What’s Missing in the Debate about GMOs


What’s going on with GMOs in our food? Scientists and food movement leaders will discuss the issues in depth, unfiltered by the media, in a virtual conference available free online from January 27-30 called “GMOs: What You Need to Know.”

With Monsanto’s spin operation in full swing, it’s getting harder to find unbiased information in the media–for example, scientific discussions about GMOs that are actually based on science.

As Monsanto’s director of communications, Phil Angell, told Michael Pollan in 1998, “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”

Yet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s policy on genetically engineered foods, introduced as a “regulatory relief initiative” in 1992 by then-Vice President Dan Quayle, says, “Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety.”

Monsanto is assuring the safety of GMOs with a ramped-up public relations campaign–a “charm offensive,” as Politico recently called it–launched in the spring of 2013.

After narrowly defeating California’s ballot initiative to label GMOs, biotech companies were “rushing to roll out a broad strategy to combat consumer concerns about their products,” reported Carey Gillam in Reuters.

The new public relations campaign, which included a large social media component, was “aimed at turning the tide on what they acknowledge is a growing public sentiment against GMOs.” Monsanto hired PR firm FleishmanHillard for a “seven figure brief,” according to the Holmes Report.

The spin offensive is paying off, at least in the media, with top reporters basing stories on Monsanto’s “consensus of safety” talking points. A recent front-page New York Times piece by Amy Harmon even pushed biotech’s favorite PR meme: That people concerned about GMOs are the “climate deniers of the left.”

In this environment of talking-point science, it can be hard to know what to believe or who to trust to get the facts about genetically engineered foods that most of us are eating every day.

That’s what motivated me to share the perspectives of scientists and healthy food movement leaders in “GMOs: What You Need to Know.” This is a chance to hear directly from reliable sources–and make up your own mind–about the science and politics of genetically engineered plants and animals, and the implications for our future. Here are three takeaway themes from these 20 provocative discussions.

There is no consensus of safety–and many legitimate concerns

A statement signed by more than 250 scientists does a thorough job explaining why the “consensus of safety” claim about GMOs misrepresents the available scientific evidence and promotes an irresponsible view of science.

As scientists and a medical doctor explain in interviews to air next week, there are many warning signs in the science on GMOs. Numerous studies by independent scientists, as well as industry studies, raise concerns about links between genetic engineering and allergies, immune system problems, organ damage, and nutritional changes in the food.

“There is obviously something that needs to be investigated but it has not been investigated in the USA,” says Thierry Vrain, PhD, a genetic engineer and soil biologist who headed Agriculture Canada’s biotechnology program for 30 years. Now retired, Dr. Vrain has serious concerns about the GMOs he promoted for decades, as he explains in an interview to air January 27.

The reality is that genes are complex, and genetic engineering is a messy technology. “There’s no way to really control where these artificial gene units end up in the genome,” explains Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, PhD, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network of North America, who will also be participating in the online discussion. “What we’re increasingly finding, in this really new and evolving science of genetics, is that genes have multiple and complex functions in an organism.” When foreign genes are blasted into a genome, unintended side effects can occur and plants can be impacted in undesirable ways.

“You can think of the genome like an ecosystem,” explains Michael Hanson, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union. “If you introduce a foreign species into an ecosystem, sometimes nothing happens, sometimes it wreaks havoc. That’s why you have to look (at safety) on a case-by-case basis. We haven’t been doing that, so we have no idea.” Dr. Hansen will also participate.

One thing we know for sure is that GMOs have increased pesticide use by hundreds of millions of pounds in the U.S. over the past 15 years–driving a “pesticide treadmill” that has farmers using more pesticides.

Most GMOs in our food–94 percent of soybeans and more than 70 percent of corn and cotton grown in the U.S.–are engineered to survive Monsanto’s weed-killing chemical Roundup, which kills everything green (and soil microbes too) except the plants engineered to resist it.

The weeds are becoming resistant too and farmers are using more and worse chemicals such as systemic pesticides that are harming bees. Dow Chemical is now seeking approval of GMOs designed to go with 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange.

“We’re going into more and more chemical-intensive agriculture, not away–not in the direction of clean, safe, sustainable agriculture which is really where we need to be headed immediately,” says Dr. Ishii-Eiteman.

Moms are at the forefront of a new healthy food movement

For Robyn O’Brien, it was when her fourth child became ill with food allergies. The former financial analyst began analyzing the data on allergies and investigating GMOs, and she wrote the groundbreaking book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick And What We Can Do About It. When Cheerios recently announced it was going GMO free, the Today Show called Robyn for her reaction.

For Kristi Marsh, a beast cancer diagnosis in her 30s led her to become a “reluctant eco-activist,” as she describes in her book, Little Changes. She switched her family to a mostly organic, whole-foods diet, found her calling as a public speaker and wellness educator, and became “the face of the new protest movement,” as Dana Milbank called her in the Washington Post.

Robyn and Kristi share their stories in interviews airing January 28.  Moms are on the front lines of the new food movement and Monsanto knows this. In the past few days, many female bloggers have received e-mail pitches asking them to write about GMO farmers.

There’s a Better Way to Feed the World

GMOs aren’t the only problem with industrial agriculture, but they are a core strategy the chemical companies are using to concentrate ownership of the food system and advance a system of chemically dependent, monoculture crops, and abusive animal feeding operations.

Gopal Dayeneni, founder of Movement Generation, calls GMOs one of the “central false solutions” being promoted to address food security. “It’s predicated on very well held, firmly believed lies. Lie number one is, we absolutely need it to feed the world,” he says. “That’s just fundamentally not true. The vast majority of people on this planet still get their food from short-chain and known-chain food systems. Small farmers still feed the majority of people on the planet with a smaller percentage of the land.”

While the food movement tends to focus on consumer impacts of GMOs, “the most fundamental aspect of the problem is that is, as a form of economy, facilitating global land grabs, it is displacing farmers, it is eradicating diversity in the food supply,” he says. Exactly the opposite of what we need for long-term food security.

It’s time to support what we love and put our labor toward meeting our needs, as Dayeneni explains in our interview to air January 30.

The good news is that each of us has an opportunity, every day, to support a healthier food system. Join us next week to talk about how we can create the world we want to leave to our children. A full line up of speakers for “GMOs: What You Need to Know” is posted here.

To the healthy food revolution!

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