Awakening the American lion

June 2011

A confluence of protests at the White House
GMO protest. Photo from Flickr
Guerrilla theatre, aimed at educating shoppers about the GM nature of what's being sold to them, is in progress in major cities across the USA. Activists, covered head-to-toe in white HAZMAT suits, have been dramatically busy: they buy well-known health-food brand items with GM-suspect ingredients, put a GM-warning label on them, and ceremoniously dump them in a biohazard bin where people can see them.

The 'GMO Food Dump' campaign has started by targeting one of the main sources of consumer confusion: the large whole-food retailers. Its aim is to stop the shops from misleading their customers by selling GM foods without any label.


Americans are showing increasing interest in their food: where it is grown, how it is produced and what it contains. Whole-food shops are capitalising on this. However, campaigners point out that, while their first target, 'Whole Foods Market' in Chicago, claims that most of its suppliers are organic, this translates into only one-third of the products on sale. Also, the “non-GMO Product Verified” programme which the Company founded, covers only own-brand foods. By selling unlabelled GM food, Whole Food Market is tacitly endorsing biotech products and the notion that coexistence is possible, besides failing to respect its customers' right to know.

Customers interviewed expressed surprise when they found that Whole Food Market was selling GM foods: 
“It's disappointing and disheartening. I feel like Whole Foods has established itself as a community for people who believe in healthy food and I feel like they embody that. So I would think that they would uphold standards and prevent foods like (GM) from being sold here.”
The guerrilla theatre is rolling out in Chicago, Seattle, Boulder, New York and anywhere else people want to have a go.

Besides the scale and organisation of the campaign, the GMO Food Dump indicates a very significant shift is underway in America.

If you were campaigning against the GM threat in Europe 10 years ago, you may have been involved in some very similar theatre scenes. The outcome has been that we got GM regulations, GM labelling, and companies rushed to ditch GM ingredients to avoid loosing their customers.

This GM awareness spread across the Atlantic in some measure, leading to a flurry of GM-labelling bills across the USA which were largely defeated at the time. A decade later and coinciding with the GMO Food Dumps, there's a new rash of legislature: 14 States are debating whether to mandate labelling for GM foods. Four of these States are considering only the labelling of GM salmon, but one of these is California, a well-known trend-setter. And once the first GMO has been labelled, there will be no grounds to argue against the labelling of all the rest.

One Democratic law-maker is openly engaged in a strategy to force the government's hand. She is encouraging colleagues to propose slightly different GM-labelling bills across the country. Her idea is that the resulting patchwork of state rules will frustrate the food industry to the point it will gladly support a federal labelling law. She said: 
“If each state makes it different, then the big corporations will be begging the federal government to step in and do regulation”.
Also noticeable is the press-coverage generated by the GMO Food Dump. For example, the Chicago Tribune carried a full report on the event: the article was well-informed with regard to recent science on GM dangers and to the lack of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight (see below), and didn't have a single biotech PR sound-byte in it.

US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations

While the FDA has allowed the sale and planting of genetically modified foods for 15 years, it has never required pre-market safety evaluations of the foods.

In 1992 the FDA made a statement that it had no reason to believe GMOs “differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way”. No mainstream regulatory organisation in the US has ever opposed the introduction of GMOs, and the food safety issue has never been seriously revisited. Industry uses this to claim that its GMOs are safe and that labelling them is unnecessary.

The FDA position is that “Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety”, and that its obligations are fulfilled by encouraging manufacturers to consult with it about their products.

Note that, as far as the FDA is concerned, the biotech industry seems not to have any role in the safety of GM foods produced from its seed.


Whole Food Market's reaction to the GMO Food Dump on its doorstep seems to have tarnished its 'healthy' image even more.

During the setting up of the event, police arrested two of the campaign organisers on the public sidewalk for “disorderly conduct”. Whole Food Market first claimed the two hadn't been arrested at all (leading to reports hinting the campaigners were story-telling), then it claimed that it hadn't called the cops (who nevertheless were already in attendance when the campaigners arrived), then it claimed it wasn't seeking prosecution (but strangely citations were issued). Whole Foods Market is clearly very aware that associating itself with action against healthy-food campaigners is just not good PR. Its position however seems to mirror the attitude of the FDA: its quality standards co-ordinator said:
“Our approach is to work in the spirit of partnership with our suppliers .. to encourage them to take active steps to avoid GMO ingredients”. Is this “spirit of partnership” working in reverse, to encourage the Whole Foods Market to accept GM foods?
The most interesting response to the GMO Food Dump was from Monsanto, who as the biggest producer of GMO seeds, was the end target. Up until now, the Company has not publicly acknowledged this American grass-roots campaign against it. As the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) said:
“From (Monsanto's) perspective, it probably makes more sense to ignore our criticisms and hope we'll go away while they publicly position genetic engineering as the norm in agriculture. However, our whole movement is getting too big to ignore. The growth of organics, the increasing public concern about health, food safety, the ongoing work by OCA and many other organizations to educate about the benefits of an organic, localized food system and the failures and dangers of GE crops; all are approaching critical mass.”
Monsanto seems to agree, because within 48 hours the PR machine had sprung into action. An article appeared in the farmers' media (Brownfield Ag News) claiming the Dumpers were “working hard to confuse and misinform consumers that there's something wrong with these (GM) products”.

The GMO Food Dumpers certainly agree with Monsanto on one point. They are working “DAMN HARD” to educate the public on GM, because Americans aren't informed about GM. A 2006 study for the Pew Initiative for Food and Biotechnology found that only 26 percent of American consumers believed they'd ever eaten genetically modified food, while a 2010 survey by the International Food Information Council reported that only 28 percent of respondents knew such foods were sold in stores.

But, now the American public is being awakened.

OUR COMMENT

This whole sorry tale gives a damning impression of democracy 'American-style': there is, it seems, no right to peaceful demonstration in a public place, and no right to know what nor choose what you're eating because regulators and big business can conspire to keep the people in ignorance.

On a brighter note, GM-labelling and the right to know are being tackled simultaneously at all levels and across the nation: in the streets by grassroots campaigners, in the shops, in the media, and in legal circles. When the US public lion wakes up, it will roar.

If you have friends or relatives in America, suggest they check out the Organic Food Association's 'Millions Against Monsanto' campaign at www.MillionsAgainstMonsanto.org. Monica Eng's article in The Chicago Tribune (details below) also give advice to Americans who want to avoid GMOs.


SOURCES
  • Monica Eng, With no labeling, few realize they are eating genetically modified foods, Chicago Tribune, 24.05.11
  • Lyndsey Layton, States lead debate over modified food labeling, Washington Post, 20.05.11
  • Honor Shauland, Monsanto Attacks OCA;s Millions Against Monsanto Campaign, OCA Organic Bytes, 24.05.11
  • Alexis Baden-Mayer, Millions Against Monsanto: Chicago to Seattle, on to Boulder, New York & Your Town, OCA, 18.05.11

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