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The right to know if you're eating genetically modified food

By Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Special to CNN
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Fri November 1, 2013
Labels say these snacks don't contain GMOs. A campaign is on in Washington state to require GMO foods to be labeled.
Labels say these snacks don't contain GMOs. A campaign is on in Washington state to require GMO foods to be labeled.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield: You have the right to know what's in your food
  • Washington state to vote on whether to require labels on genetically modified food
  • Writers: A grassroots movement is pitted against agribusinesses such as Monsanto
  • Writers: Corporations spending millions should not determine the outcome of the vote

Editor's note: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield co-founded Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. Ben is the founder and Head Stamper at the StampStampede.org campaign, whose goal is to help build the movement to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics. Jerry is president of the Ben & Jerry's Foundation and promotes the company's social and environmental initiatives.

(CNN) -- A modern-day David and Goliath story is unfolding in Washington state over whether you have the right to know what's in the food you purchase. The outcome will likely have national implications.

What's at stake is I-522, the initiative that would mandate labeling food that is genetically modified. In support, you have a large grassroots movement that includes farmers and ranchers, fishermen, business owners and consumers. On the other side, you have a handful of large corporations such as Monsanto, Dupont and Dow that are fueling the food fight by spending millions of dollars to stop the people's right to know.

Jerry Greenfield
Jerry Greenfield
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen

For Ben and myself, it's simple -- being honest with your customers is the foundation of good business. Companies ought to be proud of the ingredients they use and the products they sell, and they ought to be happy to disclose what's in those products.

About 60% to 70% of processed foods contain laboratory-grown, genetically modified ingredients known as GMOs -- genetically modified organisms. According to a New York Times poll released in July, 93% of Americans want labels on food with GMOs.

Eatocracy: How is genetically modified food labeled?

GMO labeling is being considered in almost 30 states. Maine and Connecticut have passed mandatory GMO labeling laws. But in a political system where money talks, too often the people are silenced.

Mystery wheat strikes fear in farmers

According to analysis from Maplight.org, a similar initiative failed in California last year after opponents spent $46 million -- five times more than proponents. In Washington, supporters of labeling have raised money from more than 13,000 contributors, with the median donation of $25 a pop. The opposition, on the other hand, has raised money from 10 donors, with the average donation of $545,827. As a result, the citizens who support labeling are being outspent three to one.

If I-522 passes in Washington, it would be the first no-strings-attached legislation for mandatory labeling. And that's a good thing. It would create the momentum and the precedent for more states and federal protections to follow. In other words, it would be another big win for David.

Residents of Washington have a big opportunity to vote yes on I-522 and turn the tide on labeling laws. In the long term, we need to level the playing field by reducing the amount of money that big corporations spend influencing legislation and elections.

While I've been in Washington lending my voice to Yes on I-522 , Ben has been traveling around the country with StampStampede.org -- a grassroots movement of tens of thousands of people who are legally stamping messages on dollars that say "Not to be Used for Bribing Politicians" to support the national movement to #GetMoneyOut of politics. Momentum is building.

The use of GMO ingredients in food is similar to the issue of money in politics. At the very least, there should be transparency and disclosure.

People deserve to know what ingredients are in their food and whose money is being spent to influence the laws. In the best-case scenario, we should get big money out of politics, stop big corporations from influencing our laws and reclaim our republic for "We the People."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

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