Q: Who do you think is most impacted by the introduction of GMO crops into our food system?
A: The genetic engineering of plants has created a seed industry with a profoundly different set of goals and priorities than the seed industry up until the mid-1990s. This is without a doubt the biggest impact. Over the last 15 years, the percentage of the total supply of seeds that are genetically engineered has gone from zero to close to 100 percent for many crops in many regions. As a result today, farmers that feel they really haven’t gotten their money’s worth out of their GE seeds or farmers that are tired of dealing with Roundup-resistant weeds, they don’t have an option. GMOs have eliminated the progress and innovation of plant breeding and turned it into a profit center and tool for private corporations to extract more money from farmers.
Q: And how are consumers impacted?
A: I think that it's very likely that genetically engineered corn and possibly genetically engineered soy beans have contributed to the increase in food allergies. This is very difficult to prove and the biotech industry continues to claim that there is no evidence of a single case of food allergies that can be definitively traced to a particular field of GM corn or GM soybeans. And they’re probably right in making that statement. It’s very difficult to trace any human allergy back to the exact thing that triggers it. That doesn't mean though that the rise of GE foods is completely unrelated to the dramatic increase in food allergies. At the same time that GE crops began to win the natural market share, we saw food allergies increase, particularly in children.
There are food- safety and food-quality risks associated with today’s GE crops and the companies that produce these foods have basically received a free pass from the government. Agencies have not required companies to do the rigorous kinds of testing that many people have asked for. It just hasn’t happened, so it's not possible for science to say for sure whether there are adverse impacts from today’s GE foods. We just don't know.
GE alfalfa, more GE corn, what is next?
Q: Some have suggested widespread contamination of organic and traditional crops by GM alfalfa is imminent. What do you think?
A: If the industry made no effort to isolate the production of Roundup Ready seed and all the rest of the seeds, then I could imagine in five to 10 years there would be fairly widespread contamination in most of the seed supply. But the industry has made a strong commitment to try to prevent any cross-pollination between Roundup Ready seed fields and conventional seed fields. They said they are going to abide by a fairly substantial list of practices. I don’t think that those natural practices are going to be perfect and nor does really anybody else, but they are certainly going to prevent unrestricted cross contamination.
Q: What other GE crops may we see? Are GE melons or tomatoes on the horizon?
A: The only major additional GE crop that I can imagine being approved in the next several years is genetically engineered wheat. There is no GE wheat on the market. Wheat is the third major crop in the U.S. after corn and soybeans. While I think there will be a protracted fight over the approval of Roundup Ready wheat, that’s the next one on the table. For genetically engineered apples, lettuce, green beans or melons to happen, forget it.It just won't. The reason is that companies would have to request special government approval for a genetically engineered crop that people eat in raw form. Companies have never been required to test the impacts of consuming genetically engineered foods that contain the GE proteins in their raw forms. They aren't going to want to do that testing because they have every reason to believe that these foods trigger allergies and may well have other adverse health consequences.
Q: How reliable are traceability programs like the Non-GMO Project in ensuring foods are really GMO free?
A: What the Non-GMO project, and even what organic certification, is all about is verification and certification that organic Farmer Jones did not plant a genetically engineered seed. The current system, I think it is extremely reliable in verifying and enforcing that requirement. The Non-GMO Project goes the next step by conducting a scientifically sound and designed testing protocol to assure that not only were the seeds the organic farmer planted organic but also that the seeds, and hence the crop, are not cross contaminated with a GE variety down to a very low threshold. I think both organic certification and the Non-GMO Project are very strong, incredible initiatives to protect the interest of consumers who don’t want to buy GM food.
Charles Benbrook will be joined by Rebecca Spector, West Coast director for The Center for Food Safety, and Mike Movitz, vice president of business development for SPINS, to offer a GMO Update at Natural Products Expo West, Friday, March 11 from 11 a.m. to noon.