Leading the GMO food fight

According to Dave Murphy, the national movement to label genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, sprang to life in 2007 because of presidential candidate Barack Obama, the same man Murphy now criticizes as inactive on the issue.

“It’s an incredibly heartbreaking failure,” said Murphy, the 45-year-old activist from Iowa, referring to the gap between what candidate Obama promised and what the Obama administration has done on the issue.

In a recent interview with The Hill, Murphy recalled learning that then-Sen. Obama would endorse GMO labeling during the 2007 Iowa caucuses.

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Murphy was working for the Iowa Farmers Union at the time, and he organized a summit to give the presidential candidates another chance to speak about agriculture.

Reading Obama’s prepared remarks the night before, Murphy saw the section in support of labeling genetically altered foods.

“I thought, ‘This is a big staffer error,’” he said. “I couldn’t believe they were going to allow a candidate, a senator from Illinois, to go on stage and say that.”

The speech jump-started the labeling movement and pushed Obama to the forefront of the presidential field on GMO issues.

But Murphy slammed Obama as all but silent on labeling since he came to office, a major point of contention between left-leaning food activists and the administration.

“We’re just asking for openness and transparency in the marketplace,” he said. “The administration staffers, it’s like they live in a bubble where they forgot the people who put them in the White House.”

Murphy, the founder and head of Food Democracy Now, has spent the last four years pressuring the Obama administration to make sustainable agriculture a priority.

To organic farmers, he is the connection between the fields and political capitals around the United States.

And government officials aren’t his only focus. He is a vocal antagonist of Monsanto, the powerful biotech giant behind many genetically engineered seeds.

He’s fought battles in Congress and in state capitols, tangling with entrenched agricultural interests that oppose GMO labeling.

“The food movement is now what the environmental movement was in 1970,” Murphy said.

“Sustainable agriculture is a solution to many of the health problems facing us, like obesity.”

Murphy is based in his home state of Iowa, far from places like Berkeley and Brooklyn, where food activism is part of mainstream culture.

But the Hawkeye State has its own advantages that Murphy, the son of a prominent Republican fundraiser, knows well, as his work during the presidential caucuses demonstrated.

The debate over labeling comes down to views on the safety of genetically modified foods.

Monsanto and its peer companies say there is strong scientific evidence that GMOs are innocuous.

“Since the introduction of GM technologies, there have been hundreds of independently-conducted scientific studies  … supporting the safety of GM crops,” Tom Helscher, Monsanto’s director of corporate affairs, wrote in a statement to The Hill.

The producers argue further that any special designation for GMOs, besides the additional cost, would imply to consumers that the foods are harmful.

Pro-labeling activists are skeptical of the safety claim.

They say that biotech companies and food manufacturers have manipulated the science to build support for their modified products.

The debate is high-stakes in states like California, where voters recently shot down a measure to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.

That ballot measure, Proposition 37, pitted Monsanto and its peers against groups including Food Democracy Now. The measure failed 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent, or by about 350,000 votes.

A co-chairman of the campaign, Murphy attributed the defeat to the millions of dollars spent by the other side.

“It was very close,” he said. “But Prop. 37 woke people up. People are waking up all over the country.”

Consumers’ appetite for organic foods is building momentum for groups like Murphy’s.

Food Democracy Now is working on a state coalition in favor of GMO labeling and fighting battles to require disclosure of the pesticides used in crop production.

In Washington, D.C., Murphy keeps an eye on the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership and works to keep riders out of federal spending bills.

One such provision, called the Monsanto Protection Act by critics, shields genetically modified seeds from litigation and bars courts from intervening to stop the sale of GMOs.

It was ultimately removed from last week’s bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, to opponents’ delight.

“The company will try to slip in provisions like this, but we refuse to stand down,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s path to food activism — and the political left — was indirect.

As a student at Dartmouth College, he played football and edited the campus’s conservative newspaper.

This job led to a short stint at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI), doing research for author Dinesh D’Souza.

“Working at AEI was one of the reasons I left the Republican Party,” Murphy said.

“I knew neoconservatives when they were larvae, and I didn’t like them. They were very close-minded and myopic.”

Murphy spent several years in New York City pursuing a degree in creative writing at Columbia University.

He considered himself an independent until Sept. 11, 2001, a day he says forced him to “choose a side.”

“I said to myself, ‘Democrats are weak, but they’re saying the right things,’” Murphy said.

“I could no longer sit on the sidelines. You’ve got to be part of the conversation, and in this system, that means being part of a party.”

Murphy later moved back to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a federal consultant and volunteered for the Virginia Democratic Party.

He decided to move back to Iowa after his sister, who lived in the state, asked for help fighting the construction of a factory farm near her home.

“Farmers would come up to her and intimidate her at town-hall meetings,” Murphy said.

“I’m 6 feet 5 inches. Nobody is going to intimidate family when I’m around.”