Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Did this really happen?

Did a young organic farmer discover that the multinational agricultural firm Syngenta had secretly planted genetically modified sugar beets (banned in the company's native Switzerland) near his small fields, and in other leased plots around southern Oregon's Rogue Valley?

Did he then plough under his own crop because of the risk of airborne contamination? Did Syngenta and county officials dismiss his concerns? Did he then rally farmers, marketers and patrons of unadulterated local food, who went on to write a ballot measure that would ban genetically modified cultivation in his county? Did they gather more than enough petition signatures in record time?

And did the resulting campaign draw big money from outside Jackson County and the state, with the lion's share coming from Syngenta, Monsanto, Dow Chemical and their industry peers? Did the industry carpet-bomb local media with ads—the kind that in both California and Washington successfully reversed initial public opinion, resulting in the statewide defeat of genetically modified labeling measures? Did the opposition spend about $45 for every "no" vote they ended up winning?

Despite what happened in California (in 2012) and Oregon, did heavily Republican Jackson County—two years after those secretly planted sugar beets were discovered—vote to ban GMO cultivation on May 20 by a nearly 2-to-1 margin?

Yes. It all really happened.

What the "realistic" skeptics—and I was one at first, even as I signed up for the campaign—didn't factor in was a profound hunger, stronger than conventional political loyalties, for a different path. More of us wanted to have fewer chemicals and more confidence in the food we eat. We wanted more connection to the people who grow food, and fewer boxes in our pantry with endless unpronounceable ingredients.

We wanted more power to shape our future and less deference paid to the drumbeat of "authoritative" media messages that too often don't line up with our deepest common sense. Most of all, we wanted to reduce our attachment to "stuff" while increasing our connection to place, a place for which many of us feel a deep and protective local patriotism.

Watching dozens of young volunteers whooping and hollering as election night returns rolled in, I wondered how many were stunned by the thought thatwe actually have power. How many, for the very first time, saw political activism as more than just a relic of a past that gets their boomer parents nostalgic? Maybe, they thought, engaging, organizing, standing and fighting for what they believe could actually affect their future.

We grayer-haired activists haven't been spending too much energy speculating whether this was a delightful anomaly or the turning of history's page. We'd rather figure out how to use this energizing moment as well as we can. Could it be the fuse for a brand-new local movement, with a reconfigured set of allies? I wouldn't try to define the precise agenda; that has to be a collaborative process over time.

But here are four ingredients that seem to be potent in our little, politically fractured county:

  • We need to make more room at the table for teens-to-30-somethings and take what they've been telling us more seriously. Much of what they say has to do with current practices they see shaping the environment they'll live in after most of us are gone, with climate change, water and food topping the list.
  • For too long, we've looked for the basics—food, energy, employment—from multinational corporations with no abiding stake in our community. Let's shift our attention closer to home, and look to ourselves and our neighbors. This will be both hard and satisfying.
  • All of us need to challenge the system of organized bribery that's contaminated government (especially at the national level) and blocked solutions to our biggest problems.
  • Let's recognize that the standard partisan divisions and labels confuse and don't serve us. They show up every day, with media pundits calling the GMO ban a "liberal" win. Those of us who knocked on doors to get the measure passed know that it was much more complex it all was.

I've invited people throughout the West, whether they're aye or nay on GMO foods to send their email addresses to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if they're interested in a fresh conversation. I'd like to hear other people's take on what's beginning to be possible. For a lot of young people who haven't grown up with much hope, the possibilities just expanded in a big way.

Jeff Golden is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a former Jackson County Commissioner and author of Unafraid: A Novel of the Possible. He lives in Ashland, Ore.

Published in Community Voices

Since the narrow defeat here of last year’s Proposition 37, which would have mandated labeling of genetically modified foods, the sentiment behind the proposition has spread—or metastasized, depending on your perspective—into similarly conceived bills in 26 other states.

Proponents of such laws mostly argue that we have a right to know what’s in our food. Based on the momentum of GMO-labeling initiatives on the state level, as well as voluntary labeling programs by retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, it’s looking increasingly like a matter of when, and not if, some kind of nationwide labeling system is created.

So instead of fighting about whether or not we need them, it makes sense for both sides to sit down and talk about how labels should look.

In an April blog post for Discover magazine online, Ramez Naam argued that it makes sense for GMO food supporters to stop opposing labels: “I support GMOs. And we should label them. We should label them because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there’s absolutely nothing to hide.”

According to most polls, the percentage of Americans that support labeling is in the low-to-mid 90s. To dismiss such popular sentiment would be to ignore the will of the vast majority, which wouldn’t be very democratic. It would, in fact, be a bit obnoxious, Naam writes.

“At best it’s condescending to consumers, sending a signal that ‘we know better than you what you should eat.’” By fighting GMO labeling, he argues, “We’re persuading those who might otherwise have no opinion on GMOs that there must be something to hide.”

One recent ABC poll showed 57 percent of shoppers would be less likely to buy products that are labeled “GMO,” suggesting a significant chunk of those who support labels aren’t afraid to eat GMO foods. Other common reasons for support of labeling, according to polls, include opposition to GMOs for environmental reasons, the “right to know,” and angst over corporate control of the food system.

Clearly, that 57 percent of GMO-fearing shoppers would represent a significant cut to the revenue of biotech corporations, and of corporate farmers who use GMO seeds, and it isn’t clear to what extent they will be able to make up the difference by squeezing processors, retailers and consumers.

Such financial concerns are one reason why Big Biotech shouldn’t be a part of the labeling discussion: It has too much at stake, and wields undue influence—outspending the grassroots support of Prop 37, for example, by a 5-to-1 margin. Corporate recusal is something that pro-GMO people should get behind, too. Arguably, much of the grief felt by GMO supporters is inspired less by the technology itself than by the way it’s been rolled out.

Many people who support labeling, or who oppose GMOs in their food, do so because they are uncomfortable with this powerful technology being forged in a corporate crucible, where there is a conflict between pleasing shareholders and proceeding with caution. It’s the same reason many people are skeptical of petroleum-company claims that drilling won’t harm the environment. We’re conditioned to expect the narrative that’s best for business, whether it’s true or not.

Big Biotech’s history of unpopular moves has long posed a problem to GMO-supporters, who often include a little Monsanto-bashing in their pro-GMO arguments as a means of communicating that Monsanto does not equal GMO. Perhaps these pundits would agree that it makes sense to exclude corporations from organizing and funding discussions about how labels should look. (The industry recently launched its own forum on all things GMO,

Concerns about corporate behavior and motivation can overshadow the examples of GM crops that don’t exist just order to sell more pesticides, or otherwise generate corporate revenue. The ringspot-resistant rainbow papaya, created at the University of Hawaii and Cornell University, was a public-sector effort that likely saved the state’s papaya industry from being wiped out by the virus. Efforts like these are easier to support, and wholesale anti-GMO ideologues should be clear about what, specifically, they oppose. An honest discussion about labeling could help tease apart distinct issues that are often lumped together.

Critics of labeling frequently argue that a general label, along the lines of “contains GMOs,” communicates very little, because there are so many different kinds of GMOs. But given that labeling seems inevitable, perhaps the pro-GMO side could help create a system that tells us something meaningful.

Ramez Naam told me via email that he thinks GMO labels should be on products’ back labels, not on the front, as might happen if GMO food supporters don’t come to the table. He also suggested labels like, “Contains ingredients engineered to reduce pesticide use,” or, “Contains ingredients engineered to increase farm sustainability.”

If the public lacks sufficient understanding of the science behind GMO foods, as many GMO supporters lament, maybe even more detail would be productive. Perhaps a GMO ID system is in order, under which the back label lists genetically engineered components by some kind of identification number, which consumers could look up. Then they could decide for themselves if they think a particular ingredient is insufficiently tested, potentially environmentally invasive, made by a big evil corporation, or transgenic (made with DNA from a different species). And they could also consider whether a particular product requires less pesticide, or otherwise effects farm sustainability, or contains some desirable added nutrient value.

Given the apparent inevitability of labeling, a meaningful system should be the goal for advocates on both sides of the issue. Then, GMO skeptics could have their labels; GMO cheerleaders will have their nuance; and the will of the large majority of Americans will prevail.

Doesn’t that sound like how democracy should work?

Read more from Ari LeVaux at

Published in Restaurant & Food News