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?
But despite what happened in California 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 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 than we’ve been traveling. 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 that we 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.
I’ve invited people throughout the West, whether they’re aye or nay on GMO foods to send their email addresses to email@example.com 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 southern Oregonians 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, the column 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, Oregon.