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printable versionfood + nutrition

Activists & Actors Fight GE Foods
by Gabriel Wodhouse Thursday August 29, 2002 at 02:34 PM

A young mother with a cartful of groceries approaches a grocery store manager. “What is this hydrolyzed vegetable protein and citric acid in my soup?” she asks anxiously. “Where does it come from? How do I know it’s safe?”

The manager tries his best to diffuse a potentially unsavory situation, but a crowd of customers has already gathered around them. This is just one scene from a recent “invisible theatre” direct action by members of The Liberty Cabbage Theatre Revival at Manhattan’s 68th St. Food Emporium. Outside the store, volunteers dressed as “killer corn” and “terminator tomatoes” handed out leaflets highlighting the potential hazards and pervasiveness of genetically engineered (GE) products in cereal, infant formula, pancake mix and veggie burgers. The action was a small part of a wide-ranging campaign by many coalitions to educate consumers, agitate store owners and pressure legislators to face the reality of the dangers posed by genetic engineering.

“The campaign itself is as vast as the sky because the issue of GE foods cuts across so many different concerns — ranging from health hazards to corporate control of seed supplies and ultimately the whole suicidal economy of industrial culture,” explains Howard Brandstein, director of Manhattan’s Sixth Street Community Center. Brandstein says the key to fighting GE foods is raising public consciousness about the facts and pressuring policy makers and corporations to acknowledge public concern.

Craig Winters, the executive director of Seattlebased Campaign to Label GE Foods, emphasizes the need for progressives across the country to get more involved. “Unfortunately, the GE controversy is not on the radar screen of many activists who fight so hard for other important causes.”

Winters says that the Campaign is distributing 500,000 “take action” packets to health food stores and grassroots organizations nationwide. “Our focus is on educating consumers about the need to take action, especially by writing letters to congressional representatives in support of the GE food labeling bill (HR4814), which could very realistically be passed in next year’s [Congress] if enough citizens demand their right to know about the food they consume.” Beka Economopolous of Save Organic Standards, or SOS Food, a NYC group formed in 1997, points out the different approaches used by various organizations. “We are using market-focused strategies to put pressure on the stores to respond to consumer demands, a model that has proven successful with stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, which have pledged to stop carrying GE products on their shelves,” she explains. This strategy is known as “viral campaign messaging” where consumers influence retail stores that can ultimately influence food manufacturers and producers, creating an industry-wide domino effect.

The new tactics reflect the need to enlighten consumers and create an increasing momentum against “Frankenfoods.” The Associated Press reported in August 2001 that although bioengineered products have been in the food supply for years, “many consumers aren’t aware how prevalent they are. An estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of all processed foods already may contain biotech corn or soy, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America.” At the same time, Andy Zimmerman of the New York Biotech Action Network explains, “All of these [anti-GE] coalitions are seeking to generate a fever pitch like that reached in Europe, where the demands of the consumers ultimately defeated the multi-million dollar PR campaigns by the biotech industry.”

Zimmerman points to policies in the European Union, Japan, New Zealand and Zimbabwe that prohibit or restrict the use of GE products as models the U.S. should follow. Similarly, Brandstein frames the GE issue in the larger context of globalization and corporate imperialism: “We really need to respond to this issue as part of a larger critique of the way profit-motivated systems work so that we can organize most effectively and build stronger communities.” To find out more: www.thecampaign.org

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