Questions for GMOs’ New Policy Opponent

Elizabeth Kucinich, a vegan and vocal opponent of genetically engineered foods, joins the Center for Food Safety.

Kucinich will serve as Director of Policy. (Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images)

May 14, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Twilight Greenaway is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She has worked as a writer and editor on the web since 2000.

Her husband’s political career may have cooled off for the time being, but Elizabeth Kucinich is just getting started. The wife of former U.S. Congressman and Democratic Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has turned her sights on the politics of the plate.

This month, after a four-year stint as director of public affairs for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, where she spoke avidly about the links between diet and human health, Kucinich joined the Center for Food Safety, an organization most known for its work on genetically engineered (or GMO) food.

As Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of Center for Food Safety, said recently in a press release: “Elizabeth Kucinich comes to us at a time of ultimate need. The chemical companies have their sights aimed squarely at the regulatory safeguards that protect our health. Elizabeth’s knowledge and skills as an organizer and advocate will help ensure that we in the food movement are ready and able to fight back.”

Indeed, her new position puts Kucinich squarely at the center of a number of controversial food battles. We spoke with this dynamo recently about the Farm Bill, the documentary she produced, and the work she has ahead of her.

TakePart: Tell us about your new job with the Center for Food safety? Why did you take it? What do you hope to accomplish there?

Elizabeth Kucinich: I’ve been working in the area of food, nutrition and the environment for many years. I’ve worked with lots of groups and lots of incredible people in Washington, D.C., but the group that really stood out head and shoulders above the others was the Center for Food Safety.

There are so many different things happening in D.C. right now with regards to the Farm Bill and appropriation bills, and so many national conversations happening now about GMO labeling and deregulation. I just thought it was time to come on board and lend as much support as I could.

What part of the Farm Bill will be getting most of your attention this year?

There was a rider in the last draft of the bill that would have eroded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ability to conduct regulatory authority over GE crops.

It purposefully imposed impossible deadlines to the agency that they couldn’t meet, and it would have eroded environmental and health regulations that had been put in place for a good reason. In my opinion, this rider was really an absolute abomination. We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that it will appear in this next version as well, and that’s my biggest concern.

The bill’s mark up day is happening this week in the House, and we’ll be calling everyone to action.

Of course, the Farm Bill is much bigger than just a GMO rider. It’s a nearly $1 trillion bill, but most of it is made up of subsidies to industries that really don’t need them.

Most people are not traditionally engaged with the Farm Bill and don’t see it as being important to them. But the fact that we all eat every day—if we’re lucky—means we all have a vested interest in the bill.

What are your thoughts on a recently introduced bill that would require the Food and Drug Administration to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients? Do you think the GMO labeling battle makes more sense on a federal level, rather than a state one?

Dennis introduced similar Right to Know legislation several times in the past, so I’m very pleased that Senator Boxer and Representative DeFazio have taken that up again.

Since California’s Proposition 37 surfaced (and now we have other legislative initiatives on the state level), we’ve seen the conversation heightened. Prop 37 broke down the doors and enabled a national discussion to take place.

That said, I think it will move from the state to the federal level quite quickly. Because of how large so many of today’s food companies are, and the way the whole food system is structured, it just makes more sense to fight this on a federal level, rather than state-by-state.

Do you want to talk about the documentary you've been involved in?

Yes. I was the executive producer for a film called GMO OMG. I met the filmmaker at a screening of his previous doc, which is called Dive: Living Off America’s Food Waste. He invited me to be on a panel, and we immediately started talking GMOs, and quickly started this new project.

We premiered the film at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, and we are working towards a theatrical release in the fall.

People have described it as “the first feel-good film about GMOs.” It’s really a heartening film about the food movement. It’s the story of a father who doesn’t know anything about GMOs, and his journey across the country. It moves from Haiti—where we captured protests by Haitians rejecting GMO seeds sent by Monsanto immediately after the earthquake—to a remote park in California where the director goes fishing with his kids and finds out the fish they’re catching was fed genetically modified grains. We explore very gently the coupling of seed production with the chemical industry. Hopefully, people will enjoy it.

Do you want to talk about the AquaAdvantage (GMO) salmon, as the FDA is predicted to approve its production for commercial purposes sometime this year?

I don’t believe that a full enough assessment has been conducted into the impact of GE salmon and what it will really mean to wild salmon populations. But it has been wonderful to have people on the Republican side of the aisle, such as Don Young (R-Alaska), coming out with such fervor, not only to protect Alaskan salmon, but also to start to really understand the issue of GMOs and what they mean in the broader context of our food supply and our ecology.

I was also heartened to see that over 1.8 million people commented publicly on this issue. It was the largest number of comments they’ve ever received. People are really waking up to this. The public is becoming engaged.

You and Dennis are both outspoken vegans. How has that changed since high-profile figures such as Mark Bittman, Ellen Degeneres, and Bill Clinton have embraced plant-based eating so publicly?

Well, it’s funny. When I meet people on the street who are not vegan there’s almost a confessional thing that takes place where they want to tell me they only eat meat occasionally and they know that eating lots of whole grains and fruits and vegetables is the way to go. So it’s interesting. There’s a consciousness that’s starting to percolate. I’m just thrilled to be part of the vegan community and part of the wider food movement.