Battling GMO's Takes Center Stage

This past weekend a planned march against agricultural giant Monsanto took place around the world. Protesters rallied against the company’s use of genetically modified organisms – looking to raise awareness about its corporate practices. Thousands took to streets across the world’s cities on Saturday to protest the use of GMO products. Over 50 countries (and 47 different U.S. states) participated in the march leading into World Food Day.


As GMO use takes center stage this week, it’s important that we understand the issue and are able to clearly and cogently explain to the consumer (who may only have a “headline-grabbing” understanding of the issue) what’s at stake with the proliferation of genetically modified food.


First and foremost is the issue of health. If you asked the average person on the street to identify the primary issue with genetically engineered food, they would most likely say, “they are dangerous to our health”. And while this would be true, most people tend to think that this is directly attributable to the actual GMO’s. And while I am in no way defending the use of genetically modified seeds, the scientific evidence that these organisms directly impact our health is still a scientific work in progress. There are many studies underway, and there seems to be mounting evidence that they can cause allergies in humans; but the real danger, and one that is easy to understand; easy to prove; and easy to describe, is the increased use of pesticides as a result of GMO use. In a word, pesticides are the greatest health risk posed by genetic engineering in our food supply.


The six biggest producers of GE seeds—Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and Pioneer (DuPont)—are also the biggest producers of chemical herbicides, pesticides and insecticides. Together, they control nearly 70 percent of the global pesticide market, and essentially the entire market for genetically modified seeds. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops are genetically engineered to be immune to herbicides so that farmers can destroy weeds without killing their cash crops. But the process has produced Roundup resistant weeds, leading farmers to apply greater and greater doses of the chemical to battle back what are now known as “superweeds”.


Last year, 75 percent of all genetically modified crops grown were engineered to be herbicide resistant. In these cases a field can now be sprayed with chemicals and everything will die except for the resistant crop. With non-GMO crops less herbicides were actually used because the farmers could not just blindly apply across their entire crops. The application had to be precise and limited to avoid actually killing the primary crops. With herbicide-resistant GMO crops, herbicides can be applied liberally, even directly contacting the actual crop, without any visible harm coming to the plant. So, even though GMO crops are promoted as using less pesticides and herbicides, in fact, they actually use more.


Herbicide use has increased dramatically as the Roundup Ready technology has grown. What happens is that weeds quickly develop resistance to the herbicide, forcing farmers to apply ever-larger doses and resort to older, more toxic herbicides to combat resistant weeds. And remember, these producers of GE seeds, are also the largest producers of chemical herbicides, pesticides and insecticides. It’s not a tremendously huge reach to connect the dots here. Increased pesticide use as a result of GM seeds works well for the so-called “Big Six”.

As those of us in the organic foods industry know, a threat to our food supply is a threat to our personal health; and the greatest threat to our own personal health as well as to the health of our ecology is the unnecessary prolific use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and insecticides in our food supply. This is the real and immediate health threat posed by genetic engineering.


The other challenge that GMO’s present are what can be described as the non-democratization of our food. The companies who make the genetically altered seeds are the ones who own the rights to the technology. They have farmers sign agreements when they buy their seeds that prohibit the farmers from saving and replanting the seeds year in and year out, as they naturally would do with any other seeds. They are forced to buy new seeds each year from the biotech companies.


And again, keep in mind these potent statistics: the “Big Six” control nearly 70 percent of the global pesticide market, and essentially the entire market for genetically modified seeds. Their GMO seeds dominate our corn, soy and cotton crops, which account for more than 53 percent of US farmland—which accounts for 40 percent of the world’s corn. GMOs are present in 60 to 70 percent of foods on US supermarket shelves as the vast majority of processed foods contain GMOs. Ninety percent of our corn supply in U.S. as well as 93% of our soy supply is genetically engineered. If you begin reading labels on the grocery shelves and see how many items contain either corn or soy, you begin to grasp the infiltration of GMO’s into our food supply. What’s truly remarkable are the labels that we aren’t yet able to read – the ones that should say “grown using GMO’s”.


When corporations own or control that much of our food supply and farmland, they have the power and control to affect what is planted; and if you affect what is planted; you impact what food choices people have. This should not be in the hands of a few large companies, who have shown that their interest is not the well-being of our planet’s food supply – but rather the well-being and health of their own company.


Let us demonstrate regularly against the ills of GMO’s, but let us also passionately and fervently continue to shine a bright light on organic sustainable agriculture – which can indeed change not only the way we eat… but also the way we live… and certainly the way our future generations will live.