by John Tarleton
ST.LOUIS, Missouri Tammy Shea and the Gateway Green Alliance are pushing a ballot initiative that would make the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves (pop. 30,000) the first community in the United States to go on the record as requesting that the state and/or federal government require labeling of genetically-engineered foods.
Shea, a defiant, 38 year-old mother of two with long, dark hair, lives in the shadow of St. Louis-based Monsanto. And, she feels a special responsibility for trying to halt that company's Frankenstein-like experiment with the natural world.
"We haven't had a debate about this issue at all in our country," she says. "....We're losing our democracy. We're losing our voice. We've got to reclaim it fast."
I found Shea working behind an info table at the Grassroots Earth Day being held on the Washington University campus. She was talking to passers-by, collecting petition signatures and passing out literature at every chance. She paused for a few minutes to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing a grassroots movement that is still in its embryonic phase. On the day before she and another activist had confronted the CEO of Monsanto at that company's annual shareholders' meeting. And, she was still excited.
JT: Tammy, can you describe the work of the Gateway Greens on this ballot initiative and what you're seeking to accomplish?
TS: We were basically asking a municipal body, a city council here in St. Louis, to request a labeling law from state and federal lawmakers. It didn't request that they themselves be an enforcer of that law in anyway but just simply to raise the issue, to elevate the dialogue about our right to know as consumers and to get that measure in front of the people.
JT: And why is this important to your group, the whole issue of genetically-altered foods? Monsanto and other corporations say that they are going to solve world hunger and pesticide abuse with their new technologies.
TS: Well, it's a very important issue any time a company, or several companies, in concert with the federal government, decides they want to revolutionize global food production in such a way that it impacts every living human being and every living organism on Earth. So in having said that, I think it's extremely important to every one of us, not just to the Gateway Green Alliance.
We are here to raise people's awareness. Given the fact that we are home to Monsanto world headquarters in St. Louis, we feel a particular obligation and responsibility to do that AND to join forces with our allies around the world who are rejecting this technology as it is being implemented to global food production and to medicine; so people at least the choice to reject that at the market level with a label. We just want to involve ourselves in the democratic process of deciding what technologies benefit who.
JT: And, what was the reaction of the city council in Webster Groves to your group's campaign?
TS: Well clearly they were taken aback. Because, as you probably know, in this country we haven't had a real intellectual debate about this issue, or any debate at all. So alot of them were very surprised, had known nothing about this issue prior to our coming. And the general reaction was that the municipal level of government really was not the place to take an issue like this.
However, these sort of federal policy issues are discussed at every level of government on a variety of topics all over the country. So, we felt we had the right venue. We did try to educate the council with materials and videotapes. And we're really not asking for their condemnation or condoning the technology. We simply wanted them to acknowledge consumers' right to know and to have a label.
We have labels on all kinds of different foods for all different reasons. It is not beyond the capasity of food producers to label such products. So they (the city council) were not pleased that they were being asked to comment on a hot political issue. Ultimately, they decided this was not the proper venue and have since decided they are not obligated to put this to a ballot vote even though we met the criteria for a ballot vote which was collecting signatures.
JT: How many signatures did you collect?
TS: We collected 560 signatures and we were only required to have 338. 490 of those were validated. And I must say we received an alarmingly positive response from the general public once they were given the information about what we were doing. They overwhelmingly agreed that, yes, people should have a chance to at least vote on this, or encourage council to pass it without a vote.
JT: So this is a movement, a cause that could resonate in many other towns and states around the country.
TS: Absolutely. I've gotten e-mail messages from people in Texas and from people in the eastern part of the country who are very interested in what the outcome will be and how they can initiate a similar ballot.
JT: The city not only refused to vote on your request but so far they've held off on even having a vote on this in a special election. So, what's the next step for your group in this work?
TS: We've taken the time to analyze their approach and their legal justification. And they have cited some case law which they claims supports that the municipal level of government is not the appropriate venue for discussing a federal matter. We think it's a pretty weak case. But we have to take a moment to assess that and get some legal opinion on that. And that's what we're doing now. I suspect that we will go forward with a legal challenge and let a judge decide whether or not the citizens have a right to vote on this.
JT: Yesterday, you were at the shareholders' meeting for the Monsanto Corporation. Can you talk a little bit about Monsanto and their strategies for spreading these new technologies as well as the difficulties they're having, and the angst of their stockholders.
TS: It was very interesting. I missed a large part of the meeting because of the difficulty I had getting in. However once we did get in, I detected a distinct sentiment of discontent among shareholders given the fact that the stock is doing very poorly.
Monsanto itself is strapped for cash and overextended in many people's opinion. And they've invested all their working capital into acquisitions of seed companies and the development of a very expensive technology, that being Biotech. So there was alot of questioning of the enormous salaries given to the Board of Directors and the enormous salary and benefit package given to their CEO, Robert Shapiro.
A very interesting question came from a farmer who is also a shareholder, who asked given the fact that the European markets are not completely open to gentically-engineered crops, where are we going to go with these crops? Of course, Mr. Shapiro was effectively glossing over that whole point and promising that there will be markets for these crops. He was not being specific about it at all. And, I think they are very troubled by the fact that the European Community is so widely rejecting their attempts to force these products into their markets.
And so they're sort of at a rock and a hard place. And without the intervention they're used to with reguard to the federal government and the Clinto Administration doing their bidding, they're going to be hardpressed to have much success in Europe. My opinion is that they're counting on the Clinton Administraston to help them in that area.
JT: Given what you're saying, they would be especially pinched if a movement began here in the United States, if that caught fire.
TS: Oh absolutely. And that movement is underfoot right now. They don't want that kind of eruption here in this country. And the fact is that we were able to get into that meeting and disrupt it. We had an activist in there who confronted Shapiro about why they won't label rBGH milk and ultimately in his process of disrupting was able to dump a glass of milk protesting that there were no labels on that glass of milk and that rBGH is a very dangerous product to both humans and animals. And the security was massive. There was security everywhere. I would have thought there was a politician in town because they were everywhere.
They were anticipating some trouble and they got it, despite their security efforts. And so we made a very valid and important point to the company that you're not invulnerable, that we found their weakspot. And we got in. And we talked about what was going on. And we showed and demonstrated to the community and the corporation that we are here and that we are not going to go away.
Tammy Shea can be reached at T4shea@aol.com
Campaign for Food Safety
Organic Consumers Organization
IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements)
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