Get a group of people together to talk about the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) gobbling up American soil and, chances are, someone will bring up "what happened in Europe."
How is it that our neighbors across the pond were able to swiftly enact mandatory labeling laws and essentially ban genetically modified (GM) crops in six European states, while here in the United States we let the biotech machine plow on? What lessons can we learn from the Europeans?
Georgina Silby has some ideas.
Silby was among the legions of infuriated youth who took to European streets upon learning about the specter of genetic engineering in the mid-'90s. These young activists donned tomato costumes (or nothing at all) for their protests by day, dug up GM test crops by night and formed alliances with stakeholders around the globe. Their efforts generated what has eluded activists here so far: Media attention and mass-market consumer outrage.
"It was a dynamic, exciting time," recalls Silby, a British biodynamic grain farmer who now lives in Washington State.
A ripe environment for consumer activism
Silby first read about GMOs in 1994, when she was an 18-year-old college student at Manchester University in England. Soon thereafter she was clad in a bright red tomato costume, warning shoppers about the potential risks of splicing fish genes into vegetables (as occurred with the now defunct Flavr Savr Tomato).
"It terrified me," Silby says. "It just seemed so insidious that, in order to gain control of the food supply, these companies were experimenting with such risky technology."
The time was already ripe for activism around food politics in Europe. Thousands of cattle had begun to die from a crippling neurological disease called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (aka Mad Cow Disease), leaving consumers questioning the safety of their beef. Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal was soon to be born in the United Kingdom. And the United States and Canada appeared to be bullying Europe to lift its bans on hormone-fed beef and milk.
In 1996, when Monsanto introduced the first crops engineered to resist insects and withstand herbicides, the GM launch added fuel to an already sizzling anti-establishment fire. Then in November 1996, global leaders convened a UN World Food Summit in Rome aimed at addressing the world’s hunger problems (largely via biotech), but forgot to invite farmers. By the time the biotech-dominated food summit was in progress, the consumer activist movement had reached a tipping point worldwide.
"It all linked into this global, social-justice, anti-establishment theme," recalls Silby.
Silby joined hordes of diverse activists to stage their own counter-summit called the Hunger Gathering on the grounds of the UN World Food Summit in Rome. Protestors ranged from Indian farmers who were concerned about control of their seed supply to British college students fearful of the health impacts of "Frankenfood." Farmers marched wearing black gags to symbolize their exclusion. When then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman took the microphone to discuss the promise of genetic engineering, Silby and a cadre of anti-GMO activists ran naked across the auditorium throwing grain at the secretary.
"We made the New York Times and the Guardian, and it made people realize that not everyone was into this U.S. plan to feed the world through genetically engineered crops," Silby says.
Global action against GMOs
Thanks to the Hunger Gathering, new alliances were formed among communities across the globe and everyone went home energized—and ready to plan their next moves against GMOs.
In the months to come, activists in India would dismantle a Monsanto seed storage facility brick by brick, and thousands of farmers would gather outside a government building there, eerily laughing in unison to protest new biotech-friendly proposals.
Across Britain, protesters dug up dozens of GM test plots in the black of night, sometimes replacing them in the morning (when the media was sure to cover it) with organic alternatives. "We wanted people to understand what we were for—not just what we were against," says Silby.
When GM soybeans were set to arrive at the docks in Liverpool, activists allied themselves with striking dock workers there and blocked the port.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Greenpeace handed out magnifying glasses to shoppers (encouraging them to scour labels for suspect ingredients within stores) and hung up giant banners over farms that grew GM crops.
In grocery stores across Europe, mock shoppers created log jams by filling their carts with products and –as the line behind them grew—quizzing sales clerks on whether each individual item contained GMOs.
"The clerk would have to get the manager and some good dialogue began to happen within the higher-ups at the supermarkets," Silby recalls.
In November 1997, Iceland Frozen Foods became the first major retailer in the UK to ban foods with genetically modified ingredients. The same day, a host of other European retailers announced they would begin labeling them.
By 2003, all GMOs entering the European Union would have to be traced and labeled.
What is the moral of the story for activists here in the United States?
Silby hesitates to answer.
Times are different now, she says, and the acts of civil disobedience she engaged in back in Europe might meet with harsher punishment in the United States in 2011.
But one magic ingredient that made the anti-GMO efforts of the 1990s so successful remains attainable in the here and now, she says: collaboration.
"It wasn’t just a health issue. It was bigger than that. It was about health and the environment and farmer’s rights and who controls the food supply," recalls Silby. "People could jump in at whatever point they cared about. It made it a campaign that was very hard to dismiss."
Lisa Marshall is a health writer in Lyons, Colo.