Part II: Elizabeth Kucinich, Center For Food Safety
“An experienced advocate and government affairs professional, Elizabeth comes to CFS from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), where she advocated prevention over cure, nutrition over drugs, and human-relevant research and training over the use of animals.
Before joining PCRM, she was a congressional liaison for the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly. Elizabeth serves as a board director of several notable organizations including Sean Penn’s Haitian relief organization, J/P HRO, and the Rodale Institute.
Elizabeth is the Executive Producer of “GMO OMG”, a documentary exploring genetic engineering in agriculture and food production (www.GMOfilm.com), which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2013. She is also a producer of “Hot Water”, a documentary about the nuclear industry, uranium mining and the radioactive pollution of our water (www.ZeroHotWater.com). “Hot Water” premiered at the DC Environmental Film Festival in March 2013.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, everybody. I’m Caryn Hartglass, and we are back for the second part of It’s All About Food here on this very chilly January 7, 2014. Alright now, continuing talking about my favorite subject, food, only we’re going to look at it a little differently now. I’m going to bring on my second guest, Elizabeth Kucinich, who is with the Center for Food Safety (CFS). She is an experienced advocate and government affairs professional, and she was originally with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) where she advocated prevention over cure, nutrition over drugs, and human relevant research and training over the use of animals. We are going to hear more about the Center for Food Safety with Elizabeth Kucinich. Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food.
Elizabeth Kucinich: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be with you.
Caryn Hartglass: I met you a couple of Decembers ago at the PCRM Leadership Conference. That was an amazing event. I was so inspired with what PCRM was doing and is doing, and the work that you were doing.
Elizabeth Kucinich: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is just a super organization. It was such a privilege to work with them for a number of years.
Caryn Hartglass: Center for Food Safety is working on all kinds of issues that we talk about a lot on this program: genetic engineering and seeds, factory farms, organic food, food safety. What are you working on?
Elizabeth Kucinich: All of the above and a little bit more. Obviously, the whole question of GMOs is a really hot topic. There have been, obviously I am sure people are aware, the state ballot initiatives and there are a number of initiatives that are coming up this year. People are filing them, which is exciting. We have got the federal legislation, which is the Right to Know Act. That is the one question of GMOs, just the labeling, really. We work on a vision for food and for agriculture, which is that the way we grow food and the way that we eat food is going to be a way that really sustains the planet. We think of the way we are growing our food now. I cannot imagine that we will be doing it in this way in a thousand years’ time. Can you imagine hundreds of millions of tons of chemicals that we put on our land every single year to grow our food? It is not sustainable in any way, whether it be because of the toxins that we are eating, the toxins that are going into our water, into our air, into our bodies, or just the fact that we are coming to peak oil, and all these chemicals are petrochemicals. They are made from oil. There are lots of different things that we need to be considering, so helping our society to transition to a truly sustainable food system is something that is really very, very important to everybody.
Caryn Hartglass: Now this whole genetic engineering thing, I want to say it is a hot topic and yet, it isn’t that hot in most people’s lives because most people are not talking about it. They don’t know about it, they don’t understand it, and unfortunately some people spread a lot of incorrect information about it. It’s really messy.
Elizabeth Kucinich: Yes. Anything that is slightly complex is always going to be messy, and anything that has different people with alleged sides going against each other, there is going to be a lot of spin and messaging, and there are people who get confused in the middle. So we really try to simplify things basically on the GMO question. When it comes to labeling, it is that you have a right to know. We are not making any claims one way or another, whether it’s safe or unsafe, you have a right to know what you are eating. From a personal point-of-view, my own concern is that the genetically modified foods that are out there, that are in around ninety percent of the processed foods that people eat, have been genetically engineered not to do something really nice and fluffy—not to feed the world and to overcome the challenges of climate change and drought issues—but really have been bred or genetically engineered for two purposes. One is to produce pesticides so we have a type of GMO which is pesticide-producing. The pesticide itself is found in a number of plants, only not in the high concentration that it is found in the genetically engineered crops. This means that it is a pesticide, so it kills animals, or kills pests that go onto it. But also it means that we are ingesting that. So, what does that mean to our human health? Well, we need longitudinal studies on that, but people’s own precaution could be that they can choose whether to choose or not to choose it, should that be labeled in a supermarket. The other kind of GMO that there is, is herbicide resistant. That means that a plant can grow from a genetically engineered seed and it can be sprayed with a type of chemical that it has been engineered to be resistant to. At the moment it’s glyphosate, which is Roundup. If people have gone to their stores and they maybe spray their weeds and their garden—which I ask you please don’t do that, maybe they do—that Roundup then is sprayed directly onto the crop, and for the first time we are directly ingesting those low levels of herbicides in our diet because plants actually are able to withstand those chemicals.
Caryn Hartglass: They are smarter than we are!
Elizabeth Kucinich: There are those two issues. What has gone on from that? We can see this starting a chemical warfare now. We have the pesticide-producing GMOs, genetically modified organisms, that are growing. The pests that are meant to be dying from it, you see now 500 different kinds of pests have actually become resistant to that kind of toxin. So the answer to that, if you are looking at it logically, would be to increase the level of chemical that is engineered so it would be stronger and the pest presumably would not be tolerant to it immediately. But again, what would that mean to our health? On the other side, when we are talking about herbicide resistance, there are many crops now—many kinds of weeds—that are resistant to this kind of herbicide, to glyphosate. There is an estimated 80 million acres of American cropland that are blighted now with herbicide-resistant weeds. Again the logical sequence of that would be that the biotech companies would engineer seeds, and therefore plants, that would be resistant to even stronger kinds of chemicals, and that is exactly what is happening. There are chemicals now, and seeds which have stacked genetic traits, not only for glyphosate resistance, but also for dicamba and 2-4-D. I don’t know if you know, but 2-4-D is a major component of Agent Orange. The only reason you would have a seed that is resistant to 2-4-D is because you intend to spray it with 2-4-D, and we can’t see all of those chemicals going into our environment, into our food supply, into our water systems. We already know that so many plots and plots of land in the United States, communities are blighted now with groundwater which is completely toxic due to chemical applications from agriculture. Whether it is looking at it from an ethical point-of-view, that people are uncomfortable with the technology, or an environmental point-of-view, that the partnering of chemicals is unsustainable, we really do have the opportunity to have our voice heard, and that is exactly what I try to do in Washington, to help people to really understand what is going on and to have a stake in it.
Caryn Hartglass: From my point-of-view when I talk about genetically modified foods, I like to steer away from whether it is good for us or not because we just don’t have enough information, but I like to steer towards what you were just talking about: the facts. The things we clearly know that are not working, and the fact that genetically modified foods enable us to continue all the wrong practices, and we need to change those agricultural practices. There was an article in the New York Times this weekend about what is going on in Kona, Hawaii, with a council member, Greggor Ilagan. Did you read that article or hear about it?
Elizabeth Kucinich: I did, yes.
Caryn Hartglass: I like the New York Times, and I like a lot of the stuff that they talk about, but sometimes when I read an article, and I scream at an occasional paragraph, no one hears me. I appreciate this council guy trying to get the information, but I really . . . Did he talk to you? He should have.
Elizabeth Kucinich: The thing about that article is that they very selectively chose who they quoted in the article and quoted from the hearing. There was some, as I understand it, and I was not there, no… I actually wouldn’t consider myself as qualified. We have wonderful attorneys and wonderful scientists that we work with. That is the kind of people I would want to see really doing a hearing on this. Really good people were speaking at that hearing and so for a journalist to choose some quite sketchy examples of what was said is really a very underhand thing to do, and it is very sad that such a credible newspaper should choose to do that. It was a very cleverly written article. It was extremely cleverly written. It seemed very, very reasonable, but when you do understand the facts of what is going on and you understand what was included and then what was completely conveniently excluded, it was very sad. But anyway, we focus on the good things that are happening, which really is that Hawaii is mobilizing and there is obviously a great deal of motivation. The thing that Hawaii really does have to be concerned about is that it is a test bed for all of these things. There is a direct threat to their environment and to everything that is going on. Being an island, I am sure that has some kind of bearing on the fact and the reason why biotech likes to go there. It is surrounded by a lot of water. If something goes wrong, then the chances of it spreading across are a lot slimmer than if you do something on the mainland. What I got from that article is that, obviously there is a lot of miscommunication, and from our side as well. There are a lot of people who understand innately that there is something wrong. But we really need to help people get to the facts and be able to put the best foot forward.
Caryn Hartglass: So how do our politicians learn, and how do they respond to you, and do they give you enough opportunity to present your side of the story?
Elizabeth Kucinich: Well, my husband, Dennis Kucinich, former member of Congress—before I worked for Center for Food Safety, when he was Chair of Government Oversight, Subcommittee on Domestic Policy—he held hearings on GMOs and on herbicide-resistant weeds, superweeds as they are termed. There have been opportunities; there have been discussions, obviously that are in the Congressional record from a few years ago. I think that what I really love, and I actually often mention this when I do events on the Hill, is that I will get a Congressional staffer that will come up to me, and it won’t necessarily be because they have heard something, because a constituent has ranted and raved on a phone call or they have received some letters, but they will say to me, “Why is my wife making me eat organic?” I am like, “Yes, this is fantastic,” because the message is being received and people don’t live in a bubble. There are lots of different ways in which people receive a message and become interested in something. The most significant thing for me as an activist and as somebody who works in policy is that food is of such great consequence to everything that we care about, ourselves being obviously right there first and foremost. Our physical health is obviously completely reliant on the food that we eat, and I am glad that you mentioned the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine because they do extraordinary work looking at the opportunity to prevent and reverse disease through the food choices that you make. Partnered with the work that we do at Center for Food Safety, really looking at the way in which our food is grown to really try to make sure that it is as pure as possible and as least contaminated as possible, that is very important. From our own health to the health and well-being of animals, the environment, everything is connected to the food that we eat. As an activist, it is immediate. Every time that you eat, you are making a decision. You are making a decision as to the way agricultural policy is moving forward and the way in which certain companies are making money. If you are buying, if you can, locally sourced, organic produce, then your money is going to something that is supporting where you want agriculture to move and where you want our food system to move. If you are going to a chain restaurant and buying something that is deep-fried and highly processed, then that is where you are choosing for your money to go and that is what you are supporting. I don’t necessarily support the idea of consumerism being the solution to anything, but the fact that we are consumers and have to consume food every day to live, this is extremely convenient for a food movement.
Caryn Hartglass: It is the very least thing that we can do, buy the food that represents what we believe in and is the best for us. Absolutely. Okay, so most of us are not really impressed with what is going on in our government these days. Is there anything good going on with food?
Elizabeth Kucinich: Yes, I think that there is. We do have a lot of movement in the question of food. We do have a lot of members of Congress now really asking questions and very interested in what is going on. As I have mentioned before, there is the labeling bills and a number of other different things that are being worked on. The general population really is helping to drive that. They are really helping to make sure that food starts to become front and center. Last year we had some very, very significant victories in the food movement where some very destructive policies were actually stripped down to bills because of the political might that the food movement is showing that it has. One of those things was what was dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act, that was against the odds. First of all, the initial one that got in was made so it was only relevant to the lifetime of the bill, which was six months, and then when they had to renew the bill that provision was stripped completely. For people to really take on such big interest at such a time in such a contentious political environment and win, I think says a lot for what we are really managing to achieve.
Caryn Hartglass: Is Monsanto really that evil?
Elizabeth Kucinich: I’m actually somebody who… How can I put this? I don’t like to think in terms of polarities. I think there is good and bad in everything. I think that biotech has a most fantastic business model. If you are someone who believes in a bottom line of investment in shares and things, and you want to patent genes and you want to be able to basically monopolize over a food supply, you are onto a very good thing. For the rest of us, not necessarily a good thing, but for yourself it is great. I think that there are ways of thinking about food and about solutions to problems that we have and about visions as to where it is that we want to move toward. As I said, I want to see a food system that really will comfortably take us into the next thousand years or be able to feed our growing population, but also at the same time not be destroying our population’s health by the methods in which we are producing the food. That is where my vision is.
Caryn Hartglass: Does the Center for Food Safety have a vision of what that future looks like?
Elizabeth Kucinich: Yes. The basis really is organic as the foundation. At the moment we can think in terms of GMOs are obviously, as we said, a big button issue, but you can think in terms of them being the most contaminated because of the chemicals that they encourage to be partnered with the drug methods. Conventional, or what is termed “conventional,” can be anything. We can say that is moderately contaminated because we are not sure that the highest level of contaminants and destructive chemicals are actually applied to it, but many, many chemicals can be applied to and are applied to the fruits and vegetable that you eat under “conventional”. Organic, it’s not perfect, but it is as good as we’ve got under the labeling system now, and we would say that is minimally contaminated. Seeing as organic would be the foundation stone for where we would like to see the food system move, and on top of that we would like to see appropriate scale. Humane. Socially just. There are label laws, and the workers really do have rights. We see so many people who have pesticide poisoning and terrible effects from the different things that they have been exposed to while growing our food. There are a number of different levels to a food system. Everything that we do really works to those bottom lines of local, appropriate scale, humane, sustainable, socially just, and bio-diverse. They would be where we would like to see agriculture go.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, I am a vegan for twenty-five years or more and I am always promoting the power of plants. Animal agriculture, CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), what is your feeling about them, and is there any hope to not see them in the near future?
Elizabeth Kucinich: There are the very large companies like Smithfield who have said that they will outlaw things like gestation crates, albeit in a very, very long time. There is movement within the system that we see, but to be honest it is not a sustainable system and it is a very big and unwieldy thing. Our government, our tax dollars are really going to support the subsidizing of cheap feed and other different things that are obviously not sustainable. On the outside of that is a great externalization of costs. All of the waste that comes out of these industrial animal factories is awful and it is not processed like human waste is. They don’t have systems that process the water. It is actually just put into big pits and left for some time and then sprayed on fields that are saturated. It goes into the groundwater, it goes into the rivers, it goes into the oceans; we have got the dead zones in the Gulf [of Mexico] and the Chesapeake Bay, so big environmental consequences and of course absolutely abhorrent conditions for the animals. Center for Food Safety does work on litigation, does work on upholding environmental regulations and pursuits for humane practices, but of course brilliant organizations like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine really show people how really, if you want to prevent and reverse disease, this is the way that you eat and it is a plant-strong diet. It is one that is really based in eating foods that come from plants.
Caryn Hartglass: You mentioned upholding regulations, and I know that there are regulations that our government has and that very often they are broken and either the government can’t afford it or they just turn a blind eye. But even the ones that we have are often not solid. How do we get them upheld?
Elizabeth Kucinich: We are in an interesting political time when government is seen as a very, very bad thing and therefore regulation is seen as a very bad thing except that when we realize that we need it. We need it to make sure that our food is safe and to make sure that our water is clean and things like that. We need to start to really turn the debate on that, I think. It is an enormous, enormous issue. We work on local, state, and federal levels. On a local level, we look actually at things, not only at pollution and the breaking of local environmental laws and try to encourage people to take matters that are necessary, but we also look at zoning to actually prevent things from being built. We need to make sure that regulations are upheld. The thing that CFS does is we litigate where the government refuses to regulate. When the government is not doing what it needs to do, when it is not actually upholding the letter of the law and is encouraging, therefore, people to break standards, then we come in and try to force the issue. But sadly, it should not be left to a non-profit to do that.
Caryn Hartglass: I know. You can only do so much.
Elizabeth Kucinich: Exactly.
Caryn Hartglass: And there is so much to do.
Elizabeth Kucinich: There is so much to do. Sometimes it becomes overwhelming when you think about, it’s a big order . . . We’ve had some great victories, though.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s good. We can eat our plant foods, we can eat our organic plant foods. What else should we be doing?
Elizabeth Kucinich: Getting active. If people would like to sign up, come to our website, centerforfoodsafety.org, we are a very active organization. We have lots and lots of material on the website. We have shoppers’ guides and very practical things, but we also have very activist-y things, so if you want to get engaged and see what you can be doing, either in your local area or federally, then there are resources for you there, so that’s a really good thing. As I’ve said, not that I am advocating consumerism, but every day you do eat, so choose wisely and obviously, live within your means, but if there is a way you can join a CSA—community-supported agricultural program where you support a local farmer, preferably obviously an organic one or one that uses the least amount of chemicals possible—that is a wonderful way to really support good things happening in your community and to also keep the money in your community so that you are helping to bring jobs and keep your own community thriving, as well as your health. But really, just open your eyes. Food is a really personal issue, and people often take great umbrage with people bringing it up. It’s not something that we need to force onto people, but I think there is an awakening happening. Just make sure that you get the facts from places like the Center for Food Safety and then let people know when they come to you, share with them what you know.
Caryn Hartglass: We just have a couple of minutes and I am looking at the website right now and I am looking at your featured actions. Can we just talk briefly about Coca-Cola?
Elizabeth Kucinich: What would you like to talk about?
Caryn Hartglass: Coca-Cola and Monsanto having in common how they have been funding anti-labeling campaigns. Be careful what you’re drinking.
Elizabeth Kucinich: This is what I am saying. Where we put our money, the companies that we put our money in, is ultimately the policy that we get and the agricultural reality that is born, be it through the way that the companies themselves are directly growing or what they are putting their profits into.
Caryn Hartglass: But it’s not that obvious! How many people know that Coca-Cola supported the Monsanto anti-labeling campaign? There is just so much out there that most of us don’t know or don’t have the time to know. Oh goodness.
Elizabeth Kucinich: It’s an exciting world that one can explore and learn about.
Caryn Hartglass: There we go. Well, I think we are pretty safe if we are going for organic, plant foods, minimally processed, whole, that we are avoiding most of the problems.
Elizabeth Kucinich: Because there are only five GMO crops out there, they are easy, pretty much, to avoid if you do go for the whole food, plant-based options—unprocessed—then most of the foods that you will find, I’m sure, will be absolutely fine. Then again, if it has “USDA ORGANIC” written on it—it’s the little logo, it’s a circular logo—then that is the logo to really look for. That is a good basic standard to adhere to. You know when food is not good for you to eat and drink anyway, so you should be regulating them within your diet. Maybe not. You might not be supporting the people at the GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association) quite as much as maybe before.
Caryn Hartglass: Very good. Well Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food. Love your work, love what you are doing.
Elizabeth Kucinich: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
Caryn Hartglass: Have a wonderful 2014.
Elizabeth Kucinich: You too. Happy New Year.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Whee!
Elizabeth Kucinich: You’re so bright.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you. Visit centerforfoodsafety.org. There’s so much information there that we all need to know about. Now we’re at the end of the show. Thanks for joining me on It’s All About Food. Have a very delicious week, and stay warm!
Transcribed by JC, 3/9/2014, edited Rebekah Putera 7/17/2014