Does that satisfying bite of nachos come with an infusion of BT-Toxin? Is that tofu stir-fry laced with a dash of cauliflower mosaic virus? Chances are that unless you count yourself among the ranks of the Anti-Frankenfoodies, you have no idea what biotech ingredients have been spliced into your food. That’s because genetically engineered foods – those whose DNA has been modified by the additions of genes, viruses, and/or bacteria from other species – are unlabeled in American supermarkets.
New Yorkers will soon have the opportunity to influence the issue. Two GMO labeling bills have been approved in committee to be presented for a vote this year.
Meanwhile, American consumers are becoming increasingly wary of GMOs, whose long-term effects on the health of humans and the environment are unknown. Sixty people packed into a recent screening of the new documentary OMG, GMO at the community center in West Milford, NJ, dragging chairs from other rooms; in anticipation of a regular attendance, only about 20 chairs had been set up.
There is a growing concern that conditions such as allergies, autism, and gastro-intestinal problems including irritable bowel syndrome and leaky-gut may be linked to viral and bacterial toxins spliced into foodstuffs. However, seed unavailability and lack of GMO-food labeling make it extremely difficult for scientists, let alone the average harried American trying to get dinner on the table, to track whether biotech ingredients may be affecting our health.
Most GMO safety information is based on three-month studies conducted by the companies, such as Monsanto and Dupont, that engineer and market these seeds, and the pesticides they are engineered to resist. These studies have summarily been approved by the FDA with no further testing. Longer-term, independent studies are few, due to companies’ refusal to sell their patented seeds to outside researchers. In this vacuum of information, fear is incubating.
Since the companies that make these seeds are not known for their fireside chats, Dirt knocked on the doors of neighbors who deal every day with the plants and food borne of genetically engineered seeds, to see how they feel about these novel life forms.
“Up until now, for all of human history, seeds have been in the public domain,” said organic farmer Keith Stewart of Keith’s Farm in Westtown, NY. “My main issue with GMO stuff is that it puts control of the food system in the hands of big corporations. GMO seeds are patented, and farmers have been sued for reusing them.”
Because biotechnology companies now own the seeds they’ve engineered, these companies have the power to sue farmers whose fields are found to contain their proprietary plants, even when it is the result of unwanted drift from neighboring fields. “All over the world, GMO crops are knocking out small farmers and indigenous food systems,” said Stewart. “It is this ownership of the seeds and the international food system that really scares me.”
GMO foods entered the human diet in 1994 with the introduction of the Flavr-Savr Tomato, produced by combining an E. coli gene with tomato DNA to insure less damage during shipping. The Flavr-Savr was a flop, mainly due to public skepticism. But two years later, Monsanto marketed the first “Round-Up resistant” corn, which would become the poster child of genetic engineering. Pest-resistant, drought-resistant, and well-suited to large scale, industrial agriculture, would this be the foundation crop of a second Green Revolution that would put an end to world hunger? GMO field corn quickly but quietly cornered the market for animal feed, as well as for human food products like corn oil, corn flour, corn starch, and fructose.
“If a company has a great product, it usually works hard to advertise it,” said Stewart.
“If GMO is so good, then why are they trying to hide it?”
The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association waged multi-million dollar advertising campaigns to defeat GMO-labeling bills in Oregon and Washington. Among the association’s arguments was that mandatory GMO labels would increase the cost of food. A similar study by Cornell University showed that New York’s proposed mandatory GMO labeling bill would cost families an average of $500 per year at the checkout aisle. The study, funded by a consortium of biotech companies, was debunked by the Consumers’ Union for inflating cost estimates by 60 percent.
“There is a myth that you cannot feed the world’s population with organic farming, but I disagree,” Stewart said. “I do strongly defend local farming practices and realize it can be difficult or impractical for many family farms to convert to organic, but in the long run, environmentally, it is more sustainable – reusing seeds, building up the soil with natural forms of fertilizer, preventing erosion by wind and water. In the end, that’s what it’s all about – looking after the land that feeds us. The soil is where life comes from. Plants and animals will not be here without healthy soil.”
A 2013 report by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development states that “developing and developed countries alike need a paradigm shift in agricultural development.” To solve world hunger now, and for a sustainable future, the report urges a shift away from the high tech model to “a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation).”
Maybe “organic” versus “GMO” is not an either-or question. “I hate to see it happening, and I don’t support it, pitting one type of farming against another,”said Al Buckbee, 75, a third generation farmer and the patriarch of Bellvale Dairy Farm in Warwick.
The no-GMO signs popping up around town indicate to him that a rift has grown, not only within the agricultural community, but also between farmers and the public. Buckbee encourages farmers to tout the positives of what they grow, whether organic or local, but not disparage the fruit of other farmers’ hands.
“GMO is not an easy for or against, and we all live happily ever after,” he said.
To feed his herd of around 70 head of cattle, Buckbee grows “Round-Up ready” corn and alfalfa (conventional farmers don’t tend to use the term GMO), as well as non-GMO alfalfa.
“We are testing out both in our fields, assessing costs, yields, and effects on our livestock. The alfalfa we grow is very prone to weeds,” he said. “GMO seeds are more expensive, but with conventional seeds we have had to apply more herbicides.
“Round-Up is actually better than the old herbicides because it breaks down in the atmosphere instead of leaving a toxic residue. It’s a question of which poison is worse. The stuff people put on their lawns to kill dandelions is a lot more detrimental to the environment than Round-Up.”
Though they plant different seeds, Buckbee agrees with the other farmers Dirt talked to in that he sees no problem with labeling GMOs. “I’m not opposed to it at all,” he said. Sixty-four countries mandate GMO labeling, including Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and 15 nations in the European Union.
Genetic modification is “just an update on what’s been going on forever,” said Buckbee. “Trying to select the best seed, or the best horse, or the process of hybridizing plants to increase their yield — that’s been going on for a long time. It seems like what I read, some people think this is a revelation. This brand new thing is going on, Monsanto is the devil, and I think, well they really don’t understand the world they’re living in, in that respect.”
Genetic engineering tends to be fuzzily understood. “One thing you have to understand is that all genetically modified food is not genetically engineered,” explained Sally Scheuermann of Scheuermann Farms in Pine Island, NY. “Hybrid plants, which we grow, are genetically modified, but they are created by cross-pollination of varieties of the same or related species.”
Because plants cross-pollinate in nature, hybrids have been part of the human and agricultural landscape for millennia. Many favorites, like Supersweet 100 Tomatoes and Butter and Sugar Sweet Corn, are popular hybrids. Nevertheless, “GMO” has become the acronym used to describe plants that are genetically engineered in the lab.
“We, like many small farmers in the Northeast, don’t grow any GMO crops,” said Alan Ochs of Ochs Orchard in Warwick, NY. Even if they wanted to, a bio-tech apple isn’t available — yet. (The USDA may be on the brink of deregulating the non-browning “Arctic apple,” invented in Canada, in which case Arctics will appear on grocery store shelves alongside Granny Smiths and Macintoshes.) “Would I grow a GMO apple if one existed? I don’t know. One problem is that if they find something negative about it, will they hide it? The corporate money is just too powerful.
“Would I eat a GMO food?,” Ochs mused. “Well, if they throw a label on a package of Fritos that says GMO, I am still going to eat it because I like Fritos!”
Listen to your gut, advises Jim Haurey, owner of The Grange restaurant in Warwick, NY, who sources his food from local farms. Literally. Its rumblings could be telling you something. “The restaurant world over the past 15 years has seen an enormous ‘outbreak’ of lactose intolerance and, more recently, gluten intolerance,” he said. “Check out the ingredients on a factory-baked loaf of bread or pizza dough. Is there any form of corn or soy in there? If so, it’s most likely a GMO crop.”
Genetically modified foods now comprise 90 percent of the corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, zucchini, yellow squash, and papaya grown in the United States. An estimated 70 percent of processed foods have GMO ingredients, and odds are higher for anything containing cornstarch, high fructose corn syrup, oil (corn, soy, canola), beet sugar, soy, or aspartame. GMO wheat has not yet been approved by the FDA, so bread could be GMO-free – or not, if it contains additives like lecithin or ascorbic acid. If you’re trying to avoid GMOs, your best bet is buying certified organic or non-GMO-certified food.
“If your favorite Greek yogurt comes from cows that have been fed a diet of GMO corn and soy,” said Maurey, “and over time it’s been giving you stomach cramps, maybe the lactose isn’t the problem.”
“I myself am somewhat of a genetically engineered project,” laughed Dr. Dani Segal, a holistic nutritionist and co-owner of Healthy Thymes market in Vernon, New Jersey. “I offered an organ to my sister. Then she had a son with my kidney in her body. I’m not against science and helping people live good, joyous lives. I just think we need to have a choice. We need to first be educated to know that something’s happening to our food supply. The cat’s out of the bag, we’re never going to go back now” to a non-GMO world. “Monsanto’s dug their heels in deep. They have the farmers, they have the seeds.”
“The bottom line is to educate people so they can make a choice for their own family,” said Segal. “Do you want to pick up this cereal or that? If it’s not labeled, then you can’t make a choice.”
SIDEBAR: FOOD FIGHTNYS Assembly bill (A. 617) and NYS Senate bill (S.485) are slated to come up for a vote this year. If either passes, New York will join Vermont, Connecticut and Maine as the fourth state to demand labeling transparency for food buyers. Similar bills in Oregon and Washington were narrowly defeated last year with massive anti-labeling advertising campaigns driven by the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) has introduced an anti-labeling bill (HR-4432) into the Federal House of Representatives. Dubbed “The Dark Act” by critics, it would make it illegal for states to mandate GMO labeling.