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A Turning Tide?

news2Marches and talks keep up the momentum around GMOs

The fight for GMO labeling in California may have suffered a hefty blow with Proposition 37's loss last November. The initiative, which proposed mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, was rejected with 51.4 percent of the vote.

But the push continues, perhaps with even less resistance, at least on a grassroots level.

On May 25, Santa Cruz joined the worldwide March Against Monsanto, the massive biotechnology corporation behind the rise of crops with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). More than two million people worldwide participated, with 300 doing their part at the Clock Tower in Downtown Santa Cruz. Another nationwide march is scheduled for Thursday, July 4, when Moms Across America will rally in support of labeling genetically altered foods.

Mary Graydon-Fontana, co-leader of the 2-year-old organization GMO-Free Santa Cruz, was one of many passing out fliers and holding signs at the local outpost of the global May 25 event. She believes that the march did even more for spreading awareness about GMOs than the heated Prop. 37 campaign did.

"So many people are aware of Monsanto and their attempts to take over our food supply," Graydon-Fontana says. "The whole world knows about this."

This wasn't the case even a short time ago, according to Sarah Owens, director of marketing for New Leaf Community Markets.

"A few years ago I would have said that outside of Santa Cruz, it wasn't on people's radar," Owens says. "But in the past few years I've really seen the attention to and the awareness of GMOs increase, [particularly] with the help of Prop. 37 and local grassroots groups in each county."

While she agrees, Graydon-Fontana says that the heavily funded campaign against Prop. 37 has also had a ripple effect, resulting in as much misinformation as information being punted around in mainstream media.

"There are still people that don't know—even in Santa Cruz," Graydon-Fontana says. "We'll be having our rallies and people will come by in cars saying, 'What's a GMO?’ So we can imagine that, in the rest of the country, there are so many people that don't know."

Those interested in learning more about genetically engineered foods, Monsanto, and the many issues that are intertwined will have the opportunity when “Deconstructing Monsanto” author Chris Kanthan discusses the topic on Sunday, June 30 at the Resource Center for Nonviolence. In his book, Kanthan condenses and modifies the complex subject of GMOs and GMO technology into a sort of short-story, two-person dialogue format. He will visit Santa Cruz in order to bring his accessible explanatory skills to further clarify some confusion on the topic locally.

Concern about GMOs in Santa Cruz didn’t die with the rejection of Prop. 37, nor did the possibility of having these foods labeled. New Leaf, which has eight locations around Northern California, followed Whole Foods' example on April 24 when it announced that it would require labeling of all GMO foods on its shelves by 2018. In the meantime, the store, along with other local markets, carries many products with the growing Non-GMO Project label.

It would be ideal if all items in New Leaf stores were eventually GMO free, says Owens.

"Right now what we can do for our customers is offer that labeling opportunity until the larger issue ... of farming GMO crops changes,” Owens says. “That's a harder switch to flip right now than to just get the labeling."

But while support for this notion continues to grow, so do the victories stacking up for Monsanto. On May 13, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that farmer Vernon Bowman violated Monsanto's copyright for his reproduction—without payment—of Monsanto seed. Graydon-Fontana says this is one of many examples of the corporation monopolizing the food supply, and government upholding it.

Owens says the decision has repercussions, even locally.

"For those consumers that really want to shop GMO free, it could potentially get harder and harder as the main crop supplies are taken over by GMO seeds," Owens says.

And Bowman is receiving little help from Congress, as just in March, a “farmer assurance provision,” also known as the “Monsanto Protection Act” made its way into the spending package signed into law by President Barack Obama. The provision makes it difficult for judges to crack down on GMOs even if it is found that there are affiliated health risks.

Despite these obstacles, Graydon-Fontana foresees a tipping point in which informed consumers will shift demand for GMOs, causing bigger players, like those in Congress, to have to respond.

"One of the reasons I do what I do is [that] I see grassroots making more of a difference," Graydon-Fontana says. "Our senators and representatives here that vote on GMOs are already really supportive. We're lucky that way. But with the factions in Congress ... I can't depend on my government to do this."

Graydon-Fontana says GMO-Free Santa Cruz is possibly looking to put another initiative on the ballot come 2014 or 2016, but that nothing is set as of yet. Initiative or not, she plans to continue the fight to arm citizens with GMO knowledge.

"Wake the people up,” she says, “and we can do it.”

Chris Kanthan, author of “Deconstructing Monsanto,” will speak from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 30 at the Resource Center for Nonviolence, 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. Donations on a sliding scale of $3-$20 are requested. Members of local music group AZA will begin the event.

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