Ardent Eden

Ardent Eden is a place to explore my thoughts about the interdependence of life - humanity and nature - and to engage with others for collective problem-solving.

Monday, January 02, 2006

10 Years of Frankenfoods

Do you ever have the experience of reading or hearing something, thinking that you should blog about it/tell someone about it/research it further/etc., and then noticing it everywhere? It's like the universe is telling you to get on it already! That just happened to me. I've had my nose in Jane Goodall's new book for the past couple of days, and I just finished the chapter on genetically modified foods yesterday. It re-ignited my ire about the fact that so much of the United States food supply contains GMOs and there is no way for consumers to know about it because the biotechnology companies have succeeded in convincing the folks in our govermnent not to require labeling. Stop and think about that for a second. I have been mulling over what we need to do as citizens to take control of this situation. Then, I just happened to notice this article on MSNBC as I was doing my daily mainstream media news scan. MSNBC reports that it's been 10 years since the GMO experiment was started on the American food supply. If that anniversary is not a sign that I better get off my duff and dive into this issue, I don't know what is!

OK, so let's review some background about GMOs. As usual, the Union of Concerned Scientists has published an excellent primer on the subject on its website, and the Organic Consumers Association also has a worthwhile overview of GMOs. The basics:
  • GM foods are created when the genetic materials from one species of plant are inserted into the DNA of another species. The point of doing this is not to cultivate naturally vigorous hybrids in the way that farmers have for ages; rather, the purpose is to create plant species that are resistant to some pests and, most alarmingly, herbicides and pesticides created by the same company (typically Monsanto) that sells the seeds. My common sense tells me that making a seed (for profit) that is resistant to the chemicals sold by the same company (for more profit) does not create conditions where the environment and health are of paramount importance. [In response to a great question, I've clarified what I mean by this chemical resistance in the comments.] Even without looking into GMOs further than this, it seems pretty reasonable to conclude that engineering food plants to withstand an even greater chemical onslaught just does not make sense on any level. Period.
  • The effects of GMOs on the human body are largely untested. Yet the FDA says that genetically modified foods are just as nutritious and benign as traditional crops. Once you start reading about the testing of GMOs, however, you will come across stories about a man named Pustztai and his potatoes. Arpad Pusztai is a scientist in the United Kingdom who tested the effects of feeding genetically modified potatoes to lab rats. To his surprise, Pusztai found that the rats began to experience health problems, including stunted growth, damaged immune systems, and smaller hearts, livers and brains. He called for more testing, but in many ways human beings (especially Americans) are the lab animals ingesting GM foods each day.
  • GM foods make up a huge portion of the US food supply. MSNBC tells us that, despite the risks associated with GMOs:
    Still, acreage planted with biotech crops around the world is increasing and this year topped more than 1 billion acres sown to soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and other crops. In the United States, 52 percent of all corn, 79 percent of upland cotton and 87 percent of soybeans planted in 2004-05 were biotech varieties, according to the USDA.
    Rice, the staple food for many people in the world, is the next frontier for genetic engineering. In the meantime, eating processed food from the supermarket often means eating genetically engineered ingredients. The Center for Food Safety estimates that 70-75% of processed foods contain GMOs.
  • The US public is still in the dark about GMOs. The Center for Food Safety reports that 80-95% of Americans want GM foods to be labeled as such. The FDA, however, doesn't think that it's necessary. That means that when you buy a crackers containing soybean oil, for example, you're likely buying GMOs -- you'll just never know it.
  • Introducing GMOs into an ecosystem could very well wreak havoc on the environment in ways that we can't yet begin to understand. We know that pests respond by becoming stronger and resistant to the ever-higher levels of pesticides that GM crops are sprayed with. How will the complex web of nature respond to genetically engineered seeds traveling from the farmer's field and contaminating traditional crops? We do know that the USDA is not doing its job in monitoring field tests of GM crops. We also know how agribusiness responds to the cross-pollination of its GM seeds into traditional farm fields. In a well-known case, a farmer named Percy Schmeiser found that his organic crop was contaminated with Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola seeds. Monsanto's response? To sue Schmeiser for patent infringement claiming that he stole the company's seeds.
  • The promise that GM foods will bring an end to world hunger is empty. Again, profit is the driving factor in the push to sell more genetically engineered seeds. If ending hunger was the goal, then the biotechs wouldn't try to sell farmers in developing countries so-called "terminator seeds" that can't be saved from year to year in the sustainable way that generations of farmers have done.

There is much more evidence that leads me to believe that corporate profits are being put ahead of health and the environment...again. So what can we do about it?

  1. Take heart that other citizens in other countries have successfully fought agribusiness on this issue and won. We can too. Swiss citizens just voted for a 5-year ban on GMOs. There is a bill pending in Vermont which would would hold seed companies liable for damages from cross-pollination by GM crops.
  2. Stay informed. Bookmark this daily GM-related news round-up and this one. There's tons of information on the web about GMOs. I've also found the following books to have highly readable information on the subject: section IV of The Food Revolution, chapter 4 of Harvest for Hope, and the book Eating in the Dark.
  3. Mobilize to create local ordinances banning GMOs. Resources and links to local organizations are here. Fight to protect GE-free zones, like the one the citizens of Mendocino county in California voted for. Sign a petition here.
  4. Urge the FDA to require safety testing and mandatory labeling of GM foods. A letter to the FDA is here. The FDA currently supports voluntary labeling. Uh...I'm not going to hold my breath waiting to see those voluntary labels anytime soon. Why not also drop your Congressional representatives a line too at this link?
  5. Donate to organizations working to regulate and limit GM crops. Many environmental organizations are involved in GM-related campaigns. Here are just a few: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Alliance for Bio-Integrity, The True Food Network and Organic Consumers Association.
  6. Pressure supermarkets and food companies to refuse to include GM ingredients in their products. Whole Foods labels its house brand products that do not contain GMOs and Trader Joe's has a policy to keep its private label brands free of GM ingredients. Let your local supermarket know that you don't want to buy products that contain GMOs and that you won't buy the house brand if it does. Tools for taking action with a variety of supermarkets can be found here.
  7. Shop smart. Use this guide to find out which brands are GMO-free.
  8. Buy organic. The national organic standards forbid the inclusion of any GM ingredients in products labeled organic. (That means we've got to continue to fight to protect the standards. Read about that and take action here.) Sadly, there are documented instances of organic foods being contanimated with GM foods, such as when Terra Firma Inc., an organic food company in Wisconsin, had to recall its organic tortilla chips because they were contaminated by GM corn from another farm. The only way to ensure that you are not eating GM ingredients, then, is to eliminate their presence in every food product.

Whew! I'm glad I got THAT off my chest!


  • At 11:49 AM, Blogger spiral said…

    I sent off an email to my representative. The last time I tried to do that, he didn't have email, so I sent the letters to my senators and received no reply. Nice 'publican people. Er.

    Dumb as it may sound, I'm still trying to figure out what is meant by "resistance" to chemicals: I'm assuming that means that the food is suppposedly unharmed or unaltered by the chemicals, not that the chemicals won't work with the food. Why would a company not want its own chemicals to work on its own food? Sorry--as I said, I'm feeling a bit dumb about this.

    Sending the conversation another direction, I have a friend over at who is an organic farmer, and he often jokes about people who buy organic because its trendy. Wanting to be a good, informed consumer (though I know I don't make all of the best choices), organic makes sense to me. Plus, I'm finally at a point where I can afford it. I would think that most people who buy organic with its higher sticker price do so because they understand some rationale for buying it, and so I always wonder if I am merely part of a "trend" if I buy organic. I'm not so much asking a question as putting an idea out there.

  • At 12:35 PM, Blogger lauren said…


    Not that the Republican Congress is about to act on GMOs...but still we must try!

    Great question. I wasn't very clear in explaining the purpose of making GMO resistant to pesticides. Essentially, the idea is that the farmer can douse the field with high doses of pesticides and not worry that she will kill the GMO crop. Kathleen Hart (author of Eating in the Dark) explains how Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean seeds work better than I could (or did!), so I'll quote her here: "The magic of Monsanto's patented beans lies in their ability to survive dousing with the company's top-selling weed-killer, Roundup, which makes weed management easier. Roundup Ready soybean plants soak up as much Roundup as farmers wish to spray on them, while weeds growing in the field near the soybeans, lacking the patented mix of genes, wither and die." Apparently, the Roundup Ready soybeans appeal to a lot of farmers. Hart reports that in 2001, more than 60% of the soybeans in America were Roundup Ready. That means, I suppose, that a LOT of Roundup is being sprayed on soybean crops. And that concerns me because of the potential health effects of the chemicals in Roundup. (See a peer reviewed study on those effects here and a good summary of it here.)

    Your friend makes an interesting point about organics as they may be seen as trendy in some circles. I happen to be sufficiently alarmed by studies such as the one above, plus our track record of misusing chemicals such as DDT, to be convinced that chemical inputs are not the way to farm. Paying a slightly higher price at the market seems worthwhile to me given the effects of these chemicals in our bodies, wildlife, streams, rivers, and the rest of the natural world. Sandra Steingraber's organic manifesto says it well.

    Sorry to inundate you with links! This food stuff is a real passion of mine and my entry point into environmentalism.

  • At 6:24 PM, Blogger spiral said…

    Thanks for all of the info! I had a fun trip to the store today by bus and bought almost all organic products, carting them home via canvas bags. It's nice to have the studies to back up such practices, as I'm not the type to do something simply because it's trendy. Organic makes sense to me, though.

  • At 2:19 AM, Blogger Norene said…

    Hi Lauren,

    Wonderful, wonderful, lovely lovely blog. So nicely done. Thanks for letting me know that you and your blog are out there. You'll find me hanging around!


  • At 4:07 AM, Blogger City Hippy said…

    Once in a while Lauren someone comes along and draws many threads together providing an invaluable primer, refresher and gravity point for a topic all in one.

    You have just done exactly that with the whole complex GM issue and I am so pleased you submitted it to the Carnival of the Green...

    Also thanks for your kind words on my from folks like you is what drives me forward.

    With regard to GM, here in the UK we have a very active Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth watching our backs but sadly the might of agribusiness drives that special interest onwards.

    We do have solid labelling though so at least consumers get the choice.

    Disgusting to think that governments believe this stuff is safe on the basis of no long term trials. That is not science in any book.

    As you rightly point out GM is not about feeding the world, producing better food or helping the environment.

    It is about making terminator seeds that last one season and then die forcing the farmers to buy new seeds every year, seeds that are more resistant to pesticides so they can buy even more pesticides. Someone is going to make a lot of money out of this faster than you can say 'screw the water table'.

    And when that farmer only has to go to one company, how convenient (perhaps they are doing it for the poor tired farmers?) to get his/her seeds and pesticides how can that NOT be a conflict of interest?

    Sadly damage will be done and the only way this will be buried is when proof is possible and only then will the GM peddling companies like Monsanto, or whatever they are called today, back down, faster than we can scream CLASS ACTION!

    Namaste and keep up the good work


  • At 1:44 AM, Blogger Siel said…

    I agree with City Hippy wholeheartedly. Roundups such as these are essential for many people who come to issues such as these as newbies, and feel lost as to what they can do.

    I added you to my wists, and hope you're getting some additional hits --

  • At 9:51 AM, Blogger lauren said…

    Thanks for the kind words guys and for the link in your wists Siel! I would be so happy to hear that someone who didn't know about this stuff learned something....and felt like they could take action.

  • At 8:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

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