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News ::
Why Organize A Town Meeting Campaign On Genetic Engineering?
11 Mar 2002
This piece explores the exciting prospects of using a town meeting campaign to realize the directly democratic potential of the town meeting. The piece is immediately relevant to activists in Vermont who are currently working on such a campaign against genetic engineering, but it may also be useful to people in other parts of New England who have town meetings and people all over the world who have no town meeting in their community.
By: Ben Grosscup
March, 2002

This March, citizens in at least 31 Vermont towns are bringing resolutions to their town meetings against genetic engineering. Why would people focus on organizing in their town meetings instead of the state legislature, congress, or other state and federal institutions? They are upset that the federal government has not meaningfully addressed the pressing issues related to genetic engineering. As biotech corporate executives and FDA officials pass back and forth through Washington’s “revolving door,” and politicians are bought and paid for by the biotechnology industry, hope of reforming the government to better respond to these issues is becoming increasingly misplaced.

From the beginning of genetic engineering in 1973, the U.S. government has been deeply involved in funding research. In 1980, the same government, granted the first patent on a life-form. This set a precedent resulting in increased power for corporations to patent and “assemble” genetic sequences, developed over millennia of natural evolution, to create new life forms to sell for private profit.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is the federal agency charged with regulating genetic engineering in the food supply, has proclaimed that corporations marketing genetically engineered foods can “voluntarily” label their products. The FDA has refused to mandate that corporations label their new products, despite the fact that safety testing on genetic engineering has been based on faulty science. Not surprisingly, corporations have kept people uninformed about the potentially dangerous foods they are putting in the food supply.

By consolidating control over the seed and agrochemical market, these same corporations are aggressively pressuring farmers to use genetic engineering. Furthermore, the biotech industry shirks responsibility when their genetic technology fails farmers. “In 1997 nearly fifty growers in the Southern United States [who had planted Monsanto’s genetically engineered Cotton] filed complaints and sought compensation when their cotton crop produced malformed bolls and prematurely dropped their bolls. They also reported that the plants had stunted growth and deformed root systems. . . .[Some scientists] now suggest that fruit abortion is the result of poor pollination, common to all of Monsanto’s engineered cotton lines, the causes of which are as yet unclear(1).” For many farmers, this caused severe economic damage.

Eventually, Monsanto was ordered to grant small compensation to the farmers following arbitration. However, under the company’s 2001 Technology Agreement, Monsanto required farmers who plant their seeds to sign a contract limiting Monsanto’s liability to the cost of the failed seeds. The contract only allows for disputes to be settled by binding arbitration and specifically excludes Monsanto’s liability “for any incidental, consequential, special, or punitive damages(2).” Thus when Monsanto’s seeds fail, farmers have very limited means to collect damages.

In Vermont and other parts of New England, citizens have an unusual opportunity to exercise political power on a local level. Every year, in every town in Vermont except the larger cities, citizens gather to make decisions about their towns in an unusually open and democratic forum. This tradition began before the American Revolution, soon after the first European settlers colonized New England. Their forms of government were uniquely democratic in contrast to the monarchist context they fled.

We should not romanticize this historical period. Despite the democratic character of these towns, they didn’t transcend the oppressive norms of the European context they left, particularly patriarchy and racism. Women were traditionally excluded from the political process and settlement was linked with forced displacement of indigenous people. Clearings made by indigenous people were favorite sites of settlers to start towns. This set the stage for one of the largest, most prolonged genocides of human history. Nonetheless, at least for those empowered as citizens, “long before the Declaration of Independence, the Massachusetts towns were operating on the principle that the only legitimate government derives from the consent of the governed – indeed, that the only legitimate government was self-government(3),” according to social ecologist, Janet Biehl. Citizens today should reclaim this democratic innovation in the American experiment.

Traditionally, the autonomy of the town has been in conflict with the power of the centralized state. Before the American Revolution, New England towns faced domination by the British Army, which attempted to collect taxes and wrest political control over the colonies. Ridding their communities of colonial domination was a central goal for the revolutionaries. Ironically, the Revolution, which the town meeting played such a strong role in creating, also resulted in considerable dissolution of the town meeting. The newly formed U.S. government eviscerated local autonomy in favor of a centralized republic first by state constitutions drawn up during the Revolutionary War and subsequently by the federal constitution(4).

In the recent past, citizens in Vermont have entered this vestigial form of direct democracy by organizing multi-town campaigns to adopt resolutions at their town meetings. In the early 1980s, over 200 Vermont towns participated in the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, some declaring their towns nuclear-free zones. More recently, many towns passed Livable Wage resolutions, helping pressure the Vermont legislature to take action in support of livable wages for working families. State law mandates that resolutions brought forward by 5 percent of a town’s registered voters must be included in the town meeting agenda, known as the “warning.” Town meeting campaigns can empower communities to make decisions based on the greater good of society and the environment, instead of narrow directives from the powerful few. One of the many ways we can cultivate this process of community empowerment is to decide with our neighbors how to address dangers to our food safety, ecological integrity, and community autonomy posed by genetic engineering. When citizens gather together like this, we begin reclaiming the freedom to govern ourselves, which the biotechnology industry, the federal government, and international trade-regulators like the World Trade Organization are trying to make us forget ever existed.

The biotechnology industry extends the logic of centralized power even further than the British colonialists. Like the British, the biotech industry and its agribusiness partners want to control land as a commodity for their own economic gain. However, corporations such as Monsanto and Novartis take a step further by patenting biological information – life itself – for the profit of their shareholders.

Anti-genetic engineering resolutions are not devised solely as a means to pressure the government to properly regulate genetic engineering. The potential ends (vision) are dialectically derived from the development of the means (strategy). These efforts are concrete acts that in many ways reflect our very highest aspirations for the good society, where people would discuss issues with their communities and make ethical and rational decisions. This is an educational process that teaches us that we are fully capable of making important decisions about our communities and our world, and it expands our wisdom to make good decisions.

Though wisdom is essential, it is not enough. We also need political power to implement our (hopefully) well-informed decisions. By declaring a moratorium on planting genetically engineered seeds, communities can assert that they, not corporations and unaccountable regulatory agencies, should define our food system. As we democratize political power at the local level, the biotechnology industry and state institutions, which insist on maintaining their power, will attempt to repress us. They will try to quiet us by saying that we don’t have the political authority to implement decisions on what we should and shouldn’t grow in our own towns. The industry may draw upon its massive public relations budgets to slander our work. The government may resort to its legal apparatus to invalidate our work. However, by standing together citizens can meaningfully exercise power whether or not the powerful say it is “appropriate.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote, “Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void – is, in fact, not a law.” However, exercising our right to make decisions about our communities often creates a conflict with the powers that be. This conflict can potentially expose and even transform the underlying power relationships between the town and the state. It poses an ethical question about who should make what kinds of decisions: Should decisions about our food system be left up to the faceless market, which is already largely defined by powerful actors such as biotechnology corporations and federal bureaucracies? Or, should citizens who are directly affected by these decisions make these decisions with their communities?

To win, we need to always be on the ethical high-ground. Our main opponents are corporations primarily driven by accumulating private profit. Our message is about ethics and democracy. We don’t just want power to make any decisions. We want to be empowered to make good decisions. Good decisions help us meet human needs, expand opportunities for each person to explore her/his own potential, and protect and promote ecological integrity. The Town Meeting Campaign against genetic engineering is not only about genetic engineering. Implicitly, it’s also about how our society should make decisions about all the issues that affect us.

(1) Ricarda A. Steinbrecher, “Ecological Consequences of Genetic Engineering”
From, Redesigning Life? Edited by Brian Tokar Zed Books ©2001 p.96
(2) Eva Ann Dorris, “To Sign or Not to Sign”
Mississippi Farmer, A Farm Progress Publication
(3)Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism
Black Rose Books, Montreal ©1998 p.35
(4)Ibid p.35

Ben Grosscup (stokingthefires (at) is a student intern at the Institute For Social Ecology Biotechnology Project
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