Exploring the DARK Act & GMO Labelling - In Conversation with chef Tom Colicchio

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with chef and co-founder of Food Policy Action, Tom Colicchio, regarding the Senate’s new version of the DARK Act, which aims to prevent the transparency in labeling of food that contains Genetically Modified Organisms (or GMOs) — the same kind of labelling that is already commonplace in 64 countries. Read on to see what he has to say about GMOs, why he feels they should be labelled and much more.


Tom Colicchio speaking to a reporter in the US Capitol (Photo: Mark Noble)


Andrew DeCanniere (AD): Like many people, I’ve sort of been following the whole issue of labelling of GMOs on-and-off for some time now, but I’m guessing that there are a lot of people who are new to the issue. So, I was thinking that perhaps you could begin at the beginning and sort of define what GMOs are and in what way do they differ from non-GMO products. 


Tom Colicchio (TC): Well, a genetically modified plant is exactly that. It’s a plant — or an animal — whose genes have been modified. A protein or virus is added — or a bacteria is added — and there are several different methods to do that. There’s mutagenesis, where the gene is mutated. You go and you find the gene — the trait that you’re looking for. Or you can do it through transgenesis, where you actually add a new material to a gene. Then there are other ways as well, but that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. It’s very simple.


Tom Colicchio speaking at a briefing with Congressional staffers. (Photo: Mark Noble)


AD: And so, for somebody who is unfamiliar with the issue, what’s the cause for concern here? 

TC: Well, there’s really no scientific evidence that would suggest that they’re dangerous — that it’s inherently dangerous if you were to ingest a product made from GMO corn or GMO wheat or something like that. I think that’s the problem. If the anti-GMO people are going to demonize the science, you run into a different argument that just becomes more about science and whether something is safe or not. I don’t know if that’s really the argument. If you’re talking about corn or soy that can withstand the herbicide Round-Up, now you have this plant that you can just dump tons and tons of glyphosate on. In fact, you have to dump more and more on it, because it becomes resistant — and then you have to use more applications, or more frequent applications, or more dangerous things because you can no longer kill the weeds in the field that you’re trying to kill. So, that’s a result of a GMO. It’s not that the GMO is necessarily dangerous. It’s the result of it. So, my feeling is that if you’re an individual who has just decided that you want to opt out of this — that, for instance, you are an environmentalist and decide that you do not want to eat food that is bad for the environment — you should have that option. Right now, you don’t know. Right now the only way you would know is if you knew enough to know that organics, by definition, contain no GMOs. There’s nothing on the package that would tell you whether something is produced from a genetically modified crop. For me, it’s really a question of right to know what’s in your food, but it’s also a right not to be confused in the marketplace. If I want this information, I can’t get it.

I have never been one to suggest a warning, because we don’t warn people about dangerous food. We eliminate dangerous food from the marketplace. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily dangerous, but I still think people should know. That’s why I would suggest a simple line in the ingredients that — if it is made from corn that has been genetically modified — would simply say ‘genetically-engineered corn.’ That’s it. Nothing more than that. It was suggested in the bill that is in the Senate right now that the only labelling that we put on it is a QR code and you can scan the product and it will tell you. I don’t think it’s a good idea because not everybody has a smartphone with a QR code reader or access to the Internet. What I would suggest is that you put in the line ‘GMO corn’ or ‘GE corn,’ and then you can use the barcode if you want to get additional information to find out what method of genetic modification was used and why it was used, and get together with the scientific community to plead your case on why it’s so great. I understand that to the scientist that is working in a land grant institute that is relying on funding for various things they’re working on, that can be very beneficial. They’re afraid they’re going to get these grants but off, because people start thinking that this is just dangerous science. So, I understand that. I understand that there is a lot of benefit that can come from genetic modification. However, I actually think they’re doing themselves a disservice, because if they’re more transparent about this people would see that ‘Oh well, I’m eating stuff made from GMOs and it’s not doing anything to my health, so I guess it’s okay.’ I think they actually took a gamble 15 years ago when the stuff started entering the marketplace to purposefully not label them. You know, they do in Europe.

I just think that this argument has become so polarized that no one is thinking rationally about this. Now, obviously, it’s become very political, because if you have certain states where they’re growing corn or soy and the farmers are being told if they label the stuff they’ll have to go out and but different corn and different soy, where are they going to get that from? They’re told their crop is going to be worthless. There are farmers who are being told their livelihoods are going to be cut short if they do this. Because of that, now, you have politicians who are being lobbied by Big Ag and from the manufacturers not to change this. And yet you have consumers who want to know. I just think it’s just so polarizing that no one is looking to find a way to compromise, which isn’t very different than our political system right now.


Tom Colicchio with New York City school children at the 2015 Food Policy Action scorecard release (Photo: Mark Noble)


AD: Yeah. I think compromise has kind of become a dirty word in Washington these days. It’s unfortunate.


TC: Which is kind of crazy when you think about it. Our entire political system was set up for compromise.


AD: I was actually just arguing what you’re arguing with regards to GMOs with someone when I was discussing the issue with them yesterday. You ordinarily hear the term ‘bodily autonomy’ in a very different context ordinarily, but this is really about bodily autonomy in a way, too. You should have the right to know what you’re putting into your body — and the right to avoid certain ingredients, if you want to do so.


TC: At least you want the information to make a decision. I think what has to happen is if you talk to anybody pro-GMO, they’re going to say the other group — the anti-GMO people — want a skull and crossbones on the package. That’s not what people are asking for. They’re asking for something that’s very simple. In Europe, it simply says ‘May contain genetically-modified material.’ That’s it. There’s no skull and crossbones. There’s no warning sign. Yet everybody thinks that people are going to take that as a warning sign. When I’m shopping for orange juice, if I decide that I don’t want orange juice from concentrate, I know if it’s made from concentrate because it says ‘Made from concentrate.’ I have that knowledge. I have that ability to know.


Tom Colicchio (Photo: Mark Noble)


AD: And to do anything else, with regards to labelling, seems like a step back.


TC: You’d get the impression that someone is trying to hide something. I know that they’ll say there’s no difference between something that’s genetically modified and something that’s not. There’s absolutely no difference. Everything that we eat has been genetically modified at one point. Yeah. It has been, but not through the techniques that are being used now — something that that you randomly mutate. And so the question is once you start adding genetic material from other species, then that’s when you kind of cross the line. But, again, it’s not because it’s dangerous — just because people want to know. They want to make their own decisions. I would say, listen, do you think for a second that the guy sitting there watching football on Sunday, eating a bag of Doritos, that he’ll look down at the Dorito bag and he’s going to read ‘GE corn’ and he’s going to go ‘Oh my God. I can’t eat this anymore’? I doubt it.


AD: I mean, it’s pretty unrealistic to expect that he would. 


TC: I doubt it. Right. So, this idea that food prices are going to go through the roof if we label things is just nonsense. 


AD: And, as you seem to be saying, it’s this sort of secrecy that seems to be driving the fear, as far as people who might suspect GMOs of being unhealthy in some way. The more secretive that you are, the more you like you may have something to hide. The more that you look like you may have something to hide, the more distrust there is.


TC: Sure.


Tom Colicchio holding a press conference about school nutrition funding at the US Capitol (Photo: Mark Noble)


AD: As far as the approach to GMOs and regulation of labelling abroad, you said that sixty-some other countries require the label?


TC: Sixty-four.


AD: And so you’d think there’d be some adverse effect of labelling this stuff if it were true that it would change the way people view those products that contain GMOs. So, you’d think that because it hasn’t caused people to stop buying those GMO products, that those who argue that they would stop purchasing them wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Yet they persist with that same, inaccurate argument. I know you have this petition that you started. Obviously, people can go online and sign it. Is there any other way that people can get involved? 


TC: There’s this organization called ‘Just Label It.’ You can go to their website and get plenty of information about what you can do. There’s also Food Democracy Now. There are various state organizations. There are plenty of organizations out there that you can get information from. And there are pro-groups like Genetic Literacy that will tell you all of the great things that they’re doing and tell you why you shouldn’t be worried about it. So, there’s plenty of information on both sides.The other organization to check out is the Environmental Working Group. They’ve been leading this fight as well.


Tom Colicchio is a chef in New York City and co-founder of Food Policy Action. You can learn more about Food Policy Action at their website. You can also find the chef's petition to stop the DARK Act here


Update: The DARK Act has been rejected in the Senate as of March 16, 2016.

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