Mr. Kimbrell is one of the United States' leading environmental attorneys, and an author of articles and books on environment, technology and society, and food issues. He's also the Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, which he founded in 1997 as a way to prevent genetic engineering and sewage sludge remediation from becoming acceptable practices under the organic laws.
Organics and Beyond
But the Center for Food Safety has far grander goals than simply fighting for pro-organic laws.
"[W]e call it "Organic and Beyond," Kimbrell says.
"We do that because we have to defend the organic standards. Over the last eight years, virtually the entire government's all three branches, from judiciary to executive to congress, were trying to undermine the organic rule. It didn't get as much publicity as it should have…
But we don't want just to defend the organic rule in food. We want to evolve the ethic.
While organic is great and we need to defend that, we also want to make sure that we extend it to include for instance issues of animal welfare… We want to have bio-diverse crops… We want to make sure that our farming is local, in appropriate scale. We also want to make sure that we're socially just. Just because we're organic it doesn't mean that we're treating farm workers in a socially just manner.
Those are the beyond organic aspects of the future of food that we're really interested in, which is a humane, local, appropriate scale, biodiverse, and socially just [system].
If we can think of the organic not as the ceiling for our food in the future but as the floor and we build this house, our future food house with those other elements... then I think we really will have done something."
Saying "No" to Some Things is Saying "Yes" to Others
As you probably know, we are inundated with tens of thousands of chemicals these days, which have never before existed on Earth—many of which are extremely toxic. Much of the rise in chronic disease can be traced back to the excessive exposure to toxins from our food, air, water supply, and many of the personal- and household products we use on a daily basis.
What led us to this point?
In a word, technology.
For all the benefits and wonders many technologies bring, there are also some profound downsides, especially when they're introduced without proper safety testing and forethought of the long-term consequences. Nuclear energy is just one glaring recent example. But this applies to food as well, as biotech has crept in to modify nature's bounty in all sorts of ways, and mass-producing farms have altered the way food is grown to include massive amounts of chemicals.
"[O]rganic is really amazing because organic says: we're looking at chemicals, and fertilizers and pesticides and we're saying no. We're looking at genetic engineering and we're saying no. We're looking at irradiated foods and we're saying no," Kimbrell says.
"We're saying, progress sometimes means saying no to these technologies and saying yes to a far more natural, a far more sustainable way of doing business. It's quite a remarkable revolution, not just because of the food, but because of the consciousness.
It's saying progress doesn't mean more and more exploitation and manipulation of nature through technology, it means more and more integrating the human into the entire natural context and learning to live within that context."
"We Defend what We Love"
Kimbrell's passion for this work stems from learning to love nature through his brother, who was an avid outdoorsman. He also worked on a farm for two and a half years before going to law school, and while he loved it, he wasn't very good at it. The farmer he worked for suggested he go to law school instead, and "see what you can do for farms and for the whole community of life that makes for a healthy farming system."
It turned out to be good advice. Some of his first work as an environmental attorney was in defending rivers and natural areas from exploitation, which, over time "evolved into an understanding of how technologies were hurting the natural world."
"Those two things – my love of the natural world and my work on a farm-- sort of coalesced, if you will, to create my desire to use my legal skills and whatever skills we have, to accomplish the goals that we just talked about," Kimbrell says.
Food and the Environment
As Kimbrell states in this interview, food is the most intimate relationship you have with your environment.
"I'm always amused when people say, I'm not interested in food issues, I'm interested in environmental issues. I would say, "Whoa, let's sit down for a second to talk about that." There is no more intimate relationship that we have with the environment than what we eat.
To me it is a great moment for everybody out there to say, 'I'm making a choice every day—a choice that I can control to a great extent—of what I eat, what my family eats, and to a certain extent what people around me eat.
That is to me a really important moment, because in that moment, you can reflect your views on social justice, your views on animal welfare, your views on the environment, on protecting our waters, protecting our air, protecting our soil, protecting our farm communities and protecting our community health. All of that is based in that decision that we all make several times a day."
The Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods
From Kimbrell's perspective, as well as my own, genetically modified (GM) food is one of the biggest threats to life and health we currently face on this planet.
"It turns out that [genetic engineering] is a lot more difficult than people thought," Kimbrell says. "There are a couple of reasons for that. For example, folks may remember the Human Genome Project. We were supposed to have about 100,000 to 140,000 genes. We only have about 20,000 genes it turns out. That's about as many as a worm.
A kernel of corn has, any cell on that kernel has 35,000 genes… They just did the genome of wheat and it has 80,000 genes. So wheat has four times as many genes as humans.
It turns out that the biology of these crops isn't some simple thing but extremely complex and it turns out there is a huge amount we do not know. So this idea that you can take a little piece of DNA called a gene and switch it around between plants and animals, and human and plants, and bacteria and plants, and get predictable results turn out not to be true."
At the present time, the most prominent genetic modification of crops is the modification to make plants immune to herbicides.
Since you can spray these crops with large amounts of chemicals without killing the crop, this, in theory, should significantly reduce weed growth. However, in the years since the introduction of "RoundUp ready" corn and soy, we've witnessed increasingly profound downsides to these unnatural seeds, including brand new "super weeds" that are also impervious to RoundUp (glyphosate).
According to Kimbrell, we now have 10-20 million acres of these super weeds that you can't kill. They're the thickness of a baseball bat, and they loom six to seven feet tall!
GM Crops Demand HIGHER Levels of Toxic Herbicides and Pesticides
Additionally, what many fail to realize is the incredible increase in toxic chemicals being used on these crops, which eventually ends up in your stomach.
"[I]n the last two years we've sprayed 153 million more pounds of herbicide on our crops because of the corn and soy Roundup-ready crops…" Kimbrell says.
This dilemma is leading us further and further into a quagmire of increasingly toxic remedies.
"Right now, the FDA is looking to approve crops resistant to 2,4-D, which is an element in Agent Orange," Kimbrell says. "I kid you not, Dow Chemical is doing this. Corn and soy that has been genetically engineered so you can spray as much 2,4-D (Agent Orange) on these crops as you want and it won't kill them.
Now that Roundup is becoming less and less useful, they're looking for newer and more toxic herbicides that they will bathe our crops in, in order to make money…
Monsanto is now coming up with Dicamba, which is extremely dangerous. It's a volatilizing herbicide. In other words, you spray it and under certain weather conditions it's going to go back up from the ground, re-volatilizing to a cloud and it could go a mile or two away and come back down and it will kill everything green. It's a very toxic herbicide."
This poses tremendous challenges for organic farmers, threatens our environment and human health everywhere, whether you happen to live in an agricultural area, or simply eat the food produced from these now highly toxic crops.
- Where is the breaking point?
- When will the food produced become too toxic to eat?
- And what do we do then?
GM Foods Line the Pockets of Chemical Companies
There can be little doubt that the technology of genetically engineered crop seeds has little to do with saving the planet, and a lot to do with promoting herbicide use and increasing herbicide sales. The major purveyors of GM crop seeds also make the chemicals and herbicides to go along with those seeds.
These companies include:
Monsanto Dow Dupont Syngenta Baer BASF
"These are herbicide companies that have invented a way to sell a lot more of their chemicals," Kimbrell says.
In the end, we may be over-run with superweeds that cannot be killed even by dousing it with Agent Orange, and GM crops that contaminate all its conventional and organic counterparts. That will be their legacy to our children and grandchildren…
Only Sustainable, Smaller-Scale Farming Can Successfully Feed the Planet
"I think one of the great things about the Organic and Beyond movement is that we are trying to go back and learn," Kimbrell says. "We can use some modern technologies that help us better understand agronomy, but basically go back into a sustainable, smaller, more localized farming system.
What makes this so great is that two studies just came out of the UN, and it turns out that the way to feed the world is through small and medium sized organic and sustainable farms because they are creating a lot more food!
Right now, we have so many acres devoted to corn but you cannot live on corn alone. As a matter of fact you shouldn't be living on much corn at all really. That's not really food. That's a crop. It's a crop that's used to feed animals, for biofuels and for fructose corn syrup and other additives.
Small medium sized farms have numerous diverse crops and animals. It's a far more sustainable way to not produce massive crops but actual food."
Change is an Uphill Battle that Oftentimes Requires Litigation
Unfortunately, despite the evidence showing that our current agricultural system is unsustainable, if not downright dangerous, change is hard to come by. The agricultural committees are primarily run by the agribusiness industry, which will always vote to protect their own best interests.
One effective way to slow down the madness, as it were, is through litigation. According to Kimbrell, litigation has halted the introduction of a number of genetically engineered crops, such as GM:
Market campaigns also successfully thwarted the introduction of GM tomatoes and potatoes.
"We can vote with our dollar in the marketplace by buying organic, by buying non-GMO," Kimbrell says. "But we can also then make sure that we use the courts as best we can to halt some of these damaging technologies while we promote this Organic and Beyond vision. And everyone can get involved."
Current Campaigns to Eliminate GMOs
The Center for Food Safety, along with a number of other organic businesses, organic organizations, and non-governmental organizations, are now starting a campaign to demand labeling of all GM foods. This is the most sensible strategy as over 90 percent of the public do not want GM foods and if they had a choice they would avoid Them. We don't need legislation to outlaw GM, we just need an informed public to make the right choice.
Genetically engineered foods are required to be labeled in the 15 European Union nations, Russia, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries around the world, but not the US or Canada…
"You're looking at a food that offers you risk and no benefits. It is true because the companies and the government have never looked at it. We don't know the exact extent of that risk but we know the risk is there.
What rationale person would ever pick a food if it was labeled? … The GMO offers me no additional benefits, and only additional health risks. What would you choose?
No one is going to choose the GMO version. That's why they don't want labeling."
Another very important aspect of labeling is traceability of health effects. This can literally become a life and death issue. This is yet another reason why the industry is fighting tooth and nail to avoid labeling, because they know that without labeling it's virtually impossible to trace any health effects that may be associated with the GM ingredients. This releases them from liability.
During the Presidential campaign of 2008, Obama put in writing a promise to support mandatory labeling on GMOs.
It's time to hold him to that promise!
I urge you to sign the petition for mandatory labeling, and to share it with everyone you know!
Also, if you don't already have a copy of the Non-GMO Shopping Guide, please print one out and refer to it often. It can help you identify and avoid foods with GMOs. Also remember to look for products (including organic products) that feature the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal to be sure that at-risk ingredients have been tested for GMO content. Many health food stores will carry these products.
You can also download the free iPhone application that is available in the iTunes store. You can find it by searching for ShopNoGMO in the applications.