This Memorial Day weekend saw more than two million people in 436 cities in 52 countries around the world turn out in protest against the biotechnology corporation Monsanto. The corporation stands accused of promoting the use of carcinogenic pesticides and unsafe genetically modified organisms in food; oppressing small farmers in the United States and abroad; and monopolizing the seed industry, especially in Latin American countries. Many protestors in the United States worry about the health effects of genetically modified foods, and want legislation requiring mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs.
On Thursday, May 23, two days before the planned worldwide protest, lawmakers in the U.S. Senate defeated a measure that would have allowed individual states to make GMO labeling mandatory on food products sold within their borders. Forty-nine other countries already require GMO food labeling.
On May 10, the state of Vermont passed legislation that requires GMO food labeling, and the state of Connecticut followed suit on May 21. These bills could be challenged in court on the grounds that food labeling regulations are the prerogative of the federal government, not the state governments. In March, President Obama signed the Monsanto Protection Act, a bill that prevents federal courts from intervening in the sale or sowing of genetically engineered and modified crops and seeds.
Monsanto’s controversial practices include patenting its seeds on the genetic level, and then using those patents to bring infringement lawsuits against small farmers who, it claims, violate Monsanto’s patents when the company’s seeds wind up in their fields through natural means. As of January 2013, Monsanto has brought 144 seed patent infringement lawsuits against 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in the United States. In South America, India, Mexico, and other parts of the world, Monsanto’s relationship with local governments has allegedly forced indigenous populations to use its GMO seeds, to the detriment of their traditional means of agriculture.
Monsanto’s pesticides, including its most popular pesticide Roundup, have been linked to multiple types of cancer. They’ve also been implicated in the massive bee die-offs that have been threatening agriculture in recent years. The chemicals in pesticides are known to contaminate ground water.
The Food and Drug Administration has said that GMO foods are safe, and does not currently require foods containing GMOs to be labeled. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a group which lobbies for Monsanto among other biotechnology firms, has stated that GMO and genetically engineered foods are safe, naturally, and has expressed concern that mandatory labeling could imply that the foods aren’t safe.
The majority of Americans appear to support GMO food labeling; one survey conducted by the Mellman Group in February 2012 found that 90% of those polled favored GMO food labeling. At least one retailer, Whole Foods Markets Inc., has responded with a promise to label all genetically modified foods in its North American stores by 2018. Whole Foods cites a 15% increase in sales of products labeled GMO-free as a motivating factor in its decision.
The worldwide March Against Monsanto protest was the brainchild of Tami Canal, who founded a Facebook page dedicated to organizing the rally just three months ago, on February 28, 2013. Canal was astounded at the outpouring of support she received. “If I had gotten 3,000 people to join me, I would have considered that a success,” she told reporters Saturday. Instead, her efforts blossomed into yet another case of successful social media activism.