It’s been a good week if you enjoy a little GMO schadenfreude. The FDA has reportedly bowed to public pressure to extend the comment period on its approval of genetically engineered salmon, and Illinois, Maryland, and Iowa are the latest states to buck GMOs by introducing labeling bills into state legislature.
Even the Supreme Court has an opportunity to take Monsanto down a peg. On Feb. 19, the court will hear arguments in a patent infringement case between an Indiana farmer and Monsanto (I covered it in detail here). If Monsanto prevails, it’ll move a few more paces towards agricultural monopoly; if it loses, the company will take a couple steps back. It’s encouraging that the Supreme Court chose to hear the case over the solicitor general’s urging to dismiss it, but Monsanto could have an inside man: As in other Monsanto-related cases, former Monsanto-lawyer-turned-Supreme-Court-Justice Clarence Thomas has no plans to recuse himself.
But GMOs took the biggest punch this week from academia: Tom Philpott highlights a USDA-funded study [PDF] by University of Wisconsin scientists who found that several types of GMO seeds (including Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready varieties) actually produce a lower yield than conventional seeds. Only one seed — a corn that produces its own pesticide to combat the corn borer — offers any significant yield benefit. In other words, planting most genetically modified seeds results in less harvest per acre than planting non-genetically modified seeds.
The researchers looked at 20 years of data from test plots in Wisconsin from 1990-2010, both on research plots and on plots in participating farmers’ fields. Philpott flags a key point from the study:
Then there’s the question of so-called “stacked-trait” crops — that is, say, corn engineered to contain multiple added genes — for example, Monsanto’s “Smart Stax” product, which contains both herbicide-tolerant and pesticide-expressing genes. The authors detected what they call “gene interaction” in these crops — genes inserted into them interact with each other in ways that affect yield, often negatively. If multiple genes added to a variety didn’t interact, “the [yield] effect of stacked genes would be equal to the sum of the corresponding single gene effects,” the authors write. Instead, the stacked-trait crops were all over the map. “We found strong evidence of gene interactions among transgenic traits when they are stacked,” they write. Most of those effects were negative — i.e., yield was reduced.
This matters because stacked-trait crops are a favored approach to combat the superweeds and bugs that are part and parcel of years of GMO crops. But the more you stack, the worse your yield. The scientists also found evidence of a “yield penalty” that comes simply from the act of manipulating plant genes.
In short, the more one meddles with plant genes, the worse yields get; when you change multiple genes at once, yields drop even further. This should give pause to those who see GMO seeds as the means to address more complex problems like drought tolerance, nutritional value, or plant productivity. These are traits involving dozens, if not hundreds, of genes. This study suggests genetic manipulation of food crops at such a scale is a losing game.
A few years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report with a similar conclusion, but this is one of the first rigorous attempts to establish through controlled experiments the yield benefit (or penalty) of GM seeds. The UW scientists do note that they determined that GM seeds do provide farmers with lower “yield risk”; essentially, that farmers are less likely to face catastrophic crop losses when using GMO seeds. But there are other conventional techniques that researchers have concluded can support yield, reduce environmental harm, and increase farmer income without having to pay big bucks to biotech companies.
Not that we should expect biotech companies to just roll over: With five such companies controlling nearly 60 percent of the global seed business, it may be impossible for farmers to find sufficient conventional seed. (Learn how the seed business became so consolidated in the Center for Food Safety’s new report “Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers.”)
But we should take what we can get. Between Supreme Court justices who may be fed up with the company’s aggressive intellectual property tactics and farmers who could get fed up with its ineffective intellectual property, Monsanto’s stumbles could mean a few sure steps forward for food growers and eaters.
Over the past few years, an interesting pattern has emerged, where political supporters of genetically engineered (GE) foods are feasting on organics, while promoting unlabeled GE foods for everyone else.
Most recently, Mother Jones discussed how Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney – whose ties to Monsanto go back to the late 1970’s when GE crops were still in the R&D phase – reportedly makes sure his own meals are nothing but organic…
According to Peter Alexander of MSN Today:
“On Romney Air, or Hair Force One – as Reuters’ Steve Holland like to call it – Mitt Romney has his own galley in ‘forward cabin.’ And, while I’ve never been invited up front, sources close to the campaign tell me the shelves are stocked with a wide variety of healthy fare. Kashi cereals, hummus, pita, as well as organic applesauce.
Everything’s organic, I’m told, including the ingredients to Romney’s favorite, peanut butter and honey sandwiches.”
Even more interesting, in a 2002 article about Romney’s wife, Ann, she credits a combination of organic foods and holistic medicine for turning her health around after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. The profile reads in part:
“…She was 49 at the time, and the disease was progressing rapidly, she says, prompting the doctors to put her on steroids, which made her so sick she could barely get out of bed. ‘They were killing me,’ she says of the treatment. ‘You have bone loss; they are so bad for you.’
Mrs. Romney was introduced to several practitioners of holistic medicine, who persuaded her to adopt alternative therapies. She now eats organic foods and very little meat. She practices reflexology and undergoes acupuncture treatments. She credits the lifestyle with turning her health around…
‘Everyone has to find their own way,’ she says. ‘Three years ago I was really, really sick and not able to function at all. A lot of the symptoms are [now] gone…'”
Mrs. Romney isn’t the only success story in which food played a center role in beating multiple sclerosis (MS). Last year I posted an article about Dr. Terry Wahls, who reversed MS after seven years of deterioration on the best conventional treatments available, simply by changing her diet.
Wouldn’t it be a nice change of pace if our agricultural authorities, not to mention our President, could reach into their hearts and find the humanity to fight for everyone’s right to eat wholesome food that doesn’t contain foreign DNA, built-in pesticides, and an inordinate amount of synthetic chemicals so that diseases such as MS and cancer could be curtailed before they even get a foothold?
If GE Foods are So Great, Why Won’t the Elite Eat Them?
While Obama has been a huge supporter of Big Biotech during his term, Romney is just as “tight” with Monsanto, having actually successfully guided the company out of lawsuits with Congress in the shameful aftermath of Agent Orange (a Monsanto creation, which was supposed to be harmless to everything except vegetation), and heinous chemical dumping incidents in Missouri and Alabama.
He’s also in favor putting the “Monsanto rider” provision in the 2012 Farm Bill – a rider that would prevent a federal court from putting in place court-ordered restrictions on a GE crop, even if the approval were fraudulent or involved bribery, among other things.
Unfortunately, Mitt Romney is just one in a line of politicians who support and promote GE foods as being just as safe and “natural” as conventional foods while privately serving up nothing but organic for their own families. President Obama, as his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have all reportedly insisted on an organic diet.
Mother Jones writes:
“What’s my evidence that the Clintons and Bushes ate organic? Get this, from someone who knows – Walter Scheib, who served as White House executive chef during the Clinton and Bush years:
‘From 1994 to 2005 I was the executive chef at the White House. This offered me not only the personal honor of serving two unique and interesting first families, but the professional challenge of fulfilling Hillary Clinton’s mandate of bringing contemporary American cuisine and nutritionally responsible food to the White House.’
This meant that nearly all the product used was obtained from local growers and suppliers. There was a small garden on the roof of the White House where produce was grown. The ethic of the purchasing and the cooking at the White House under my direction and under the continuing direction of [current Obama White House executive chef] Cris Comerford is one of respect for the pedigree of the product and manner it is grown, gathered, raised or caught.
The Clinton and Bush families dined regularly on organic foods. Both wagyu and grass-fed beef were frequently used.”
Scheib was again quoted in a 2009 article by Think Progress, stating that Laura Bush was “adamant that in ALL CASES if an organic product was available it was to be used in place of a non-organic product.” Meanwhile, the article lists a number of atrocious food policies instituted by her husband. Who knows, perhaps she was so adamant about organics because she knew the quality and safety of conventional food was rapidly going down the toilet?
Guess Who Said: “Everything That’s in a Bottle or Package is Like Poison in a Way That Most People Don’t Even Know”
The Obama White House may be even more progressive about healthful dining than previous Presidents. In a 2008 article about First Lady Michelle Obama, published in The New Yorker:
“…One morning, during a roundtable at Ma Fischer’s, a diner in Milwaukee, Elizabeth Crawford, a recently divorced caterer with two children, brought up the subject of the eating habits of American families. ‘I really, really hope that Barack will jump on that,’ she said.
Then, having given thoughtful but boilerplate responses most of the morning, [Michelle] Obama suddenly departed from her script. It was the most animated I saw her on the campaign trail. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘in my household, over the last year we have just shifted to organic for this very reason. I mean, I saw just a moment in my nine-year-old’s life – we have a good pediatrician, who is very focused on childhood obesity, and there was a period where he was, like, ‘Mmm, she’s tipping the scale.’
So we started looking through our cabinets… You know, you’ve got fast food on Saturday, a couple days a week you don’t get home. The leftovers, good, not the third day! …So that whole notion of cooking on Sunday is out. … And the notion of trying to think about a lunch every day! …So you grab the Lunchables, right? And the fruit-juice-box thing, and we think – we think – that’s juice.
And you start reading the labels and you realize there’s high-fructose corn syrup in everything we’re eating. Every jelly, every juice. Everything that’s in a bottle or a package is like poison in a way that most people don’t even know…”
Yes, high-fructose corn syrup is one of the most atrocious ingredients in the American food supply today in terms of what it does to your health. Not only is fructose a major contributor to metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity, the vast majority of it is also derived from genetically engineered corn, which has its own increasingly well-documented ill health effects. Most recently, the world’s first lifetime feeding study using Monsanto GE corn found it caused massive breast tumors, kidney and liver damage, and other serious health problems.
Michelle Obama is certainly not the only one who has referred to high-fructose corn syrup as a poison. According to Dr. Robert Lustig, excess fructose does act like a toxin in your body, and Dr. Don Huber has spoken out about the two-fold toxic effects of GE crops: 1) due to the genetic alteration of the plant itself, and 2) the glyphosate sprayed on GE Roundup Ready crops.
President Obama Aware of Issue But Doing Nothing About it
Sadly, while the Obama’s are undoubtedly well aware of the health dangers of processed foods in general and genetically engineered foods specifically, their personal belief system has not filtered into the food policies that affect the rest of the population.
On the contrary, the President has spent the last four years appointing one Monsanto shill after another into key federal positions that wield near-absolute power over agricultural issues. Mrs. Obama’s efforts to promote organic foods, which included a much publicized White House organic garden, were also quickly tempered and toned down by a personal visit from The Mid America CropLife Association, an agribusiness media group, who “urged the first lady to give conventional agriculture equal time,” according to a 2009 Politico article.
Topping it all off, the President has also completely ignored his pre-election promise to IMMEDIATELY label GE foods, should he win, “because Americans should know what they’re buying.”
Well, it’s become abundantly clear that Big Biotech and their political lackeys will not even allow us to make an informed decision on this issue by reading our own food labels. And you’d have to be supremely naïve to not question the absurd dichotomy between public policies on GE and organic foods, and the private decisions made by those in charge and “in the know.”
Monsanto Runs and Regulates US Agriculture
In the first three years of the Obama Administration, 10 different genetically engineered crops, and even a genetically modified animal, have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to Food & Water Watch. All without a single shred of proof that these foods are actually safe for long-term consumption (or in the case of today’s children – lifetime consumption). Could this have anything to do with the fact that highly influential people within the USDA were previous employees of, or have other personal ties to, Monsanto?
The Secretary of Agriculture is Tom Vilsack, a strong Monsanto supporter selected by President-elect Obama in 2008. As governor of Iowa, Vilsack frequently traveled in Monsanto’s private jets, and was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
The director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture is Roger Beachy, a former director of the Monsanto Danforth Center.
The General Counsel for the USDA is Ramona Romero, who came straight from DuPont, another major biotech company with GE crop patents, where she held a number of key positions, including Corporate Counsel for complex commercial and antitrust litigation, and Corporate Counsel and Manager of Operations and Partnering.
Even the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has old ties to Monsanto via the Rose Law firm.
Getting the picture? The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other federal agencies are similarly stacked with former Monsanto employees. Likewise, when it comes to selecting which Presidential candidate might be better for organic foods and our agriculture system, both Romney and Obama’s actions speak louder than words. They do one thing privately, and “sell” another agenda to the public. Neither of them is a champion for Real Food in the US, and both of them cater and yield to the wills of multinational food and biotech companies.
Monsanto VP Now US Food Safety Czar – What’s Wrong With This Picture?
In 2009, President Obama appointed former Monsanto VP for Public Policy, Michael Taylor, as a senior adviser for the FDA, turning a deaf ear to the loud protests from consumer groups. Taylor is currently serving as the deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA – a position that includes ensuring food labels contain clear and accurate information. He also oversees strategy for food safety, and planning new food safety legislation.
To say he’s a fox guarding a hen house would be an understatement. This sentiment is shared by most people who are even remotely aware of food safety issues. At the time of Taylor’s appointment, GE expert Jeffrey Smith commented:
“The person who may be responsible for more food-related illness and death than anyone in history has just been made the US food safety czar. This is no joke.”
Now, the opposition is gaining steam yet again with an online petition13 calling for Taylor’s removal.
“President Obama, I oppose your appointment of Michael Taylor. Taylor is the same person who was Food Safety Czar at the FDA when genetically modified organisms were allowed into the U.S. food supply without undergoing a single test to determine their safety or risks. This is a travesty,” the petition reads.
Passing Prop 37 is Key to Expanding Sustainable Agriculture in North America
Organic foods specifically prohibit genetically engineered ingredients along with synthetic agricultural chemicals, and eating organic is essentially the only way to ensure you’re not accidentally consuming GE foods, since the US still does not require such ingredients to be labeled.
So what’s with the double standard?
Is genetically engineered food the “cake” fit only for the paupers of the 21st century? Heck, even the staff cafeteria at Monsanto’s UK headquarters reportedly banned GE foods from the menu back in 1999.
So really, why are the elite making organic foods a priority for their own families? And why won’t they support labeling, so the rest of us can make an informed decision about the foods we eat? And why are they imposing regulations that limit the availability of organically- and/or locally-grown foods for so many communities?
It’s quite evident that we have no real champions for food safety and labeling of genetically engineered foods within the federal government. But right now we do have a great opportunity to change this situation by circumventing Monsanto’s posse entirely.
Twenty-four U.S. states have, as part of their state governance, something called the Initiative Process, where residents can bring to ballot any law they want enacted, as long as it has sufficient support. California has organized such a ballot initiative, known as Proposition 37, to get labeling for genetically engineered foods sold in their state.
Although many organic consumers and natural health activists already understand the importance of Proposition 37, it cannot be overemphasized that winning the battle over Prop 37 is perhaps the most important food fight Americans – not just Californians – have faced so far. But in order to win this fight for the right to know what’s in our food, we need your help, as the biotech industry will surely outspend us by 100 to 1, if not more, for their propaganda. Please remember, the failure or success of this ballot initiative is wholly dependent on your support and funding! There are no major industry pockets funding this endeavor. In order to have a chance against the deep pockets of Big Biotech and transnational food corporations, it needs donations from average citizens.
So please, if you have the ability, I strongly encourage you to make a donation to this cause. You can also contact EVERY person you know that lives in California and encourage them to view some of these videos and get educated on the issues so they can avoid succumbing to the propaganda, as Monsanto and company are paying tens of millions of dollars to deceive the voters in California. We need EVERY vote we can to win next month. The election is only FOUR weeks away.
It’s important to realize that getting this law passed in California would have the same overall effect as a national law, as large companies are not likely going to label their products as genetically engineered when sold in California (the 8th largest economy in the world), but not when sold in other states. Doing so would be a costly PR disaster. So please, I urge you to get involved and help in any way you can, regardless of what state you live in.
Whether you live in California or not, please donate money to this historic effort, through the Organic Consumers Fund.
If you live in California and want to get involved, please contact CARightToKnow.org. They will go through all volunteer requests to put you into a position that is suitable for you, based on your stated interests and location.
No matter where you live, please help spread the word in your personal networks, on Facebook, and Twitter. For help with the messaging, please see CARightToKnow.org.
Talk to organic producers and stores and ask them to actively support the California Ballot. It may be the only chance we have to label genetically engineered foods.