Genetic modification (also known as genetic engineering) is the process of transplanting genetic material from one organism to another. In food, the two main GM products are glyphosate-resistant (i.e., Roundup Ready) and Bt pest-resistant crops. The former is sprayed on fields to kill weeds without damaging food plants like soy. Bt pest-resistant crops are injected with genes from soil bacteria, which kill insects like the corn borer. Other forms of genetic modification insert DNA from one organism into another, thereby creating plants in a lab that don’t appear in nature — sort of like playing God.
My concern about all this is that that there is no proof as yet that these GMO creations are harmless for human consumption. I’d like to see these agribusiness companies like Monsanto and regulatory agencies like the FDA abide by the “Precautionary Principle,” first articulated at a conference of scientists, lawyers and environmentalists back in 1998. This states: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” In other words, it should be up to the corporations to scientifically demonstrate that their products are safe, not up to us consumers and our advocates to prove they are harmful.
If our nation had been following this policy, there would not be 1 in 6 deaths caused by cigarette-smoking, children in 4 million homes exposed to lead poisoning and 3 million Vietnamese and thousands of veterans suffering from cancer, respiratory ailments, and birth defects due to exposure to Agent Orange (aka glyphosate). Wildlife populations would not have been decimated by DDT, and toxins like asbestos, PCBs and dioxin would not have been released from chemical labs onto an unsuspecting public. And now, with just a few GM strains making up 90 percent of U.S.-grown corn, 93 percent of soy and 90 percent of cotton, what other dangers are we being subjected to without our knowledge or consent?
My problems with GMO crops and foods are the following:
• They can contaminate fields of farmers seeking to grow and sell organic, natural foods. Wind and insects cause cross-pollination that damages corn, soy and other crops, making them unacceptable for sale in some markets, such as Europe and Japan, thereby destroying the farmers’ investment.
• Biotech companies like Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta can control seed production, raise seed prices, reduce seed diversity, and thereby reduce crop resistance to diseases and weather conditions. Monsanto’s “seed police” roam the country, inspect fields, forbid farmers from saving seeds, and, when patented GMOs have accidentally drifted into the organic fields of neighbors, sue innocent farmers for patent infringement, dragging them into costly lawsuits, possibly leading to bankruptcy. Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto filed 144 of these lawsuits and settled 700 others out of court!
• Crops soon develop resistance to these new GMO strains, leading farmers to spend more money in the use of ever-increasing amounts of herbicides and pesticides, further contaminating our soils, air and water, and destroying desirable vegetation. This may be leading to declines in the population of bees, birds and butterflies and increases in the incidence of Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other forms of cancer.
• Subsistence farmers in developing countries who attempt to farm this way soon find the cost of these substances to be prohibitive and can be driven into bankruptcy, lose their land, become unemployed, forced to migrate into cities or across borders seeking work to support their families and sometimes end up in prison or committing suicide. Furthermore, use of these artificial substances require more water — scarce in some areas — undermining traditional farming practices and the cultures that go with them. Local autonomy, food security, environmental sustainability and healthy diets and lifestyles are thereby adversely affected. In short, our ability to feed the world is reduced, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is expanded.
• We have a right to know which of our foods contain GMOs. Thankfully, we now know about Cheerios and Grape Nuts. But which products are sweetened with corn syrup laced with GMOs? What of GMO-produced soymilk, tofu, tempeh and other soy products? And why do Monsanto and other companies spend millions to defeat local and state transparency measures to have GMO products duly labeled. What do they want to hide?
• Industry-funded studies conducted by pro-biotech scientists claim to show that GMOs have no negative effects. At the same time, independent experiments of the effects on rats of corn grown with Roundup have turned up tumors and toxic kidney and liver problems. The results of this research have been suppressed, however, and its authors dismissed and banned from speaking. Further, there is a “revolving door” between government regulatory agencies like the FDA and the high-paying agribusinesses, which reeks with conflict-of-interest and puts a severe damper on getting honest evaluations of the health impact of GMO-grown foods.
With all these questions hovering over the use of GMO foods, we do well to avoid them whenever possible. We must demand that they be labeled, insist that the “precautionary principle” be strictly observed, question the whitewashing effect of industry-sponsored “research,” resist the pressure to serve as “lab rats” for the biotech industry and instead buy and eat organic foods, thereby supporting small farmers and traditional family farms, both locally and around the world.