“Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
— Anthropologist Margaret Mead

Even if you’ve heard the above quote many times before, the sentiment expressed is so powerful that I think it’s worth repeating. All around the world, small groups of people are organizing public support for improved food safety and successfully challenging large corporations to change their behavior.

That’s exactly what Flint Michigan residents Kathleen Kirby and Mark Fisher are banking on: their power to influence change. They’re participating in a nationwide consumer boycott of Kellogg’s Co. instigated by the Organic Consumers Association. By boycotting the world’s largest cereal company, they hope to pressure Kellogg’s into rejecting the use of sugar from genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets and to spark widespread market rejection in products ranging from cereal to baby food to candy.

As you may know, Roundup Ready sugar beets are genetically altered to resist Monsanto’s toxic weed killer, Roundup, and its active ingredient, glyphosate. But here’s the scary truth about these beets:

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

When the USDA first approved GE sugar beets for commercial planting in 1998, the EPA also increased the maximum allowable residues of glyphosate on sugar beet roots from just 0.2 parts per million to 10ppm. That’s a staggering 5,000 percent increase of allowable toxins on beet roots. And, it’s little surprise that EPA made this policy change at the request of Monsanto.

Sugar beet roots contain sucrose that’s extracted, refined, and processed into the sugar used in the foods we eat. What this means is that the more GE ingredients that find their way into our food, the greater the likelihood that we are ingesting more toxic chemicals.

Thankfully, GE sugar beets have never been grown in the U.S. for sale to food manufacturers — that is, until this year, when Western farmers planted their first crop of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets. Right now, over half of the sugar used in U.S. processed foods comes from sugar beets, with beet and cane sugars combined in those products. What’s most disturbing is that once GE sugar beets hit the market, which could be as early as next year, there will be no way to know if we’re eating GE sugar because GE ingredients are not labeled.

Currently, only four major GE crops are sold commercially — corn, cotton, soy, and canola. Most of these are engineered to withstand repeated, large doses of herbicides. For the most part, these crops and their byproducts are largely fed to animals with the exception of some minor food ingredients and oils. GE beet sugar breaks with this tradition in that it could become the first major GE ingredient added to almost all processed foods on our grocery store shelves.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Last week, Hershey’s in Brazil announced that it would not source ingredients from Cargill, one of the world’s largest food providers, because the company could not guarantee that soy, lecithin, and oils were not GE. This successful public pressure campaign, led by Greenpeace, influenced the company to reject GE beet sugar. It also demonstrates how individuals who care about food safety can mobilize collectively to make a difference.

Several years ago, Hershey’s in the U.S. publicly stated that it would refuse to use GE beet sugar, but the company has been noticeably silent on the issue ever since. A double standard is not likely to prevail in the U.S., where organizations such as Don’t Plant GMO Beets have helped to generate more than a hundred thousand protest letters. These letters, from people like Kirby and Fisher, show companies that there’s strong opposition to the use of GE sugar beets in our food.

Like Hershey’s, Kellogg’s is only one of thousands of companies that may soon be using GE sugar — perhaps without even knowing that they are doing so! That could be the case unless, of course, consumer pressure forces the market to reject GE beet sugar.

Kirby and Fisher know that as a market leader, Kellogg’s could lead the charge in rejecting GE beet sugar and influence other companies to follow suit.

They also know that although they are just two people living in a small, Midwestern city north of Detroit, and with the Internet at their disposal, they are on their way to changing the world, one e-mail message at a time.