5 Things We Can Learn from the Battle Against GMOs
Photo Credit: AFP
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Twenty years after the controversial introduction of unlabeled and untested genetically engineered foods and crops, opposition to GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and Monsanto has created one of the largest netroots-grassroots movements in the U.S.
There are arguably more important issues facing us today than the battle against Frankenfoods. The climate crisis and corporate control over government and media come to mind. But the rapidly growing anti-GMO movement illustrates the powerful synergy that can develop from the combined use of social media, marketplace pressure and political action. Recent developments in this sector indicate that out-of-control corporations, media, politicians and the proverbial “1 percent” can be outsmarted and outmaneuvered. And quite possibly defeated.
In the wake of high-stakes multi-million dollar GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California in 2012, and Washington State in 2013, an army of organic food and natural health activists have put Corporate America and the political elite on the defensive. We’ve demonstrated that aggressive populist issue-framing; unconventional “inside-outside” coalition-building; marketplace pressure; online list-building, mobilization and fundraising can be strategically channeled into local and state-based political action and can begin to even up the odds between David and Goliath.
Here are five strategic lessons from the ongoing battle against GMOs in the U.S, lessons that may be applicable to a broad range of political issues.
1. Aggressive populist issue-framing works
The desire to know what’s in our food, coupled with a growing concern for food safety and a distrust of large chemical companies, the mass media, Congress and federal regulatory agencies, is a hot-button issue that unites the majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and Independents alike.
Forty percent of consumers believe that unlabeled genetically engineered foods and crops are unsafe. Another 40 percent are unsure. These numbers terrify large supermarket chains, biotech companies and food corporations. So does the notion that states such as Washington, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont will soon require mandatory labeling of GMOs, which will likely drive these controversial foods and crops off the market, just as labeling laws have already done in Europe.
Anti-GMO campaigners have gained the support of millions of consumers and voters by framing food safety as a populist issue. And by relentlessly and aggressively challenging the opposition – big-name companies that include Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé, General Mills and others.
2. Unconventional “inside-outside” coalitions builds critical mass
After 20 years of grassroots public education and advocacy, the organic and natural health movements, led by a hybrid coalition of non-profit public interest groups, such as the Organic Consumers Association and Food Democracy Now, and green businesses, including Mercola.com, Dr. Bronner’s, and Nature’s Path, are approaching something like critical mass.
Over 100 million U.S. consumers are now regularly shopping for organic and natural foods, nutritional supplements and other products, giving rise to a rapidly growing $80 billion-a-year market for organic and natural products. One of the most important accomplishments of the right-to-know, anti-GMO movement has been to unite the advocacy and fundraising efforts of non-profit groups and health and green-minded for-profit businesses. After 20 years of often operating on shoestring budgets, activist groups (the “outsiders”) are now increasingly joining hands with a number of profitable organic/green/Fair Trade businesses (the “insiders”). This inside-outside strategy has managed to raise a not insignificant war chest of almost $20 million to support the state GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington in 2012 and 2013, while simultaneously pressuring major brands, such as Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Chipotle, to embrace GMO labeling.
At the same time activist groups with a more radical message (“outsiders”) are learning that you must, for maximum impact, work with more moderate groups (the “insiders”), and vice-versa. This ecumenical “inside-outside” strategy has allowed the more radical organic and natural health groups and scientists to highlight the alarming human health and environmental hazards of GMOs, and carry out boycotts, street demonstrations and direct action, while the less radical campaign groups and coalitions meanwhile appeal to a more moderate demographic with the mainstream message that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food.