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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Building Resistance in Canada:
A View from the North

by Lucy Sharratt, Sierra Club of Canada

It was only a year ago that the growing criticism in Canada of genetic engineering was given greater cohesion and profile when national environmental and citizen advocacy groups took on campaigns against biotechnology. Critique and resistance to genetic engineering had been smoldering in various parts of the country for years. Canadians had been active in protest against approval of Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) and when the federal government rejected this drug in January 1999 new space to resist other genetically engineered products was created. (BGH is a genetically engineered veterinary drug injected into dairy cows to increase milk production.)

A year ago most Canadians had not heard of genetic engineering and had no idea that they were probably eating genetically engineered foods. Polls now show that over 90% of Canadians want mandatory labelling of all genetically engineered foods and that the more Canadians know about genetic engineering, the less they like it.

The campaign against BGH was a single-issue campaign and it took 10 years to stop approval of this product. Resisting all genetic engineering in agriculture, with many foods already on the market, was without a doubt going to be a different struggle. Fortunately there were many lessons learned in our BGH struggle that are benefiting our growing resistance to genetic engineering.

Grocery stores are an obvious place to talk to people about their food.

The Canadian government is deeply committed to supporting the biotechnology industry and has been funding research and development for years. Seeing that the government was unresponsive to concerns about genetic engineering the Sierra Club of Canada began a public awareness campaign in July of last year that focused on grocery chain stores. Grocery stores are an obvious place to talk to people about their food. The stores are at once a site for public awareness raising, public debate, and public pressure.

Pressure on major grocery chains has taken many forms. On July 9, 1999, people in seven cities coordinated information pickets outside grocery stores to pass out information and introduce the public and media to the issue. Many local grassroots groups had already been taking this kind of action. Other organizations have since joined the Sierra Club of Canada in coordinating simultaneous pickets across the country for National Days of Action. By April 1, 2000, the third of such national protest days, there were over 30 communities organizing actions.

Many people choose to call grocery store managers before they picket the stores to let them know what they are doing and we encourage this—informing managers that we are not asking people not to shop in their stores but are offering a friendly public service of information sharing. This opens lines of communication that can lead to further dialogue. It also gives managers enough information to communicate about the protest to head office.

In some communities people have been meeting with grocery store managers to educate them on genetic engineering and express their concerns as shoppers. In Ottawa our local group had a successful meeting with one manager who has subsequently offered to sponsor a debate in the neighborhood. When the media reported that the food manufacturer McCains had asked their farmers not to grow genetically engineered potatoes, he called, both to inform me and to congratulate us, as it was obvious that we were winning! When citizens see resistance all around them and can connect these actions to change, they can feel that something is happening—something big and something successful, something worthy of their attention.

Protests outside stores and at key events attract media attention and can contribute to the sense that resistance is everywhere, but it is still local and national education efforts that appear to reach the public most directly and encourage action. One advantage of information pickets is that the movement can directly connect with people. We can find out what information people have, what information they need, and where their thinking is on this issue. Most important is that people who are concerned about genetic engineering become actively opposed and that the movement access these citizens and give them the tools and information they need.

One of the greatest strengths of the Canadian movement against BGH was the diversity of people and communities who were active in protesting. In different ways citizens across the country addressed the issue of how this product would affect their lives. Women's groups, environmental groups, consumer groups, farmers, and scientists all had something to say, amounting to continuing pressure from diverse areas. There is an important element of surprise in resistance that comes from ordinary people in their communities and from their particular perspectives. The Canadian government and the manufacturers of BGH had no one individual or organization to target that they could try to discredit, and they were continually put on the defensive by new constituencies taking up anti-BGH positions and drawing attention to the issue.

Rather than relying solely on the "experts" to determine the risks and benefits of BGH people were taking the issue into their own hands and making their own risk evaluations with confidence and passion-as citizens rather than just consumers. Food safety is often the concern that people first connect to genetic engineering and this is important but, just as in resistance to BGH, the multiple concerns including socioeconomic, democratic and environmental concerns need articulating. Together they form not only a powerful case against genetic engineering but also a powerfully diverse resistance movement.

Local groups at the grassroots are the strength of this movement as far as I can see, and certainly in the case of resistance to BGH it was the grassroots collection of signatures on petitions and the massive amount of letters to government that made the difference. Thousands of people are now writing letters to the CEOs of the largest grocery chains in Canada as well as to food manufacturers to ask them to remove all genetically engineered ingredients.

...we must be vigilant in providing information and imparting it without hyperbole.

Empowering the grassroots with accurate information has been key. But this means that we must be vigilant in providing information and imparting it without hyperbole. We must know which genetically engineered products are on the market and where on grocery store shelves people are likely to find them. Without labeling, the public needs our information to correctly locate ingredients that may be genetically engineered. People need to know that there are currently no tomatoes with fish genes in their stores. People need to know that genetic engineering is not everywhere. Industry's line that "the genie is out of the bottle" is false and disempowering. Genetic engineering is frightening enough in and of itself not to require "scare tactics" on our part.

Here in Canada I tend to think that the power of the Frankenfood image has limited appeal and indeed may have run its course. It was the media who picked up this language most ferociously and insisted, until recently, on using it at every opportunity. With new information and awareness the public and the media have more detailed and sophisticated questions that we must be prepared to answer with honesty and solid research.

One clear lesson I have learned from the struggle against BGH is that control over language can be critical. Early in resistance, activists insisted on using the term "Bovine Growth Hormone" or BGH to describe this product, rather than the more untouchable name "bovine somatotropin." BGH not only communicates clearly what this product is but also allows people to see that they too can understand what it is and form an opinion without relying on experts. Similarly, using the term genetic engineering communicates exactly what this science is all about. Industry keeps renaming genetic engineering and now want to settle on the term "enhanced food."

I think there is a constant need to reflect critically on the work that we do and the direction in which we take various initiatives. There are many lessons that we are learning from movements around the world and there is much that we can learn from others in our own communities if we take the time to listen. I am encouraged to see a movement that people can relate to and join.

Lucy Sharratt is currently working part-time as Coordinator of the Safe Food/Sustainable Agriculture Campaign of the Sierra Club of Canada. She was active in the movement against Bovine Growth Hormone in Canada.

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