Talking with a GMO Killer
Editor’s note: When it comes to our food, the fusion of corporate power and government hits at home. But there is good news. This story illustrates how a successful campaign was able to change the integrity of milk in the marketplace. Its key player was Rick North of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, who retired in February to take on the issue of corporate money in politics as a volunteer. I talked with Rick over the years, but this was the first time I was able to get the full story. This interview took place at the Bijou Café in Portland, late February 2011.
-When I started with Oregon Tilth, February 2005, I went to Tillamook to interview farmers who were on the verge of a historic vote of whether they would participate in the anti-rGBH [genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone] campaign. They wouldn’t talk to reporters. Monsanto attorneys were camped out in a hotel in town and were putting the screws down on the Co-op.
This was the first domino in the anti-rGBH milk campaign as Tillamook was followed by Alpenrose, Eberhard, Darigold, Umpqua and many others. Later I learned that Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility had a hand in this campaign and you were a key player. Tell us about that campaign.
Rick North- We started our program in October of 2003. Our basic concerns were that genetically engineered foods, including rGBH, had not been demonstrated safe for human health or the environment, based on the science. We wanted to try to do something about it.
I was just starting this new program for Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. We focused on two main issues in dairy products and bio-pharmaceutical crops - genetically engineered to produce drugs. We were totally opposed to allowing the growing of these outside where they could contaminate our food supply and the environment. We didn’t want that to happen in Oregon.
I also took on GMOs in general, too, as time allowed. There weren’t any grass roots efforts against rGBH in the country at the time. There were back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, but they were dormant. A number of organizations had information on their web site opposing it, like the Organic Consumers Association.
Rodman- But nobody was tackling it head-on.
North- No, we just started trying stuff, to see whatever worked. Called people all over the country, like a college student, learning the science. And starting with people from Vermont that had been involved back in the late ‘80s. They gave me other people. I called Michael Hansen from Consumer’s Union who is the guru of all science on this and he was great to work with. I’ve been working with him ever since. I called Ronnie Cummins, from the Organic Consumer’s Association, early on. Pete Hardin at the Milkweed, a very courageous newspaper editor who had been opposed to this from the beginning.
I also started making Power Point presentations. I never made them before. I started contacting groups and all kinds of organizations to see if they wanted to hear what we had to say - Rotary Clubs, businesses, church groups, school groups.
Rodman- This is a very passionate issue. I imagine you got a lot of traction out of the gate.
North- We did. We were doing a consumer’s guide on which dairy products had rGBH and which ones didn’t. That was very popular, so we put up all this stuff on our web site. At the same time, we were doing a grass-tops campaign. I would contact the CEOs of dairy companies, asking them if I could do the Power Point for them. Some were cautiously agreeable, others would totally ignore me and pretend I didn’t exist.
We started a postcard campaign to selected companies, Tillamook being one of them and Alpenrose being another, saying, “I just found out you’re using this hormone. I’ve got a lot of concern about this hormone. Would you please stop using it?” We ended up saying, “Thank you for your consideration.”
And every time we’d go out, and I’d do a presentation, we’d be out at a movie, and we’d be there tabling, just ask people to sign these postcards and we would send them in. These postcards would send a signal to these dairy companies that, “Uh-Oh, people are finding out about this stuff, they don’t like it, and we’re losing business.” Some people would write on them, “I’m not going to buy your products anymore unless you stop using it.” As much as anything else, these little postcards really got the message across.
Tillamook started receiving hundreds of them, and Alpenrose, hundreds. Umpqua Dairy in Roseburg, they got the message, “We are now losing business because of this and it’s spreading.” That’s where it started.
Nobody else in the country was doing this. We started here in Oregon, then went out to Washington, to Wilcox and Darigold. One by one, these dairies started going rGBH-free. And it was just really something. So Tillamook was the first big breakthrough. Monsanto tried to muscle them to back down, and they didn’t do it.
Rodman- There was a lot of tension before the Tillamook Coop’s vote on rGBH, but it was Monsanto that should have been worried, not the dairymen. Did you have any idea that the campaign would be as successful as it was?
North- We had no idea. The other strategy we had was approaching school districts that were serving milk with rGBH, and asking them if they’d stop. We were approaching Portland, Salem and Eugene’s school districts, and went directly to the school boards. One breakthrough was St. Mary’s school in Beaverton, a Catholic school, K-8. One of our volunteers had two kids going there, and set up a meeting with the principal and food director.
We showed them the Power Point and they were with us. Within two months, they got back to us to say, “This is it. We’re canceling the contract with Alpenrose and we’re going with Sunshine,” which was rGBH-free. This is a lot of milk, and that sent a strong message to Alpenrose, which was afraid of losing Portland’s contract. It was this three-pronged strategy, starting with the grass roots, going straight to the public, informing them, having them vote with their dollars and send postcards in. Then the grass tops, going straight to the corporate CEOs. Third, going to the institutions, like schools and hospitals (Health Care Without Harm, a coalition supporting safe practices in hospitals, was a huge factor), and asking them for their institutional buys. The strategy was very powerful.
A big strategy shift was to go nationwide. I got a call from the executive director at the National Family Farm Coalition, John Peck, saying, “What about a nationwide coalition?” And I said, “Absolutely.” This was in late fall 2006. John Peck and I made a list of all the people and organizations we thought should be invited. We split up the list, started calling and saying, “We want to start a national coalition, and do you want to be on it?” Away we went.
The coalition included Food and Water Watch, Consumer’s Union, Family Farm Defenders, the National Family Farm Coalition, Organic Consumers Association, Sierra Club, Breast Cancer Action, several other individuals like dairy farmers John Bunting and Jim Goodman, and several businessmen, who preferred to stay anonymous. Great people.
Starbucks was another huge turning point. They invited me up to make a presentation to their senior management in Seattle. I went and showed the Power Point and it went very well. A couple of weeks later they called back and said, “All of our dairy suppliers are coming in for a meeting. We’d like you to present this to them.” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I said, “You bet!” I went up there and our chief scientific advisor, Dr. Martin Donohoe, was connected by speaker, for three hours of question and answer discussion! It was wonderful. Almost all of their suppliers were allowing rGBH. After that I kept in constant communication with Starbucks. They made the decision, “We’re going rGBH-free.” Talk about a ripple effect. All of these huge dairy suppliers around the country, they weren’t going to go rGBH-free just for Starbucks, they’re going to go rGBH-free completely.
Monsanto then came along with their idea, “Let’s stop the labeling of these dairies, so they can’t say that they’re rGBH-free on their label. That way consumers can’t find out.” And they started going to legislators, and departments of ag, state by state.
It started when Tim LaSalle, the former director of the Rodale Institute, called me in October 2007 and said “The director of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture just said that they’re not going to allow any rGBH-free labeling of any dairy product in Pennsylvania.” “What?” I said, “Are you kidding me?”
Thank God we had that coalition in place. We set out to work, and said, “Recruit everybody we know in Pennsylvania!” We sent out the word to all of our networks, got names of people, immediately contacted them and said “We’ve got an emergency here, we’ve got to stop this!”
In less than a week, we had set up a conference call combining this national coalition with the state organizations and set our strategy.
We bombarded Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania’s governor, with messages, and set up this massive backlash. Within a month, they reconsidered and dropped the labeling censorship.
That same scenario played out in eight different states over the next two years. It was like we were playing “Whack a Mole.” We formed instant coalitions between our national and state organizations, within a week every time. We were that fast.
The only state we didn’t win outright was Ohio, which passed the rules. They got sued by the International Dairy Foods Association and Organic Trade Association and we won the lawsuit on appeal. We estimate now that 75 percent of milk and yogurt nationwide are rGBH-free.
I wanted to knock out rGBH completely. To do that, you have to break through on cheese and ice cream. We haven’t been able to do that yet. So that’s kind of the state of affairs right now, but we’ve come a long, long way, getting the word out to the public and letting them vote with their dollars.
- A stunning success story, your campaigns taking on Monsanto.
- A labor of love. When they lost all these state battles, they ended up selling rGBH to Elanco, which is a division of Eli Lilly. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
For biopharmaceutical crops, we introduced a bill to the Oregon legislature in 2005, which passed the Senate but not the House, to restrict any biopharm planting to inside, non-food crops. There are no 100 percent guarantees, but that would pretty much eliminate the chance of any of these crops getting into our food supply. We don’t want drugs in our food. And not just drugs, these are untested drugs.
We raised so much exposure that we got the governor and the Department of Ag to appoint a task force to look at biopharm crops for a year, and I was an advisor to that task force. The rules they came out with were not as strong as our bill, but they’re pretty good. If a company wants to plant a crop in Oregon, there are provisions for a public hearing in the county of the planting and an opportunity for anyone to write in comments. Also, the company is liable for paying any damages caused by a contamination incident. So this is a really big deterrent to any company that wants to plant biopharm crops in Oregon.
When we finally completed that in 2009, we decided we’d take on another issue, the industrial meat system. With the CAFOs and antibiotics and hormones, it’s really bad.
GM alfalfa? What a disaster. Rumor is Obama is trying to be good to the corporations. Looking ahead he’s gotta have corporate money coming in for the 2012 election. The rumor is plausible. And I don’t know about [Tom] Vilsack. I’ve never met with the guy. He’s supportive of biotech crops, but he’s also a fairly reasonable person who does want to protect organic farmers.
- Corporate lobbying is so fierce, that the voice of the citizens has not kept pace. What advice do you have for people or organizations that want to take on or build new coalitions in this post-Supreme Court decision on GE alfalfa, or confront other GMOs in the marketplace?
North- This is not what you’re going to expect to hear, okay?
Rodman- I don’t want what I expect to hear.
North- The biggest thing to me is, how you work with people. It’s that simple. It’s returning phone calls, returning emails, in a prompt, frank manner from day one. To me, this is just common courtesy. You treat people the way you want to be treated. I can’t believe so many organizations don’t.
The whole thing is building relationships, and any relationship is based on trust. Trust is like a three-legged stool. In order to have somebody trust you, you gotta get three elements. One is, are you being honest with them? Or are you lying through your teeth, or exaggerating? You’ve got to build your credibility, that’s the first leg. The second leg is reliability. That’s the returning of the phone calls, attending meetings on time, meeting deadlines, doing what you say you’ll do. Nobody is going to totally trust you if you’re not going to follow through. And the third is competence–you got to know your stuff. You’ve got to do the homework. You’ve got to think like a professional college student, you’ve got to keep studying.
If any one of those three legs are missing, the stool’s going to fall over and people are not going to trust you. That is why we were successful. Because people knew they could trust us. So my advice is to look at yourself in the mirror, say, “Is this the way that I conduct business?”
You’ve got to have the science to back up everything you say. That is a lot of work. And I can tell you, seven years into rGBH, right up until the end I was still learning things about it. And GMOs are even far more complex.
Finally, you can’t come across as too forceful. I have to be careful because I’m very enthusiastic, really into this.
Rodman- Common sense is so uncommon.
North- For corporations, it’s all about money and hassle. If they figure they’re going to lose money, they’ll change their behavior. But, I think that’s the state of corporate America, unfortunately. You’ve got to make it uncomfortable enough for them, otherwise they won’t do the right thing.
Starbucks, I thought, was an exception: they made public health a priority. And they were trying to work as quickly as they could to being rGBH-free. It isn’t easy for them, a big company. to line up all their suppliers to go rGBH-free, so I understand that they do have difficulties.
Women get it better than men when it comes to GMOs in general and rGBH. So anytime you can work with women, especially moms with younger children, it’s helpful. They understand the precautionary principle naturally. Of course, every group eats, so we tried to reach everyone.
Another lesson is, you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to fail a lot. I fell flat on my face with a number of local state medical associations, trying to get them to endorse our campaigns. They just didn’t want to get involved.
Persistence is another necessity. Just make it known that you’re not going to go away. That determination, as much as anything else, was the key to a lot of our success.
Totally unexpected things will happen. They’re called black swans, and they’ll fly your way. When Monsanto started those state-by-state initiatives that banned or restricted rGBH-free labeling, we never saw it coming. It was disastrous. We had to switch gears on everything to try to stop that. You’ve gotta be flexible.
We accomplished things working with other people we never could have accomplished alone. The coalitions were great! Oregon Tilth, you guys have been great! You gave us money, which was not easy to come by, especially these last two years since the recession hit. An old saying is, “The only way to beat organized money is with organized people.” Without getting our people together and mobilizing them, we don’t have a prayer.
You just give it your best shot and hope for the best.