Mar 13

Shut up and eat your GMOs

It’s with a fair amount of disappointment (disbelief?) that I read Bruce Ramsey’s article about Initiative 522 (Washington’s GMO labeling proposition) in the Seattle Times.

My belief, after reading this piece, is that Mr. Ramsey should generally refrain from writing when his familiarity with the topic at hand leads him to include the disclaimer “I am a novice”, as he did with the statement early in this article, “I am a novice on genetically modified organisms”.

There are three modalities of belief in the GMO (genetically modified organism) debate – or in any discussion of where our food comes from). Heck, it really applies to almost any topical debate.

  1. Apathy (no real concern one way or another – perhaps no familiarity to base an opinion on)
  2. Agreement (tolerance or fanaticism for the practice)
  3. Antipathy (some disagreement or more with the practice)

In my experience, when it comes to their food, Americans generally seem to fall contentedly into the category of apathy. Happy to ignore the complexities of where their food comes from, most Americans ignore the ugly underbelly of our industrialized food system until the evening news enlightens them to a new E. coli outbreak in antibiotic-laden, undercooked beef from a CAFO, or they latch on to a buzzword used by reporters like pink slime or “meat glue”. They happily go along with the ethos that, “Everything is okay until it’s not okay.” But when that concern passes, most turn back to their bread and circuses, and spend more energy focused on reality shows than what’s in the food their family is eating.

Mr. Ramsey’s piece clearly puts him in the “agreement” camp that GMOs are acceptable because, as he states, “People are trying to make an economic case in a matter that is mostly about belief.” and that they don’t need labels “…if it makes no difference to people’s health?” But it boggles my mind that Mr. Ramsey elected to prognosticate about the need to label GMOs – one way or the other – when he clearly has no background on the topic, or why labeling efforts ever came to be. Instead, he simply dismisses the debate about GMOs as if it were a figment of the imagination of those behind 522 – just ignorance on their part, or even moreso, some evil conspiracy by “Big Organic” to foist its way of life upon the rest of the world. I don’t get where this idea can even begin to come from.

My own belief, based upon years of trying to understand the complexities of our food system, and trying to not turn a blind eye to the unpleasantness of it all, is that all of us in the US are being deceived about whether GMOs are or are not harmless – we are told “it’s fine” – but the people telling us that are the people making the GMO seed, and the profits as a result. There was no opportunity to question at the inception, and even as we face the impending likely approval of a GMO salmon, even with a huge public outcry, it appears that business may win out over unknowable, unanswerable questions about long-term health effects or environmental detriment from this fish being approved.

I’m clearly in the disagreement camp, and I am a firm believer that consumers should be transparently made aware of the possible risks of genetic modification, and given the option to know what foods (or often “foods”) contain GM crops.

Long ago, our government decided to look the other way about GMOs. Using a methodology called substantial equivalency, even over the objections of 9 FDA scientists, the FDA accepted the GMO industry’s stance that there is no difference between conventional breeding (hybridization) and bioengineering. Now maybe you have, but I’ve never seen a salmon mate with an eel, and I’ve never seen a bacterium mate with a papaya. Yet among other genetic cross-breeding, that’s what we’ve got today. If someone tells you there is no difference between hybridization and biotechnology, they’re lying to you (or trying to sell you GMO seed, and likely a pesticide cocktail to go with it).

The use of substantial equivalency is entirely biased towards the needs of producers rather than the general public. It is based around the (non-scientific) philosophy that a new food is like an old food, unless it isn’t. Dismissed by many scientists as not a safety assessment, rather a means to rubber-stamp new foods until otherwise proven hazardous, substantial equivalency has enabled GMO producers to throw countless food components onto our plates simply claiming they are safe, using a categorization called Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) until found to be otherwise – note the earlier article where the FDA has even turned a blind eye towards food that was found to not be safe. They aren’t even treated as an additive. Frankly, we’re still just learning what kind of baggage even comes along with GMOs. Note the two paragraphs in that Durango Herald article:

“Monsanto’s own feeding studies, however, showed that the genetic material in GMO corn that makes it pest-resistant was transferred to the beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract of humans eating GMO corn. This potential for creating a pesticide factory in the human gut has gone untested.”

Followed by:

“Recent research has shown that GMO corn insecticidal proteins are found in the blood of pregnant women and their fetuses. Animal research has shown intestinal, liver, kidney and reproductive toxicity from both GM corn and soy. This does not bode well for the assertion of ‘substantial equivalence.’”

Yet GMOs are in almost everything you eat. Conventional corn, soy, canola, and likely soon, farm-raised, (antibiotic-laden) salmon!

People in the yes on GMO camp generally decry people saying no as “anti-science” or “nutcases”. I’m hardly anti-science, and I like to think I’m reasonably rational and well-balanced. But I believe as a species, we often jump into hasty “great ideas” only to later regret that idea. Radium. Thalidomide. Vioxx. History is littered with pharmaceuticals rushed to market only to be pulled back after fatalities exceeded the manufacturer’s clinical trials. I believe that often, our government officials err on the side of the businesses that pay for influence, rather than on the side of consumers, who merely vote them into office. In the case of GMOs in our foods, the rush to judgment isn’t on the side of the naysayers, it’s on the side of the government and industrial agricultural giants, who have foisted GMO crops on consumers, without ever questioning the long-term side effects, or offering consumers any other option aside from buying organically labeled foods, where GM ingredients are forbidden by definition.

If you don’t read anything else, Mr. Ramsey, I hope you will read this. There is no independent testing of GMOs. None. There is no long-term testing of GMOs. None. Independent or black-box at the vendor. As a consumer, you have absolutely no way, outside of eating exclusively organic, that you are not regularly ingesting GMOs. You dismissed the need for 522 not because you investigated and understood why GMOs are not good for us (let alone the planet), but because you inquired with one geneticist and a company trying to sell a GMO apple. Isn’t that rather like asking a WSU student what kind of education UW can provide? Yet GMOs are in almost everything you eat. You trivialize the need for labels, and point the finger at a local Co-op, Whole Foods, and other organic food proponents as renegades trying to force their world on you.

California’s recently failed proposition to label GMOs was, much as Washington’s was, created by volunteers. California’s was crushed under the weight of conventional food and agribusiness giants. They don’t want GMO labeling because, for the food producers, it will result in high cost for ingredients (for example, replacing high-fructose corn syrup, predominantly GM, with non-GM sugars), packaging changes, and reformulation costs. The agribusiness giants? Because it crushes their revenue stream. That’s why Monsanto spent millions to defeat the initiative, and surely will here as well.

I’m not exactly sure why you elected to land on the side of supporting GMOs, given your self-admitted naiveté. But I hope that in the future you will examine and understand the whole debate before injecting yourself into it and using your column to create (my belief) wrong-headed, uninformed public opinion.

The organizations and companies you finger pointed at being “behind 522”? Sure – they stand to make more profit if GMOs are labeled. But I honestly don’t believe that’s why PCC (a local Co-operative), among them, is doing it. They are backing it because consumers deserve to have a choice – to be pulled from their apathy that the industrial food suppliers have happily created – to understand what is in the foods that they buy, and make healthier and more sustainable choices. In the end, it won’t matter if 522 passes. Whole Foods has already decided to label all GMO foods in their stores by 2018. That’s still too far away, but it’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

I can go on discussing the unsustainability of GMOs at length – contrary to the public relations slogan, GMOs are not the only solution to feeding the world (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-smith/vilsack-mistakenly-pitche_b_319998.html). With their seed licensing costs, creation of a biologically unsustainable monoculture, high cost for other inputs matched to many of them, increasing requirements for more volume and higher toxicity herbicides and pesticides to accompany them as pests and weeds develop natural resistance, GMOs as the key to “feeding the world” are a myth.