By Dr. Mercola
The GMO food labeling movement has gained momentum over the past several years, passing labeling laws in three states. America's awareness of the risks of genetically engineered (GE) foods and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to their health and the environment continues to expand.
The Future of Food is not a new film, but still does an excellent job of covering contemporary issues that continue to threaten your health, including genetic engineering, gene patenting, and the corporatization of the food supply.
The film has received multiple awards, including Best Documentary at the deadCENTER Film Festival in 2004, as well as an Oscar nomination for the same.1 Of special importance to me, it was the movie that catalyzed my interest in the GMO problem and after watching it, I committed to doing everything I could to stop this danger.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Deborah Garcia about her new film Symphony of the Soil when I was lecturing in Santa Rosa California at the Heirloom Seed Conference.
The US has no laws requiring the labeling of GE foods, yet polls consistently show that the overwhelming majority of Americans—over 90 percent in most polls—believe these foods should be labeled. Sixty-four countries already require the labeling of GE foods, including European Union states, Japan, and China.2
More than 80 percent of all processed foods sold in the US now contain GE ingredients. With elections around the corner and labeling initiatives making the ballot in two states, it's important to know what's at stake.
As GE Labeling Initiatives Grow, Industry's War Against Labeling Rages On
Genetically engineered food labeling laws have passed in Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine, and more than 20 other states are presently considering them. California and Washington saw very narrow losses in 2012 and 2013, by three percent and one percent, respectively.3
GE labeling initiatives will be on this November's ballot in Oregon and Colorado. It's just a matter of time before the scales really begin tipping in our favor. But industry won't give up without a fight.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association of America (GMA), whom I recently named "the most evil corporation on the planet," is suing Vermont in an effort to overturn their recently passed labeling law.
GMA is also pushing a Congressional bill, the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014, dubbed the "DARK" (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act, which would bar states from passing GE labeling laws altogether.
Industry's latest tactic is launching a coordinated attack against Vandana Shiva, one of the world's most vocal and well-respected environmentalists and anti-GE activists.
Oregonians are more determined than ever, with this year's initiative being their second attempt to pass a labeling measure—their first back in 2002. Measure 27 failed (20 percent to 80 percent).
This was due to the pressure of a massive smear campaign promulgated by industry groups like DuPont, General Mills, and of course GMA. Reflecting upon the past decade, we've gone from losing by 80 percent 12 years ago to losing by just one percent last year—so the tides are definitely turning.
Nevertheless, industry will continue its war on labeling at any cost—there seems to be no limit to the lies money can buy. Between 2012 and mid-2014, Monsanto and GMA successfully blocked GE labeling legislation in more than 30 states, with a price tag exceeding $100 million.
'The Largest Biological Experiment Humanity Has Ever Seen'
With genetic engineering, in order for a gene to be inserted into a cell, you need something good at invading cells, which is why bacteria and viruses are typically used to "smuggle" desirable DNA from one organism into another... a complicated and unpredictable process.
What could possible go wrong? Well, any number of things—take suicide genes, for example. "Suicide genes" are inserted into the DNA of GE plants in order to prevent their seeds from being viable for future use. This forces a farmer to purchase seeds from the seed company every season.
Imagine the ramifications on our food supply if these suicide genes were to transfer to other seeds around the world, where farmers collect their seed for next year's crops, or raise rare heirloom varieties.
Another issue is the insertion of antibiotic marker genes, which is concerning due to its potential for worsening the widespread problem of antibiotic resistance. And then there is the issue of viral DNA appearing in unexpected places. The European Food Safety Authority discovered a hidden viral gene in 54 of 84 commercially approved GE crops. Plant pathologists spoke out about the potential dangers of this viral gene fragment, stating it may confer "significant potential for harm," and called for a total recall of affected crops.
Plants expressing the viral gene fragment exhibit gene expression abnormalities, which indicates that the protein produced by the gene functions as a toxin. The known targets of its activity are also found in human cells, so there is potential for this plant toxin to produce toxic effects in humans. These are just three possible consequences of genetically manipulating our food supply—but there are many more frightening scenarios that are less than far-fetched. A single gene can express or influence a variety of traits. According to Dr. Ignacio Chapela, Microbial Ecologist, University of California Berkeley:
"As we move on into the biotech revolution and we're producing more and more transgenic manipulations, we will start seeing pieces of DNA interacting with each other in ways that are totally unpredictable. This is probably the largest biological experiment humanity has ever entered into."
Today's Food System Kills Bees, Decimates Soil, and Squelches Diversity
Genetic engineering has created a food system rooted in monoculture and heavy agrichemical use, such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Ten thousand agricultural chemicals have been registered for use. More than 1.1 billion pounds of toxic pesticides, including glyphosate and atrazine, are used annually, costing $25 billion.
While nearly one billion pounds of glyphosate is doused on both conventional and GE crops worldwide each year, GE crops receive the heaviest amounts. The majority ends up in our soil and waterways, destroying soil's beneficial organisms while allowing pathogens to flourish. These toxic agricultural chemicals are also killing off our bees and butterflies.
In addition to decimating soils, industrialized agriculture wastes energy, water, and other precious natural resources, as well as trapping farmers in a vicious cycle of using more and more chemicals. For example, those planting Monsanto's Bt corn incur severe damage from the resistant corn rootworm, so they are forced to apply increasing amounts of pesticide to try and rescue their failing Bt crops. Furthermore, GE crops and monoculture result in "erosion of diversity."
When you insert one single genotype that preferentially passes its genes to the progeny, it crowds out genetic diversity, and in the long-term this presents a serious threat to the food supply. Genetic uniformity increases vulnerability to pests and disease.4 This is why dozens of countries have banned GE crops. Ninety-seven percent of vegetable varieties grown at the beginning of the 20th Century are now extinct.
Glyphosate Linked to Birth Defects and Hormone-Dependent Cancers
Residues of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's popular herbicide Roundup, are found in most commonly consumed foods in the Western diet, courtesy of GE sugar, corn, and soy, as well as conventionally-grown desiccated wheat. Atrazine and nitrates form a deadly combination, as nitrates shut off your body's defenses against these chemicals. Research suggests glyphosate may "enhance the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and toxins in the environment to disrupt normal body functions (including gut bacteria) and promote disease." Glyphosate also appears to stimulate hormone-dependent cancers even at extremely low concentrations.
Studies show that even tiny exposures to common agricultural chemicals can induce abortions and resorption of fetuses in pregnant women. In fact, the greatest effects appear to be from the lowest doses. Very small exposures can alter developmental trajectories, resulting in birth defects, irregularities in genitalia, and learning impairments. Babies conceived during the months of highest lawn chemical use are known to have greater risks for these birth defects and developmental abnormalities. When children are overexposed to glyphosate, especially through consumption of GE foods, their likelihood of having an adverse vaccine reaction also increases.
Monsanto Attacks Farmers for Patent Infringement
For 200 years, the patenting of life was prohibited, especially with respect to foods. But all of that changed in 1978 with the first patent of a living organism, an oil-eating microbe, which opened the proverbial floodgates. Patenting of life forms was never approved by Congress or the American public. But as far the GE industry is concerned, they own a gene, wherever it ends up. According to OCA, as of August 2013, Monsanto owned 1,676 seed, plant, and other similar patents.5
Unlike GE drugs that are produced under controlled conditions in secured labs, once GE plants are released into the environment, they cannot be controlled. Uncontrolled spreading of GE seed is commonplace. This benefits only the patent holder—which raises the question, "Was this their plan all along?"
Monsanto has been suing farmers for patent infringement if GE plants are found in their fields, regardless of how they got there. Sometimes canola seeds blow off trucks into nearby fields or pollen is transported by the wind. Monsanto claims to own any plant that bears its patented genes, which is devastating to small farmers. It doesn't help that there are thousands of secret GE crop test sites across the US... you could be living right next to one and not even know it.6 Monsanto has filed over 140 lawsuits against farmers for intentionally planting its seeds without paying royalties, and settled another 700 cases. Most farmers agree to pay a fine in order to avoid a costly lawsuit.
In 2014, the US Supreme Court struck down a case that would have protected farmers if their fields became inadvertently contaminated with patented seeds, giving Monsanto the legal rights to continue suing farmers for patent infringement.7, 8 Making farmers responsible for Monsanto's genes is like having your neighbor hold YOU responsible for erecting a fence to keep HIS dog out of your yard. Unfortunately, there is no fence high enough to keep GE seeds out of neighboring land.
The Revolving Door Between Government and Industry
The genetic engineering of our food system is proceeding essentially unregulated, despite the fact that three federal agencies are responsible for the safety of genetically engineered foods.
- The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for assessing the environmental impacts of GE crops and regulating GE crop field testing. However, in a study of more than 8,000 field test applications, not a single environmental assessment was required by USDA. In fact, new USDA rules actually cut the time in half that it takes GE seed developers to go through a regulatory review.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates insecticides. Bt insecticide is engineered into every cell of Bt crops. EPA approved an exemption for residue tolerance levels for Bt toxin in GE soy foods and animal feed, so that Monsanto and other pesticide companies can incorporate as much as they want. The agency also recently raised allowable levels of glyphosate in food by significant amounts.9, 10 Allowable levels in oilseed crops such as soy were doubled, from 20 ppm to 40 ppm just last summer. It also raised the levels of permissible glyphosate contamination in other foods—many of which were raised to 15-25 times previous levels.
- US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for food safety. Every novel substance in food must be tested. However, GE foods (such as soy lecithin and corn syrup) were granted "GRAS status" (generally regarded as safe) using the argument of "substantially equivalent"— which exempts them from testing or labeling. This was done through a former VP of Monsanto Michael Taylor, who was deputy commissioner of the FDA in the early 90s. Despite many studies in the last 20 years disproving the substantially equivalent claim, the FDA has failed to reverse its decision.
How does the government get away with this? It's fairly simple. It fills its regulatory positions with corporate shills—there's a revolving door for people with industry ties, such as Michael Taylor, Linda Fisher, Donald Rumsfeld, and others. Monsanto has deep roots in Washington, DC. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft received Monsanto's largest contribution to any political candidate in the 2000 election, toward his campaign for senate re-election. Corporate interests explain why the government continues to look the other way.
Subsidizing the Junk Food Industry
While the agrichemical industry rakes in record profits from GE seeds, farmers lose money growing them and can't stay in business without government subsidies. As of the time of this film (2004), the farmer's cost for growing one bushel of GE corn or soy was $3.20, and their return was about $2.20. Obviously, farmers were unable to stay in business with this sort of margin, so agricultural subsidies were created. When wealthy countries subsidize crops, there are global repercussions—the markets of developing countries are undercut, making subsistence farming virtually impossible.
Subsidies support only the most widely grown industrial crops—corn, wheat, and soybeans—ergo, those that go directly to the processed food industry. Far from providing us with nutrition, US agricultural subsidies contribute to the declining health of Americans and fuel the obesity epidemic. It's complete idiocy... junk food is subsidized in one department, while another department across the hall funds an anti-obesity campaign.
Over the past 15 years, taxpayers have paid corn farmers more than $77 billion in subsidies, and more than 75 percent of the funds are paid to a mere 10 percent of America's farmers. Farm subsidies are no longer based on need. Mega-farms receive an annual fixed cash payment based on their acreage, whether they need them or not. Large corporate farms receive the majority of farm subsidies while small farmers receive little to none. You subsidize the junk food industry with your taxes, whether you consume their products or not. As farm subsidies are already in the federal budget, a better approach might be to reallocate them in a way that provides incentives to farmers who grow healthy crops using sustainable farming methods.
A Three-Step Self-Help Plan to Avoid Genetically Engineered Foods
On a brighter note, consumer spending trends reflect America's growing awareness about the shortfalls of the industrial food system. Consider America's growing hunger for organic foods:11, 12
- In 1990, Americans spent one billion dollars on organic foods
- In 2003, they spent $13 billion
- In 2009, they spent $24.8 billion
- In 2013, they spent $35.1 billion
- A recent report showed that 65 percent of consumers prefer foods with organic ingredients
In a recent interview, research scientist and internationally recognized sustainability expert Dr. Elaine Ingham suggested the following three-step plan to help you avoid GE foods:
- Choose local organic food. This is a must if you want to stop supporting the likes of Monsanto with your hard-earned dollars. Genetically engineered seeds and materials are not allowed in organic farming and food production, so at present it's the only way to ensure you're not accidentally buying something with GE ingredients. Beware that the terms "natural" or "all-natural" on a label has absolutely NO meaning when it comes to GE ingredients—the natural label is in no way interchangeable with the certified organic label.
- Improve the soil in your garden and grow your own vegetables. This is my new passion. Please refer to my interview with Paul Gautschi to learn simple strategies you can use to make your home or local garden thrive.
- Support GMO labeling campaigns. With elections quickly approaching, this is the time to get the word out to your friends and family about the importance of passing labeling laws. Forward this article as widely as you can to increase awareness about this important issue.