Food Safety and GMOs

Food safety is one of the most critical issues of our time. What we eat is directly related to our health, and health care has a direct impact on our personal and national economies. Major chemical companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Dow and Dupont have introduced 86,000 synthetic chemicals into our environment, food, drugs, cosmetics etc and most of them have never been tested for toxic effects on human health and the environment. Since the mid 1990s, some of these same companies have been filling our grocery stores and feed stores with genetically engineered food products which may be causing serious health problems but are being approved by our government without safety testing.

         Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created by forcing the genes of one organism into the genes of another, yielding altered characteristics. This process is a collision, not a surgery, and causes uncontrolled genetic damage and many side effects. Some of the outcomes are profitable, such as the ‘Roundup Ready’ plants that can tolerate the herbicide Roundup; and the ‘Bt Corn’ that has a bacterial toxin in it so the corn earworm can’t eat it without dying. Most of the benefits of GMOs are big profits to the corporation who own them, labor savings to farmers, but as far as I know, there are no benefits to the consumers who eat them. Some proponents claim that GMOs increase crop yields, but in the 15 years of their use, there is no evidence of that. Increases of yields can be attributed to weed control, which can be accomplished without GMOs. They also claim that GMOs are needed to feed the world, but studies show that since GMOs have been introduced, world hunger has risen. It is presumed that land producing food was taken over to produce GMO commodity crops which are traded for the highest prices, instead of going to feed the poor.

         The GMO issue is vast and rapidly unfolding and so I will present the research that has brought me to what I might call an intelligently prejudiced view.

         GMO seeds are patented. They are persuasively marketed, expensive to farmers world wide, and highly profitable to the corporations that own those patents.

         GMO crops have been shown to be harmful to animal health and human health. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine advises patients to avoid genetically modified food and food additives containing GMOs. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists once warned that GM foods can create allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems, but were ignored.

         Evidence that GMO foods are unsafe is hard to find, because Monsanto requires buyers of GM seeds to sign an agreement promising not to use the seed for research or testing. If anyone tries to publish results not approved by Monsanto they can be sued. In 2009 a group of 26 entomologists (insect scientists) sent a complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stating that Monsanto’s patent restrictions were not allowing them to do their job of testing GMO crops for the safety of humans and beneficial insects.

Since the EPA decided that GMOs are not different from regular foods, they do not require safety testing before being put on the market. At this time much of our farmland is dominated by GM crops: 93% of soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified, 87% of the corn, 93% of the cotton, 90% of the canola and 95% of the sugar beets. Approximately 70% of processed foods contain GMOs. In spite of warnings from soil scientist Don Huber that GMO alfalfa “…could be devasting for alfalfa producers and livestock producers alike,” it was introduced in 2011. And this year GMO sweet corn will appear on supermarket shelves unlabelled.

It is well known that GMO crops contaminate organic and non-GMO crops. The pollen from GMOs does what pollen does: rides the wind and bees, jumps fences and mingles with the neighbors. Now Monsanto requires farmers buying GMO seeds to sign an acceptance of liability in case of a lawsuit.

Monsanto is very protective of their patented GMO seeds and so if genetic trespass leads to GMO seeds in the neighbor’s field, Monsanto may sue that farmer. According to Food Democracy Now, “Between 1997 and 2010 Monsanto admits to filing 144 lawsuits against America’s farmers, while settling another 700 out of court for undisclosed amounts… and has driven dozens of farmers into bankruptcy.”

It was claimed that GMOs would reduce herbicide use. Instead it has increased herbicide use. Many of the genetically engineered crops are ‘Roundup Ready’ which means the farmer can blanket spray the whole field with the herbicide Roundup and only the weeds die, because the corn, soybeans, sugar beets and cotton are resistant to the herbicide. Because Roundup is being overused, Super Weeds have adapted that are resistant to the herbicide and farmers are having to spray stronger herbicides to kill them.

It is argued that Roundup is far less toxic to the environment than other herbicides. This may be true, but it is far more harmful than previously claimed. Monsanto’s successful PR campaign reassured people that Roundup is biodegradable: completely harmless once it touches the soil. That claim was challenged in court and is no longer made. In addition there is a lot of evidence of the harmfulness of Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides. I recently attended a two and half hour talk by soil scientist Don Huber on the dangers of glyphosate. And Bob Kremer, a soil scientist at the USDA, explained that 15 years of research has shown that repeated use of Roundup impacts the root structure of plants and causes fungal root diseases. A plant pathologist and genetisist, Michael McNeill told a Boulder County audience in 2011 that Roundup is harming crops by making them vulnerable to disease fungi and parasites. He further told us that Roundup Ready crops cause problems like higher incidence of infertility and early-term abortions, in the animals that eat them.

Another GMO crop ‘Bt Corn’, contains a bacterial toxin in its cells, so that it cannot be eaten by the corn earworm. This produces a nice looking ear of corn, but that Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin goes into the animal or human that eats that corn. It has been explained that those cells then continue to manufacture the Bt toxin inside whatever ate it. Monsanto explained that the Bt breaks down in the digestive system, but studies in Quebec found Bt toxin in 93% of pregnant women, and 80% of the umbilical blood tested, showing that it does not break down in the digestive system.

Several countries have banned growing GMO crops (France, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Greece, Ireland, Japan and more) but the United States has a history of unregulated approval. Starting with Vice President Dan Quale, there has been a policy that GM products not be “…hampered by unnecessary regulation.” More recently, Michael Taylor, who had been an attorney for Monsanto and the Biotechnology Council, was appointed the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Policy. When he left the government he became vice president of Monsanto, and then the Obama administration hired Taylor back as the FDA’s US Food Safety Czar. US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack is also a strong supporter of the biotechnology industry.

         Resistance to the controlling influence of Monsanto and GMOs has been rising: On January 31 of this year, a group of approximately 60 organic farmers, seed companies and organic ag. organizations took Monsanto to court. They are not suing Monsanto to get money; they are only asking for a ruling that will prevent Monsanto from suing them. Genetic trespass should not be considered their fault, they maintain. A judge will decide in March if the lawsuit can go forward.

California is starting to collect signatures for a bill to require labeling of genetically modified foods. And a Just Label It Coalition in the US Congress is supported by 14 Representatives including Colorado’s Jared Polis. SignOn.org has collected 413,600 signatures on a petition asking President Obama to remove Michael Taylor and Monsanto’s influence from our Food and Drug Adminstration, so that it can act for the good of the people instead of just for the profit of Monsanto.

         Locally, 2011 saw numerous meetings of citizen groups with the Boulder County Commissioners and the Crop Advisory Board. Many people made three minute speeches to convince policy-makers not to allow any more GMO crops on Boulder County Open Space farmland. Local conventional farmers also made a show of support for permitting GMO sugar beets, and after much discussion, the commissioners voted in favor of allowing GMO sugar beets, but no other GMO crop. The commissioners did decree that the percentage of Open Space farmland dedicated to organic culture should increase from 10% to 20%.

         So since the US government is not currently regulating GMOs, the safe approach and best way to encourage change is to join the local food movement. Buy organic food (which must be GMO free) or grow your own food, and avoid processed foods and high fructose corn sweeteners. Michael Pollen says eating is a political act. If so, then growing your own food must be a very political act. Buying organic food, especially from our local growers, shows the market and farm investors where our mouth and our money are. Avoiding GMO foods also removes our support from a product and a system that does not support the human rights of the people nor the health of our planet.

         As farmer and writer Wendell Berry has said, “We’re conducting worldwide experiments in things like genetic engineering, turning ourselves loose in this world with no regard to outcomes or consequences. And that’s wrong.”