Ben Harper, an organizer for a campaign to require labeling of GMO foods, climbs on top of his car, called the “Fishy Sugar Beet,” which is making the rounds in Ashland. - Jamie Lusch

Comical cars in valley tout anti-GMO themes

Have you noticed those giant, comical fruit and vegetables adorning the tops of cars cruising through Ashland — and wondered what they are?

This "fishy" fleet of five fantastical vehicles represent apple, tomato, soybean, corn and sugar beet, with the latter two now in Ashland. All are being put to use in a statewide campaign for a November ballot measure to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms.

The funky veggie vehicles were created from fiberglass and chicken wire in 2011 by artist Cesar Maxit in Washington, D.C., and have been part of campaign tours all over the country, says Ben Harper, a grassroots organizer from New Orleans.

Harper drives a Ford wagon with the sugarbeet on top. With Ashland farmer and anti-GMO organizer Chris Hardy, he recently did a tour of five Western states, using the cars to grab attention, open sidewalk dialogs and drum up crowds for speeches, says Harper.

"An amazing number of people don't even know what GMOs are," says Harper, "but with grassroots education over the months, the anti-GMO vote goes steadily upwards, that is, until the chemical corporations begin their million-dollar TV advertising blitz at the end."

His car is called the "Fishy Sugar Beet." The one Hardy drove, also parked in Ashland now, is the "fishy corn" car. "Fishy," Hardy notes, comes from the campaign slogan, "There's something fishy about our food."

The vehicles are painted with campaign messages calling for labeling of foods that contain GMOs. They are owned by Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap, backer of efforts to ban GMOs, said Hardy. They were first used in a New York-to-Washington protest trek in 2011, he adds, then were sent to California for a failed attempt to require labeling.

"The cars are fun and comical, and we always get a positive reaction and are able to break down the barriers," says Harper. "Then we start connecting with people, face-to-face, and raise awareness about GMO. We've got human interaction on our side, and the opposition has lots of money."

The labeling campaign hopes to increase consumer resistance to GMOs through education, says Harper, with labeling being the main door-opener to questions about their safety.

Measure 92 backers gathered more than 155,000 signatures to put it on the November ballot. If passed, it would require labeling of all packaged and raw foods by Jan. 1, 2015. It is endorsed by Whole Foods, which does $12.9 billion in annual sales and has 360 stores in North America and the United Kingdom, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Harper says he feels the measure will pass here, especially because of the resounding passage in May of a ban on cultivation of GMO crops in Jackson and Josephine counties while running a mostly grass-roots campaign against a well-funded foe.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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