It’s not hard to get confused when you hear about genetic modification of foods. You know it’s something dubious, something that’s happening with unsubstantiated outcomes and potentially devastating results. How can your head not spin, considering
- our government supports the use of GMOs, while 30 countries ban or intend to ban them, including many European countries;
- many believe our food may be irrevocably contaminated as a result of GMO use;
- initial crop yields are increased with them, but then down the road they breed super weeds? See report on Failure to Yield.
At NVL we’re not shy about our anti-GMO stance. We don’t like what the science says, the long-term safety studies that haven’t been conducted, or how biotech companies control farmers with GMOs. We support mandatory labeling of GMO products. There are proven methods that work better than GMO technology, support the land and food supply for the long term, and avoid needless potentially serious risks. We’d like these methods to be used instead.
Here you’ll find answers to your and your customers' GMO questions along with resources to join the anti-GMO movement and be as close to GMO-free as possible.
What are GMOs?
To create GMOs, the genetic material of a plant or animal organism is altered to contain specific traits. Currently most GMOs are used in plants on big farms in agribusiness.
The largest GMO crops are soybeans and corn. A whopping 93 percent of US-grown soy is genetically modified. About 63 percent of US corn is GMO. Both corn and soy have been genetically modified to be
- herbicide tolerant—they can withstand certain pesticides sprayed on the crops;
- insect repellent—the corn has been bred with genes of an organism that will kill certain pests but is said to be harmless to humans.
Want to see how much you know about GMOs? Take the quiz.
For more information on GMOs, visit the Center for Food Safety.
Are GMOs Successful?
GMOs were introduced in the early 1990s with big promises. The idea put forward was that certain traits, including increased nutrition, resistance to drought and faster growth, could be bred into crops such as corn and soybeans so that improved produce could be grown in much higher yields.
GMO crops have been with us now for some 20 years, and it is becoming apparent that the reality of GMOs has fallen far short of business model expectations. A report issued in 2009 by the Union of Concerned Scientists entitled Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Cropsfound that GMO technology has not increased yields at all through its entire history, despite the millions that have been spent on GMO development, much of it from government funding.
What are pesticide-resistant GMOs?
One of the most prevalent GMO technologies has successfully bred resistance to pesticides into seeds, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready. When a trait is bred into a crop making it resistant to one particular herbicide, that herbicide can be used with impunity against weeds while not affecting the primary crop. This of course only works when farmers who plant these crops use that specific herbicide.
The vast majority of commodity crops—including corn, soybeans, canola, cotton and now alfalfa—have been bred to resist one best-selling herbicide called glyphosate. Glyphosate is what is known as a broad-spectrum herbicide, meaning it is designed to kill a wide variety of weeds. Glyphosate is the primary active ingredient in the extensively used Roundup herbicide made by Monsanto.
Because of the quantity of GMO crops designed to resist glyphosate, an unnerving amount of this chemical is being employed. “The EPA recently came out with an estimate of glyphosate use,” says Bill Freese, Science Policy Analyst with the Center for Food Safety. “If you include applications like home and garden, commercial, and industrial government in addition to agricultural use, it’s up right around 200 million pounds. It’s probably the most widely used pesticide in history,” according to Freese.
What are the effects of Glyphosate on plant, soil, animal and human biology?
Glyphosate does not function as a normal pesticide might, directly killing the plant with which it comes in contact. Its action is, in fact, far subtler: it acts as a chelating agent, whereby it binds itself to molecules, such as minerals, and holds them tightly, making them unavailable to the plant or weed.
This chelating action actually leads to harm for plants, as it removes important trace minerals, a fact observed by Dr. Robert Kremer, microbiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, who conducted a 15-year study on glyphosate’s effects on plants and root microbiology. “Glyphosate is a chelator, which will bind with elements such as manganese and calcium, and those sorts of nutrients, and immobilize them,” says Kremer. “In other words, it will make them unavailable for plant uptake.”
“Research is beginning to indicate that glyphosate produces some sort of pathogen in living organisms that increases disease,” says Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus at Purdue University, microbiologist and plant pathologist.
“It has been found in animal tissues and in products that would be consumed by humans,” Huber notes. “This organism infects a broad scope of animals already—horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry. To believe that it wouldn’t infect humans would be kind of naive at this point.”
Why Is weed resistance increasing due to GMOs?
When hyping pesticide-resistant GMOs as the great solution to farming, one bit of information was not brought to light: increased use of any pesticide causes resistance in the pests to which it is being applied. This is coming home to roost, with glyphosate-resistant weeds becoming a very serious problem.
“They’re creeping from the East and the South into the Midwest, and people are starting to see them somewhat in the North. Studies out there are already showing that weeds are going to evolve resistance to this and other herbicides too,” warns Bill Freese. “So probably we’ll have weed populations resistant to multiple herbicides—kind of like an arms race between the crops and the weeds. It’s totally unsustainable agriculture, bad for the environment and human health, and it’s where this Roundup Ready model is leading.”
To battle these “superweeds,” the GMO empire has a solution: Create another GMO crop that will resist a different pesticide doused on these new weeds.
Will more GMOs be introduced?
The latest alarming news surrounding GMOs is the impending USDA approval of Dow Chemical’s 2,4-D-resistant corn. 2,4-D is a highly toxic herbicide, and approval of this strain would mean increased 2,4-D use.
It’s a terrible case of irony. 2,4-D-resistant corn is being touted as a solution for farmers who are plagued by superweeds that have grown resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. “We’ve got a whole epidemic of Roundup-resistant weeds due to the widespread planting of Roundup Ready crops and the increase in use of Roundup,” continues Freese. “These 2,4-D crops are being introduced as the supposed solution to Roundup-resistant weeds.
“In Vietnam, 2,4-D was combined with 2,4,5-T to make Agent Orange. Millions of gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed all over Vietnam, causing immense health harm to the Vietnamese and to US soldiers. This is a bad-news herbicide.”
Dow 2,4-D-resistant corn will be used in processed foods consumed by humans, as well as in cattle feed.
“You can see where this leads: first it’s Roundup resistance, then it’s 2,4-D resistance,” Freese says. “I call it a ‘chemical arms race with weeds’—you make crops with more resistances to more different types of herbicides, and then the weeds develop multiple resistances.”
This crop is up for approval with the USDA. “If the past is any guide, the USDA will approve the corn,” predicts Freese. “And we’ve already announced that we’ll challenge any approval in court.”
If 2,4-D is approved, others will follow, according to the New York Times. “The corn is just the first of a new wave of herbicide-tolerant crops. Dow is also developing soybeans and cotton immune to 2,4-D. Close behind, Monsanto is developing soybeans, cotton and corn that can tolerate dicamba, another old herbicide in the same family as 2,4-D. Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont are developing crops resistant to other herbicides too,” reports the New York Times.
To find out more about the latest 2,4-D developments, including ways to protest its use, become a member at Save our Crops.
What health risks are associated with GMOs?
The FDA has not required that GMOs be tested for adverse health effects, but there are individuals and laboratories that have proceeded with testing anyway. Plentiful results can be found on the Institute for Responsible Technology website.
Adverse health effects associated with GMOs include allergies, infertility, liver damage, abnormal development of organs, immune cell disturbances, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and on and on.
But the FDA has never required testing on humans, so there is a dearth of long-term human studies.
“The only human feeding study ever published showed that genes can transfer from genetically modified crops into the gut bacteria and continue to function,” says Jeffrey Smith, GMO expert, activist and author of Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating. “This means that long after we’ve stopped eating GMOs, we may still have genetically modified proteins produced continually inside us. This was done using soybeans that were Roundup Ready [made resistant to Monsanto Roundup pesticides]; the folks in the study had Roundup Ready gut bacteria.
“Elsewhere, thousands of farm workers in India are getting allergic and flu-like symptoms from just touching cotton that has had Bt [a naturally occurring soil bacteria that’s been genetically introduced into several crops] modified into it. When they allow animals to graze on the cotton plants after harvest, thousands die. And unfortunately the corn that we eat is genetically engineered to produce this same toxin,” says Smith.
The dangers for children, however, are the most worrisome. “Children are most at risk for the potential dangers,” Smith points out. “A young and fast-growing body will treat the food differently than an adult body; it’ll incorporate the food into the organs and into the body, as opposed to just using food for fuel.”
How are GMOs labeled?
Almost 50 European and developing countries around the globe require GMOs to be labeled. But not the United States; the FDA simply doesn’t call for products containing GMOs to be labeled. Taking the opposite approach, the Non-GMO Project, lets consumers know which products don’t contain GMOs. (The FDA is currently mulling over petitions from consumers and legislators demanding GMO labeling. If you haven’t yet done so, add your name. www.justlabelit.org)
The Non-GMO Project offers a verification seal that indicates the product bearing the seal has gone through its lengthy verification process to ensure the product has been produced according to consensus-based best practices for GMO avoidance.
“We basically decided that if our government isn’t going to require mandatory labeling, we can at least label the foods that are produced without GMOs and give consumers an informed choice,” says Megan Westgate, executive director of the organization.
“We have a team of technical consultants who work with our participating companies,” Westgate explains. “We start with a full ingredient audit and, if they have high-risk products, an on-site inspection. We require for any high-risk ingredient going into a product—anything that’s derived from corn, soy, cotton, canola, and so on—that there is ongoing testing in place.”
To read the inspiring story about how this unique organization came to be, visit Organic Connections.
What about the “Feed the World” GMO argument?
GMO advocates use rising global population to justify the technology.
Consider this from Monsanto’s website:
To meet the demand of population growth and dietary shifts, farmers must produce more food in the next few decades than they have in the past 10,000 years combined. How will yield double? A combination of advanced plant breeding, biotechnology and improved farm-management practices.
The justification that we need GMO technology to feed the world is inaccurate though. At this moment there is enough food to feed everyone on the planet, but inequitable distribution of wealth and political disputes prevent equal access to the food.
Additionally, anti-GMO advocates believe the risks involved with biotechnology greatly outweigh any alleged benefits—benefits that are very short term, considering the pesticide-resistant weed crisis we are already experiencing. Furthermore, they argue, the methods for high-yield, nutrient-dense farming already exist.
“The real underlying issue is that we don’t even need this technology,” Dr. Arden Andersen, agriculture and soil consultant, concludes. “We already have the wherewithal, the science, the technology and the products to solve every problem that has been proposed to need genetic engineering technology. So when you think about it, if we already have the technology to solve all of those problems, why do certain people want to pursue genetic engineering? It is certainly not from a need perspective; it’s not from a science perspective—it’s strictly for want of monopolization and greed. That’s it.”
Listed below are some of the alternatives to GMOs:
- Remineralization of soil and the use of biological farming methods in order to produce nutrient-dense and pest-resistant crops organically (www.bionutrient.org).
- Natural breeding with the thousands of variations of plants that already exist to grow strong, adaptive plants.
- Organic farming practices that use crop rotation. A 2008 United Nations report found that when these methods were used in 114 farms in 24 African nations, yields increased by more then 100 percent.
- No-till farming methods that protect the soil from erosion and result in more nutrient-dense soil.
How can your customers shop GMO-Free?
So how do your customers know what products contain GMOs at your local grocery store? Well, since the FDA doesn’t require the labeling of foods that contain GMOs, it takes some detective work.
You can follow the example of natural products that retailers are taking the matter into their own hands—such as Mile High Organics of Colorado, who have gone all out to ensure that the products they sell are 100 percent GMO-free.
“I don’t believe that consumers should be deceived,” Michael Joseph, founder and CEO of Mile High Organics, says. “I don’t consider that the US government is doing a good job of protecting its citizenry, and some retailers are starting to step up and have done very well at educating their consumers. We really have found a strong and loyal consumer base that believes exactly the same thing, and people have thanked us. I’ve had people tell me that they think I’m essentially doing work that should be done by the government.”
When stocking your store, look for the Non-GMO Project seal. A third-party verified seal means that a product has been produced according to rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance, including testing of risk ingredients. The Non-GMO Project also offers a searchable database of non-GMO products on its website.
This iPhone app, shopnogmo, is a great in-store resource for filling your cart with non-GMO items.
Certified organic foods are required to be non-GMO. In the absence of government-required GMO labels, certified organic products are a good non-GMO guideline. Non-GMO Project labels give even more assurance, as the product has been specifically tested to confirm no GMOs.
The Institute for Responsible Technology offers a phone app for non-GMO shopping and other non-GMO shopping resources.
Corn is present in most processed foods, so avoid these unless certified organic and non-GMO.
Download the Center for Food Safety’s NEW True Food Shopper’s Guide to avoiding GE foods.http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/campaign/genetically-engineered-food/crops/other-resources/
What Can I Do?
There is good news when it comes to the GMO issue, and that is how many people are concerned about it and are working to stop it. Much of the effort is being placed into GMO labeling.
The Just Label It campaign commissioned a top-ranked polling company to survey 1,000 American voters on their opinions about the labeling of GMO foods. Pollster Mark Mellman explains: “Few topics other than motherhood and apple pie can muster over 90 percent support, but labeling GE foods is one of those few views held almost unanimously.” The survey found nearly all Democrats (93% favor, 2% oppose), Independents (90% favor, 5% oppose) and Republicans (89% favor, 5% oppose) in favor of labeling. The study also revealed that support for labeling is robust and arguments against it have little sway.” For the survey findings, visit www.justlabelit.org.
One of the first things you can do to fight GMOs is sign the Just Label It petition. The organization has already sent a petition with one million signatures to Congress demanding GMO labeling. Add your name to the list. www.justlabelit.org
- Shop GMO-free.
- Attend anti-GMO rallies in your area.
- Participate in Non-GMO month.
- Find out retailers that support Non-GMO options.
- Take the Non-GMO Challenge.
- Host a showing of The World According to Monsanto to educate friends and neighbors about GMOs.
- Join the Tipping Point Network, which helps people work within their communities to spread the word about GMOs.
- 10 ways to clean GMOs out of your house
- And if you’re feeling really gung-ho and want to help spread the word about GMOs, you can print these GMO Warning stickers and apply them surreptitiously to products at your local store.
- If you doubt the power of one, look what happened when one store retailer took action.