The Dark Side of Genetically Modified Foods
When Pamm Larry first heard about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food, her first response was,
“Well, this is interesting.” But the more the former midwife read about GMOs, the more frightened she became about the potential harm they were doing to human health and the environment. At first she felt helpless, believing that “the government isn’t going to do anything to protect us, so what can we do?” she says. From there, she moved to a deep despair that often brought her to tears. And then, one fateful night – January 20, 2011, to be exact – Larry had
“I was in bed, in one of those hover states between being awake and asleep, and my mind was obsessing about how nobody is doing anything. And then it just hit me – the only way to solve the GMO problem was if the people took action. If I took action,” she says. It was at that moment that Pamm Larry, who often describes herself as “just a grandmother from Chico, California,” became the driving force behind a powerful state and national movement calling for labels on GMO products – catalyzing a national conversation about the safety of GMOs in food.
“People should be able to choose what they eat and feed their children,” says Larry, who is now the Northern California director at LabelGMOs.org. “It’s a basic civil right to know what’s in our food.” The problem with GMOs, say Larry and others, is that the science is still in the infant stages, and the effects of unleashing GMO crops into the environment – and of consuming them – are largely unknown and untested.
“I’m not against gene therapy, where you correct a defective gene and save lives,” says Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. “I’m not against GE (genetic engineering) studies in labs. But to feed the products of this infant science to people without studying their effects and to release them into the environment where they can’t be recalled is extremely dangerous and irresponsible.”
What exactly are people consuming when they eat a product containing GMOs? Nothing good, says Smith. “There’s no consumer benefit to a GMO,” Smith told the Green American magazine in 2012. “They’re not like extra sugar or salt, which are under attack for health reasons but provide taste. GMOs are simply soaked in poison. They’re either herbicide-tolerant or they have an insect-killing toxin in every cell of the plant, including the food portion. No one is clamoring for a daily dose.”
Genetic modification is the process of taking genetic material from one organism and inserting it into a second organism. Bt corn and cotton, for example, are injected with genes from a soil bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis, that produces a natural insecticide. The process makes this GMO corn and cotton resistant to certain pests, such as the corn borer and cotton bollworm. So-called “RoundUp Ready” crops like soy are engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide and its generic equivalent glyphosate.
The genetic engineering allows farmers to spray as much glyphosate on their fields as they want, as often as they want, without killing their crops. The biotech companies promise that their genetically modified or GM seeds will result in higher yields, lower pesticide and herbicide usage and costs, and less expensive operations all around for farmers.Those promises, however, often don’t come to pass – and they’ve also come with a heavy price.
Bad for Farmers
In recent years, studies like one conducted by the National Research Council in 2012 have found that the prolific use of RoundUp/glyphosate has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of glyphosate-resistant weeds. These new “superweeds” are spreading across America’s farmlands and all but destroying farm fields. One of the worst, glyphosate-resistant Palmer pigweed, infested more than one-half million acres in Georgia in 2010 and resulted in farmers having to weed acres upon acres by hand.
“The emergence of superweeds, in turn, has caused farmers to buy more and more pesticides to try to combat them,” says Shireen Karimi, campaign coordinator for GMO Inside (www.gmoinside.org), a program of Green America (www.greenamerica.org) and several nonprofit allies. “These pesticides are more expensive, which makes it harder for farmers to make ends meet. And some of the pesticides they’re now trying, such as dicamba and 2, 4-D, are highly toxic to humans and ecosystems.”
Dicamba has been linked to reproductive and developmental defects, and 2, 4-D – originally developed as a component of Monsanto’s notorious Agent Orange defoliant – has been linked to endocrine disruption, kidney and liver damage and cancer. In addition, GMO crops contaminate non-GMO fields through cross-pollination, which not only poses a threat to farmers seeking organic certification – which does not allow genetic modification – but also to all farmers who run the risk of being sued by Monsanto.
Monsanto’s so-called “seed police” sample and detect Monsanto-patented GMO seeds or plants on farms that have not paid for those seeds. The company has filed 144 lawsuits between 1997 and 2010 against US farmers for patent infringement, even when a given farmer’s fields were accidentally contaminated through pollen drift from nearby GMO fields, according to the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA). But farmers are fighting back. In March 2011, OSGATA filed a lawsuit on behalf of 60 family farmers, seed businesses and agricultural organizations “seeking court protection for farmers [whose fields], through no fault of their own, may have become contaminated by GE seed and find themselves accused of patent infringement.”
To the disappointment of farmers, a Federal District court dismissed the case in February 2012, citing that Monsanto had not taken action against any of the plaintiffs and calling the lawsuit a “transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists.” In July 2012, OSGATA filed an appeal, now including more than 4,500 farms, with the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The oral argument was heard in January 2013, and on June 10, 2013, a three-judge panel issued, according to OSGATA, “a bizarre ruling that plaintiffs are not entitled to bring a lawsuit to protect themselves from Monsanto’s transgenic seed patents ‘because Monsanto has made binding assurances that it will not take legal action against growers whose crops might inadvertently contain traces of Monsanto biotech genes.’”
OSGATA says farmers find this ruling “inconclusive and insufficient to protect their future economic interests since the Appeals court readily admitted that contamination from Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops is ‘inevitable.’” As a result, on Sept. 5, 2013, explains OSGATA, “a group of 73 American organic and conventional family farmers, seed businesses and public advocacy groups asked the US Supreme Court to hear their case against Monsanto Company challenging the chemical and biotech seed giant’s patents on genetically engineered seed.” On Jan. 13, 2013, the US Supreme Court issued a decision denying farmers the right to argue their case in court and, according to OSGATA, “gain protection from potential abuse” by Monsanto.
OSGATA says that significant contamination events, including Starlink corn and LibertyLink rice, have “already cost farmers and the food companies nearly $2 billion. In the past year alone  the discovery of Monsanto’s illegal GMO wheat in an Oregon farmer’s field and GMO alfalfa in Washington state sent foreign markets, where GMOS are not wanted, reeling. In both instances, farmers’ economic livelihoods were put at risk as buyers in foreign markets refused to purchase the GMO-contaminated crops.”
While effects of GMOs on US farmers are troublesome, what’s really waking people up to the need for labeling is the growing amount of evidence that GMOs may harm human health.
Bad for Health
While it often takes decades for the scientific community to come to a consensus on whether something is causing harm, study after study is starting to point in that direction when it comes to GMOs, says Smith.
“When you look at the big picture, GMOs may be a powerful contributor to the rise of major diseases in the US: food allergies, irritable bowel and a host of other problems,” he says. “There’s a shorthand way of referring to the studies that find health concerns: The American Academy of Environmental Medicine has determined that GMOs pose a significant health threat, citing several animal feeding studies showing reproductive problems, accelerated aging, gastrointestinal disorders, immune system dysfunction, organ damage and problems in the regulation of cholesterol and insulin.”
For instance, in the summer of 2012, biologist Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini at France’s University of Caen published a study in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicity, pointing to possible health risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Seralini and his team fed 180 rats GM corn for two years and found that the rats developed large tumors or kidney problems and died 2-3 times more often during the study period than the 20 control group rats. He found similar results in rats fed GM corn along with Roundup/glyphosate.
Immediately after release of the Seralini study, critics took aim, dismissing the claims because it tested a too-small group of rats and included a too-small group of control rats to be statistically relevant. These critics also attacked Seralini’s team because, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik put it, “The rats fed higher doses of pesticide or GM corn didn’t consistently get sicker than those fed lower doses. In fact, some rats fed higher doses did better than the others.”
However, Dr. Michael Hansen, a biologist who works for Consumer Reports, predicted Seralini’s study results – and the fallout from critics. As he told the Green American in 2012, “There are things that can harm and behave in a way that aren’t linear but rather in a U-shaped curve: They can have an effect at a low dose, not much at an intervening dose, and then another effect at the higher dose.”
He also noted that when biotech companies find statistically significant study results not in their favor, they’ll often drum up a reason to dismiss those findings and put their considerable financial might into spreading doubt. In fact, Hansen and eight other scientists wrote an open letter to Independent Science News – signed by 92 scientists from around the world – defending Seralini.
“The Seralini publication, and resultant media attention, raise the profile of fundamental challenges faced by science in a world increasingly dominated by corporate influence,” the letter states. “. . . Seralini and colleagues are just the latest in a series of researchers whose findings have triggered orchestrated campaigns of harassment.”
Numerous other studies point to possible ill effects from GMO foods that may yet surface in humans. In late 2012, scientists from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) discovered that a very common genetic sequence in GMOs – used in sugar beets and corn – includes a virus gene that could be dangerous to people. The Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV) is a sequence of seven genes used in GMOs to force the newly introduced gene to increase production of its desired proteins. But overlapping with the CaMV is part of an actual virus gene, “gene VI.” The EFSA notes that many viral genes incapacitate the body’s anti-pathogen defenses so they can invade. Since plant and human viruses are often interchangeable, gene VI could result in suppressed immune systems in both plants and humans. Green America’s Shireen Karimi says enough evidence exists to indicate that people should avoid GMOs whenever possible. “It’s about the Precautionary Principle, which states that when in doubt about whether a given substance is causing harm to human health and the environment, it should be up to industry to prove the substance is safe, rather than people having to prove the substance is making them ill. The FDA is not abiding by this principle,” she says. “The American people – our children – shouldn’t have to serve as the biotech industry’s lab rats.”
“Many US physicians now prescribe non-GMO diets to all their patients. Many describe significant, even dramatic improvements in health and alleviation of symptoms, such as gastrointestinal, immune and reproductive issues,” adds Smith. “The same type of problems also clear up in livestock that are taken off GMO feed. And the same types of problems also afflict lab animals fed GMOs. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that these disorders are on the rise in the US population since GMOs were introduced in 1996.”
Say No to GMOs
After Pamm Larry had her epiphany, she started a campaign to put a ballot initiative before California voters, which called for mandatory labeling on GMO products. While the larger organizations she first approached for help were initially resistant, believing the initiative was destined for failure and would set back the entire movement to ban GMOs, Larry pushed on. She talked with anyone who would listen, and it was mothers and grandmothers who came on board first. They were likely imagining feeding genetically modified Cheerios and Similac formula to their babies, children
“Mothers across the country are getting angry,” she says. “They’ve been lied to that what they’re giving their children is natural, good, wholesome stuff. It’s the big corporate lie at the expense of our children.”
As the outpouring of support from grassroots swelled, several nonprofits lent their support and the movement was afoot. Proposition 37, California’s “right-to-know” law, which would have made the labeling of GMO products mandatory, did make it onto the ballot. But it was ultimately defeated after companies like Coca-Cola, General Mills and Monsanto poured millions into campaigning against it.
But Larry unequivocally considers the effort a victory. “The magic of this whole thing was the response of the people on the ground who got the message that we cannot leave this to anyone else but us. We cannot wait,” she says.
That message spread across the state, and despite its supporters being outspent five to one, Prop. 37 was only narrowly defeated. Larry and her ever-growing group of “people on the ground” continue to educate the public about possible dangers of GMOs, and they’re well-positioned to introduce another “GMO right-to-know” ballot initiative in the near future.
“The conversation about GMOs is everywhere, and it wasn’t before Prop. 37,” says Larry.
Their efforts have also crossed state borders, and Larry and several others put their support behind Washington State as it awaited a vote on ballot initiative I-522 in November 2013, which was also narrowly defeated. Similar to Prop. 37, I-522 called for mandatory labeling on products containing GMOs. And more GMO right-to-know ballot initiative campaigns have launched across the country, including in Vermont and Colorado.
Smith is optimistic. GMOs are gaining such a negative reputation around the country, he says, that if his prediction proves true, he believes “companies would rather eliminate GMOs from their products than admit they’re using them.”
“We can have all the labels we want and all the legislation we want, but if people don’t know why they shouldn’t eat them, we know nothing,” says Larry. “We have to start educating people. It’s up to all of us.”
Visit Green America’s GMOInside.org and Facebook.com/GMOInside to learn more and join regular campaigns demanding that Cheerios, Coca-Cola, Similac and other food companies stop using GMOs in their products and at least label in the meantime.
“So far this year, Green America’s GMO Inside campaign has called on 10 of the largest corporate users of GMOs to stop using these ingredients,” says Karimi. “In the process, we have educated tens of thousands of Americans about GMOs – what to look out for and how to find healthier non-GMO and organic alternatives. In Europe it was consumer concern that kept GMOs out of the food supply. We’re sending the same messages to corporations here – we don’t want your GMOs – and eventually, they will listen.”
Buy Non-GMO Foods
• Buy certified organic whole and packaged foods. Certified organic foods cannot intentionally contain GMOs; although, they are not tested for accidental contamination.
• Look for the Non-GMO Project label. The Non-GMO Project tests high-risk ingredients in the products that bear its label to ensure they contain less than 0.9 percent GMOs (which allows for some accidental contamination).
• Be wary of unsupported non-GMO claims. Companies may legally state on their labels that a product contains no GMOs, even if they haven’t tested or otherwise proven that is the case.
• Avoid high-risk ingredients. Soy, cottonseed, corn, canola oil, papaya and sugar made from sugar beets are all at high risk of containing GMOs. GMO soy shows up in the ingredients lists of many processed foods under a variety of names (i.e. soy lecithin or soybean oil), and anything containing the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup is highly likely to contain GMOs. For more information, visit http://www.greenamerica.org/pubs/greenamerican/articles/AprilMay2012/9-GM-ingredients-to-watch.cfm.
• Thirteen more GMO foods currently await federal approval, including GMO salmon. Join Green America (www.greenamerica.org/supportus) and sign up for Green America’s email newsletter (www.greenamerica.org/signup) to learn about the ongoing GMO Inside campaigns to stop these approvals and call for better safety testing before GMO foods come to market.