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GMOs and The Monsanto Protection Act: Our Take

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This is a guest post by my husband, Jason Leake. To learn more about Jason check out our team page.


There’s been a flurry of reports circulating the internet about the so called “Monsanto Protection Act,” so this is a good time to weigh in with our thoughts on GMOs in general and to hopefully clear up some confusion in the process.

Indian farmers protest GMO corn

Indian farmers protest GMO Corn
(image from La Via Campesina)

As we’ve learned firsthand from Lisa and Vani’s recent intense media coverage around the Kraft petition, a lot can get lost in the telephone game (for example Vani is NOT a mom, the referenced food dyes are not actually banned and instead require a warning label in the UK, etc.), and so it is always advisable to do your own digging when you read a story. Over time you’ll determine trusted sources, but it’s never a bad idea to cross-check the facts.

Today’s post is by no means meant to be the ultimate resource on GMOs, chock full of references and counterpoints, but I do want to provide an opinion about them and the “Monsanto Protection Act” based on my experience, reading, and immersion in the food world. Spoiler alert: There’s an interesting link between Kraft and the Monsanto Protection Act.

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GMOs Defined

From the nonGMOproject.org website:

GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms,” are plants or animals created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). This experimental technology merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.

What this means: Pesticides are bred right into the seed of some GMO crops (as opposed to spraying the plants to ward off pests). In other cases the plants are modified to survive being sprayed with the chemical weed killer Roundup (which means more Roundup sales for Monsanto).

Genetic modification is different than selective breeding. This is explained in further detail on page 9-10 of this GMO Myths and Truths document.

GMO Crop Picture

 

Nature Is Amazing, and Complicated

The other day I caught a fascinating science story on NPR. Apparently some plants show altruistic behavior to their siblings (as opposed to ‘strangers’ of the same species). Wow. How do the plants identify and communicate with one another? What other examples may exist of this behavior? I am definitely a fan of science (it was my favorite subject growing up and I have Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering), and one thing that amazes me so much is that the deeper we investigate, the more questions form and the more information is uncovered. For example, the discovery of atoms was pretty cool…the building blocks of matter, right? Oh wait, there are sub-atomic particles. Now we are just discovering the role our gut micro-biome may have in our immune system, which could unlock a whole new world of understanding about disease. Check out this related article in the New York Times.

Scientists are regularly blown away by the complexity, power, and sheer number of microbes that live in our bodies. – Carl Zimmer for the New York Times

The point is that nature is incredibly complex, and while I am all for advancements in science, it is arrogant and misguided to think we “have it all figured out” and can start breaking the rules of nature with GMOs. Time and time and time again we see fallout from our interference with nature in the way of unintended consequences. Here are but a few examples:

  • Inorganic arsenic showing up in rice (because, oh yeah, the FDA used to allow arsenic in pesticides and currently allows arsenic in chicken feed that turns into crop fertilizer at the other end of the chicken).
  • Herbicide resistant super-weeds evolving due to the high application rates of RoundUp weed killer (made by Monsanto) on GMO (and “Roundup Ready”) crops.
  • Bee populations (nature’s pollinators) rapidly diminishing and therefore negatively impacting plant production due to pesticides.

Does this mean technology is inherently bad? Of course not. But we need to slow down and allow adequate time for long-term GMO testing, and to not do anything that results in an irreversible widespread change to our food supply (kind of important, don’t you think?).

I see science as the pursuit of truth and discovery, and this is why I love it. The facts are what they are. But it’s also worth noting that industry funded science often gets manipulated, mainly through the funding of specific studies (that stand to benefit the industry or company footing the bill) while not funding others (that would harm the business interests), modifying the research parameters, and so on.

 

Precautionary Principle vs. Massive Experiment

So are GMOs really causing allergies, disease, super-weeds, increased use of pesticides and herbicides and so on? Honestly I don’t know, but since these concerns are very real possibilities and since GMOs are avoidable (although this is getting more and more difficult over time), I prefer to take the precautionary approach. This is synonymous with our personal decision to cut out processed foods. Case in point, the processed food industry will isolate an ingredient for testing and report a clean bill of health. However, they do not (and cannot possibly) test the combined effects of all the different combinations of the chemicals and food additives contained in their products (see soda recall). Why roll the dice? Personally I’d rather be on the safe side and avoid most products with food additives. I have confidence in eating the real, whole foods that have been consumed for thousands of years. The collective knowledge of food culture tells us what foods we can and cannot eat and the best combinations of them.

It’s interesting to note that many other countries – unlike the US – take the precautionary approach, where food must be proven safe before it can enter the food supply. In the US, it’s innocent until proven guilty. I’d rather not take part in a massive experiment with our food supply that could result in no way to backtrack to where we were. Mess with nature and you can get burned.

 

Labeling is Key

If we look back just three years, Lisa and I had no idea what a GMO was. Heck Lisa didn’t even read ingredient labels. A lot of people in America are that way, because they assume that everything on the grocery store shelf is safe and that the government will do right by its people. So education and TRUTHFUL LABELING are mission critical. Why are Monsanto, DuPont and the processed food industry fighting labeling of GMOs? Obviously that would be the kiss of death for the sales of products containing them. It’s interesting that these companies lobbied the FDA to deem GMO products equivalent to their natural counterparts, yet they are so different that they fought to have them patented so the seed companies could reap billions. Um, can you say hypocritical? Anyway, not everyone believes GMOs are risky, but we all deserve the right to know what we are feeding our families. The takeaway here is that LABELING IS KEY so consumers are empowered to make their own educated decisions.

just_label_it

 

The Monsanto Protection Act

This Politico story is by far the best article I’ve come across about the “Monsanto Protection Act,” which is actually part of the recently passed H.R. 933 bill, a continuing resolution spending bill. Please read the Politico story as I am not going to restate its contents here, but I will share the gist below. Many other articles I came across suffer from exaggerations. Senator Roy Blunt, who helped craft the bill and represents Missouri (where Monsanto is headquartered) is a strong ally of Monsanto. Here is his summary of the Monsanto Protection Act:

What it says is if you plant a crop that is legal to plant when you plant it, you get to harvest it, but it is only a one year protection in that bill. – Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

Prior to the passage of the bill, a farmer could be ordered not to harvest a GMO crop if its safety was being questioned in court. Senator Blunt is married to Abigail Perlman Blunt, who is currently a lobbyist for Kraft Foods (who spent almost $2 million to fight labeling of GMOs) and formerly a lobbyist for Philip Morris.


Our Take

If you look at the Monsanto Protection Act on its own it sounds somewhat reasonable. Those crazy food activists are always trying to obstruct progress with (sometimes) frivolous lawsuits, and it doesn’t make sense for a farmer to be exposed to the risk of destroying an entire year’s crop if a legal battle ensues. The act gives them protection so they can feel comfortable planting that crop in the first place (with GMO seeds) knowing they can harvest it. But therein lies the problem in my eyes. If a product is so controversial that there is a legitimate risk a court battle could halt the growing and harvesting of a crop to protect the safety of our nation’s people, I WANT the farmers to have to assess that risk when they make the decision to plant GMO seeds.

And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the more I learn about the power and persistent, methodical efforts of Monsanto, DuPont, and their supporters to steamroll the path to monopolizing our food supply, the more I see them as the enemy. As in they do not deserve to have each battle looked at individually for merit. As in their efforts are so strong, the money so great, and their influence on our government so overwhelming that the only choice is to fight for every inch of ground and to say NO every step of the way. Again I feel we are on a one-way street and need to slow the hell down.

4/9/12 Update: I just came across an old, but excellent article that so happens to sum up my concerns quite well. It is called “Playing God in the Garden,” by Michael Pollan.

 

What You Can Do

If you agree that GMOs should be avoided and should not pervade our food supply, here are some things you can do:

NonGMOProject

  1. Avoid processed foods.
  2. Buy organic or “non-GMO” labeled food when possible.
  3. Read up on the subject
  4. Familiarize yourself with the most common GMO foods and avoid (or buy organic versions of) of these foods and products containing them. Beware, corn and soy are in almost all processed foods, and 88% of corn and 93% of soybeans produced in the US are GMO. The ShopNoGMO smartphone app can help while shopping. Here are the most common GMO crops in the US:app_store
    • Corn, Soybeans, Canola, Cottonseed, Sugar Beets, Hawaiian Papaya
    • Sugar containing sugar beets (which is common unless it’s labeled “pure cane sugar”)
    • Dairy: Products may be from cows injected with GM bovine growth hormones
  5. This is a personal choice, but you may wish to vote with your dollars and boycott companies that fund opposition to GMO labeling laws.
  6. Take political action if you are so inclined. Support GMO labeling. Good starting points are JustLabelIt.org and the non-GMO Project’s Get Involved page.
  7. Dispel common myths, which tend to discredit you when you go to share info. For example there is currently NO GMO WHEAT SOLD IN THE US.
  8. Share this information with those you care about. You can share this post on Facebook, via email, word of mouth, or through scores of other options using the green “Share This” button below.

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