Michael Hansen, PhD, has been following the GMO scene since the 1980s—before there actually were GMO crops. He is a Senior Staff Scientist with Consumers Union, the policy and action division of Consumer Reports, and through that group he has for over twenty years tightly focused on the evolving science of genetic engineering of foods, its politics and labeling. He has testified at hearings in Washington, DC, in several states and in Canada, and has prepared comments on many proposed US governmental rules and regulations concerning food safety issues.
Hansen’s long experience brings considerable insight into the GMO battle, and sheds quite a bit of light on why the US has been so woefully behind the rest of the world, in which some thirty nations have banned GMOs or at the least have enacted mandatory labeling. He also sees us now at a tipping point—at which industrial agriculture’s long-term influence is considerably weakening.
In the beginning
“When I first came to Consumers Union back in 1985, I knew that genetic engineering was going to be an issue,” Hansen told Organic Connections. “It took quite a while to get Consumers Union interested. I guess in the US the first big thing we did here at Consumers Union would have been in 1989 or 1990, when we published a little book called Biotech: Benefit or Threat? It was about recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) and the issues it was raising, which had to do with, besides health impacts on the cow, the potential health impacts of drinking milk from cows that had been treated with rBGH.”
One motivation for Hansen’s concern over genetic modification at the time was the opinions of some very leading scientific minds. “Nobel Prize winner George Wald was very concerned about this in the late seventies and early eighties,” Hansen continued. “Erwin Chargaff, one of the giants of biochemistry, also expressed concern; and in Penang, Malaysia, there was a meeting in 1985 that was in fact getting the scientists to talk about potential concerns with this new technology of genetic engineering. This was way before there were even any crops on the market.
“Author Pat Mooney was concerned, not only about seed patenting, but in the late seventies and early eighties he was predicting that this technology would be used for designing plants that would require a company’s proprietary chemicals—plants designed to be used with pesticides. I and several others did a paper around the same time, quoting him; and one of the reviewers of that paper actually recommended that our paper not be published if it continued to contain a reference to Pat Mooney’s work, since his claims, they said, were so over the top and wrong it would be crazy to refer to them.”
Mooney’s predictions turned out to be 100 percent correct. “We now know that if you look globally, 85 percent of the global acreage in transgenic [genetically modified] crops has been bred for herbicide tolerance,” Hansen said. “In the United States it is 93 or 94 percent of the soybeans, 90 percent of canola, and 95 percent of sugar beets. In corn we have 88 percent genetically modified, and 40–50 percent of that has the herbicide tolerant trait in it. A large percentage of GE cotton is herbicide tolerant as well.”
Attempted preventive actions
At the time, Hansen and a few others tried to prevent these predictions from coming to pass. “Some of us said, ‘Look, there’s this new technology coming down the pike at us: biotechnology—genetic engineering,’” Hansen related. “‘Maybe we can get some regulations in place so that thirty years from now we’re not dealing with having to clean up all of these messes.’ But that ran kind of counter to the way grassroots movements normally work. If you look at most of the environmental movements in the twentieth century, they’ve all been about cleaning things up after the fact. We couldn’t get any traction or action at the grassroots level because it’s hard to tell people about things that might happen when you don’t have anything in reality to point to.”
While GMOs are getting a lot of attention in the US currently—and much of that in the organic and natural food space—this is only after a significant portion of our food supply is either GMO or GMO linked. Hansen explains this late reaction as culture related.
“There has been attention on genetic engineering from time to time in the US media,” Hansen remarked, “but nothing as sustained as in other countries. I think that’s in part because people in the US up until more recently haven’t cared as much about the food they eat and how it’s grown, compared to Europe and elsewhere. In Europe twenty or thirty years ago, food was important; for example, you could be in a small town in Italy and the food you would get would be fresh and tasty. Here in the United States twenty or thirty years ago, people would eat a tomato and it didn’t matter if it was one of those mechanically harvested ones that are like golf balls and have virtually no flavor. Over in Europe people wouldn’t buy that kind of stuff.
I can remember thirty years ago trying to get interest in agri-ecology and similar issues, and the mainstream people looked at me as if I were crazy. People were busy eating hot dogs and all these other things.”
It’s just good business
Meantime, while the public was in the dark, genetic engineering of foods became the darling of the investment community. “A lot of industrial monoculture is based in short-term economics,” said Hansen. “Supposing you had a system that was sustainable, had slightly lower yield but could replace itself for a thousand years; since in economics we discount future gains, if you could make a higher profit and destroy that system within fifteen years, the economic logic might tell you to actually do that.”
There was an additional, less obvious factor that made industrial agriculture appear more attractive in the US than it really was. “Another part of the problem in the US as to why industrial ag has worked so well is because of an action of geography,” Hansen explained. “We had some of the best soils in the world—topsoils that were two to three feet deep. No other place in the world had soils like we had in our Midwest, so we were able to do all this industrial farming and it looked incredible. Over the years we’ve been losing that topsoil.”
But while the powers that be have managed to keep the GE economic ball rolling in the US, the international community has taken quite a different tack. “The US has tried to convince the rest of the world of the viewpoint that ‘there is no difference between GE and traditionally grown crops,’ and the world has not agreed,” Hansen said. “Codex Alimentarius is the global-food-standard-setting organization of the United Nations. There was an eighteen-year fight at the Codex committee on food labeling, and we finally got a document in 2011 on labeling of GE foods: there is now global agreement that genetic engineering is different from conventional breeding. They said there should be testing of GE foods, and they even laid out what some of the tests should look like.”
Codex recommendations are voluntary—meaning a nation can adhere to them or not if they so choose. But nations can refuse to buy goods from a country (such as the US) that are genetically engineered; and because of the written Codex recommendations, the World Trade Organization—the UN body that deals with global rules of fair trade—will stand behind such refusals. In short, the US “official stance” on GMOs is causing it to be squeezed into an international trade corner.
Additionally, an international agricultural panel has drawn similar conclusions. “There was an international panel called the IAASTD—International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development—a global meeting of four hundred scientists. Their document came out in 2009 and it basically said, “The answer for agriculture isn’t high tech, it isn’t genetic engineering, it’s not monoculture, it’s not nanotechnology; it’s a focus on agri-ecological approaches, looking at diversity, things on local scales.’ What’s interesting is the US and some of its allies in the industry walked away from this document toward the end because they didn’t like what it was saying.”
Changing public consciousness
Another major backlash against genetic engineering is coming from the public itself—thanks to rising consciousness. “Compared to ten or twenty years ago, people are paying a lot more attention to where their food comes from,” Hansen observed. “There’s a lot more concern as to what’s in our food, and it’s in that climate that you’ve seen both this move toward labeling and a backlash against GE.
“Eco-labels have exploded; farmers’ markets are everywhere. If you look at the state of agriculture, the economic problems are with the midsized farms growing genetically engineered crops. Folks doing organic and the small-scale farms doing fruits and vegetables are not at a loss; they’re making money. In fact the demand for fresh foods has outstripped the supply.
“Right here in New York City we now see all these farmers’ markets, even in the South Bronx, even in poor neighborhoods. They’ve managed to work it so that food assistance programs for the underprivileged, such as WIC and SNAP, are today being accepted at farmers’ markets. I think that’s a good thing.”
As with food consumption trends, the public outcry for labeling has also changed dramatically in recent years. “There’s an enormous difference compared to ten or fifteen years ago, or even five years ago,” Hansen pointed out. “The labeling bills of the various states have been there for at least ten years. None of them have ever been able to move significantly—but this year they have. Those bills could never go anywhere in the past and they’re going somewhere now.”
Many experts agree that general public awareness on the labeling issue began with the publicity surrounding California’s Proposition 37 GMO Labeling Initiative in 2012. “That clearly did fire folks up, because even though they lost, they came awfully close, in spite of being outspent almost five to one,” Hansen said. “The ironic thing is that when surveys were done of the people who voted no, it turns out 20 percent of them did so because they didn’t think it was strong enough—but they wanted more things to be labeled.”
On the heels of the California initiative have come similar measures from other states. “We’ve seen the law pass and then get signed in Connecticut,” Hansen reported. “The law has been passed in Maine, although it’s not going to be signed until January; but even if the governor doesn’t sign it in January, there were enough House and Senate votes to override his veto. Then in Vermont it has already passed the House and it goes to the Senate in January. If any of these states gets close to passing a bill that would then go into effect, I think what you’ll see is a move toward the federal level; you’ll see people come together to get national legislation.”
Big agriculture with its GMO mandate is now finally being beaten back. “The industry sees this and they’re starting to freak out,” Hansen concluded. “They can’t control things like they used to be able to. I even notice a difference when I go to all the hearings—that industry is not getting the kind of deference they used to get.”
For genetic modification, the tipping point has definitely arrived.
For more information on Consumers Union, please visit www.consumersunion.org.