On the Saturday before Memorial Day, hundreds of people of diverse backgrounds gathered in front of the Stained Marketplace, an outdoor market that lies just a block north of I-4 in Ybor City. They assembled for what has now become an annual “March on Monsanto,” calling for the boycott of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, produced by biotechnology companies like Monsanto.
Shortly after noon, the estimated 300 people in attendance began their descent down 22nd Street, chanting “GMOs, Hell no,” and momentarily blocking traffic, leading one irate woman trying to depart a McDonald’s drive-through to spew some rather intemperate language.
“I think about this topic every single day and I feel that I need to support all the people who can’t be here today,” said Lauren McGahey from Spring Hill, marching with her young son and stepson. “This is our future safety. This is logical, and this is moving towards peace. I’ve been shopping organic for a decade and I can tell it’s picking up and getting somewhere.”
Similar rallies were held in front of City Hall in St. Petersburg, in Miami, and throughout the world; over the past decade the anti-GMO movement has gone global.
Monsanto, the company most often in activists’ crosshairs, uses genetic engineering to develop new plant seeds that are sold to farmers around the world. Genetically modified crops include one or more genes from the DNA of one species, artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans.
“You’re injecting the DNA of bacteria into corn and it’s changing the structure of the DNA. We don’t know what that’s doing,” complains Leah Rubin from the Tampa chapter of the March Against Monsanto. “It’s dangerous because we don’t know what it does.” She says it’s “scary” to consider the possibility of a future without natural foods.
But unlike, say, the debate over global warming, many scientists and respected organizations say the evidence is hardly clear-cut that GMOs are bad for us. Organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association say that foods with ingredients derived from GM crops have been safe to eat since they were introduced commercially in 1996. And advocates say that, with a growing world population, they could be our salvation.
An editorial entitled “Standing up for GMOs,” penned by a number of acclaimed scientists and published in the journal Science, claimed that while there was much fear surrounding GMO crops, there is little evidence of actual hazards.
“New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard,” they wrote. “These generally fade with time when, as in this case, no real hazards emerge. But the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations.”
Whether it’s “fear-mongering” or simply people who care about what they put in their bodies, the battle is heating up politically. Activists have fought particularly hard for labeling of foods with ingredients made from genetically engineered crops. Although such measures initially went down to defeat (most notably in California, where Monsanto and Pepsi spent $46 million to thwart a measure that led in the polls most of that year), the pro-labeling crowd finally declared victory last month when Vermont became the first state to pass such legislation. Connecticut and Maine have since passed similar bills, though with caveats: both bills include stipulations requiring other states — including at least one border state — to pass GMO labeling laws before theirs go into effect.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 such bills were moving through the states at one point this year, though in the case of Florida, passage of such a law is not imminent. Tallahassee Democratic Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda has sponsored a measure in the Florida House the past two sessions that called for the mandatory labeling of raw ingredients and processed foods that are made with genetically engineered items (Democrat Jeremy Ring sponsored a companion bill in the FL Senate). Vasilinda certainly wasn’t naïve about the bill’s chances, telling constituents in a press release when she introduced the legislation that “‘Nothing worth having is ever easy,’ my mom always said, and knowing the source of our food, whether it was genetically engineered, and its connection to our farmers and our natural heritage is critical information that Floridians want and have a right to know.”
In fact, the bill never got a hearing in the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee this year, but it did attract 10 co-sponsors (as opposed to just two last year), including Pinellas County Democrats Dwight Dudley and Carl Zimmerman and Republican Kathleen Peters.
Over 60 countries, including Japan, China, Australia, Russia, and the European Union member states have laws mandating disclosure of genetically engineered foods on product labels.
Activists say their best shot is through the Legislature, because deep-seated financial resources haven’t stepped up to fund a campaign to get a labeling measure before voters, where it would have to be approved by 60 percent of the electorate.
But some local activists say relying on the government isn’t the best way to address the issue.
Seminole Heights resident Nathan Schwartz helped organize this year’s March on Monsanto rally, and he’s already looking forward to raising awareness on the issue in another round of protests in August. That’s when activists intend to focus on what GMOs are doing to bees, in a worldwide action called “Swarm the Globe” taking place on August 16, National Honey Bee Day. A class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids is suspected of hurting the global bee population. That view is still in dispute; nevertheless, the European Commission enacted a two-year ban on them last year.
The disparities in how different nations treat GMOs have real-life consequences for American farmers. A year ago the USDA found unapproved genetically engineered wheat in the fields cultivated by an Oregon farmer. That created big problems, because most of that state’s soft white wheat growers’ exports go to Asia, which won’t buy genetically modified wheat. Following the discovery, Japan, Korea and Taiwan suspended purchase of the product.
That was considered the impetus for a measure in one Oregon county last month (Jackson) voting to ban growing genetically modified crops. “That kind of made real the concerns that farmers have had all over the country about GMO crops,” says San Francisco Bay area independent journalist (and former CL contributor) Andrew Stelzer, who was in Oregon last month to observe the successful campaign. Although Jackson County’s law will be enacted, it will be the only county to do so in Oregon, because the state legislature has now passed a law that pre-empts any other county from pushing through similar legislation — a move Stelzer says is now being used as model legislation by groups like the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council. “The seed companies are pushing for a national law that would preempt state laws,” he says. In fact, Kansas Republican Mike Pompeo is sponsoring such a bill in the House that would put labeling of GMOs with the FDA and ban states from requiring it.
In 2010, Bev Baker founded GMO Free Tampa Bay; she’s also a local member of the Tipping Point Network, which is focused on providing consumers education about GMOs. Their philosophy is if they can get just 5 percent of the nation’s population to stop buying products with GM’s (considered to be in roughly 70 percent of our foods), they can force the food manufacturers to remove them from their products.
Recent successes include General Mills, Inc. making changes in sourcing and handling of ingredients to make Cheerios GMO-free, and Post Foods doing the same to make Grape-Nuts marketable as non-GMO.
“All the big guys — we’re trying to tell them, ‘Remove GMOs from your product or we’re going to stop buying your stuff,’” Baker says. “As we stop buying their stuff we create that tipping point.”
Leah Lubin says that person-to-person contact is the best way to spread the word about GMO concerns. An acupuncturist, she says she reaches out to clients. “I feel like I reach a lot of people that way,” she says.
Last Wednesday night, 13 people showed up at the Sacred Grounds Coffee House on Busch Boulevard to debrief after the May 24 March on Monsanto, and talk about the newest efforts to spread the word about the evils of GMOs.
Bob Andreone is from Albany, New York and currently lives in Tampa.
He says last month’s march was the first-ever protest in his life, and he’s energized to educate more young people about what he perceives as the evils of Monsanto, as well as other agro-giants like Syngenta, Bayer and Cargill.
“Getting the students involved is the biggest thing,” he tells those sitting in chairs and couches at the gathering spot. “We’re preaching to the converted. We need to convert more people.” His fellow activists agreed, and among the events they’re planning to keep the momentum going is a potluck event on an upcoming Saturday in a local Tampa park to determined.
Though the corporations (and maybe some scientists) don’t approve, this movement seems to be on the ascendancy.
For more details on the local anti-GMO movement, visit Facebook.com/MarchAgainstMonsantoTampa.
You can read journalistm Andrew Stelzer's above cited work on the anti-GMO movement in Oregon and other reporting on this issue at wtfcorporations.com