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It's Our Right to Know

March 31, 2016

At the Birchwood, we care deeply about how the food we serve is sourced, prepared, plated, and enjoyed. Intentionality guides every step, from how we treat our staff, to how we conserve energy, to how we source the best local, seasonal, and sustainably raised ingredients. We embrace these extra steps because we recognize that our food choices have significant impacts beyond the plate. It’s also why we’ve refined our sourcing to reduce our exposure to genetically engineered food, or GMOs. If only these foods were clearly labeled!

We rely on our farmer/producer relationships as the best way to know how our food is grown, for most of the ingredients we source. However, when we don’t personally know who grew the soy milk’s soy or the cornstarch’s corn, we use labels. The problem is, ingredient lists don’t provide production methods so we choose the organic label as often as possible. Organic production means no GMOs and far fewer chemicals. But not even Birchwood can buy organic 100% of the time, so we also use third party Non-GMO verification. If we still can’t be sure, we completely avoid using any ingredients that, if not organic, may be GMO.

Why do we go out of way to avoid GMOs? For starters, genetic engineering is very different from traditional hybridization and plant breeding that humans have done for centuries—GMOs are genetically engineered by inserting the DNA from a bacteria, virus, insect, or animal into a totally different species to promote new traits, like resistance to herbicides, viruses, and pests. But how do we know GMO ingredients are completely safe to people and planet?

The short answer is: We don’t. While some short term research says they’re harmless, other studies show GMOs to cause tumors, reproductive and digestive system problems, premature death in lab animals, and the World Health Organization has declared glyphosate, a key component to growing GMO crops, to be a human carcinogen. GMO crops also require large amounts of chemical herbicides and fertilizers, which release toxins into our environment and threaten farmers’ health. Despite promises to the contrary, a recent study found that glyphosate use by U.S. farmers rose from 12.5 million pounds in 1995 (when GMO’s first entered our food system) to 250 million pounds in 2014. This increase has had many negative consequences including the dramatic decline of Monarch butterfly populations. While we recognize that correlation is not causation, we also wonder about the rise of many auto-immune, allergy, and digestive disorders that track with GMOs entering our food supply.

Food issues impact so many facets of our lives (environment, education, social justice, health care, government policy, corporate control, etc.) and it can be challenging to know how and where to plug-in. Thankfully we do not march in the good food movement alone! We recently created Birchwood Boost, our community partnership program, to both support local nonprofits working to #BeTheChange we want to see in the world AND provide many ways you can get involved!

Our current Boost partner is Right to Know Minnesota, and their mission is simple: Advance the mandatory labeling of foods produced with genetic engineering in Minnesota. Since 2011, Right to Know has led a coalition of farmers, citizens, and health advocates to secure our right to #LabelGMOs because they believe (like we do!) that knowing what’s in the food we eat is a basic right. Citizens in sixty-four other countries have the right to see labels on foods containing GMOs. So why hasn’t the U.S. followed suit?

Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont have all passed GMO labeling laws, and more than two dozen other states, including MN, have introduced similar legislation. In direct response to this effort, the House of Representatives, with significant backing from big food and bio-tech companies, passed the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” (DARK) Act but it was blocked in the Senate last month by just one vote. That’s how critical this issue is right now and why Right to Know’s work is so important as we ready ourselves to respond to what happens when the Senate returns post-recess. We’re paying very close attention to what our state Senators may or may not do; though they voted to block the Dark Act, they’ve made no promises to protect Minnesotans right to know at the state level.

A national mandatory standard for GMO labeling is Right to Know’s goal, however inaction by Congress has forced organizations to work at the state level. At Birchwood we support Right to Know’s campaign because it evens the playing field for food businesses, provides transparency, and gives people the information we need to make our best choices about our food. EVERYONE has a right to know what they are eating and the work of Right to Know Minnesota is moving us one step closer to cultivating a more equitable & healthy food system for all.

With HOPE! and gratitude,
Tracy & the Birchwood Cafe crew