Sovereignty at issue in debates over genetically modified foods

The Stillaguamish Tribe of Washington hosted its First Salmon ceremony on July 16, 2016. Photo from Northwest Treaty Tribes / Facebook

Food sovereignty in Indian Country is at play as the debate over genetically modified organisms continues on legal and political fronts.

In the legal arena, the Quinault Nation of Washington joined a lawsuit challenging the sale of the first genetically modified organism in the United States. President Fawn Sharp said the Food and Drug Administration failed to consider Indian Country when it determined that a product known as AquAdvantage Salmon is safe to eat.

"Although there are obvious risks to our salmon, the Food and Drug Administration surged forward with its approval. The agency didn’t consider treaty rights," Sharp said on Friday.

"It simply did not consider how these man-created animals, engineered to grow twice as big as natural salmon, will affect the fish provided to us by our Creator," Sharp said of a product whose genes have been modified to make them grow faster and larger than their counterparts.

On the political front, a bill that requires the Department of Agriculture to establish standards for companies that wish to disclose their genetically engineered ingredients cleared its final hurdle in Congress on Thursday. The measure -- derided in some circles as the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act (DARK Act) -- is controversial because it overrides state labeling laws and does not recognize the authority of tribes to develop their own labeling laws.

Although labeling could occur in different forms, critics said the bill would allow companies to keep consumers a step away from information about their products by requiring them scan in codes using their phones or other devices. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson believes people of color and the elderly would indeed be kept in the dark at disproportionate rates due to lack of connectivity in their communities.

"There are serious questions of discrimination presented here and unresolved matters of equal protection of the law," Jackson wrote in a July 14 letter to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign S.764 despite objections from food groups, consumer advocates and Democrats.

Indian Country has long been worried about the issue. The National Congress of American Indians, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and tribes in Alaska are worried that genetically engineered organisms could negatively impact the foods they rely on for cultural, economic and subsistence purposes.

Members of the Yurok Tribe of California and local residents participated in the Klamath Salmon Run in May 2016 to call attention to dwindling runs of salmon in the Klamath Salmon Run. Photo from Facebook

Salmon are of particular concern due to the highly-migratory nature of the species. Although AquAdvantage will be produced in Canada and raised in Panama, Sharp said the FDA failed to consider whether the fish might escape and travel elsewhere, disrupting tribal efforts to protect what is often referred to as the "first" food and one that is protected in numerous treaties.

In light of those questions, the Yurok Tribe in California late last year enacted a ban on genetically engineered organisms. The resolution notes that the Yuroks are known as the "Salmon People."

"It is the inherent sovereign right of the Yurok People to grow plants from natural traditional seeds and to sustainably harvest plants, salmon and other fish, animals and other life-giving foods and medicines, in order to sustain our families and communities as we have successfully done so since time immemorial," it reads.

Others are already working with the Northern California Tribal Court Coalition to develop similar laws. Those efforts could be disturbed by S.764 if it becomes law because the bill fails to include a provision that would have recognized tribal authority over genetically engineered organisms.

"Consumers should have the right to know what’s in the food that they are buying and serving their family. Congress shouldn’t actively work to limit that information," Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California), whose pro-tribal amendment was rejected last summer, said on Thursday.

The lawsuit that the Quinault Nation joined was filed on March 31 in federal court in northern California.

Related Stories
Quinault Nation slams approval of genetically modified salmon (11/23)
FDA won't require special label for genetically modified salmon (11/20)
Lawmakers raise tribal concerns in genetic foods controversy (08/06)
FDA holds public hearing on plan for genetically modified salmon (9/21)

Join the Conversation