My GMO Story...
Nineteen years ago I had an interesting encounter with one of my favourite Canadian celebrities. I was a co-operative owner of The Big Carrot Natural Food Market at the time and one of my tasks as the in-store nutritionist was to organize events that pertained to health. Dr. David Suzuki was giving a presentation at one of these events and after he was done I asked him if he would mind autographing one of our store signs as a memento. The Big Carrot’s main motto has always been, “Searching For Nature’s Finest” and this sentence was proudly written on the sign I was asking him to autograph. As Dr. Suzuki scrawled his name across the sign he turned to me and said, “Is this true?”
“I’m sorry?” I asked, looking confused.
“Is this true? What I am signing….are you in fact looking for nature’s finest?”
“Why yes. That is our motto.”
“Well then I would suggest that you look into the genetically modified ingredients that are in many of the products in your store.”
I was embarrassed. I knew about GMO’s but the task seems too big to take on. David Suzuki was calling me into action, and I decided I’d better pay attention.
So I started to study. What I found shocked and angered me! I realized that our store could not claim to be “Searching For Nature’s Finest” and carrying products that contain GMOs and the broad-spectrum systemic herbicide Glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine) which is now known to cause birth defects and diseases such as cancer. People were relying on us to provide them with the best food we could obtain. Fortunately, The Big Carrot co-owners completely agreed and in the summer of 1998 we took on a huge project that would take us 18 months and hundreds of hours of hard work to complete. Our goal? To become a GMO-free store. What I was soon to learn was that although we could strive to create a non-GMO purchasing policy, claiming to be a completely GMO free store was not legally possible.
At the time we took on this task, The Big Carrot Natural Food Market was a 12,000-square-foot, worker-owned store located in Toronto, Ontario. (The store has since gone through a major renovation and expansion, but remains at the same location on Danforth Avenue.)
Big Carrot staff members (specifically head reaseacher Ramsey Affifi, store manager Asa Copithorne and the dedicated assistance of Sarah Martens and Jeremy Sills) spent 18 months and over 700 hours analyzing every ingredient in all of the grocery department products. (To read Ramsey Affifi's 'The Genetic Engineering Debate', click here.) We knew that the products containing canola, corn, cottonseed and soy presented the biggest problems, as these were the most common GM crops. We were relieved to find out that even though potatoes and tomatoes had been genetically modified, there were none being grown at the time.
Our staff sent letters to manufacturers asking them to swear on their letterhead that their product was non-GMO. If a company could not assure us that a product was free of genetically modified organisms, the product was removed from the shelf. We had a total lockdown on any product that was problematic, such as anything with corn, cottonseed, canola or soy.
In the end we removed about 20% of the products off our grocery store shelves because they were suspected to have GM ingredients. The only exceptions to this rule were products containing vitamin E, which is derived from soy; vitamin C, which is derived from corn; and soy lecithin. GM levels in these products were considered nearly undetectable, and removing these products would have emptied much of the store.
While the process of removing foods containing GM ingredients was arduous, the results were positive. The ban helped force the natural health food industry in North America to use better ingredients and the response from the public was overwhelmingly positive. We’ve had a 12% increase in sales despite selling 20% fewer products!
Note: The Big Carrot GMO ban officially began in 2000 and is an ongoing project. Staff members spend a combined 100 hours each year keeping it up to date. One of my oldest and dearest friends Maureen Kirkpatrick heads up the standards committee and maintains the organic standards for the store. She works tirelessly to raise the bar and we are all incredibly grateful that in addition to GMOs, the Big Carrot has banned products containing artificial colours, hydrogenated oils, and artificial sweeteners so that our store could be considered a safe haven where people could come and shop with confidence.
In 1999 I was given the opportunity to speak to the Canadian Federal Government in Parliament about the health risks of genetically modified food. The CHFA (Canadian Health Food Association) fed the MPPs an amazing organic meal from a local organic vegetarian restaurant called The Green Door. This was to demonstrate that healthy organic food could taste great. My main message to the government was that GMOs are not substantially equivalent (meaning, the same as regular food), the most important claim used by industry and government to approve GMO foods. GMO food has virus vectors, anti-biotic resistance marker genes, higher potential for allergenicity and a different nutritional make up. I felt that if I could demonstrate that GMO food was not substantially equivalent, then they would at least have to label it.
“Truth be told, “Labeling GMO’s will never be enough. I will never stop until GMOs are removed from our food supply. Whoever owns a patent to our seeds, owns us. Forget the oil war, the next fuel war will be about human fuel. GMOs strips the human right to save seed. It patents life that can spread like wildfire to native varieties, carrying with it any genetic mutation that can live on for an unknown period of time. We have been pushed into a massive genetic experiment that has no control group. On top of that there is strong evidence that the herbicide Glyphosate, which is used extensively on GMO crops, is now known to cause birth defects and diseases such as cancer. At this point the best we can do is to buy locally grown organic and Non-GMO Project verified foods. Vote with your wallet and keep demanding a choice and change!”- Julie Daniluk
The message I delivered in parliament and the food we provided was well received, but we soon realized that if we wanted to make changes to our food system, taking the issue to parliament wasn’t going to make much of a difference. The demand for safe, healthy food had to come from grassroots, ‘gardening boots on the ground’ type projects. Customers needed a chance to vote with their wallets but first we needed to get them the information they needed to make an informed choice.
While The Big Carrot team was working hard to clear the store of GMOs, a team of activists was making some noise in the streets. A group of my theatre friends had formed ‘Gene Action’, a Toronto-based crew that focused on reducing and eventually eliminating genetically modified food in North America. Activities included direct actions, street theatre, research, workshops and public outreach. It was an engaging and joyous project that had its ups and downs. We marched down the streets of Toronto, up to Parliament Hill in Ottawa and in and out of stores, festivals and public events. One of my more memorable events happened at my local Loblaws. Our Gene Action team walked into the store as normal customers, donned colourful costumes and staged a spontaneous theatre piece that spoke to the dangers of GMOs. Thou the customers were intrigued, the Loblaws’ staff was not pleased. After I stood on top of the conveyor belt by the cash register to make a mighty announcement, “I am a Fishy GMO Tomato. Go ask the manager to stop carrying GMO food in this store.” (see photo above.) The police were called and I was thrown out of the store. They gave us a trespass notice and told me to never set food in a Loblaws again… banishment I wore proudly.
Greenpeace GE Campaign
One of my greatest joys to date was serving on the Greenpeace tall sailing ship The Rainbow Warrior during its GE Free New Zealand Tour in 2001. I was honoured to cook for 31 sailors while they protested Genetically Modified Food. It was a real culinary challenge to satisfy the diverse palates from around the world. The crew included Scottish, Canadian, German, Australian, Dutch, Japanese and Mexican campaigners. I was lucky enough to reconnect with Lindsay Keenan, the Scotsman who led the charge for the UK to rid GMOs through a powerful grassroots campaign. It is truly remarkable that New Zealand is now a true safe haven for heritage seed varieties by being one of the first countries to completely ban the growth of GMO crops! For Greenpeace Canada's 'How to avoid GMO Shopping Guide', click here.
The bioJustice-bioDiversity Toronto 2002
In 2002, Christie Young, Lucy Sharratt (director of CBAN.ca), myself, Greenpeace, Council of Canadians, the Polaris Institute, the Institute for Social Ecology, Gene Action and many other key players co-created one of the largest GMO action events in Canada to date. Three thousand people attended the bioJustice-bioDiversity Festival (sponsored by The Big Carrot), which was the 6th annual grassroots gathering on genetic engineering. I took off 2 months from my duties at The Big Carrot to focus on organizing (with my dear friend Christie Young, director of www.farmstart.ca) the organic food, live theatre, eco market (where I first met eyes with my future husband, Alan Smith) and music that provided the setting for Dr. David Suzuki’s keynote address. After he threw down the gauntlet 2 year before, we figured he was the perfect person to speak about the need for caution when it came to genetically modifying our food. He was (and still is) a leading expert in the field of genetics. His genetic textbook had been translated into dozens of languages and taught in most of the university genetic programs in the world. To read about Dr. Suzuki's take on GMOs, click here.
The other incredible speaker to grace us with her knowledge was the scientist and renown environmentalist Vandana Shiva. To quote The New Yorker, “Shiva’s fiery opposition to globalization and to the use of genetically modified crops has made her a hero to anti-G.M.O. activists everywhere. The purpose of the trip through Europe, she had told me a few weeks earlier, was to focus attention there on “the voices of those who want their agriculture to be free of poison and G.M.O.s.” At each stop, Shiva delivered a message that she has honed for nearly three decades: by engineering, patenting, and transforming seeds into costly packets of intellectual property, multinational corporations such as Monsanto, with considerable assistance from the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the United States government, and even philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are attempting to impose “food totalitarianism” on the world. She describes the fight against agricultural biotechnology as a global war against a few giant seed companies on behalf of the billions of farmers who depend on what they themselves grow to survive. Shiva contends that nothing less than the future of humanity rides on the outcome!”
How to Eliminate GMOs!
Eliminating GMOs from your life can be easier than you think. Check out my Top 5 GMO Swap & Drop download and watch my GMO video to uncover some of the worst offenders and how to swap them out.
The Birth of The Non-GMO Project
The idea of The Non-GMO Project started in 2003 in a small neighborhood natural grocery store in Berkeley, California called The Natural Grocery Co. In response to letters from customers who were concerned about a GM soy lecithin that the store was carrying, a group of employees initiated the “People Want to Know Campaign.” This effort rallied 161 grocery stores and co-ops throughout the United States in a letter-writing campaign to manufacturers of natural food products and supplements in the U.S. The goal was to discover the GMO status of products, so that the stores’ consumers could be offered an informed choice. The results of the campaign were mixed, with a central problem being the lack of a consistent, industry-wide standard for what non-GMO was.
Up in Canada we had started our GM ban in 2000 by discontinuing products that were not confirmed by the manufacturer to be GMO free. Though this was a successful move, the absence of an authoritative standard for non-GMO made the task that much harder. While our southern US neighbours were looking for a more comprehensive and reliable way to identify Non-GMO products we up here North of the border looking for the same thing!
In 2005, The Natural Grocery Company and the Big Carrot Natural Food Market teamed up to form the Non-GMO Project, with a common goal of creating a standardized meaning of non-GMO for the North American food industry. To give the Project the rigorous scientific foundation and world-class technical support necessary for this endeavour, our stores began working with the Global ID Group, the world’s leaders in non-GMO testing, certification, and consulting.
In the spring of 2007, the Non-GMO Project expanded its Board of Directors to include representatives from all stakeholder groups in the natural products industry, including consumers, retailers, farmers, and manufacturers. Working to give the Project a solid foundation comprised of as many perspectives as possible, this dynamic board then formed advisory boards for both technical and policy issues.
The Non-GMO Project Board members included Michael Funk, CEO, United Natural Foods, Inc.; Joe Dickson, quality standards and organic program coordinator, Whole Foods Market; Arran Stephens, CEO, Nature’s Path Foods; Michael Potter, CEO, Eden Foods; Grant Lundberg, CEO, Lundberg Family Farms; George Siemon, CEO, Organic Valley; Mark Squire, owner, Good Earth Natural & Organic Foods; Bob Gerner, owner, Berkeley Natural Grocery; Julie Daniluk, member/owner, The Big Carrot Natural Foods Market (Toronto, Canada); Megan Thompson, executive director, The Non-GMO Project; and John Fagan, chief scientific officer, FoodChain Global Advisors. Straus Family Creamery, United Natural Foods, Eden Foods, Lundberg Family Farms, and Nature’s Path Foods were the first companies to participate in The Non-GMO Project’s verification process.
Since then, the Non-GMO Project has grown to an international movement. In Canada, no one has worked harder to provide the most up to date research and tools of activism then Lucy Sharratt (creator of CBAN).
The Canadian Biotechology Action Network (CBAN)
The Canadian Biotechology Action Network (CBAN) was formed from a collaboration that began in 1999 when 23 environmental, social justice and consumer groups met in Ottawa to create an informal partnership on the issue of genetic engineering. For 6 years they shared information and coordinated common actions on issues raised by genetic engineering such as the need for democratic debate, precautionary decision-making and mandatory labeling as well as issues surrounding regulation, sustainable farming and corporate control in agriculture.
Through national meetings in 2006, a consensus emerged that new momentum and resources were needed in the movement against genetic engineering in Canada. Groups from across Canada agreed to create CBAN to assist research and monitoring, support grassroots action and coordinate action at the national and international levels.
To learn more about the dangers of GMO’s and how to activate your passion for change, I highly recommend reading their website from front to back! While you are there, make a donation to pledge your support for their work as they are the front line of the GMO fight in Canada and are majorly underfunded!
CBAN Major Accomplishments:
GM Pig: CBAN's sustained national campaign succeeded in shutting down the GM pig called "Enviropig" that was set to be the first GM animal in the world. CBAN coordinated and supported grassroots actions that called for an end to the GM pig. We also worked behind the scenes. CBAN’s direct interventions with decision-makers at the university and in the farming community supported the voices of grassroots actions and ultimately led to the final decision to shut down the research in 2012.
Terminator Seeds: International Moratorium Maintained, March 31, 2006
CBAN Members stopped the Canadian Government from trying to overturn the moratorium on Terminator technology at the United Nations. At a major UN meeting in March 2006, CBAN worked closely with the peasant movement Via Campesina and groups and movements from around the world in the International Ban Terminator Campaign.
Genetically Engineered Wheat: Monsanto withdrew application for approval in 2004, after farmers and farm organizations in Canada made it clear that GE wheat would ruin their export markets, and consumers made it clear they did not want to eat Monsanto’s herbicide resistant wheat, Monsanto wisely chose to withdraw its application.
Bovine Growth Hormone: Health Canada denied Monsanto approval in 2004, after 10 years of protest from farmers and consumers across Canada led by the now CBAN Members the National Farmers Union and The Council of Canadians, the Government of Canada denied approval for Monsanto’s genetically engineered drug to make dairy cows produce more milk.
In the USA, one of the great freedom fighters is Jeffrey Smith of IRT.
The Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT)
The Institute for Responsible Technology is a world leader in educating policy makers and the public about genetically modified (GM) foods and crops. They investigate and report the risks and impact on health, environment, the economy, and agriculture, as well as the problems associated with current research, regulation, corporate practices, and reporting.
Founded in 2003 by international bestselling author and GMO expert Jeffrey Smith, IRT has worked in nearly 40 countries on 6 continents, and is credited with improving government policies and influencing consumer-buying habits. IRT's work comes from a dedicated team of subject experts, consultants and staff donate their time and experience. Their website has become one of the most respected resources for online videos, podcasts, blogs, and reports for accurate and up to date information on GMOs. To watch Jeffrey Smith's movie, 'Genetic Roulette – The Gamble of Our Lives', click here. To order Jeffrey Smith's book, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, click here.
Other Major Influencers in Biotech Activism…
Millions Against Monsanto / Organic Consumers Association
The Millions Against Monsanto Campaign was started by the Organic Consumers Association (Director Ronnie Cummins) in the mid 1990s (one of the first!) to fight back against Monsanto and the other biotech companies who are responsible for creating Agent Orange, PCBs, Roundup (glyphosate) and other toxins that threaten human health and the environment. For nearly two decades, Monsanto and corporate agribusiness have exercised near-dictatorial control over American agriculture. Millions Against Monsanto is fighting back. For more information on their campaign, click here.
The next big event is May 20, 2017. Come out to the Toronto Millions Against Monanto Chapter's local day of action. For more info, click here.
GMWatch provides the public with the latest news and comment on genetically modified (GMO) foods and crops. GMWatch is an independent organization that seeks to counter the enormous corporate political power and propaganda of the GMO industry and its supporters. It does this through its website, email lists, social media (Twitter and Facebook), and other outreach and campaigning activities. It was founded in 1998 by Jonathan Matthews and its managing editors are Jonathan Matthews and Claire Robinson.
GMWatch isn't funded by big business, government or political parties. It is mostly funded by donations from individual supporters and receives some modest funding for aspects of its work from a small number of NGOs and charitable foundations or trusts. GMWatch is also supported by the work of dedicated volunteers in different countries around the world. For more information about GMWatch, click here.
Canadian Organic Growers (COG)
Canadian Organic Growers (COG) is a national charitable organization with members in all regions of Canada. COG is connected to the regions through eight regional chapters, four affiliated organizations, and to the international organic community through membership in the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
COG's membership is diverse and includes farmers, gardeners, processors, retailers, educators, policy-makers, and consumers. Not all COG members run certified organic operations, but they share a vision for a sustainable bioregionally-based organic food system.
Some of COG's activities include:
*Organic Week: an annual celebration of organic agriculture in September of each year.
*Co-operation with other organizations and government: to achieve policy change to encourage the adoption of organic agriculture, such as the Consumer and Corporate Affairs "Definition of Organic Food", the "Organic Production Systems General Principals and Management Standards" and the "Organic Products Regulations".
*The heritage seed program: an independent organization called Seeds of Diversity Canada. This grassroots seed-saving program protects the biodiversity of our food crops. For more information about COG, click here.
Get Your Kids and Teens Involved! Kids Right To Know
Founded on the belief that we all have the “Right to Know” what’s in our food, regardless of age, ‘Kids Right to Know’ seeks to inform, educate, and motivate kids to stand up and make a difference. This is the website of Rachel Parent who has been advocating for GMO labeling in Canada since 2012. For more information, click here.
Get Involved! Toronto Non-GMO Coalition
For local Toronto Non-GMO activities, check out the Toronto Non-GMO Coalition. The Farm-to-Fork Toronto, GMO-Free Festival will take place on May 20, 2017. The festival's primary focus is to increase awareness about the environmental and health risks associated with GMOs, provide consumers with the facts and empower them to take action in their communities , while celebrating the safe food options available in the GTA and honouring the farmers and businesses who work so hard to provide them!
Those who attended the festival last year (nearly 3,000 people came through the marketplace) know the community event was a huge success, connecting concerned citizens, organic foodies, farmers, beekeepers, well-researched speakers, socially conscious musicians, local non-GMO and organic food vendors, environmental defenders, food safety advocates and seed freedom warriors.
Of course this is only a brief snapshot of some of the non-GMO activities that I was fortunate to be connected to in North America. The global movement against the use of this technology is growing by the day. Millions of people all over the world are coming together to say “No!”. GMOs were first introduced into the food supply in the 1995. That is over 20 years ago. People may say that the Genie is out of the bottle. It may be for the crops that have been mass-produced but we owe it to the next generation to pick up the gauntlet and fight for our right to eat real, authentic, unmodified food. I urge you to click on the many links above and take action with your wallets, your vote and most of all, your heart!