For some, it�s about the environment. For others, it�s human health. But for virtually all young activists fighting the infiltration of genetically engineered foods into the nation�s farms and onto consumer�s plates, it�s about choice.
Activists say that through the spread of GEs (genetically engineered foods), the choices for consumers and farmers are being limited. And that is motivating many young people to get involved � whether it�s gathering signatures of support for one of the many local initiatives about the issue, training other activists, organizing and attending protests and teach-ins, or just talking to their neighbors.
For Amy Stoddard, 25, of Santa Cruz, Calif., the genetic engineering issue was her introduction to activism. She began learning about genetic engineering in Berkeley five years ago. A few months after seeing a flyer about the issue, she went to a GMO teach-in in San Francisco.
�At first I was casually horrified, but the more I learned about it the more concerned I got,� she says. In 2001 she was one of approximately 1,200 people who attended the Biojustice protest in San Diego � a demonstration against the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the largest biotechnology trade organization in the U.S. �That was a major event for me, it got me more inspired and more involved,� she says.
Stoddard then began participating in Bay RAGE, or Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, in Berkeley, tabling outside of Safeway grocery stores and volunteering for the Organic Consumer�s Association. Although those experiences led her to pay more attention to other environmental issues, GMOs have been her focus. As her senior project as a Community Studies major at University of California, Santa Cruz, she created a self-teaching curriculum for people interested in the issue. She also did a six-month, full-time internship with Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, a coalition of farmers, consumer and environmental groups working to stop the cultivation of GMOs in the state.
The group provides training and resources for organizers in the California counties trying to implement bans against growing GEs. Local campaigns have been successful in Mendocino and Marin counties so far, and more are being formed throughout the state. In Sonoma County, Calif. organizers are hoping to gather enough signatures to warrant a special election in March 2005.
Patrick Band, 21, who is gathering signatures as part of GE-Free Sonoma campaign, says his biggest concern about GEs is the lack of testing and oversight. The three government agencies that share responsibility for regulating GEs � the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration � require only minimal scientific testing and often rely on the biotech companies� data rather than performing their own tests or using independent data.
�They�re untested, unregulated technologies that might have future advantages,� Band says, �but the risks associated with them aren�t really known.�
Band was one of more than 100 people arrested during the Reclaim the Commons protest in June of this year, a gathering of thousands of people who came out show their opposition to attendants of the 2004 BIO Conference. He and others spent the day in jail before being cited with charges ranging from resisting and delaying arrest to traffic violations. The charges against Band were later dropped.
As he and other activists are gathering the additional signatures needed to get a ban on the ballot this March, Band says he enjoys educating people about the issue and hearing different points of view. �It�s a really nice thing about being an activist,� he says, �you get to go out into the community and interact with people you normally wouldn�t.� But, it�s not always easy. Many people feel removed from the GE movement and assume that genetic engineering still does not affect their lives. In fact, Band hopes to point out, it is already in the food we eat. At least 70 percent of all packaged foods contain ingredients from one or more genetically engineered crop � the two biggest being corn and soy.
Instead of accepting this recent change, Band hopes to show people that they can demand change � or at the very least, more testing.
Measures that would have banned the cultivation of GEs in three California counties – San Luis Obispo, Humboldt and Butte – lost this November. David Paysnick, 24, who was on the board of directors for the GE-Free Butte campaign, says he spent much time informing people about genetic engineering, asking them to pledge their support, and participating in debates about the issue.
�The most common question [I heard] was, what is genetic engineering?� he says. When talking to someone who wanted to know more about GEs, Paynsick gave them a choice: �Do you want to talk about the environmental risks? Do you want to talk about the health risks? Do you want to talk about the risks to farmers?�
Paysnick says organizers of the campaign were mindful of how they talked about the measure, avoiding extreme language and images. �We were careful,� he says, �to say this is not about partisan issues, this is about health issues and farmer issues.�
Paysnick, who also works on an organic farm and is in the process of starting his own, says he�s concerned about the future of the world�s food supply � not only for himself, but for his daughter, who will be born in April.
�My life passion is food� the reason I became a farmer is because I�ve always wanted to own my own restaurant. And if you can�t find the food you want, you have to grow it,� he says. But one of the dangers of GEs, he points out, is that seeds from genetically engineered crops can easily contaminate other plants.
Proof of just how far GE seeds can spread can be seen in Mexico�s native maize (or corn). A study in 2001 by Dr. Ignacio Chapela, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, showed that maize in remote Mexican farmland was contaminated with genetically engineered DNA, despite that country�s ban on planting GE corn. The closest that GE corn had ever been planted was 60 miles away.
Chapela has been the center of controversy for the university since it denied him tenure in late 2003. Students and anti-GMO activists have argued that the decision was unfairly based on the university�s disapproval of the corn study and Chapela�s outspoken opposition to a recent five-year, $25-million contract that was signed between the school�s College of Natural Resources and Novartis Corporation, one of the world�s largest biotech companies.
Students and other activists have been supportive of Chapela. Their efforts culminated on Thursday, Dec. 9, when Chapela taught the last class before his contract with the university runs out on December 31. According to Earth Duarte-Trattner, 31, an activist and recent UC Berkeley graduate, a group of 100 people � mostly students, but also some professors and community members � filled the classroom to show their support. After the class, they marched to university Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau�s office. There, they were joined by another roughly 150 people. The group held a rally and tried to present the chancellor with letters of support for Chapela. The chancellor was either not there, or did not want to meet with the protestors, so they gave the letters to an aid. Many of Chapela�s supporters argue that his case is an example of the growing control biotech corporation wield.
Corporate power is also a central issue for anti-GMO activists in other parts of the country. Doyle Canning, 24, who works in the Burlington, Vt., office of Smart Meme Strategy and Training Project, an organization that trains activists and helps them to strategize. She participated in a campaign that eventually brought the issue to the state level in Vermont � the only statewide law regulating GEs. Like all grassroots movements, it started on the local level. During what was called the Town-to-Town campaign, activists educated people about genetic engineering and helped pass resolutions urging the state legislature to require labeling of all products containing GEs. (at this point, if the food you�re buying does not contain a label that reads �NO GMOs,� it is likely that it does.) By the time activists brought the idea of a statewide labeling law to the legislature, approximately one-third of all towns had passed resolutions. The law passed this year.
�It was a great example of direct democracy,� she says. She and others are working to capitalize on the momentum that brought the labeling law to the legislature. They are working on two more laws � one protecting farmers from lawsuits by biotech companies and another enacting a two-year moratorium on the growing of GEs. The farmer protection law has been rejected twice so far, but she says she expects it to pass soon.
Canning makes a point of emphasizing that the argument against genetic engineering is incomplete without a discussion of the social and economic factors. All too often, she says, biotechnology gets left out of the debate over poverty and global justice because it is so technical. Canning says it�s important to keep posing these questions: �Why has this technology been developed? Who controls it, and what�s the motive?�
Re-infusing discussion about GEs into the larger movement was one of the goals she set out to accomplish during the protest of the United States Department of Agriculture's Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in Sacramento in June 2003. Canning helped organize the gathering, which attracted thousands of activists. The success of integrating the biotech movement into the larger global justice movement was �a really important and historic turning point,� she says.
But not everyone is thinking quite so big. After all, many beleive that global justice can start with something as small as a single meal. �The food that we eat is such a basic necessity,� says Amy Stoddard. �And it�s being completely changed without people knowing it.�