GM(n)O’s?

by: Michael Shields

A brief capsulation of a problem that must be confronted before it is too late.  GMO’s 101……

The old saying goes if you’re not pissed off you’re are not paying attention.  The problem here, with this profoundly truthful statement, is that We the People have exhibited time and again that we’d rather not be pissed off.  That we’d rather not pay attention to some of the most glaring and disturbing problems facing us as a Nation.  In fact, we proved this to be true in triumphant fashion when in November1 Californian’s voted against Proposition 37, which would have required retailers and food companies to label products made with genetically modified ingredients. Californians didn’t just say we don’t care if genetically modified ingredients are in our food – they said they don’t even want to know if this is the case2.

Californians who were in favor of the passage of Prop 37 were up against much more than merely fellow voters who opposed the bill.  They were up against Big Business. This decision would profoundly impact the companies that design, produce, and sell these genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), companies such as Monsanto3, Dupont, PepsiCo Inc., and The Hershey Company.  These companies, and those like them, ponied up an estimated 45.6 million dollars to fight the passage of this bill4.  While proponents of Prop 37 were able to muster up a measly 8.7 million 5.

Even while facing an uphill battle against Big Business and their Big Money6 Californians did come close to getting this bill passed – as around 47 percent were in favor of the bill’s passage.  Close, but no cigar. And although California didn’t become the first state to pass this sort of legislation, they did escalate the debate about the risks (and benefits) of genetically modified food – and our right to know.

Was Prop 37, and its failure, a huge opportunity lost to the food movement as a whole ?  It would have been a monumental piece of legislation that could have awakened the slumbering bureaucrats in Washington, making them aware that we adamantly desire to know exactly what we are putting into our body, and our children’s bodies.  An opportunity was possibly missed, but the war does wage on as activists are busy obtaining signatures for a labeling initiative in the state of Washington this year!7.  And so much can be learned from the failings of Prop 37 about how to get a bill like this passed – and the formidable forces one will be facing when attempting to.

Let’s step back for a second.  What are we, in the simplest terms, really talking about here?  What is a GMO, and why is it such a bad thing?  GMO’s are plants or animals created through the gene splicing techniques of Biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). This experimental technology merges DNA from different species, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.  This is an exciting brand of science, with endless possibilities – and also a great deal of risk.

These risks are potentially devastating. The concern here is that GMO’s are a direct threat to agricultural diversity, and could create a monoculture8 that are vulnerable to eradication in one fell swoop of a threatening insect or disease.  GMO crops could also cross-pollinate with non-GMO crops which opens a pandora’s box full of problems – chiefly that we lose the original strain of the crop that became crossed with the genetically altered one9.

The real risk lies in what we do not yet know.  We must know more about the health impact of GMOs before we are completely handcuffed by their use.  We must know if they can help sustain us, and our nutritional needs, before we get in over our head.  We demand to know about the nutritional value of our food, the salt content and the like – yet we do not feel the need to know if the product comes from GMO seed stock?

The scientific community, and those knee-deep in this heated debate, are unsure about these risks, as there is not enough proof either way10.  A recent French study linking GMO’s to cancer in rats gained a whole lot of traction and incited GMO’s proponents…..but soon enough the scientific community backtracked from these findings as they had many “critical flaws.”  And many studies that tout the safety and benefits of GMOs, that the government cites to support many of its policies, are studies conducted by the same corporations that created them, and profit from their sale.

We should not dismiss the possible benefits of GMO’s, and I think that many who blindly oppose their use should educate themselves to the science behind them, and what they can do for us when used properly.  We are going to need to depend heavily on Science as we move forward with a swelling world population facing many daunting challenges that threaten our very lives.  GMO’s can possibly help us feed this growing world population.  They can help make it profitable again to be a farmer.  They can, potentially, reduce the need for fertilizer, which can also reduce our dependence on fossil fuels as most of the fertilizer we use, that are high in Nitrogen, are made using natural gas.  They may be able to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides and GMO’s, in theory, could use water more efficiently as well as be better equipped to deal with weather and droughts.  With climate changes looming, we will need all the tools in our scientific toolboxes to find a way for us all to not only to be healthy, but to endure.

But other countries are taking precautions11.  In fact, most developed countries have, or are planning to, turn their back to GMOs. The EU has required labeling of GMO products since 1997.  Japan, Ireland, Egypt, Hungary and a handful of other countries12 have flat out banned the cultivation of GMO crops13. The general belief, especially in European countries, is that although there is no damning evidence that GMO’s carry more risk than conventional foods and crops, they will wait to find out for sure, and in the meantime they are going to regulate them as if they were medical drugs – and not release them unto the public until they are positive they are safe.

So why is it that America cannot take this wait-and-see approach? Are Americans embracing the idea of GMO crops?  Do we not care enough about what we put in our body as a whole? Or are we, once again, choosing money over principle?  Is our health being sold to the highest bidder?  Why are we the last to act on this?

It seems to reason that Americans, or those in power, favor progress over restraint and careful consideration of how decisions will affect us in the long run.  This has helped forge our country ahead in many ways, and has been the reason for many of our successes, but this lack of forward thinking is bound to have negative impacts.  It is fair to conclude that GMO’s are thriving in America because of the power of the almighty dollar.  Companies will continue to maximize their profit (at the cheapest cost possible) and the government, too often spineless in its dealings, will only step up to make changes when the health and lives of the masses begin to be compromised; when it is already too late.

  1. November 6, 2012 []
  2. It must, before moving any further, be stated that Prop 37 is well known to be a poorly written bill that was confusing and often misleading – and even many who oppose GMO’s could not get behind this bill. []
  3. Monsanto, a bio-tech giant, is one of the biggest players in this debate. []
  4. The advocates launched a campaign that claimed the labeling of GMO’s would cause the price of groceries to skyrocket and hurt businesses like small farms and mom-and-pop stores.  But let us be fair to all here – there would be cost associated with this sort of labeling, claiming a zero-cost effect to this sort of labeling is also a lie. []
  5. 5.5 million of this total came from a group focused on sustainable food called Food Democracy Now. []
  6. Compounded with the fact that the proposed law is much more complex than mere labeling. Under the law, as it was written, there were various legal enforcement issues and special interest exemptions that made the whole thing a touch dicey. []
  7. And labeling bills should also be on statehouse tables in Maine, Oregon, and New Mexico soo. []
  8. Monoculture: 1. The cultivation of a single crop on a farm or in a region or country. 2. A single, homogeneous culture without diversity or dissension. []
  9. Also, these large corporations, particularly Monsanto, have been accused of selling seeds to farmers that can’t be harvested and reseeded the next year, known as “Terminator Seeds”. []
  10. But why not be cautious and find out before we are in too deep, right? []
  11. Bill Gates (with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto Corporation, Syngenta Foundation and the Government of Norway, among others) is investing millions in a seed bank on the Barents Sea near the Arctic Ocean, some 1,100 kilometers from the North Pole. It will contain up to three million different varieties of seeds from the entire world, “so that crop diversity can be conserved for the future.” []
  12. The latest numbers I can find display that 27 countries have banned GMO’s and that GMO’s are labeled in 61 countries. []
  13. Some countries, such as Spain, do allow GMO’s to be grown, but very in a limited fashion and almost all is used for animal feed. []

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