On a crisp autumn morning in Huntersville, a turkey is preparing for an act of rebellion.
The gangly brown bird clutches a low-slung pine branch, hops twice in a flurry of rustling feathers and flapping wattle, and in one brief, awkward moment, flies.
"No industry turkey is capable of roosting off the ground," says Jonathan Bostic, owner of East of Eden Farm, where the slightly dazed turkey shakes itself off and saunters a bit unsteadily back into the woods. "They can't fly."
Conventional turkey farms typically raise a minimum of 30,000 birds per year, with turkeys reaching market weight at just 18 weeks - unable to naturally reproduce or fly because of their oversized breasts. Bostic will produce a modest 350 heritage-breed turkeys this year with a caveat almost as unheard of as a flying turkey: He will not use any genetically modified grains in their feed. Bostic and his family are part of a growing movement in the Charlotte area - and worldwide - opposing the use of Genetically Modified Organisms.
Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are plants or animals with specific changes introduced to their DNA via genetic engineering. In the case of genetically modified grains like soy and corn, crops are engineered to grow faster and resist herbicides used to kill weeds. And they're no longer the exception but the norm; by 2012, 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soy grown in the United States were genetically modified, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of these crops are the patented products of agricultural giant Monsanto, which controls 80 percent of the GM corn market and 93 percent of the GM soy market.
"Companies like Monsanto are practicing exploitation over creation," says Bostic, who left a thriving design business in 2011 to begin farming on his family's land. "We try to practice stewardship over creation. We wanted to offer a healthy alternative to the community."
The community was ready: East of Eden routinely sells out of poultry products. And on Oct. 12, about 200 anti-GMO advocates converged in Marshall Park for a March Against Monsanto. "The more you see, the more it makes you mad," says Shannon Anderson of Concord, who traveled to the march with her two young daughters. Anderson began researching the health effects of GMOs in 2010 after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Her protest sign, hand-written on cardboard, reads, "If you walk for the cure, march against the cause."
While farmers like Bostic are primarily concerned with GMOs' questionable ethics - they are "genetic dead-ends" that require participating farmers to continually purchase seed from Monsanto, and can contaminate nearby non-GMO crops with cross-pollination - those worried about health impacts make up a growing contingent. The Charlotte march was spearheaded by Dawn Simone, a local activist who initially cut out GMOs after one of her sons was diagnosed with autism. Simone and other health-based advocates argue that the tampered-with DNA of GMOs, and residues from the strong herbicides that they are engineered to resist, can wreak havoc on the body.
"These organisms are building death inside of our bodies," says Dr. Holly Clemens, a Charlotte chiropractor and wellness specialist who spoke to protesters before the march. Clemens cites Leaky Gut Syndrome - a permeability of the bowel that some researchers believe may increase susceptibility to conditions like autism and cancer - as a direct result of GMO consumption.
Still, says Bostic, "we in this movement have to be careful not to fear-monger." Bostic says that there are currently no conclusive long-term studies of GMOs' health effects, in large part because companies like Monsanto "lobby against research." Many activists believe that even the small amount of research to date is chilling. A 2012 study conducted by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini found that rats fed Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant GM corn died two to three times more often and more rapidly than controls. "The science is there," says Clemens. "Every one of us is affected by GMOs."
What's less clear, even to anti-GMO advocates, is how to avoid these crops. "It's getting harder and harder to find non-GMO foods, especially corn and soy," admits Simone. Anderson says she routinely visits up to six grocery stores to find GMO-free versions of everything on her list. Even organic-movement darling Chipotle, recently in the food advocacy spotlight with its dystopian "Scarecrow" ad, can't escape the prevalence of GMOs.
While only two items on Chipotle's menu have GMOs, one is the soy oil used for everything from mixing with rice to spraying down the grill. "It's due to the need for mass quantities," says Philip Sherrill, assistant manager at Chipotle's South Boulevard Charlotte location. "For the amount we use, I don't think it's possible to find non-GMO oil."
It's this pervasiveness that leads many people to skirt the GMO issue entirely. "I'm aware of the issue, but I'm not strict about it," says Lisa Mitchum, who watched March Against Monsanto demonstrators move up 3rd Street to chants of "Hell no, GMO." Mitchum says she buys GMO foods primarily out of convenience.
But activists want to replace convenience with conscience. Monsanto and GMOs are racking up a death toll, they argue, and not just from a health standpoint. Debosree Roy, a University of North Carolina-Charlotte PhD candidate and member of the Association for India's Development, estimates that in India alone 250,000 farmers have committed suicide since the early 1990s as a direct result of Monsanto's involvement. Loans and incentives encouraged Indian farmers to plant Bt Cotton, a GM Monsanto product, and poor returns on investment cut a swath of destruction that Roy calls "the suicide belt."
"We must align ourselves with people who believe food should be personal," Roy says. Roy, Simone and Clemens all encouraged protesters to grow more of their own food and seek out small ethical farms like East of Eden. Requiring GMO foods to be labeled is considered an important step but not a final goal.
"In an ideal world, we wouldn't even have to label GMOs because people would be closer to their food, knowing and trusting the people who grow it," says Bostic. "Labels will never change the heart of the farmer."