RODALE NEWS, NEW YORK, NY—This year is the 30th anniversary of the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which first hit the scene way back in 1981. And Monsanto, Syngenta, and other chemical companies that develop GMOs marked the occasion with successful U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approvals of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa (otherwise known as hay), sugar beets, and corn grown to make ethanol—approvals that could seriously threaten the growth of the $25 billion-per-year organic foods industry. And it's not just the organic food industry at stake. Genetically engineered foods have never been tested for safety by anyone other than the biotechnology companies that make and sell them, and evidence from organic groups like The Organic Center have shown that they have actually increased farmers' reliance on pesticides by as much as 200 percent—despite repeated promises that plants genetically engineered to produce their own pesticides would lower reliance on toxic chemicals. Gary Hirshberg, CEO of the organic dairy company Stonyfield Farms, has said that genetically engineered foods "make guinea pigs of us all," and here's why:
THE DETAILS: GMOs have been under development since 1981, when researchers at a university in Belgium discovered that they could successfully transfer a gene from one species and insert it into a totally different species, explained Andrew Kimbrell, director of the anti-GMO Center for Food Safety. Thirteen years later, we had the Flavr-Savr Tomato, genetically engineered to delay ripening and stay fresh longer by the addition of fish genes. Ironically, that was the first GMO product that was labeled in stores, and people not only didn't like the taste, they also were opposed to the idea of GMO foods. The tomato was pulled off the market three years after it was introduced. Since 1996, Kimbrell said, so many GE varieties of corn, soy, canola, and cotton have been introduced that now 80 percent of corn and 90 percent of the other three crops are now genetically modified, many to resist applications of Roundup, the trade name for the toxic pesticide glyphosate.
"Now we have weeds awash in glyphosate," he added, "and as a result, we now have tens of millions of acres covered in glypohsate-resistant weeds." So rather than turn to organic or mechanical methods to deal with these "superweeds," the chemical companies are developing new seeds resistant to even more potent pesticides, such as 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, and dicamba, "one of the most toxic pesticides known," Kimbrell said.
To say nothing of the health problems associated with GMOs and the associated pesticide surge—"The FDA's own scientists said [back in 1996] that GMOs would create new allergens and lower the nutritional value of food," Kimbrell emphasized—all these new GMO crops could be exacerbating climate change, said Debi Barker, international policy director of the Center for Food Safety. "The irony is that 30 percent of global warming is caused by industrial agriculture, and 60 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions in the atmosphere are from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers," she said. At the same time, nearly every study coming out of groups like the UN Human Rights Council is showing that sustainable, organic farming actually will feed the world, while also reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. In early March, the Human Rights Council released a report stating that small-scale farmers could double food production in 10 years by using ecological farming methods—methods that don't involve the GMOs being pushed by the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer. In Africa, where the pressure to adopt GMOs is very intense, according to State Department documents, yields from ecological farming increased 116 percent annually.
As the chemical companies try to push their way into developing countries—which will suffer the effects of climate change much more so than the rest of us—"the climate change debate has been a venue for chemical companies to use GMOs as an antidote." Barker said. She added that their claims are always "we will," as in "we will withstand drought," "we will increase yield," "we will resist flooding." But at the moment, there's no credible evidence that these seeds work, she said.
WHAT IT MEANS: Just because GMOs are on supermarket shelves and in farmers' fields doesn't mean it's too late to change the equation. Gary Hirschberg, whose business is directly affected by the recent GMO alfalfa approval (grass-fed livestock depend on organic alfalfa, which is easily contaminated by GMO varieties), admitted that it will be difficult to turn back the tide of GMOs already in our food supply. But since it's there, why hide it? "This has become a consumer right-to-know issue," he said. "What we need is labeling." And we have to demand it of our president, our representatives in Congress, and our food suppliers. Otherwise, Monsanto and the "big six," as he calls them, will continue to deny us the choice of eating GMO-free foods. "Monsanto and the big six have spent somewhere in the ballpark of $28 million in lobbying since Obama took office," he said. "Through this pernicious partnership involving millions of dollars in campaign funding, millions of dollars of lobbying, we are being denied choice." He called on consumers to use the next 17 months before the 2012 election to demand labeling laws that would require food manufacturers to disclose GMO ingredients.
So how can you fight millions of dollars in lobbying efforts to get GMO ingredients listed on food labels?
• Demand organic. "Walmart showed us the power that we have," Hirschberg said, referring to the retailer's refusal to sell milk or dairy products from animals treated with the genetically modified growth hormone, rBGH, a move that essentially killed the market for synthetic growth hormones. "They knew their market. They knew consumers didn't want that stuff." Whether it's Walmart or your local health food store, demanding organic food sends the message that you don't want GMOs, and retailers and food manufacturers respond to meet that demand.
• Sign the petition. The Center for Food Safety has sued the USDA over the agency's approval of GMO alfalfa and sugar beets, and they're also collecting signatures for a petition that will be sent to dairies nationwide, asking that they not use GMO alfalfa to feed their animals. You can sign the petition, and donate to the Center's continuing legal efforts, at nogmoalfalfa.org.
• Get educated. In June 2011, the holistic health expert Deepak Chopra held a discussion with the experts quoted in this article at an event in New York. You can watch the discussion online.