GMOs: We Can’t Ignore the Consequences

Have you ever seen one of those silent movies where the hero is on a runaway train and just narrowly misses injury by dumb luck or blissful ignorance of the severity of the situation? We may be in a similar situation today with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The difference is that this is real life and we can’t ignore the consequences.

If you think I’m exaggerating, just ask your average customer or person on the street what GMOs are. Most folks except for activists or dedicated co-opers can only give you a vaguely accurate definition at best, let alone tell you how serious a threat they are to our future.

Do you know a good definition? Here’s how the National Organic Standards Board puts it:
“Genetically engineered is defined as: Made with techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes. Genetic engineering includes recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro- and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes. It shall not include breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization and tissue culture.” (NOSB meeting—9/19/96).

Many people think they don’t have to worry about GMOs because they eat organic food. That protection may be more illusion than fact. While the organic rule states that no GMOs are allowed in organic agriculture, that doesn’t mean they are always GMO-free. European certification agents have zero tolerance standards for GMOs in organic foods, but this is not the case in the U.S. Production practices using GMOs are prohibited, but there isn’t an established tolerance level of any kind for GMOs. This means that testing is not required in cases where genetic drift (similar to pesticide drift) may be a risk.

Is drift really a problem? The biotech industry spokespersons who, just a few years back, said, “No way,” are now admitting that there may be a 1 to 2 percent chance of pollen drift. Perhaps cases like the one revealed in the November 2001 article printed in the British journal Nature changed their tune. The study by Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley, and graduate student David Quist reported that native corn in Mexico had been contaminated by material from genetically modified corn. This is considered significant because it proved that the behavior of engineered materials is unpredictable and that they do, in fact, travel from one field to another. So wind pollinated plants, like corn, can be contaminated. What may be the most troubling is that the new GM genes found in the native corn were shown to be established inside the plant’s genome and could interfere with the functioning of the corns normal genes. Even more thought provoking is that a 1998 law had made it illegal to plant transgenic corn in Mexico—so the contamination had to come from drift.

Many food processors require their own testing. If you are concerned about genetic drift, by all means research the standards of the manufacturers whose products you buy. Some are very strict; others are not. Perhaps the question to ask manufacturers is, “Are you eating genetically modified foods?”

Even if there were genetic drift standards in place, GMOs don’t have to be labeled on most of the foods we eat. If you venture beyond the world of semi-protected conscious consumption here in the U.S. and consume cheese, dairy products, cereal, junk food snacks, or soft drinks, then you’ve most likely eaten foods from genetically modified crops. These crops currently on the market have been engineered for herbicide, insect, or virus resistance: beets, canola, cantaloupe, corn, cotton, flax, papaya, potato, radicchio, rice, soybean, squash, tomato, watermelon, and zucchini. (Cottonseed oil is a common ingredient in potato chips, etc., and a lot of people eat flax seed crackers and waffles or take flax seed oil for the omega-3.) It’s not surprising that North America produces about 75% of the world’s genetically engineered crops.

If you like bacon or pork chops, here’s a tidbit for you: 80% of the grain fed to mass produced meat hogs is genetically modified.

We’re told that the GMO crops are supposed to lessen pesticide use. About 70% of the genetically engineered crops grown in the U.S. are herbicide resistant and are supposed to lessen pesticide use, even though the majority of these are “Roundup Ready” crops bred to withstand frequent herbicide applications from one of America’s favorite herbicides. Often touted as environmentally friendly, Roundup has been shown to contaminate ground water supplies and is now under review as a carcinogen. But do GMOs lessen pesticide use? Not according to a study entitled “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years,” which was released in November 2003. This report studied the levels of pesticide use on genetically engineered crops. The study reports that GE corn, soybeans, and cotton have resulted in the application of more pesticides, not less. Herbicide tolerant crops or HT are responsible for nearly 70 million additional pounds of pesticides being applied in U.S. agriculture.

Seem a bit overwhelming? It certainly can be. And we haven’t even touched the subject of genetically engineered insects and the fact there is a push to take them from the lab to the wild with no U.S. law in place to specifically address biotech bugs.

However, all is not lost. I think this presents a huge opportunity for co-ops to turn the tide in their communities. Where do you start?

First, make it a priority to educate your staff so every one of them can have an intelligent conversation about the issue. People are looking for answers, and the co-op is a place where they feel they can talk to someone who can separate the wheat from the chaff. Then take a stand.

One co-op in northern California, Ukiah Natural Foods, is grabbing this raging bull by the horns and meeting it head on—they have added non-GMO language to their merchandising policy statement. They have a permanent table in the front of the store that contains action information on the campaign to label GE foods, including the Greenpeace “True Foods” book and the Nature’s Path brochure. They also have made sure that they don’t carry anything on those groups’ GMO lists. They have sponsored 3 community forums on GMOs (two of which were presented by the authors of Against the Grain, Britt Baily and Marc Lappé).

Along with the other members of the PCGA (Pacific Cooperative Grocer’s Association), the co-op donated $10,000 (5% of combined one-day sales) to GE Free California.

On February 2, 2004, Ukiah Natural Foods held a storewide event with a “GMO Awareness in Mendocino” theme, which included:
• a “Good Food” art contest for kids
• an opportunity to “Get the facts about GMOs”
• samples of organic foods
• drawings for tote bags, baskets filled with non-GMO products and copies of the book Seeds of Deception by Jeffery Smith
• teaching customers the benefits of voting Yes on Measure H.

Measure H is an initiative that Mendocino County citizens placed on the March 2004 ballot that, if enacted, would ban the growing of genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County. Following in the footsteps of the initiative that was put on the ballot (but ultimately defeated) in Oregon last year, Mendocino residents are taking that momentum and leaving it to the voters to stop what they believe is the biggest uncontrolled biological experiment taking place in the world today. In keeping with their vision to promote wholesome food to their community, Ukiah Natural Foods donated $5,000 to GE Free Mendocino and have opened up the opportunity to donate member discounts to the campaign for Measure H—by simply saying “Donate my discount” to the cashier.

Fortunately, there is a movement going on in communities in the U.S. to establish a zero, or very low, tolerance level for GMOs in organic food. This position is essential because labeling is not the answer. When asked about GMOs, Neil E. Harl, a professor of agriculture and economics at Iowa State University put it this way: “The genie is already out of the bottle. If the policy tomorrow were that we were going to eradicate GMOs, this would be a very long process. It would take years if not decades to do that.” Some other notable scientists believe even that estimate may be overly optimistic.

Thanks for whatever you do for this effort. Future generations will applaud your courage.

For more information

Ag BioTech InfoNet:
The Alliance for Bio-Integrity:
The Biosafety Information Network and Advisory Service (BINAS):
Biotechnology Information Resource (BIC):
California Certified Organic Farmers:
The Center for Food Safety (CFS):
Council for Responsible Genetics:
Food and Drug Administration:
GE and Its Dangers:
Mothers for Natural Law:
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA):
Pesticide Action Network North America:
Say No To GMOs!:
Soil Association:
The True Food Now:

See other articles from this issue: #111 March - April - 2004