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Biotech Opposition Finding Fertile Ground in USA
Seeds of Resistance: Grassroots Activism vs. Biotech Agriculture

Julie Light
Special to Corporate Watch
May 25, 2000

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.

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'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 guide
lines 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.

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," 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
ReadyTM 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 Corporate Watch. "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.

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
Corporate Watch'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.

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.

"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.

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