Rabbit Hole Stew: Why the “GMO=Science=Good” Recipe Fails
After a long absence, I’m ready to resume blogging about food! One of the reasons for my hiatus was a nine-month descent into the rabbit hole of genetically engineered crops, of all things. While this gestation helped birth a new awareness (and law) in my community, it left me with some post-partum blues. I felt empty, spent and suddenly without purpose after such an intense experience. I will do my best to articulate why this issue is so important to my community and me, and then move on.
For the sake of context for those who don’t know me: I’m a lawyer who has practiced in multiple jurisdictions for nearly 20 years. I hail from a curious (both inquisitive and strange) pro-science and technology family; I was raised and trained to use logic, analyze options and believe the most rational conclusions, while keeping an open mind to new evidence. I am somewhat cynical and regard benevolent claims from multinational corporations with the same skepticism I have towards anyone else trying to sell me something. (To be fair, I also raise my eyebrows at most religious and New Age metaphysical claims.)
And before anyone cries: “Ah-ha! She’s a lawyer, not a scientist! She must not understand the science behind GMOs and therefore can’t speak credibly about them!” — It’s true I’m no scientist; however, my primary concerns about GMOs do not pertain to the actual technology, but rather to the environmental, legal, political and economic impacts of that technology, particularly as applied to the cultivation of open air genetically engineered crops. And as a lawyer I DO have extensive training in critical thinking, research, and sniffing out bias and credibility issues.
Before the summer of 2013, I didn’t have much concern about genetically modified/engineered organisms (GMOs) and I certainly didn’t give them much thought. If asked about them, I might have shrugged and said something like: “I’m sure the scientists working on this technology are ensuring public safety and that there is a damn good reason for creating these crops, like feeding the world as our global population increases.”
But then Alice met some people and talked to some farmers and researched and then fell right down into that pesky rabbit hole. And became curiouser and curiouser.
I eventually came to realize that as pro-science and technology as I am, I cannot stand for the pervasive and reckless application of a relatively new and untested technology that has such potentially catastrophic consequences for our global food security and health.
For the record, I’m not “anti-GMO.” Or even a “GMFoe”, as cute as that name is. I don’t have an irrational or emotional or cognitive reaction to the technology of genetic engineering itself. It may well be that this technology can save the world.
I concede that there are members of the public who have given the matter little thought, and their full analysis may be summed up as: “GMO=Monsanto=Bad!” I have met some of these people and alas, their heads seem to be as soft as their dear well-meaning hearts.
However, I contend that there are also at least an equal number of people on the other side of the “debate,” (such that it is) who also don’t know much about the actual issues involved, and who have an equally ill-informed, emotional, myopic, knee-jerk reaction, only theirs is more akin to: “GMO=Science=Good!”
If one is truly pro-science, then one must keep an open mind and coolly observe the evidence and rigorously test and question assumptions and be willing to adapt theories based on new (or newly exposed) evidence, correct?
If you are in the “GMO=Science=Good!” camp, (and don’t worry, you’re in good company along with masses of other rational, science-loving people who have, unfortunately, been systematically duped) would you still be in that camp if you were presented with credible evidence that the whole unregulated push to develop and promote GMOs was based on political and economic considerations in the 1980s, was not science-based, and that corporate and government interests have colluded to suppress evidence refuting the safety of GMOs since then? And I know I look good in hats, but not tinfoil ones. I’m not persuaded by conspiracy theories that only exist in my mind or something I read on Natural News; the information (such as funding sources for studies, contributors to campaigns, FDA documents disclosed in lawsuits, etc.) is readily available with just a little digging.
Would you be willing to “follow the money” and track the origin of the majority of pro-GMO studies, articles and stories in the media? What would you think if shown credible evidence that PR companies for large chemical, pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations hire hundreds of “trolls” to search for anti-GMO stories and sites and then relentlessly comment, ridicule, and try to “debunk” the articles? A Monsanto employee recently let slip that the company has an entire department dedicated to debunking. [I imagine it won’t be long before they sniff around here with fake accounts and “happen” to have handy a list of the same 10 talking points copied and pasted all over the Internet. Hi, trolls!] Would you keep an open mind and read a book like Steve Druker’s Altered Genes, Twisted Truth?
I would ask that the “GMO=Monsanto=Bad” camp also keep an equally open mind to the possible human benefits to genetic engineering, should such benefits one day objectively and independently proven.
As I stated, to the extent I gave it any thought at all, I was likely in the “GMO=Science=Good” camp until I actually learned about the real-world negative impacts of open-air cultivation of genetically engineered crops in my community.
From August 2013 until May 2014, I stood shoulder to shoulder with hippie farmers, conventional farmers, business owners, liberal activists, right-wing evangelical Christians, foodies, health practitioners, restaurateurs, parents and other community-minded citizens in Josephine and Jackson Counties in Southern Oregon. At issue were local campaigns to stop the growing of GMO crops in our valleys, with citizen initiatives on the May 2014 county ballots.
The catalyst spurring these local measures was Swiss chemical giant Syngenta planting dozens of secret test plots of their GMO sugar beets all over Southern Oregon, resulting in contamination of non-GMO crops–the light pollen can float for miles through our narrow valleys and cross-pollinate with related crops such as Swiss chard. (Fun fact – GMO crops are banned in Switzerland, so Syngenta must resort to testing and growing their crops in regions (such as the good ole U.S. of A.) lacking such annoying regulations.)
Organic farmers cannot knowingly sell (as “Organic” anyway) produce that has genetic engineering markers, and their consumers do not want to buy that produce. Moreover, because GMOs are patented, organic (along with conventional, non-GMO) farmers are threatened with patent infringement lawsuits if their crops are genetically contaminated. (Side note – am I the only one who finds it strange that chemical corporations are able to patent seeds because of their incredibly unique traits on the one hand, but on the other hand they don’t want foods made with those seeds to be labeled as GMO because they are “substantially equivalent” to their non-GMO counterparts? Hmmmm.)
Anyway, during the campaigns in Southern Oregon last year, record amounts of money rolled in from multi-billion dollar, multinational chemical corporations (hiding behind such benevolent sounding PACs such as the “Good Neighbor Farmers”) to bankroll a barrage of print, radio, television and Internet advertising aimed to confuse and scare voters. Notwithstanding that outside corporate influence, both measures passed by a clear majority. (Some of those efforts are currently embroiled in litigation and controversy, but that is a story for another day.)
I will now articulate what GMOs are, what foods they are in, and why this issue was important enough to me to dedicate nine months (unpaid!) of my life to a campaign to stop the open-air growing of GMO crops in my region. [Note – some of the below research was conducted by members of Oregonians For Safe Farms and Families and GMO Free Josephine County volunteers during the campaign, and I have updated and double-checked the sources before publishing. I have made every attempt to verify the truth of what I assert and am open to challenge from objective sources and will update this post from time to time as new information is presented.]
What is a GMO and What Foods are They in?
In a nutshell, a genetically modified organism (“GMO”) is an organism (generally a plant) which has had its DNA directly manipulated in a laboratory environment. It is “genetically engineered” to create qualities not usually germane to the existing species. This can include forcing DNA from one species into another species that would never naturally breed in nature. Cross-species (“transgenic”) genetic manipulation examples include gene-splicing between species, like crossing a virus, bacteria, or even an animal, with a plant, such as combining fish DNA with tomato DNA to create frost-tolerant tomatoes.
There are only a few crops that are genetically engineered, namely alfalfa, corn, soy, sugar, (from sugar beets) canola, papaya, and cotton. However, a staggering 88% – 99% of these few crops grown in the U.S. are GMO. Some zucchini and yellow squash are also GMO, with new crops in the queue for introduction, such as the Simplot potato.
85-95% of processed, packaged foods in the U.S. contain GMO ingredients, mostly in the form of corn, (corn oil, starch, sugar, syrup etc.) soy, sugar and canola. If these ingredients are listed, and are not organic or non-GMO verified, they are almost certainly GMO. For example, if a non-organic ingredient listed on a package just says “sugar” it is likely from GMO sugar beets. “Cane sugar” is not GMO.
You want to go out for Mexican food? 9.8 times out of 10, the chips and tortillas at your neighborhood restaurant are made from GMO corn. They are fried in GMO canola oil. Your margarita is made with mixer containing GMO sugar. And the [GMO sugar] beet goes on . . .
In the U.S., unlike in about 64 other developed countries, GMO ingredients are not required to be labeled, and statewide labeling efforts have thus far failed because of the heavily financed relentless ad campaigns paid for by agribusiness interests.
But humans have been altering plant and animal DNA from time immemorial! Cross-breeding and hybridization, much?
Plants that have been cross-pollinated (traditional hybridization) and animals that have been traditionally bred to achieve specific characteristics are NOT GMO as I am defining it here (genetically engineered in a lab). These untested creations are NOT what our ancestors did, or what responsible farmers do, namely cross-pollinate different varieties of the same plant to help naturally bring forth desirable characteristics. Farmer-tested cross-breeding is not the issue here and anyone bringing this up is trotting out a tired, stale red herring. (Hi again, trolls!)
Why is it so important to have regions where GMO crops are banned?
Refugia describes a region with unique geographic characteristics that can serve as a refuge for habitat and species or is critical for food security. For example, the long narrow fertile valleys surrounded by mountains such as occur in Southwest Oregon serves as one of the last remaining significant regions that can serve as refugia for non-GMO food crops.
Caution dictates that if GMO crops prove to be unsafe, shouldn’t we have regions left on Earth that have not been contaminated with GMO crops and other genetically engineered organisms?
Southwest Oregon is one of the last U.S. regions where crops aren’t widely genetically contaminated. We lead the country in organic and heirloom seed production. Non-genetically engineered, non-pesticide farms and food consumption are increasing here. Why squander our precious heritage for foreign corporate profits, when protecting our heritage costs us nothing?
Farmer, permaculture expert and organic seed exporter Don Tipping eloquently sums up the idea of Refugia, the realities of air-pollinated crops and why we should prioritize the rights of local small-scale family farms over foreign corporate interests – (if you don’t want to read the rest of this post, please take a few minutes and watch this compelling video instead!) here:
Why don’t more regions exercise local control of their agricultural practices?
As local counties and communities nationwide attempt to ban or phase out GMO crops, powerful lobbying forces push through preemptive state legislation, effectively prohibiting local control. We recently witnessed this when Oregon, despite large public outcry, passed Senate Bill 863 as an “emergency” law. The equivalent of a state “Monsanto Protection Act,” that law now prohibits counties and cities within the state from locally banning or regulating GMOs.
This rush to enact preemptive legislation is happening nationwide (and also globally, such as with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“TPP”)). For example, after a recent rash of earthquakes in Oklahoma, which the state admits were most likely due to natural gas hydraulic fracturing, (“fracking”) the state (instead of rushing to regulate the earthquake-causing fracking) immediately acted to pass statewide preemption legislation stating that local communities are now banned from regulating fracking.
However, citizens nationwide are pushing back and working on community rights efforts.
Come, on, can’t we co-exist? All farmers need to do is stagger their planting time and create enough distance to avoid contamination by cross-pollination, right?
Genetically engineered crops threaten to put local organic farmers out of business. Pollen from genetically engineered crops can and will cross-pollinate with non-genetically engineered crops of farms and gardens and genetically contaminate them, resulting in huge economic losses. Companies such as Syngenta have refused to sit down with other farmers to negotiate a pinning system for possible co-existance, and there is no legal requirement that they do so. Moreover, obviously, the wind, pollen and our pollinators such as bees and birds do not recognize property or county lines. Co-existence is not a viable option.
(Putting on tinfoil hat for this paragraph only) – It seems to me that one of the reasons Syngenta, Monsanto and others push for co-existence is that they know that genetic contamination is inevitable in such a system, and how insidious would that be? When GMO and non-GMO crops are grown side-by-side, then, due to holding the patents on the genetically engineered seed (and pollen) this would result in those corporations virtually owning the contaminated crops and controlling the global food supply. Not to mention that such a reality would effectively end the GMO debate as moot. Oops, all crops are now GMOs? #sorrynotsorry. MWAHAHAHAHA. If you haven’t watched the video above of Don speaking about co-existence, again, I highly recommend it.
I’ve heard that the “science is out” on whether genetically engineered foods pose health safety risks, is that true?
Although my opposition to GMOs is mainly based on economic and environmental impacts, not direct health impacts of consuming these products, genetically engineered foods have never been proven safe. The FDA requires no pre-market health safety studies, and the only long term peer-reviewed animal study conducted involving GMO corn sprayed with Monsanto’s Round Up herbicide, found massive tumors, organ failure and premature death in rats. In addition, a growing body of peer-reviewed animal studies have linked these foods to allergies, organ toxicity, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disorders, birth defects, high infant mortality rates, fertility problems, and sterility.
The World Health Organization has recently issued a report (based on a Lancet-reported study) declaring glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Round Up, as a “probable carcinogen.” “Round Up Ready” crops are created to endure (and sell) increasing levels of this probable carcinogen. Additionally, some farmers are encouraged to use Round Up to dry out crops (such as wheat) for harvesting. Not to mention the itty bitty fact that consumers can buy and spray Round Up just about ANYWHERE.
Clearly, more independent, long term studies are warranted. Crops engineered to withstand heavy applications of toxic herbicides contain chemical residues that research shows are even more harmful to children that adults.
The United Nations/World Health Organization food standards group has called for mandatory pre-market safety testing of genetically engineered foods, a standard the U.S. fails to meet. A National Academy of Sciences report states that products of genetic engineering technology “carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health.”
EVEN IF GMOs are safe for human and animal consumption (which contention I dispute) – what we do know is that this method of agriculture contaminates our local farms and gardens and jeopardizes our soil, water, food and crop integrity. Even if you don’t care about human health or environmental concerns, U.S. GMO crops are increasingly being rejected in world markets, with our farmers footing the bill. These crops don’t make sense in terms of global economic sustainability.
What environmental impacts do GMO crops pose?
Pollen from genetically engineered plants contaminate not only crops, but also wild plants. Experimental bentgrass escaped its test plot and has now invaded natural fields several states away. The implications of this type of uncontrolled alteration of the genome are unknown, but statistically, it is likely to cause severe damage to ecosystems over time.
The agricultural practices required for GE crop production demand high levels of pesticides. GE seeds are coated with neonicotinoids. This insecticide is thought to be responsible for our rapidly declining bee populations and its use is restricted or banned in some Oregon counties. Genetically engineered agriculture damages the soil, compromises pollinators and their habitat, and pollutes water supplies.
Besides polluting the environment with herbicides and pesticides, genetically engineered crops are leading to biodiversity loss and the emergence of “super bugs” and “super weeds” that are threatening millions of acres of farmland, requiring the need for even more dangerous and toxic herbicides.
Genetically engineered crops, and the increasingly heavy load of toxic pesticides they are designed to endure, are endangering numerous critical species, including the honey bee, frogs, birds, fish and the Monarch Butterfly.
And don’t forget our air and water. The island of Molokai in Hawaii has had its air and water quality destroyed by Monsanto’s almost-2000-acre test facility. The same is true worldwide, with many areas around GMO farms reporting horrific bloody skin rashes, an uptick in asthma and toxic pesticides that leach into the groundwater.
Don’t we need GMOs to feed the world? Don’t we need to embrace this modern technology because it is superior to conventional farming methods?
Studies have proven that genetically engineered crops do not lead to greater crop yields. In fact, just the opposite is true. A 2009 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that genetically engineered crops fail to produce higher yields. And a recently released, peer-reviewed study published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability found that conventional plant breeding, not genetic engineering, is responsible for yield increases in major U.S. crops.
Even a recent report by the US Department of Agriculture states that genetically engineered crops have not increased yields. In fact, in some cases yields for these crops were lower than for their non-genetically engineered counterparts.
The United Nations states emphatically that only small, local, non-genetically engineered farms can feed the world.
EVEN IF there might be occasional higher yields with some genetically engineered crops, I contend we cannot afford the risks to the health of our soil, water, food and crop integrity that accompany this method of agriculture.
And Golden Rice? A person can obtain the same amount (and better quality) Vitamin A from eating one nutrient-dense sweet potato as he or she can get from eating kilos of nutrient poor GMO rice. Without the yearly patent contracts and heavy pesticide and herbicide load accompanying GMO crops. Again, only small, local, non-GMO farms can best feed the world. But local sustainable family farms don’t generate billions of dollars for Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, Simplot, etc. so of course they must be inferior. Right . . .
But don’t genetically engineered crops actually reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides?
Nope. GE crops have dramatically increased the use of herbicides and pesticides. According to a new study by Food and Water Watch, the “total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest genetically engineered crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012” with the overall pesticide use rising by 26 percent from 2001 to 2010.
The report follows another such study by Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook recently that found that overall pesticide use increased by 404 million pounds, or about 7%, from 1996 and 2011. The use of genetically engineered crops is now driving up the volume of toxic herbicides needed each year by about 25 percent.
Why else should I be concerned about GMOs?
Some GMO varieties of corn and other crops are engineered to produce their own pesticides and/or to be herbicide-resistant. No amount of soap and water can wash the built-in pesticides off. These crops can cross-pollinate to create chemical-resistant weeds and pests. When we ingest these plants and their derivatives, we are ingesting their pesticide and herbicide-resistant DNA, which is foreign to our body’s digestive and immune systems.
No human health or safety testing has been done on these genetically altered foods.
In May 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine urged all doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for everyone and explained that animal studies show that GM food is linked to infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, organ damage, and gastrointestinal problems. They called for a moratorium on GMOs, and mandatory labeling.
Unfortunately, many of the ingredients used in most restaurants are genetically modified. 30,000 different GMOs exist on grocery store shelves (again, mostly because of how many processed foods contain soy, corn, beet sugar and canola derivatives).
What can I do to reduce or eliminate GMOs in my diet and in my community?
Buy Organic. Certified organic products cannot intentionally include any GMO ingredients. Buy products labeled “100% organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients” and avoid at-risk ingredients. Look for the Non GMO Project Verified logo.
GET INFORMED AND INVOLVED! Insist on having a voice and local control of matters impacting your community!
I think that about sums up my concerns about GMOs and why we worked to establish a GMO-free refugia and to ban the cultivation of genetically engineered crops in our region.
This is a food blog, and GMOs impact every aspect of our food supply. And now I finally have a link to refer people to whenever they question my rejection of the assumption that “GMO=Science=Good!”