy and that if they entertained our request, every interest group with a cause would be lining up to make similar demands. That argument would probably mean a whole lot more if not for the fact that the City of Webster Groves is among a number of municipalities, both here in Missouri and around the country, that has participated in discussing issues of national relevance. For instance many cities passed resolutions opposing the war in the Persian Gulf in the early 1990’s, some have commented on certain foreign trade issues, and more specifically, Webster Groves passed a resolution in 1996 responding to congressional legislation regarding nuclear waste transportation.

In February 1996, the city passed a resolution that made explicit demands from federal and state authorities to demonstrate and justify transporting nuclear waste through highly populated metropolitan areas that included the city of Webster Groves. At that time, the council expressed concern over the safety issues and noted that the plan created an “undesirable” risk for its citizens. In the 1996 resolution they refused to accept liability for the shipments of radioactive waste. The resolution set a precedent for commenting on and imploring change of a federal policy by a municipal government.

According to the city charter, only 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last municipal election were needed to force the council to vote on the food labeling ordinance or submit it to a ballot vote. Activists initiated the process of collecting signatures to support their request under the rules defined in the city charter. The response from consumers, citizens and business owners was very positive. Over 30 people showed up on a cold Saturday in February to work the streets and meet the goal of 500 signatures. With much success, the signatures were collected and presented to the council on February 26, 1999. The city council had yet another opportunity to pass the ordinance, but declined. In the meantime, an opposition group made up of Monsanto employees formed and they to began to lobby the council against the ordinance. Monsanto and the federal government have historically opposed labeling of GM foods and crops, despite overwhelming support for labels from consumers.

Monsanto claimed that consideration of this ordinance was a waste of time and money for the city. They argued that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t require labels on GM foods so we should just trust the government, after all, they did. The excuses for not passing this ordinance ranged from "This will be bad for commerce in the city," to "I don’t want the government telling what I can't eat." The Monsanto group requested 15 minutes of council time at the next meeting to make their presentation on how safe GM food was and how biotechnology was going to save us all from starvation and poverty.

The activists also demanded 15 minutes to address the council and on March 16, both sides showed up to support their positions. The proponents of the measure out numbered the Monsanto employees and asked that they be allowed to present their arguments to the council after those that would speak against the ordinance, in order to respond to what was sure to be erroneous statements about the initiative. But the Mayor would not consider the request and forced the activists to precede Monsanto.

GGA representatives spoke to the need for consumers to be able to identify foods that had been genetically altered and pointed to examples of products with similar labels, such as organic foods. They also provided a critical analysis of the dangers to human health and the environment from GM products, supported by credible scientific sources. The council was reminded of the distinctive history of Monsanto and their legacy of environmental destruction. A past that the company would rather we all forget. They concluded with a reading from their own city charter that describes the importance self-governance.

The council was then offered a variety of excuses from Monsanto as to why they should not consider passing the ordinance. The favorite by far was the the issue of cost for an election, the blame for which is being laid squarely at the feet of the activists that have introduced this controversial issue. Despite the fact that passage of the ordinance would not cost the city a dime, opponents continue to stress that what has been proposed will waste taxpayers' money.

The city council decided not to pass the ordinance. According to the charter they must then place the issue before a vote of the people, which they have also decided not to do. We can only interpret that as a direct violation of the city charter and clearly a obstruction of democratic process.

Apparently, the city officials are willing to risk a legal battle defending the violation of their charter rather than pass it or allow their citizens to vote on the issue. Fortunately, GGA, several residents, and a lawyer who recognizes an assault on democracy when he sees it, have taken the issue to court.

The essence of their defense is that what has been proposed, a request to state and federal lawmakers for a labeling law, is not a legislative act but an administrative act, or a resolution that does not require a ballot vote. They have also indicated that "any ordinance" as it says in the city charter does not really mean "any ordinance." And probably the most erroneous statement of all is that even if they were to pass the ordinance, it would likely be preempted by federal law. The hardly seems plausible given that there currently is no federal policy for GM foods and crops.

As it stands now, the case has been assigned to a judge and we are waiting to schedule a date for a hearing. However this case gets decided will be interesting. If the citizens win and are allowed a vote, democracy will be upheld, the issue gets further discussion and people have a chance to vote on a request for labels. If the City of Webster Groves and Monsanto win, it will further illustrate to everyone a fundamental problem with GM food and crops outside of the obvious ecological implications. Primarily, that it is being ushered in without consideration to what the market really wants and that in order for it to be successful, proponents must silence their critics and subvert democratic process.

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