Seeds of Resistance: Grassroots Activism vs. Biotech Agriculture

SAN RAMON, CA -- About a dozen demonstrators dressed in mock biohazard suits dump food products from Safeway supermarket shelves into a plastic bin in front of the Marriott Hotel in this quiet suburban town East of San Francisco. Inside Safeway shareholders are set to vote on a resolution asking the nation's third largest supermarket chain to remove genetically engineered (GE) ingredients from its products. TV cameras roll while an organizer explains that the crackers, cereal, soda, macaroni and cheese, and other products contain genetically engineered ingredients. One demonstrator wearing monarch butterfly wings -- symbolizing a local species endangered by GE corn -- looks on. Another carries a toddler on her hip.

Although Safeway shareholders rejected the resolution, as expected -- less than the 3 percent required to reintroduce it next year supported the resolution -- organizers say their fight has just begun.

The Safeway action is just one tiny indication of a burgeoning movement in this country against genetically engineered agriculture. For some five years European farmers and consumers have forged a formidable alliance calling for a moratorium on genetically engineered crops. Indian farmers have burned fields believed to be planted with genetically engineered cotton in actions dubbed "Operation Cremate Monsanto." Japanese consumers have long been sounding the alarm forcing their government to label genetically engineered foods. But an emerging alliance of consumers, farmers, anti-corporate and fair trade activists has only recently gathered steam in the US. What was a relatively obscure issue a year ago, is now emerging as a powerful grassroots challenge to the biotechnology industry.

What was a relatively obscure issue a year ago, is now emerging as a powerful grassroots challenge to the biotechnology industry.

Public awareness of the issues surrounding agricultural biotechnology got a boost at the end of last year when protestors converged on Seattle for the WTO meeting. Environmentalists, farmers and consumers joined together to oppose the patenting of seeds and other life forms. While farmers in Europe and the global South have long been fighting WTO agricultural and intellectual property agreements, it was the first time that many in the US public took notice. Since then, biotech agriculture has become a hot issue in the press from Time to Mother Jones.

In December, shortly after the Seattle WTO protests, more than a thousand people demonstrated outside Food and Drug Administration hearings in Oakland, in what the New York Times described as "the largest rally ever in the United Sates against the use of genetic engineering in food." That is until 3,500 rallied in Boston less than three months later in early March. Cities and towns across the US have passed local ordinances supporting federal legislation limiting GE agriculture. Artists design labels to illicitly slap on products on grocery shelves identifying GMOs (genetically modified organisms.) Leading chefs have pledged to ban GE ingredients from their cuisine. Farmers are suing the Monsanto for monopolizing seed. Some anonymous activists have even sabotaged crops, in what remains the most controversial tactic to date. And shareholder activism is heating up. The Safeway measure is just one of twenty two such resolutions introduced this spring by shareholders of a number of major food manufacturers and distributors, from Coca Cola to Kellogg.

Activist concerns vary. Some emphasize the growing corporate control of agriculture and the global food system, while others raise the issue of unknown long term health effects of new technology. Still others are alarmed by environmental dangers such as the creation of super weeds and the destruction of non-target species like the monarch butterfly. And unlike some campaigns opposing corporate power, biotech activists are promoting a clear alternative: sustainable agriculture. For some it means organic farming, for others it means protecting the local family farm. For still others it means promoting farmers' markets and making healthy, affordable food available to inner city consumers.

Local Communities Go On Record Against GE Crops

In communities from Berkeley, Petaluma and Sebastopol, California to five townships in Pennsylvania to the City of Boston, Massachusetts coalitions of parents, farmers and environmentalists have gotten local legislators to pass an array of anti-biotech resolutions. Some, like the one passed unanimously by Boston City Council in March, urge the federal government to require labeling of genetically engineered foods. Others, like Sebastopol's, support federal legislation calling a moratorium on genetically modified organisms unless they are proven safe. The resolutions are non-binding, but they are meant to educate the public and send a strong message to the biotech corporations and the federal government. Community activists have been convening town meetings and participating in the local political process, often helping to draft the measures. Activists say they are reclaiming the political process.

"What we're trying to accomplish is local democracy."

-- Dave Henson

"What we've been trying to accomplish in different parts of the country is local democracy," explains Dave Henson Director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma County, California. "We can't do this at the national level because corporations control the political process," adds Henson who has been involved in various local initiatives as well as national strategizing.

"The resolutions are a drop in the bucket," agrees Erica Peng of the Berkeley Food Policy Council which is advising the city government on biotech issues. "They are a way of getting information to people, empowering people and making them feel part of a long term effort," she says. Berkeley's resolution, passed in December 1999, grew out of an earlier policy by the school board warning against the dangers genetically engineered ingredients used in school lunches.

In reaction to this widespread public pressure, earlier this month the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new guidelines on GE foods. Those guidelines do not commit the FDA to carry out pre-market safety testing or require industry to label GE food. Instead, the FDA will "consult" with corporations developing the new technology. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, which heavily lobbied the FDA, is solidly behind the new guidelines. "We oppose measures that would unnecessarily frighten consumers," says spokesperson Charles Craig.

"The resolutions are a way of empowering people and making them feel part of a long term effort."

-- Erica Peng

But activists like Simon Harris of the Organic Consumers Association, consider new FDA policy on genetically engineered crops inadequate. They say it amounts to unmonitored, self-regulation, and are highly skeptical of agribusiness's ability to police itself. "By the time these foods reach the shelves they haven't been tested by anyone but scientists who work for these giant corporations," notes Harris.

Meanwhile, 52 members of the House of Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of a bill, introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, requiring labeling of all genetically engineered food. California Senator Barbara Boxer has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Farmers Revolt

In December 1999 five U.S. farmers and a sixth from France filed a class action suit against Monsanto and nine alleged corporate co-conspirators. The suit accuses the companies of forming a cartel to monopolize control of genetically engineered corn and soybean markets as well as price fixing. Furthermore, the suit alleges that the corporations rushed the transgenic seeds to market without adequately testing the health and environmental risks.

"The real truth is that GMOs cost more and yield less."

-- Bill Christison

"The real truth is that GMOs cost more and yield less," explains Bill Christison, President of the National Family Farm Coalition, which is a co-sponsor of the suit. Christison plants about twelve hundred acres of soybeans annually in Chillicothe, Missouri. It costs him $6.51 a per acre planting from saved seeds, compared to $42 an acre for Monsanto's Roundup Ready TM soybeans. But his biggest reservation about genetically engineered crops is that agricultural giants like Monsanto and Cargill own the seed patents and forbid farmers from saving seeds for future harvests. He says these corporations are threatening the social fabric of family farming by further wresting control of agriculture from local farmers.

According to Christison, farmers need to be alerted to the potential risks of GE crops because they have the most to lose. "Farmers readily accept new technology because they are accustomed to believing that new technology is good technology," he told CorpWatch. "They've been sold a bill of goods with GMOs," he adds. Even if GMOs were proven safe over the long term, their impact on local farming would be reason enough to ban them, argues Christison.

Leading Chefs Call for a Moratorium on GE Foods

In 1992 when biotech agriculture was in its infancy, leading chefs around the country called on the federal government to label and test GE food products. Now, about 60% of soybeans, 40% of corn and 27% of cotton grown in the US are genetically engineered. And the Chefs Collaborative 2000, an organization of more than 1,500 US chefs is urging food professionals to sign a pledge to refuse to use genetically engineered foods in their restaurants. "I don't want to make choices that I will regret later because we don't know what the power of this technology might be," explains Rick Bayless chef and owner of the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago. He says many chefs like himself are turning increasingly to organic ingredients to avoid genetically engineered food. The best way to educate customers, he says, is with great cooking. "When people taste unadulterated, healthy, seasoned organic food, they're won over."

The chefs also pledge to get written assurances from suppliers that their products are GMO free as well as to support organic distributors and local family farmers.

Seed Spin Control

The biotech industry knows it has a public relations problem -- one that could turn into a disaster. In 1998, before European concern over genetic engineering began to infect the US public, the Biotechnology Industry Organization poured almost four million dollars into lobbying efforts. While more recent figures have not yet been released, it is safe to assume that those figures have escalated along with growing public and congressional concern.

"There's no question we have to do a better job of convincing the public of the benefits and safety of biotech foods," explains Charles Craig, of the Biotechnology Industry organization (BIO) which lobbies Capitol Hill, federal agencies like FDA, state legislatures and international trade organizations like the WTO.

It's tough to convince the public to oppose biotech agriculture if they don't know they're eating GE foods.

Earlier this year industry giants like Monsanto, Dupont Monsanto, Dow, and the European companies Novartis, Zeneca, BASF and Aventis launched the Council for Biotechnology Information. The group will spend $50 million a year for up to five years to win public acceptance of genetically engineered foods through a television, print and Internet advertising blitz (See CorpWatch's Earth Day Greenwash Awards.). It remains to be seen, however if the ad campaign -- whose slogan is "Good Ideas are Growing" -- will be able to overcome farmer and consumer resistance to what critics call "Frankenfoods."

To Label or Not To Label

Most opponents of genetically engineered food agree that the goal is to win a moratorium and eventual ban on GMOs. However, there is less consensus on labeling as an interim measure. Some like Shepherd Bliss, who runs an organic berry farm in Sebastopol, California, sees labeling as a first step in educating consumers and reining in agribusiness. He says it's tough to convince the public to oppose biotech agriculture if they don't know they're eating GE foods. Bliss acknowledges that consumers will continue to eat food made with genetically modified ingredients -- labeled or not -- just as they continue to eat fruits and vegetables sprayed with harmful pesticides. But in the same way consumers and farmers concerned about pesticides have been going organic over the last two decades, Bliss sees genetically altered crops falling out of favor in the long run.

Labeling will actually legitimize the use of genetically engineered ingredients.

Others, like Dave Henson, believe that labeling will actually legitimize the use of genetically engineered ingredients. "It licenses the problem. It gives corporations the right to do it," says Henson of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. He also points out that labeling is a solution aimed at middle class, educated consumers and will do little to protect low income communities that often have limited access to affordable food. Instead of labeling, Henson favors an immediate moratorium on transgenic crops. Yet the debate around labeling has not prevented the two activists from working together.

Meanwhile, some stores are doing their own kind of labeling. The Community Store in Santa Rosa, California takes a positive approach by declaring that "to the best of our knowledge this product is free from genetically engineered ingredients." The label, which sports a DNA double helix being severed by a scissors with a circle and slash through it, requires members of the store collective to research the items.

Where Does Biotech Activism Go From Here?

While most activists agree that they are up against a formidable opponent in corporate giants like Monsanto, Dupont, Cargill, Dow, and Novartis, they point out that many of the companies are already moving away from biotech agriculture. Monsanto is under pressure from investors to sell off it's "life sciences" division, in response to the public controversy over GE food. Grain manufacturers are beginning to separate transgenic seeds as farmers reject the crops. McDonalds recently announced it would stop using genetically engineered potatoes to make french fries and Frito Lays says it will ban the use of transgenic corn in its chips. And Gerber and Heinz have pledged to remove GE ingredients from baby food.

The United States is becoming increasingly isolated in its refusal to label or test GE products.

"Change is inevitable," states John Harrington, President and CEO of Harrington Investments, a socially responsible firm. Harrrington Investments has spearheaded several shareholder resolutions with companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Quaker Oats and McDonalds. Despite his optimism however, Harrington acknowledges that corporations will not move on the issue without a fierce fight.

As a handful of US and European corporations are increasing their stranglehold on the world's food supply, resistance is sprouting everywhere from India, Brazil, the UK, Japan and the Philippines to the US heartland. The United States is becoming increasingly isolated in its refusal to label or test GE products. Countries around the world are embracing the "precautionary principle," outlined in the International Biosafety Protocol, which calls for regulating new technology unless it is proven safe. It remains to be seen if this world-wide alliance can deter the push towards genetically engineered foods. What is clear is that the resistance, and the alternative -- sustainable agriculture -- have found fertile ground.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
  • 181 Food and Agriculture

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