Long march across Germany | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 16, 2024

An organic food pioneer company rallies opposition to genetic engineering.

Ursula Sautter | November 2007 issue
Milling around a ramshackle VW bus painted in rainbow colours that sports the slogan “Biomobil,” a steadily growing crowd is forming at the onion-spire-topped St. Martinus church of Westerstetten in southern Germany. Dressed in state-of-the-art hiking outfits, members of the crowd are awaiting the kickoff of today’s leg of the Genfrei Gehen (“To go without GMO”) march, a protest against the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in agriculture. It is a typical September day—ragged clouds scud across a grey sky, golden-and-red autumn leaves tumble into the churchyard. The wind smells of rain that may fall at any minute.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m., when all the wanderers have been tied to bright yellow balloons, presumably so they can be spotted more easily should they get lost on the 20-kilometre (12-mile) march, the squawking sound of a tiny plastic horn can be heard through the hubbub of voices. It’s the starting signal, given by the father of Genfrei Gehen: Joseph Wilhelm, 53, founder of the organic food company Rapunzel. “This technology is a threat to all creatures on Earth,” the tanned, energetic man tells the attentively listening hikers, “so I want to encourage you and anybody else to get up and commit yourselves to creating a world in which it doesn’t exist.”
To draw as many people as possible, Wilhelm and his followers are marching right across Germany, from Lübeck on the Baltic Sea to Lindau on Lake Constance. That’s 1,185 kilometres (736 miles) in 44 day-long legs. According to Rapunzel, more than 4,000 participants have taken part in the march.
This Saturday, leg No. 44, the caravan consists of some 130 hikers between the ages of 2 and 70. Five of them have accompanied Wilhelm from the start on July 27; most have joined along the way during the last week or so. Some are here only for the day, such as the white-haired, pony-tailed homemaker Wolfgang Rusitzka, 60, for instance, who “is walking to support life and all of creation, which is in danger.” Or pretty, dreamy-eyed student Marlen Strehler, 17, who says she got tired of “just listening to the news and becoming depressed,” and decided to start doing something positive, “like taking part in the march.”
By noon, the wayfarers have reached the lunch spot at the sports field in Jungingen, some eight kilometres (five miles) from today’s final destination, Ulm. Most line up at the mobile soup kitchen, where helpers from the organic food company Beltane are dishing up fragrant chicken stew cooked in a giant paella pan. Once fed, people flop on the moist grass to rest their tired feet, or browse through the anti-GMO information material available in the VW bus.
The mood is upbeat. “I’m so glad I came,” enthuses Gio Gaeta, 47, from Verona, Italy. “There’s many more walkers than I thought would show up—and they’re doing something so important.”
Soon Wilhelm is exhorting the hikers to “stand in a circle, rub your chests, go “Hahahahihihihohoho,” and exhale vigorously in the process.” Amid general laughter, the Genfrei Ge-
hen brigade sallies forth again.
Even though they may sometimes feel they are tilting at windmills, Wilhelm and his fellow walkers can be sure a whole army of Don Quixotes is ready to back them up. “Only one out of four Europeans is in favour of GM food,” says Wilhelm as he strides along an already-harvested corn field, the yellow balloons trailing him. Even in Spain, where tens of thousands of acres have been planted with genetically engineered corn, GMO advocates are far fewer than those in opposition.
And although new regulations have been introduced that mandate the labelling of GMO crops and food, this “appears to have done little to allay the European public’s anxieties,” according to George Gaskell, associate director of the Center for the Study of Bioscience, Biotechnology and Society (BIOS), who co-authored a 2006 Eurobarometer report on the subject. On the contrary: There has been a striking decline in GMO popularity, with levels of support dropping to an all-time low since the introduction of genetically altered crops.
Wilhelm and his team are collecting as many anti-GMO signatures from co-hikers and bystanders during the march as possible. The lists will be taken to Berlin and handed over to the minister of food, agriculture and consumer protection, Horst Seehofer, in early October. “We’re working on the assumption that we’ll find attentive ears among the powers that be,” says Wilhelm. By drawing media attention through the march, Wilhelm also wants to lend additional weight to his campaign. “We are optimistic that we can achieve a quantum leap in the awareness of politicians.”
Those who don’t like the idea of genetically altered food and animal feed have increasing cause for worry. First planted for commercial use in 1996, GMO crops—mostly soybean, cotton, corn and colza engineered for tolerance to chemical herbicides (Ht) or insect resistance (Bt)—are now being grown on about 250 million acres worldwide. That’s an area almost the size of Germany and France combined.
Although the U.S. accounts for the bulk of the GMO acreage, more than 20 countries on all continents are planting similar crops today. Their ranks are expected to go on swelling: By 2015, the total acreage devoted to GMO crops will rise to at least 500 million, according to Clive James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).
The regulations that govern the use of GMOs in agriculture vary from region to region. In the European Union, a fundamentally revised legal system that took effect in April 2004 demands that all food products consisting of or containing GMOs have to be labelled so consumers and farmers can identify them. Traceability from the beginning to the end of the production-and-distribution chain is also mandatory, even when crops have been imported. Moreover, projects that involve the release of GMOs into the environment have to be made known to the public.
Across the Atlantic, the rules are much laxer: GMO edibles don’t have to be labelled or traceable. And, once approved for use by the authorities, GMO crops don’t have to be made public.
From the start, the question of green biotechnology has been hotly disputed. Facing each other in a trench warfare, the intensity of which seems to grow proportionately to the increasing amount of GMO acreage, are two camps: One is made up of those who, like Joseph Wilhelm and his followers, consider themselves the guardians of public and ecological safety. “We shouldn’t meddle with nature in this fashion,” says hiker Marlen Strehler. “It is wrong, unnecessary and potentially dangerous.”
The other camp mostly consists of industry or academic lobbyists who claim to speak with the voice of scientific authority. They argue that GMO crops lead to a drop in the use of herbicides and pesticides as well as higher yields per acre. Both sides are armed with a quiver full of arguments to support their claims.
The main thrust behind anti-GMO criticism is the lack of knowledge about the long-term health effects of genetically modified foods. “Genetic manipulation produces new proteins of viral, bacterial, vegetable and animal origin which never used to exist in food and have an unpredictable risk potential when they are resorbed,” warns physician Angela von Beesten, chairwoman of the German Ecological Doctors’ Association. These proteins plus the toxins contained in GMO plants laced with insect-killing properties, she warns, could cause all kinds of harm in the human organism: They might trigger allergies and gastric problems, impair the immune system, affect blood production or cause resistance to antibiotics.
“Not a nice thought,” says Wolfgang Reis, 41, an information technology administrator from Bonn who has joined the march for the day. “Who knows what the long-term cumulative impact could be?”
Studies done on animals have already shown that the consumption of GMO vegetables can indeed have adverse health effects. Mice fed GMO peas in a 10-year Australian study completed in 2005, for instance, developed pulmonary inflammation. The experiment, claims Mae-Wan Ho, a member of the international Independent Science Panel and director of the British Institute of Science in Society, “turned a previously harmless protein into a strong immunogen.” She believes that until “proper assessment” of the effects of similar transgenic proteins have been carried out, “there should be an immediate ban on all GM food and feed.”
Von Beesten agrees. Until clinical studies prove the long-term safety of GMO additives to our diet, she says, people should “eat their viands as naturally as possible.”
But some studies suggest that GMO foods could come with health benefits rather than risks. “We are seeing a lot of R&D that biotech crops can prevent allergic reactions,” says Deb Carstoiu from the American Biotechnology Industry Organization. “Gluten-free wheat, for instance, or allergy-free peanuts, and soy, which is used in a lot of baby foods.”
A new German study bears out her claim: Shackling the tomato gene, which contains the blueprint for the allergenic lipid transfer protein, researchers from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg managed to produce specimens of the fruit that had no or only a moderately negative effect on the immune system.
The question of whether GMO crops,
once sown, can be kept in check is controversial too. Farmers cultivating high-tech seeds need to observe certain legally prescribed rules and precautions to minimize so-called cross-pollination with neighbours’ natural crops: They have to allow sufficient space between fields, for instance, planting buffer strips of traditional crops surrounding GMO fields and carefully cleaning harvesting equipment.
But even such provisions cannot account for the vagaries of the weather, critics claim. “It’s impossible to control this technology,” warns Ronnie Cummins, national director of the U.S.-based Organic Consumers Association. “Wind carries pollen across large distances—there’s no way to stop Mother Nature from spreading GM crops.” This is what a giant seed producer like Monsanto is counting on, he says. “It’s part of their strategy in forcing [GMOs] on the public and unwilling farmers.”
GMO proponents like Carstoiu of the GMO industry trade association believe such cross-pollination is “a very natural thing” and simply “part of how plants naturally propagate themselves.” Yet organic farmers in Europe—where fields are often small and arranged in checkerboard patterns so distances between GMO and non-GMO areas are minimal—are required to guarantee that their products have not been tampered with in any way. If their plants come into contact with pollen from GMO crops, it becomes impossible to sell the yields as organic food.
“It’s a risk you can’t discount,” says German organic farmer Georg Weith, who supplies Wilhelm’s hikers with (organically grown) breakfast. To avoid what could be a financial disaster for their often-struggling agricultural businesses, 27,000 German farmers of the same opinion have therefore joined forces and pledged to keep their lands—currently some 2.5 million acres—free of GMO crops.
As the head of a bio-food company, Wilhelm naturally has a vested interest in strict GMO legislation. “Resistance against genetic engineering is so existential for the bio-sector that you can’t do too much to lobby for it. If we get up now and raise our voices loudly, we still have a chance.”
If the Genfrei Gehen campaign should also have a positive impact on Rapunzel’s bottom line, that will be a welcome side effect, Wilhelm thinks, but it isn’t the goal of his campaign. “My philosophy is it’s not the purpose which should govern one’s actions. Good results are the consequence of harmonious actions.”
A controversial new regulation recently adopted by the European Council, the highest political body of the European Union, allows for organic foods containing up to 0.9 percent of “adventitious or technically unavoidable” GMO content to be labelled and sold as organic. Environmental organizations have demanded that this
accidental-contamination level be set at 0.1 percent—the lowest level at which GMO organisms can be detected. Any level higher than this, they argue, would make it too difficult for organic farmers to keep their crops free from genetic pollution.
“The lax attitude towards contamination disregards the preferences of European consumers and may put the whole organic sector at risk,” warns Marco Contiero, policy officer at the Greenpeace office in Brussels, Belgium. “In practise, low levels of genetically modified material could start slipping into all organic food.”
But GMO advocates’ strongest claim in favour of the technology is that genetically modified crops, which are hardier and less sensitive to pests, help fight hunger in developing countries and thus save lives. “The poor have the poorest land, the least fertile, subject to salinity. So constraints of production on a small farmer are much greater than a big farmer in a wealthy country,” says ISAAA’s Clive James. “If you have a technology that allows you to overcome some of these restraints, you would expect the improvements to be greater.”
And that’s exactly what’s happening, he boasts. “In the United States, Bt corn led to a 5 to 10 percent increase in yield. In the Philippines, the increase in yield was 40 percent.”
GMO opponents, however, maintain that there is really no need for such an increase. “The amount of food produced worldwide is absolutely sufficient to feed everybody on Earth,” declares Pablo Rondi, one of the handful of hikers who has been with Wilhelm from the start of the Genfrei Gehen march. “In fact, we have surplus production—we just need to distribute the food correctly.”
The 45-year-old fair-trade activist from Hamburg believes lobbyists like James are simply using the argument of world hunger to justify the interests of the large companies they represent. “Profit and market control is their goal and to reach it they function like dictatorships—not like democracies,” he argues, marching along at the steady pace of an experienced hiker. “Social responsibility? I don’t think so.”
Whatever their particular attitude toward GMOs and big agribusiness may be, the vast majority of bystanders that marchers have encountered on their marathon hike through Germany have been very supportive. Farmers have invited them to camp out in their meadows or sleep in their barns or living rooms. Priests have blessed them as they walk past. And spontaneous applause has greeted them again and again.
“It’s been like a dream,” muses Anja Gerlach, 33, from Chemnitz. “I never would have thought there’d be such positive feedback.” Wilhelm, too, is more than pleased. “I’m a very happy man right now,” he admits with a big smile. His company has expended 250,000 euros ($350,000) in the campaign. “We’ve been received with great hospitality and enthusiasm throughout.”
It’s about 4 p.m. and with a humorous “Charge!” and a light step, Wilhelm leads a colourful column of wanderers toward the centre of Ulm, an old university city, where today’s march will end. A few of the Saturday afternoon shoppers thronging the pedestrian precinct throw amused looks at the balloon-sporting ramblers, but they willingly accept the Genfrei Gehen leaflets passed to them. Some even begin to read right away.
Like a Pied Piper with a benevolent bent, Wilhelm, blowing his plastic horn once more, guides his eager but now decidedly tired followers to the arrival point in the shadow of the city’s famous cathedral. The Biomobil is already waiting and a Rapunzel team is dispensing bananas, carrots and apples to the weary.
Some hikers will spend the next few minutes pitching their tents on the grounds of the local rowing club or finding a cheap hotel room. Others are already sniffing the air for the nearest coffee shop. Almost all of them show up again at the informational event that evening. A movie is shown; there are speeches and a discussion. Nobody gets up to speak in favour of GMOs. It looks like Joseph Wilhelm and his army have won the battle today. And tomorrow, they will go to march once again.

Print this article
More of Today's Solutions

Colombia’s battle against deforestation achieves remarkable results

BY THE OPTIMIST DAILY EDITORIAL TEAM Colombia's deforestation rate dropped to its lowest level in 23 years, marking a significant milestone in the country's ...

Read More

US track star Allyson Felix opens the first-ever nursery for Olympic parents

BY THE OPTIMIST DAILY EDITORIAL TEAM The upcoming 2024 Olympic Games in Paris are expected to make history, not just by achieving gender parity, ...

Read More

Sweden to introduce off-grid communities that fully sustain themselves

To ensure that communities around the world become future-proof and resilient in the face of climate change, it’s essential to create development models that ...

Read More

‘Million-mile’ EV batteries are near. The impact could be massive.

Electric vehicles (EVs) have a clear environmental advantage over their gas-guzzling counterparts, but when it comes to longevity, the two are in dead heat. ...

Read More