By Analiese Paik
Visit any grocery store and you’ll find the meat case packed with cuts from our nation’s four biggest beef producers: Cargill Beef, JBS SA (US subsidiary owns Swift and Smithfield Beef), National Beef Packing, and Tyson. Read the package labels carefully and try to find any mention that the steer were raised in confinement on factory farms, fed a diet of genetically-modified (GM) corn and soy to fatten them up quickly and cheaply, then routinely supplemented with antibiotics and growth hormones to kick the meat-making machine into high gear. You won’t find anything. Factory meat production is Big Business and it’s not in their best interest to tell you what’s in your food.
Nowhere is obfuscation of facts more troubling than with genetically modified foods (GMOs). In the early 1990s large, multinational biotechnology companies including Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Bayer, and Syngenta began producing and selling seeds whose DNA they had engineered to either resist herbicides or produce pesticides to protect that plant from viruses and insects. Classified as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), these seeds contain portions of DNA from another organism that was inserted into their genetic material in a lab to confer the desired traits. In the case of transgenic GMOs, the inserted DNA was derived from another species, and not always from the plant kingdom.
Processed foods sold in the US commonly contain ingredients made from the “Big Four” GM crops: soybeans, corn, canola and cottonseed, yet they carry no labels declaring “contains GMOs.” The bottle of canola oil innocently sitting in your pantry is likely GM, since eighty percent of the canola grown in the US is genetically modified. “It’s being carefully hidden” explains Bill Duesing, an organic farmer and Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of CT ( CT NOFA). “The US food industry will do anything they can to make this stuff seems the same.”
GE seeds are unique enough to be patented as intellectual property (they meet the “usefulness” requirements of patent law), yet were likewise granted generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status in 1992 by the FDA after being deemed “substantially equivalent” to their non-GMO counterparts. GMOs considered GRAS require no long-term, independent animal, human and environmental studies to determine their safety. Wait. We’re eating plants that can produce their own pesticides and contain DNA from other species that was forced into their genetic makeup, yet they’re not being tested and require no labeling? This is a real head-scratcher. Jeffrey Smith, Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, and an internationally recognized expert and author of two books on the health dangers of GMOs, Genetic Roulette and Seeds of Deception, weighed in on the topic. “It’s Monsanto’s unprecedented influence on this and previous administrations. It’s hard to know where they end and the government begins. The entire foundation of this technology is based on rhetoric, manipulation, and lies.”
“The number of crossover people from Monsanto to the FDA is phenomenal” adds Duesing. “It’s a revolving door.” The documentary film, The World According to Monsanto, spotlights a few individuals who swung back and forth through the now-famous revolving door between Monsanto, the FDA and the USDA. Perhaps the most salient example is that of Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto attorney appointed by President Obama as Senior Advisor to the Commissioner of the FDA in 2009. Outrage over his appointment from critics of genetically engineered food centered on Taylor’s service between 1991 and 1994 as the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Policy, a time when the agency eschewed unnecessary regulation and drafted biotech industry-friendly policies despite warnings by some of its own scientists.
There is growing concern among scientists, watchdog groups, members of the organic agriculture community, and consumers that GMOs pose threats to humans, animals and the environment. Jeffrey Smith said “claims that GM crops will feed the world are not based on reality. They decrease yields and increase the use of agricultural chemicals.” Duesing shares his views. “Genetic engineering is giving pollution a life of its own. It’s a food system that’s built around agricultural chemicals and herbicides designed to kill all green plants, except the GM plant.”
Adding to the unease is the industry’s less-than-stellar track record on environmental stewardship. “These biotech companies have a history of creating long-lived pollutants that damage the environment and then we have to control it” Duesing pointed out. “We can’t eat fish from the Hudson, Housatonic or Quinnipiac Rivers because they’re contaminated with Monsanto’s PCBs dumped in there by GE.”
One instance of cross-contamination vividly illustrates the potential threats GMOs pose to human health. “StarLink [a GM corn approved for animal use only, but which accidentally contaminated human food in 1990 and sickened at least 35] may be part of the collective genome forever and there’s a high probability that it’s an allergen.” recalls Jeffrey Smith. “What we have now is really dangerous technology.”
Jeffrey Smith’s claims are the product of years spent traveling the globe to research and immerse himself in the world of biotech foods. Smith visited Fairfield, CT in April as part of his 2011 lecture tour designed to inform citizens about the dangers of GMOs and teach strategies to identify and avoid them at points of sale. Buying organic and choosing processed foods carrying the Non-GMO Verified seal are among the helpful options outlined in his free publication, The Non-GMO Shopping Guide. Smith’s Campaign for Healthier Eating in America is designed to “end the genetic engineering of our food supply quickly” through consumer rejection rather than through “politics and government.” Buoyed by Europe’s tipping point of consumer rejection of GMOs in 1999, and the US rejection of artificial bovine growth hormone (rbGH) in 2005, Smith is confident that food companies will respond to GMO rejection by a mere five percent of US consumers. “Manufacturers won’t wait for a substantial drop in market share. They won’t lose customers by eliminating GM ingredients either.”
Due to growing concern about the safety of GMOs, lawmakers in 14 states, including Connecticut, have introduced legislation that would mandate, in some form, the labeling of genetically modified foods. Jeffrey Smith explains that “labeling exists in most developed countries with varying levels of thoroughness and enforceability. Europe is the most thorough and .9% is the threshold for labeling.” Duesing believes that it will help if foods containing GM ingredients are labeled, and will be one of the things that drives change, but isn’t convinced it’s the only or best answer. “Energy and the environment would be more important. I’ve been working 30 years to try to influence consumers.”
State Representative Richard Roy (D-Milford), House Chairman of the Environment Committee, recently introduced an amendment requiring products containing GMOs to be labeled in the state of Connecticut. Roy is clearly well-educated on the topic of GMOs and takes a refreshingly consumer-oriented approach to mandatory labeling. “The producers of GMO foods gush their support for what they say is a superior product. If the product is as good and safe as they claim, they should be happy to promote the product” explains Roy. “Instead, they refuse to tell the consumer that a product contains GMOs. What are they hiding?”
Representative Roy attended Jeffrey Smith’s lecture in Fairfield this past April, and briefly shared with the audience his position on GMO labeling and track record of getting difficult legislation passed. “I’m the guy that got the [hands-free] cell phone law passed after a seven-year battle and the pesticides off school grounds.” Undeterred by the GMO labeling amendment’s removal in early May by the General Law Committee, Roy optimistically pointed out that “it can be called again as a proposed amendment on another bill. Support is a growing from a number of legislators, along with environmental groups, especially those involved in toxics legislation and healthy living habits.”