Consumers who want to know whether their food contains genetically modified ingredients can thank Ronnie Cummins for his efforts to slap labels saying as much on everything from taco chips to coffee cake.
Food companies can blame him for playing to what many consider misguided fears, costing them money with new labels and scaring consumers; after all, GM ingredients are everywhere in the grocery store.
Cummins and his Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association have been instrumental in making GM labeling a prominent national food issue. This month, voters in Washington will be the latest to consider whether GM-containing foods should be labeled as such in their state.
“This is the most important battle in 20 years in the battle against genetic engineering,” Cummins said. “If they pass it, it will have national repercussions.”
It’s close, with pro-labelers in the lead, polls show. The vote follows a similar referendum in California last year that was narrowly defeated, and by pro-labeling initiatives passed by the Connecticut and Maine legislatures earlier this year, albeit with big caveats.
U.S. food safety agencies years ago approved the genetically engineered crops in use today, and they’ve gotten the imprimatur of many prominent science and medical groups. Still, calls for labeling – once thought to be a lost cause – by activists like the firebrand Cummins have grown as concerns over GM ingredients have lingered.
“A lot of people thought they had no chance, that it was really a fool’s errand,” said Ben Lilliston, a vice president at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “They achieved some things that a lot of people didn’t think were possible.” Lilliston wrote a book with Cummins called “Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.”
Based in the northeast Minnesota hamlet of Finland, the Organic Consumers Association is Cummins’ baby, the apex of a lifelong career of liberal activism. The 67-year-old started by protesting the war in Vietnam and went on to battle everything from nuclear proliferation to the Flavr Savr tomato – the first GM food to be licensed for human consumption.
The Organic Consumers Association helped mobilize residents in California last year to get a labeling referendum on the ballot. The group was one of the largest donors to California pro-labeling forces, ponying up about $1 million beyond initial mobilization efforts.
In Washington this year, the Organic Consumers Association had raised $700,000, according to Washington state government records. Those contributions come mostly from donations of less than $100 from thousands of the group’s members.
As in California, pro-labeling forces in Washington are getting vastly outspent by labeling opponents – i.e. the biotech and food industries, which include several Minnesota companies. Through Oct. 2, opponents had raised $17.2 million and labeling proponents $5.3 million, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan research group.
All that cash – on both sides – is crucial to pay for advertising. The stakes are high. The food industry says labeling in just a patchwork of states would be cumbersome and costly. Most packaged food would require labeling since about 90 percent of U.S. soybeans, corn and sugar beets spring from GM seeds.
Labeling proponents see the Washington vote as a springboard to the spread of labeling nationally, either state by state or eventually through national legislation. Like a fire that won’t die, the issue keeps flaring up. “It’s politically popular,” Cummins said.
Cummins was born in Port Arthur, Texas, his dad a worker at one of the town’s ubiquitous oil refineries. That seemed his obvious career path, too. But he took a different tack.
“I decided I wanted to devote my life to activism,” he said. That meant “all the movements” since the 1960s. In the early 1990s, his focus turned to food.
Cummins was a key player in the Pure Food Campaign founded by Jeremy Rifkin, an economist and genetic engineering foe. In the 1990s, the group battled against bovine growth hormones in milk and the Flavr Savr tomato.
After Congress passed a law to establish organic food standards, the Pure Food Campaign morphed into the Organic Consumers Association, with Cummins at its helm. He fought for tough organic production standards, which were eventually adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002.
Nowadays, the Organic Consumers Association runs a well-trafficked Web page with consumer guides and news about organic and food policy issues. The association has a notably active Facebook page. And it has an affiliate group promoting organics in Mexico, where Cummins has a residence.
Cummins, who’s making $96,000 this year, also has a cabin near the group’s Finland headquarters and a small apartment in south Minneapolis.
The Organic Consumers Association’s website says it has more than 800,000 members. The group’s philosophy is simple and uncompromising.
“What we are trying to do is strengthen the organic movement and educate the public about the hazards of industrial farming,” Cummins said. “GMOs are the cornerstone of industrial farming. … This technology is inherently unpredictable and inherently hazardous.”
The majority of scientists would disagree, said Pamela Ronald, a plant pathology professor at University of California, Davis, and co-author with her organic farmer husband of “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.”
GM safety “is like global climate change, where 99 percent of scientists believe it,” Ronald said. “You have scientists around the world who say genetically engineered crops are safe to eat – and then you have Ronnie Cummins.”
Given scientific consensus, “why would you have a label on something that is perfectly safe?” Ronald said.
Mark Kastel, co-director of the anti-GM Cornucopia Institute, said the science is not a done deal, and a lot of consumers have concerns over GM ingredients – therefore labeling is merited. “Now, the only way you know if you are not buying GMO is to buy organic.”
Kastel’s Wisconsin-based research group does studies on organics, and he has known Cummins – whom he considers an ally – for 20 years. Cummins’ aggressive style has helped the cause, Kastel said.
In an interview, Cummins, dressed in a blue-checked shirt and blue jeans, plays out his thoughts like a teacher, a South Texas lilt still in his voice. But in missives on his website, he can be a bomb-thrower with headlines like “Co-existence with Monsanto: Hell No!”
He uses the word “cabal” quite a bit in his writings, applying it with equal opportunity to the chemical industry and large organic food companies, the latter for timidity on issues like GM crops. In turn, Cummins and his group have “gotten a lot of flak” from the organic industry, Kastel said.
“Ronnie is pretty flamboyant but the fact is he gets results,” Kastel said. “You need to be pretty out there for people to pay attention to what you are doing. Mild-mannered doesn’t always work.”