This October marks the second national Non-GMO Month, created to raise awareness about the growing issue of genetically modified organisms in our commercial food supply. In our September column we gave a brief overview of GMOs; this month we’d like fit together a few more pieces of the puzzle.
While other segments of the U.S. economy remained flat, the organic industry grew nearly 8 percent to more than $28.6 billion in 2010. As more and more people choose organic, this upward trend should continue but there looms a major threat to the entire organic industry.
That threat is contamination of organic crops by transgenic (genetically engineered) crops. There have been repeated cases worldwide of GMOs found in organically grown rice, wheat, sugar beets, corn, cotton and canola. This happens when pollen from transgenic plants ends up miles away via the wind or bees and pollinates certified organic plants of the same species. Because organic standards prohibit GMOs, the value of the certified organic crop is destroyed if even traces of GMOs are found during testing.
Is there really cause to worry about unknown GMOs in our food? One of the biggest health concerns regarding GMOs is their ability to produce new proteins never before present in our food. Allergens are protein-based and new proteins carry with them the potential to provoke new allergic reactions.
Unfortunately, there is no way to substantially test new proteins for allergens. We all have different levels of susceptibility and typically don’t know if we’re allergic to something until we have a reaction. It certainly is raising a lot of questions about the increase in food allergies over the past 20 years and whether we should be allowing new potential allergens into our food system at all.
With so many question marks, it’s hard to understand why GMOs are present in so much of our food — until we see who has the biggest profit motive. Heavy hitters in the pharmaceutical and industrial chemical fields such as Bayer, DuPont, Dow, Monsanto and Cargill eagerly are racing to lead the exploding field of genetically engineered seeds.
These companies make billions of dollars on seed they genetically engineer to withstand their specific pesticide or herbicide and then make billions more selling the pesticides and herbicides to be applied on the transgenic crop. In addition, they patent the GMO seeds and farmers must sign a contract stating they will not save seed from the GMO crop to be planted the following year — a method often used by sustainable growers. This forces farmers to buy new seed every year.
Adding insult to injury, small farmers across the country are being sued by corporate giants like Monsanto for patent infringement when DNA from their genetically engineered seeds unintentionally shows up in the crop of a farmer who did not purchase GMO seed and therefore did not pay patent royalties. As you may guess, small farms don’t have a lot of resources to defend themselves in court, particularly against a behemoth such as Monsanto. At a time when we should be encouraging more sustainable agriculture, Monsanto is putting small farms out of business.
The argument can and is being made that we need genetic engineering to feed a growing world population, to combat starvation and to bring economic growth to Third World countries. On the other side of the argument there seems to be consensus among scientists that we really don’t know what the consequences will be either to ourselves or to our environment. This essentially makes us all unsuspecting subjects in one very large, long-term feeding study, exposed to brand new organisms with side effects impossible to predict or control.
With GMOs so widespread, it almost seems useless to try to avoid them. There is hope, however. Leaders in the North American organic and natural product industry have taken it upon themselves to create a standardized definition of “non-GMO” and an independent program to confirm that products with the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal are compliant with the standard.
They are not alone in their desire for clear labeling. People from across the nation are in the first week of a 313-mile walk which began Oct. 1 in New York City and will end at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Oct. 16.
Participants in the Right2Know March are demanding that genetically engineered foods be labeled in the U.S. This seems like such a simple request, but there is some pretty heavy lobbying going on against mandatory labeling.
According to Monsanto’s website, “Requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine both our labeling laws and consumer confidence.” They’re probably right, but in the face of unknown health risks don’t you deserve the right to know?
We encourage you to do your own research on this subject and decide for yourself. If you’ve already decided, we invite you to join a rally for your Right2Know on Sunday, Oct. 16, at the northeast corner of Sequim Avenue and Washington Street, beginning at 1 p.m.
In any case, eat well and be well!