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Millions Against Monsanto: 5 Lessons from Ongoing GMO Battle
Twenty years after the controversial introduction of unlabeled and untested genetically engineered foods and crops, opposition to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) 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 the 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 “one 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; and online list-building, mobilization and fundraising—strategically channeled into local and state-based political action—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” coalition-building 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.
More than 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.
3. Marketplace pressure and political action must go hand-in-hand.
Anti-GMO campaigners have now learned that marketplace pressure and political action go hand-in-hand. It’s not enough to just vote with your pocketbook for organic and non-GMO foods and products, to reward good companies and brands and punish the bad ones. We must get political, and vote for a healthy, climate-friendly food and farming system in the voting booth as well. If we want to drive GMO foods off the market, we must not only walk our talk in the marketplace and in our everyday lives, but also “get political” and mobilize our base to get involved in legislative battles and political campaigns.
One important consequence of marketplace pressure and boycotts is their potential to gradually divide our opponents. In the case of the anti-GMO movement, we’ve begun to drive a wedge between the biotech/industrial agriculture corporations, and their erstwhile allies, food manufacturers and supermarket chains. In the wake of the California GMO labeling ballot initiative (Proposition 37), the Organic Consumers Association and our allies launched a nationwide boycott of traitor brands, the organic and natural brands whose parent corporations spent $20 million, along with the biotech industry’s $30 million, to defeat Prop 37. We sabotaged several dozen corporate Facebook pages, tarnishing brand names such as Kashi, Cascadian Farm, Honest Tea, Naked Juice, Silk, Horizon and Ben and Jerry’s, to depress sales. This caused several large multinationals, including Unilever, parent company of Ben and Jerry’s, and Mars, parent company of Seeds of Change, to back off from anti-labeling activities. Other retail and food giants, including Wal-Mart, fearing an escalation in consumer activism, have begun lobbying the FDA to implement federal GMO food labels.
4. Sophisticated online list-building, mobilization and fundraising are key.
Anti-GMO campaigners are rapidly becoming more sophisticated in terms of building broad coalitions, using online petitions to build large email lists, pooling national email lists, segmenting national lists in order to target state and local constituencies, using Facebook, Twitter and other social media for network-building and mobilization, setting up c4 lobbying organizations to complement c3 non-profit groups, and raising funds online.
In the recent GMO ballot initiative campaigns in California and Washington, as well as state legislative campaigns for labeling in several dozen other states, right-to-know supporters have been able to send coordinated or complementary email messages to more than 10 million people at once. Over the past 12 months groups like the Organic Consumers Association, Mercola.com, Food Democracy Now, Natural News, Alliance for Natural Health, Center for Food Safety, Just Label It, Environmental Working Group, Cornucopia, Friends of the Earth, CREDO and MoveOn have been able to send out anti-GMO or pro-labeling messages to literally millions of consumers and voters on a regular basis, generating thousands of grassroots volunteers, organizing thousands of local events and protests, and raising more than $20 million, mainly in small donations. The anti-GMO movement may not have the deep pockets or the advertising and PR clout of the biotech and Big Food lobby when it comes to the corporate media, but we are rapidly developing our own mass media on the Internet and Facebook.
5. Local and state political action is more effective than campaigns that target federal laws and lawmakers.
The anti-GMO movement, like other social change movements, has learned the hard way that corporations and the wealthy elite control not only the mass media, but the federal government, Supreme Court and regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After decades of sending petitions and lobbying the White House, Congress and the FDA, to no avail, it has become clear that the political elite, including President Obama, care more about their wealthy campaign contributors than they do about their constituents, including the 93 percent who, according to a recent New York Times poll, support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.
As a consequence the anti-GMO movement has moved its focus away from the unfavorable terrain of Washington D.C., and instead turned its attention to marketplace pressure, and state, county and local political campaigns, especially ballot initiatives. Citizen ballot initiatives are legal in 24 states and approximately 1,000 counties and municipalities. This form of direct democracy gives voters the power to enact labeling laws, bans or regulatory and zoning restrictions on biotech corporations and Big Ag, bypassing indentured politicians and federal bureaucrats. A number of California and Washington State counties over the last decade have moved beyond just labeling to outright bans on GMO crops, thanks to citizen-driven local political action. In 2014, four Oregon counties will have ballot initiatives calling for bans on GMO crops.
Win or lose in Washington State on Nov. 5, the anti-GMO Movement has evolved into a savvy army of grassroots activists who are committed to the ongoing battle to reclaim our food and farming systems, part of a larger battle to transform the entire political and economic system.
Visit EcoWatch’s GMO page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Randi Spivak
Slashing two national monuments in Utah may have received the most attention, but Trump's Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America's public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber and livestock interests since the day he took office.
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By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:
Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."
According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.
The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.
But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.
Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.
An Uncertain Future
The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.
Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.
There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.
Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).
Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.
One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).
Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."
Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.
The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.
The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."
Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.
Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr
Alternative Amazon Funding
Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.
In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.
Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."
Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."
Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.
Council of Hemispheric Affairs
Looming International Difficulties
The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.
In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.
But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."
The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."
Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.
Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.
Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY
Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
- Brazil's New President Could Spell Catastrophe for the Amazon ... ›
- Amazon Deforestation Increase Prompts Germany to Cut $39.5M in ... ›
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