By Thierry Vrain
I retired 10 years ago after a long career as a research scientist for Agriculture Canada. When I was on the payroll, I was the designated scientist of my institute to address public groups and reassure them that genetically engineered crops and foods were safe. There is, however, a growing body of scientific research – done mostly in Europe, Russia, and other countries – showing that diets containing engineered corn or soya cause serious health problems in laboratory mice and rats.
I don’t know if I was passionate about it but I was knowledgeable. I defended the side of technological advance, of science and progress.
In the last 10 years I have changed my position. I started paying attention to the flow of published studies coming from Europe, some from prestigious labs and published in prestigious scientific journals, that questioned the impact and safety of engineered food.
I refute the claims of the biotechnology companies that their engineered crops yield more, that they require less pesticide applications, that they have no impact on the environment and of course that they are safe to eat.
There are a number of scientific studies that have been done for Monsanto by universities in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. Most of these studies are concerned with the field performance of the engineered crops, and of course they find GMOs safe for the environment and therefore safe to eat.
Individuals should be encouraged to make their decisions on food safety based on scientific evidence and personal choice, not on emotion or the personal opinions of others.
We should all take these studies seriously and demand that government agencies replicate them rather than rely on studies paid for by the biotech companies.
The Bt corn and soya plants that are now everywhere in our environment are registered as insecticides. But are these insecticidal plants regulated and have their proteins been tested for safety? Not by the federal departments in charge of food safety, not in Canada and not in the U.S.
There are no long-term feeding studies performed in these countries to demonstrate the claims that engineered corn and soya are safe. All we have are scientific studies out of Europe and Russia, showing that rats fed engineered food die prematurely.
These studies show that proteins produced by engineered plants are different than what they should be. Inserting a gene in a genome using this technology can and does result in damaged proteins. The scientific literature is full of studies showing that engineered corn and soya contain toxic or allergenic proteins.
Genetic engineering is 40 years old. It is based on the naive understanding of the genome based on the One Gene – one protein hypothesis of 70 years ago, that each gene codes for a single protein. The Human Genome project completed in 2002 showed that this hypothesis is wrong.
The whole paradigm of the genetic engineering technology is based on a misunderstanding. Every scientist now learns that any gene can give more than one protein and that inserting a gene anywhere in a plant eventually creates rogue proteins. Some of these proteins are obviously allergenic or toxic.
I have drafted a reply to Paul Horgen’s letter to the Comox Valley Environmental Council. It is my wish that it goes viral as to educate as many people as possible rapidly. Any and all social media is fine by me. This can also be used as a briefing note for the councilors of AVICC or anywhere else. Thank you for your help. [Click here for original source with replies from Dr. Paul Horgen]
— Thierry Vrain, Innisfree Farm
I am turning you towards a recent compilation (June 2012) of over 500 government reports and scientific articles published in peer reviewed Journals, some of them with the highest recognition in the world. Like The Lancet in the medical field, or Advances in Food and Nutrition Research, or Biotechnology, or Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, European Journal of Histochemistry, Journal of Proteome Research, etc â€¦ This compilation was made by a genetic engineer in London, and an investigative journalist who summarized the gist of the publications for the lay public.
GMO Myths and Truths – an evidence based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops. A report of 120 pages, it can be downloaded for free from Earth Open Source. “GMO Myths and Truths” disputes the claims of the Biotech industry that GM crops yield better and more nutritious food, that they save on the use of pesticides, have no environmental impact whatsoever and are perfectly safe to eat. Genetic pollution is so prevalent in North and South America where GM crops are grown that the fields of conventional and organic grower are regularly contaminated with engineered pollen and losing certification. The canola and flax export market from Canada to Europe (a few hundreds of millions of dollars) were recently lost because of genetic pollution. Did I mention superweeds, when RoundUp crops pass their genes on to RoundUp Resistant weeds. Apparently over 50% of fields in the USA are now infested and the growers have to go back to use other toxic herbicides such as 2-4 D. Many areas of Ontario and Alberta are also infested. The transgenes are also transferred to soil bacteria. A chinese study published last year shows that an ampicillin resistance transgene was transferred from local engineered crops to soil bacteria, that eventually found their way into the rivers. The transgenes are also transferred to humans. Volunteers who ate engineered soybeans had undigested DNA in their intestine and their bacterial flora was expressing the soybean transgenes in the form of antibiotic resistance. This is genetic pollution to the extreme, particularly when antibiotic resistance is fast becoming a serious global health risk. I can only assume the American Medical Association will soon recognize its poorly informed judgement.
In 2009 the American Academy of Environmental Medicine called for a moratorium of GM foods, safety testing and labeling. Their review of the available literature at the time noted that animals show serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system. Monsanto writes “There is no need to test the safety of GM foods”. So long as the engineered protein is safe, foods from GM crops are substantially equivalent and they cannot pose any health risks.” The US Food and Drug Administration waived all levels of safety testing in 1996 before approving the commercialization of these crops. Nothing more than voluntary research is necessary, and the FDA does not even want to see the results. And there is certainly no need to publish any of it. If you remember 1996, the year that the first crops were commercialized, the research scientists of the US FDA all predicted that transgenic crops would have unpredictable hard to detect side effects, allergens, toxins, nutritional effects, new diseases. That was published in 2004 in Biotechnology if you recall seeing it.
I know well that Canada does not perform long term feeding studies as they do in Europe. The only study I am aware of from Canada is from the Sherbrooke Hospital in 2011, when doctors found that 93% of pregnant women and 82% of the fetuses tested had the protein pesticide in their blood. This is a protein recognized in its many forms as mildly to severely allergenic. There is no information on the role played by rogue proteins created by the process of inserting transgenes in the middle of a genome. But there is a lot of long term feeding studies reporting serious health problems in mice and rats. The results of the first long term feeding studies of lab rats reported last year in Food and Chemical Toxicology show that they developed breast cancer in mid life and showed kidney and liver damage. The current statistic I read is that North Americans are eating 193 lbs of GMO food on average annually. That includes the children I assume, not that I would use that as a scare tactic. But obviously I wrote at length because I think there is cause for alarm and it is my duty to educate the public.
One argument I hear repeatedly is that nobody has been sick or died after a meal (or a trillion meals since 1996) of GM food. Nobody gets ill from smoking a pack of cigarette either. But it sure adds up, and we did not know that in the 1950s before we started our wave of epidemics of cancer. Except this time it is not about a bit of smoke, it’s the whole food system that is of concern. The corporate interest must be subordinated to the public interest, and the policy of substantial equivalence must be scrapped as it is clearly untrue.
Thierry Vrain is a former research scientist for Agriculture Canada. He now promotes awareness of the dangers of genetically modified foods.
Originally published in: Prevent Disease.
This week in the food revolution: Is Your Food Safe? Check out this week’s Food Revolution Summit replays of gamechanging interviews with Jeffrey Smith, Robyn O’Brien, and Andrew Kimbrell. Catch it all here.
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Every day this week, my dad and colleague, bestselling author John Robbins, is interviewing some of the top food revolutionary leaders on the planet. This is your chance to get cutting edge information about healthy, sustainable, humane and delicious food — from sources you can trust.
The Food Revolution Summit is packed with potent and even gamechanging insights. Like take yesterday, for example. Our theme was Feeding Compassion.
We started with one of my heroes, Dolores Huerta. Dolores, now 82 years old, may be looked back on as one of the great leaders of the last century. Her work has led to breakthroughs in the rights and humane treatment of farm workers, including passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, public assistance for immigrants, toilets in the field, drinking water protection from pesticides, and an immigration act which gave legal status to over a million farm workers.
At one point in the interview, my dad and colleague, John Robbins, said to Dolores: “I recently took out 20 books from my library on food, diet, agriculture, and the environment. I looked at all of their indexes, and I found that not a single one had a single index entry for farm workers.”
Dolores responded: “That is really sad. And you know, it is not just farm workers. We have a society that demeans people that work with their hands. A lot of our young people are helpless because they have been raised to not want to get their hands dirty. We often don’t value the people that work hard, the people that pick up our garbage, that clean our buildings, or the people that make or grow our food.”
What would happen, I wondered, if we treated the people who tend our crops with respect? Can a society be truly healthy if it consistently degrades and exploits the people who grow its food? Or if it poisons farmworkers, and the food they harvest, with pesticides?
Can a humane world be fed by an inhumane system of food production?
One thing’s for sure: We make better choices when we have accurate information. And when it comes to treatment of animals, the truth is becoming a precious commodity.
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to want animals to be treated decently. And you don’t have to be an animal rights activist to think that you should have a right to know how your food is produced. But our second speaker, Will Potter told us that we are seeing a wave of “ag-gag” bills that make it illegal to so much as take pictures of farms and agricultural interests.
Let’s get real here. This isn’t about stopping you from taking photos of broccoli growing on the side of the road. This is about keeping anyone from seeing the cruelty that is the norm in today’s factory farms.
As Will Potter told us: “There’s virtually no oversight of factory farming and big agriculture in this country. This is an industry that wants to operate in total secrecy, and with total immunity.
Next we heard from Zoe Weil, who has helped hundreds of thousands of people to become spokespeople for a more humane world. Zoe’s passionate and accessible message invited us bring more compassion into our lives and into our food choices.
Zoe talked about how important it is to work for a vision without making needless enemies. “Unfortunately,” she told us, “the discourse around food choices often lends itself to side-taking instead of problem solving. People often want to latch on to the ‘right way’, and whatever way they’ve latched on to, they close the door to thinking about the bigger connections.”
Summit participants have been entering into lively dialogues, and sharing moving stories, on our Facebook page. Check it out and join in here.
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Michael Pollan is the author of four New York Times bestsellers: Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008); The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006); and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001). The Omnivore’s Dilemma was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. Michael was named to the 2010 TIME 100 — the magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. In 2009 he was named by Newsweek as one of the top 10 “New Thought Leaders.” He writes for many publications including The New York Times Magazine, and was featured in a two-hour PBS special based on The Botany of Desire as well as in the Academy Award nominated documentary, Food Inc.
In this interview, bestselling author John Robbins and Michael Pollan engage in spirited conversation about genetically engineered food, how to feed a hungry world, food politics, the future of agriculture, and a lot more.
Catch John Robbins interviewing 24 of the world’s leading voices for healthy, sustainable, humane and conscious food in the Food Revolution Summit.
By Steve Holt
Modern-day wage struggles, slavery highlight the importance of the late labor leader.
Over the last three centuries, our nation has built itself up to become the most productive agricultural society in the history of the world. It has done so largely on the backs of people of color, who have planted, picked, and packed the foods we enjoy every day—often for little pay and deplorable conditions.
Until César Chávez came along, farm workers were, for the most part, voiceless and unable to organize. The son of migrant workers, Chávez returned from serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II to work in the fields himself. He began to see the injustices that were occurring around and to him, and instead of staying quiet, like many of those who went before, he did something about it.
Chavez organized marches and boycotts and fasts to bring attention to the plight and power of American farm workers, and his quiet, inspirational leadership would eventually result in the first labor organization for farm workers: the National Farm Workers Association, which would become the United Farm Workers Union
Sunday is César Chávez Day, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of his death. His importance in humanizing the food system, experts say, cannot be underestimated. As agriculture became more mechanized and productive in the wake of World War II, many Americans didn’t realize hands were still involved in producing their food.
“Cesar pointed that out, brought the humanity back into the food system. That the food system was not just about industrialization – that people were involved,” says Sanjay Rawal, whose documentary film about farm labor, Food Chains, is in postproduction.
One of the farm labor movement’s earliest and most successful actions was a 1966 march with California grape pickers from Delano to Sacramento to demand higher wages. A subsequent call by Chávez for Americans to boycott grapes until workers were paid a livable wage garnered the support of 17 million consumers nationwide and lasted for five years. During these years, farm workers across the country were inspired to organize, and their plight made its way up to the U.S. Senate.
But while Chávez helped bring farm workers out of the shadows, their struggle remains. For his upcoming film, Rawal immersed himself in the lives of farm workers. In Florida, he found tomato pickers who bring home $40 for 14 hours of back-breaking work. Some of these same Florida tomato farms have, in recent years, been scrutinized for their use of unpaid labor—slaves, essentially—who were held against their will and forced to harvest the produce we see in many of our supermarkets.
Thankfully, in the mid-1990s, the Coalition of Imakolee Workers was formed to advocate for the plight of enslaved workers around Imakolee, Florida. Groups like the International Justice Mission took the issue head-on. And the visibility is working: In just the last 15 years, seven cases of forced labor slavery have been successfully prosecuted, resulting in over 1,000 people freed from slavery in U.S. tomato fields. And since it is likely there are still slaves working in the fields of our country, a campaign is underway that asks consumers to demand their grocery stores refuse to buy tomatoes picked by underpaid or unpaid workers.
“The grape of the 21st century is the Florida tomato,” says Rawal, alluding to César Chávez’s famous grape boycott of 1966. “We need to go into our groceries and demand that they not purchase tomatoes that were picked by slaves. Then we can change it. It’s really Cesar 2.0.”
Rawal adds that while labels indicating organic and fairly traded foods have been helpful, there should also be a label that let’s consumers know the workers who produced the food were treated fairly.
Chávez, who would have been 86 this year, would have supported such efforts on behalf of workers. Events and service projects are scheduled throughout the country this week to honor his legacy—especially in California, where it is a state holiday.
The largest trade group of nutrition professionals—the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics—has a serious credibility problem.
The Academy represents 74,000 dietitians in the United States, and its mission is to promote optimal nutrition and well being for all people. But according to an explosive report released by Food Revolution Summit speaker Michele Simon and her organization, the industry watchdog Eat Drink Politics, the Academy is sponsored by folks like ConAgra, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Kellogg’s, Mars, and the National Dairy Council.
Some Academy sponsors can become an “Academy Partner,” which entitles them to “educate” nutrition professionals about the health benefits of their products, co-sponsor events, and conduct educational sessions at meetings. They also can use the Academy’s logo in marketing campaigns.
The report from Eat Drink Politics details how registered dietitians can earn continuing education units from Coca-Cola, in which they learn that sugar is not a problem for children. In addition to Coca-Cola, companies on the Academy’s list of approved continuing education providers include Kraft Foods, Nestlé, and PepsiCo.
Despite its enormous clout, and its nutritional advocacy mission, the Academy has thus far refused to endorse some of the steps that many experts agree could improve public health and expand health freedom, including limits on soft drink sizes, taxes on sugary sodas, or the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Could there be any connection between the millions of dollars in sponsorship the Academy receives from junk food manufacturers, and a seeming lack of initiative on behalf of the public welfare?
Fortunately, not all dietitians pass on the propaganda of the Academy’s sponsors. There are many hard-working and dedicated dietitians who base the guidance they offer their clients on the latest learnings of nutritional science. One of the inspiring dietitians of our times is bestselling author, plant-strong nutrition expert, and 2013 Food Revolution Summit speaker Brenda Davis, R.D,.
Brenda notes that many dietitians feel uncomfortable having their trade association intertwined with the processed food industry, and references a survey which found that 80% of them feel that the Academy is endorsing corporate sponsors and their products when it allows their sponsorship.
She comments: “It’s time for us to base the nutritional guidance we offer, and the policies we support, on what we know is best for the health and wellness of a population that is riddled with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The science is clear: a whole foods, plant-strong diet that is low in sugar and processed foods, and high in nutrients and fresh foods, can help you thrive, and can dramatically reduce your risk of diet and lifestyle-induced diseases.”
Inspired by Michele Simon’s report, and fed up with their association’s junk food ties, on February 12 a group of dietitians launched Dietitians for Professional Integrity. Their goal is to advocate for more ethical, socially responsible, and relevant corporate sponsorships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. More than 500 members joined in the first two days.
For more on Eat Drink Politics, or to sign up their informative newsletter, click here.
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A guest post by Food Revolution Summit Speaker Ronnie Cummins
On November 6, in the wake of one of the most expensive and scurrilous smear campaigns in history, six million voters scared the hell out of Monsanto and Big Food Inc. by coming within a razor’s edge of passing the first statewide mandatory labeling law for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Prop 37, a citizens’ ballot initiative that would have required the mandatory labeling of billions of dollars of genetically engineered (GE) foods and put an end to the routine industry practice of fraudulently marketing GE-tainted foods as “natural” or “all natural,” lost by a narrow margin of 48.6% to 51.4%. Opponents couldn’t claim anything close to a landslide, even though they outspent the pro-labeling campaign almost six to one.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) immediately put a happy face on the narrow victory, repeating its tired old propaganda in a public statement: “Proposition 37 was a deeply flawed measure that would have resulted in higher food costs, frivolous lawsuits and increased state bureaucracies. This is a big win for California consumers, taxpayers, business and farmers.”
But Jennifer Hatcher, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, came closer to expressing the real sentiments of the big guns who opposed Prop 37, a measure she had previously said “scared us to death,” in her official statement:
“This gives us hope that you can, with a well-funded, well-organized, well-executed campaign, defeat a ballot initiative and go directly to the voters. We hope we don’t have too many of them, because you can’t keep doing that over and over again . . .”.
Maybe they can’t. But we can. Unlike the Food Marketing Institute and its friends at the GMA, consumers can – and will – “keep doing that over and over again.” We can – and will – propose state laws and state ballot initiatives as often as we need, in as many states as we must, until we have what 61 other countries have: truth and transparency in the form of mandatory GMO labeling laws. Far from giving up, the alternative food and farming movement that was narrowly defeated in California has evolved into a battle-savvy, seasoned national movement, bigger and stronger than ever.
As Zuri Allen, California Field Organizer of the Organic Consumers Association put it, “We may have lost this first major battle in California, but millions of angry and energized consumers across the country are now joining together in a nationwide right to know campaign which will ultimately drive genetically engineered crops and foods off the market.”
That clearly has Big Biotech and Big Food worried. And well it should. We’ve barely rung in the new year, and already GMO labeling battles are heating up in Washington State, Vermont and Connecticut. Other states aren’t far behind.
On Jan. 4, activists in Washington State will deliver approximately 300,000 signatures to the state legislature to guarantee that a mandatory GMO labeling Initiative, I-522, will be on the ballot in November. Initial polling shows that Washington state voters will likely pass this Ballot Initiative, no matter how much money the biotech industry and large food corporations put into an anti-labeling campaign.
On the other side of the country, Vermont is picking up where it left off last year after the governor caved in to Monsanto’s threats to sue the state if it passed a GMO labeling law. Undaunted, and buoyed by 90% support from consumers, legislators will reintroduce a GMO labeling bill in early January. Vermont’s pro-organic, anti-GMO proponents fully expect to pass a labeling bill by May. Connecticut is right behind them, with plans to introduce a similarly popular GMO labeling bill early this year.
Why a win is just around the corner.
Giant biotech and junk food corporations, joined by major food processors and supermarket chains, poured more than $46 million dollars into a vicious dirty tricks campaign to defeat GMO labeling in California. Their tactics included a relentless barrage of TV and radio ads falsely claiming GE food labels would raise grocery prices, hurt family farmers, and enrich trial lawyers. They unleashed “scientific” testimonials manufactured by phony front groups, and they mailed counterfeit voter guides. They may even have engaged in “vote-flipping” by pre-programming electronic voting tabulators.
A statewide pre-election eve poll conducted by Lake Research found that the Biotech Behemoth’s “No on 37” propaganda campaign successfully confused many Californians. As of Nov. 5, the day before the election, the majority of Californians stated that they still supported mandatory labeling of GE foods. But a critical mass, especially the 40% who voted early by absentee ballot, said they were willing to give up their right to know what was in their food if mandatory GE labels might increase food costs, expand the size and power of state bureaucrats, harm family farmers or unfairly benefit trial lawyers and other “special interests.”
That changed once the YES on 37 campaign launched its own modest $3-million ad campaign on October 27. Once the pro-labeling ads rolled out, several million undecided voters saw through the biotech and junk-food industry propaganda and voted Yes on 37. In fact, Prop 37 won the election-day vote. But it was too little, too late. The campaign couldn’t recover from its losses in early voting.
That was California. Washington State promises to tell a different story.
Looking at the logistics and outcome of the Prop 37 campaign in California in 2012 and comparing these to the upcoming I-522 battle in Washington, there are several major differences that will likely prove to be decisive:
1. Size and campaign costs. California is an enormous state, both geographically and in terms of population. Its TV and radio ad markets are also among the priciest in the country. Tough for a grassroots campaign with a small budget to reach California voters far and wide, on the ground and through the media. Even tougher to compete with an opposition willing and able to spend $46 million to win. Compare that scenario with Washington State, which has one-fifth the population of California, and where $1 spent on TV ads equals $8 in California. Factor in that Washington’s population is highly concentrated in the health and environmentally-conscious Seattle metropolitan area, and it’s easy to see that internet, in-person contact, and radio and TV advertising will cost less and be easier to execute in Washington than it was in California. Experts estimate that Monsanto and its allies will be able to spend only $20 million in Washington on advertising. That’s enough to saturate the state’s airwaves. But it’s not too much for the Yes on I-522 campaign to overcome as long as it can raise and spend $4-$5 million – about half of what the California labeling campaign raised.
2. Timing. In California, Yes on 37 forces didn’t get on the ballot until May. That left only six months for public education and fundraising. In Washington, I-522 proponents have a full nine months before people begin their voting (which is by mail).
3. Support from farmers and rural communities. In California, Prop 37 was supported mostly by consumers and organic farmers. In Washington State, wheat farmers, whether organic or not, apple farmers and fishing communities also vocally support mandatory GMO labeling. That’s because GMO labeling is arguably in the best economic interests of a state where unlabeled GMO wheat, apples and salmon spilling into the market would severely damage state agricultural exports to countries that either forbid GMO imports or require GMO labeling.
4. Progressive elected officials and electorate. California’s Governor Brown refused to take a stand on Prop 37. But Washington’s new elected Governor, Jay Inslee, is a long-time supporter and former Congressional advocate of GMO labeling. Washington voters recently reminded us that they are proud progressives, by approving the legalization of marijuana via a November ballot Initiative. California voters defeated a similar measure in 2010.
5. The Frankenfish controversy. Despite enormous public opposition and warnings by scientists that genetically engineered salmon pose unacceptable health and environmental risks, the Obama administration’s FDA announced in late December that it would nonetheless allow unlabeled genetically engineered salmon to be commercialized. Polls show that Washington voters are adamantly opposed to this fast-growing, likely allergenic mutant salmon – part fish, part eel – entering the market. Fishermen/fisherwomen, chefs and restaurants are already raising their voices in opposition. Meanwhile in Alaska, GMO salmon will have to be labeled because of a state law passed in 2005. The biotech industry is going to have a difficult time explaining why Frankenfish have to be labeled in Alaska, but not in Washington or other states.
6. Divisions between Big Food and Big Biotech. As the comments by the Food Marketing Institute executive suggest, big food companies are starting to worry about their image. They’re worried about having to fight costly, high-profile battles against GMO labeling in numerous states, possibly even simultaneously. A number of large food companies that dumped big money into defeating Prop 37 – companies like Kellogg’s, General Mills, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft and Dean Foods, own “natural” or organic brands. Those brands, including Kashi, Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, Ben and Jerry’s, White Wave, Horizon and others, are starting to feel the heat from angry consumers who have joined the “Traitor Boycott.” How long will the nation’s food manufacturers and supermarket chains carry the water and do the dirty work for Monsanto and biotech industry?
It’s only a matter of time before we pass GMO legislation. Once we do, it will mark the beginning of the end for GMO food and farming, just as it did in Europe. But to ensure that this happens, sooner rather than later, state GMO right-to-know campaigns in Washington, Vermont, Connecticut and other states need money, technical assistance volunteers, and endorsements.
Ronnie Cummins is a veteran activist, author, and organizer. He is the International Director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica. http://www.organicconsumers.org; http://www.viaorganica.org
More and more people are realizing that our food chain is in crisis. Agribusiness has made profits more important than your health — more important than the environment — and more important than your right to know how your food is produced.
Perhaps because so many people are suffering, beneath the surface, a revolution has been building.
From rural farms to urban dinner plates, from grocery store shelves to state ballot boxes, ever more people are finding their voices and taking action. If you believe in taking responsibility for your health, if you believe there is an important link between the quality of the food you eat and the quality of your life, you are part of this movement.
In the seven years after my dad and colleague, John Robbins, released the first edition of his landmark bestseller Diet for a New America in 1987, beef consumption in the United States dropped by 19 percent. The National Cattlemen’s Association, not pleased, pointedly blamed Diet For A New America. Since then, beef consumption has continued to slowly drop, while organic food sales have increased over 26-fold, to now exceed four percent of market share.
People are also taking an increasing interest in the way that the animals raised for food are treated. In fact, a poll conducted by Lake Research partners found that 94 percent of Americans agree that animals raised for food on farms deserve to be free from cruelty. Nine U.S. states have now joined the entire European Union in banning gestational crates for pigs, and Australia’s two largest supermarket chains now sell only cage-free eggs in their house brands.
The demand is growing for food that is organic, sustainable, fair trade, GMO-free, humane, and healthy. In cities around the world, we’re seeing more and more farmer’s markets (a nearly three-fold increase in the last decade), and more young people getting back into farming. Grocery stores (even big national chains) are displaying local, natural and organic foods with pride. The movements for healthy food are growing fast, and starting to become a political force.
In 2012, California voters put an initiative on the ballot that called would have mandated the labeling of food containing GMOs. Monsanto and their buddies in the pesticide and junk food business were forced to spend $46 million burying California’s voters under an avalanche of deception in order to narrowly defeat California’s Proposition 37 in the November election. Although they won the battle, more than six million California voters had come out in favor of the “right to know.” It was clear that the natural foods movement was becoming a political force to be reckoned with.
Now organizers in 30 other states have begun building GMO labeling campaigns, and efforts to improve treatment of animals, to make factory farms pay for the pollution they produce, and to reform the food offered in school lunches are all gaining strength.
What You Can Do
Go to the movies. Eric Schlosser’s Food, Inc., Drs. Caldwell Esslestyn and T. Colin Campbell’s Forks Over Knives, and Jeffrey Smith’s Genetic Roulette are some of the most popular and insightful films currently on the market.
Boycott the bad guys. Many people are choosing to boycott companies that oppose labeling of GMOs, that treat farm animals cruelly, or that profit from the sale of junk food. Other consumers are choosing to buy from the good guys. For example, the non-profit Non-GMO Project, which offers a third party certification program, has now verified 764 products, and had a record-shattering 189 new enrollment inquiries in October. You can also check out the farmer’s market nearest you.
Sign petitions for GMO labeling. Want to work for policy change? A team of organizations, led by Care2 and the Food Revolution Network, have launched a petition demanding that Congress label GMOs, and it has already generated more than 80,000 signatures. And last year’s JustLabelIt petition to the FDA, which generated more than 1.3 million signatures, is being revived in hopes that the FDA might eventually dig itself out of Monsanto’s back pocket.
Get politically engaged. For the passionate activist, there’s always more you can do, like lobbying your member of Congress, your mayor, your governor, your local media outlets, or your relatives. You can also join the Humane Society’s campaign for farm animal protection, or Farm Sanctuary’s work for animal welfare legislation.
Get engaged and informed. For a directory of organizations working for healthy, sustainable and humane food, as well as free access to dozens of cutting edge articles and tools to help you make a difference, you can sign up to join the Food Revolution Summit. Or check out the forthcoming book, Voices of the Food Revolution, which captures some of the top insights of gamechanging food movement leaders.
Big agribusiness would probably like us all to sit alone in the dark, munching on highly processed, genetically engineered, chemical-laden, pesticide-contaminated pseudo-foods. But the tide of history is turning, and regardless of how much they spend attempting to maintain their hold on our food systems, more and more people are saying No to foods that lead to illness, and YES to foods that help us heal.
We live in a world of profound contradictions. Some things are just unbelievably strange. At times I feel like I’ve found a way to adapt to the weirdness of the world, and then along comes something that just boggles my mind.
The largest grassroots breast cancer advocacy group in the world, a group called “Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” launched a 2010 partnership with the fast food chain KFC in a national “Buckets for the Cure” campaign.
KFC took every chance it could manufacture to trumpet the fact that it donated 50 cents to Komen for every pink bucket of chicken sold.
For its part, Komen announced on its website that “KFC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure are teaming up … to … spread educational messaging via a major national campaign which will reach thousands of communities served by nearly 5,000 KFC restaurants.”
Educational messaging, indeed. How often do you think this “messaging” provided information about the critical importance a healthy diet plays in maintaining a healthy weight and preventing cancer? How often do you think it refered in any way to the many studies that, according to the National Cancer Institute’s website, “have shown that an increased risk of developing colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancer is associated with high intakes of well-done, fried or barbecued meats?”
If you guessed zero, you’re exactly right.
Meanwhile, the American Institute for Cancer Research reports that 60 to 70 percent of all cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes. Their number one dietary recommendation is to: “Choose predominantly plant-based diets rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits, legumes and minimally processed starchy staple foods.” Does that sound like pink buckets of fried chicken?
Pardon me for being cynical, but I have to ask, if Komen is going to partner with KFC, why not take it a step further and partner with a cigarette company? They could sell pink packages of cigarettes, donating a few cents from each pack while claiming “each pack you smoke brings us closer to the day cancer is vanquished forever.”
Whose brilliant idea was it that buying fried chicken by the bucket is an effective way to fight breast cancer? One breast cancer advocacy group, Breast Cancer Action, thinks the Komen/KFC campaign is so egregious that they call it “pinkwashing,” another sad example of commercialism draped in pink ribbons. “Make no mistake,” they said, “every pink bucket purchase will do more to benefit KFC’s bottom line than it will to cure breast cancer.”
One thing is hard to dispute. In partnering with KFC, Susan B. Komen for the Cure showed itself to be numbingly oblivious to the role of diet in cancer prevention.
Of course it’s not hard to understand KFC’s motives. They want to look good. But recent publicity the company has been getting hasn’t been helping. For one thing, the company keeps taking hits for the unhealthiness of its food. When, shortly before the misguided alliance with Komen, KFC came out with its new Double Down sandwiches, the products were derided by just about every public health organization for their staggering levels of salt, calories and artery-clogging fat.
Then there’s the squeamish matter of the treatment of the birds who end up in KFC’s buckets, pink or otherwise. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has an entire website devoted to what they call Kentucky Fried Cruelty, but you don’t have to be an animal activist to be horrified by how the company treats chickens, if you lift the veil of the company’s PR and see what actually takes place.
When PETA sent investigators with hidden cameras into a KFC “Supplier of the Year” slaughterhouse in Moorefield, West Virginia, what they found was enough to make KFC choke on its own pink publicity stunts. Workers were caught on video stomping on chickens, kicking them and violently slamming them against floors and walls. Workers were also filmed ripping the animals’ beaks off, twisting their heads off, spitting tobacco into their eyes and mouths, spray-painting their faces, and squeezing their bodies so hard that the birds expelled feces — all while the chickens were still alive.
Dan Rather echoed the views of many who saw the footage when he said on the CBS Evening News, “There’s no mistaking what the video depicts: cruelty to animals, chickens horribly mistreated before they’re slaughtered for a fast-food chain.”
KFC, naturally, did everything they could to keep the footage from being aired, but their efforts failed. In fact, the video from the investigation ended up being broadcast by TV stations around the world, as well as on all three national evenings news shows, Good Morning America, and every one of the major cable news networks. Plus, more than a million people subsequently watched the footage on PETA’s website.
It wasn’t just animal activists who condemned the fast food chain for the level of animal cruelty displayed at KFC’s “Supplier of the Year” slaughterhouse. Dr. Temple Grandin, perhaps the meat industry’s leading farmed-animal welfare expert, said, “The behavior of the plant employees was atrocious.” Dr. Ian Duncan, a University of Guelph professor of applied ethology and an original member of KFC’s own animal-welfare advisory council, wrote, “This tape depicts scenes of the worst cruelty I have ever witnessed against chickens … and it is extremely hard to accept that this is occurring in the United States of America.”
KFC claims, on its website, that its animal-welfare advisory council “has been a key factor in formulating our animal welfare program.” But Dr. Duncan, along with five other former members of this advisory council, say otherwise. They all resigned in disgust over the company’s refusal to take animal welfare seriously. Adele Douglass, one of those who resigned, said in an SEC filing reported on by the Chicago Tribune that KFC “never had any meetings. They never asked any advice, and then they touted to the press that they had this animal-welfare advisory committee. I felt like I was being used.”
You can see why KFC would be eager to jump on any chance to improve its public image, and why the company would want to capitalize on any opportunity to associate itself in the public mind with the fight against breast cancer. What’s far more mystifying is why an organization with as much public trust as Susan B. Komen for the Cure would jeopardize public confidence in its authenticity. As someone once said, it takes a lifetime to build a reputation, but only 15 minutes to lose it.
If you want to support an organization fighting breast cancer, you might want to know about the little known but extraordinary Pine Street Foundation. While everyone wants to detect breast cancer as early as possible, the Pine Street Foundation has been developing a remarkable alternative to mammograms. Susan B. Komen for the Cure, you may know, has been one of the foremost proponents of mammograms, suggesting their use for women as young as 25. But mammograms involve subjecting a woman’s breast to radiation, and so if repeated too often actually raise the risk of breast cancer.
In a large international collaboration, the Pine Street Foundation has been studying the ability of dogs to use their remarkable sense of smell for the early detection of lung and breast cancer. The work is based on the fact that cancer cells emit different metabolic waste products than normal cells, and the differences between these can be detected by a dog’s keen sense of smell, even in the early stages of the disease. So far, the dogs’ ability to correctly identify or rule out lung and breast cancer, at both early and late stages, has been around 90 percent — approximately the same accuracy rate as mammograms, with none of the radiation. In one study, for example, involving more than 12,000 separate scent trials, dogs were able to identify lung and breast cancer patients by smelling samples of their breath. The dogs’ performance was not affected by the disease stage of cancer patients, nor by their age, smoking or recently eaten food.
I’ve met the dogs involved in these studies (Portuguese water dogs, and yellow and black Labrador retrievers) and I know the people who have designed and undertaken these studies, and I’ve been impressed. Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to be “screened” by the dogs to see if you have cancer, but there is every hope that the concepts explored in this research will lead in the future to cancer screening methods that are more accurate than mammograms, and less harmful.
The work of the Pine Street Foundation is a good example of the many new and hopeful possibilities that are emerging. Every day there are more people and groups blazing a path to healthy food, real prevention, and less toxic approaches to treatment. The Cancer Project, for example, advocates for nutritional approaches that reduce cancer risk. Breast Cancer Action carries the voices of people affected by breast cancer to inspire and compel the changes necessary to end the breast cancer epidemic. And Beyond Pesticides works to protect public health and the environment while leading the transition to a less toxic world.
Can genetically engineered foods help feed the hungry? Are anti-GMO activists and over-zealous environmentalists standing in the way of the hungry being fed?
The hope that GMO foods might bring solutions to malnutrition and world hunger was never more dramatically illustrated than when Time magazine ran a cover story titled “Grains of Hope.” The article joyfully announced the development of a genetically engineered “golden rice.” This new strain of GM rice has genes from viruses and daffodils spliced into its genetic instructions. The result is a form of rice that is a golden-yellow color (much like daffodil flowers), and that produces beta-carotene, which the human body normally converts into Vitamin A.
Nearly a million children die every year because they are weakened by Vitamin A deficiencies and an additional 350,000 go blind. Golden rice, said Time, will be a godsend for the half of humanity that depends on rice for its major staple. Merely eating this rice could prevent blindness and death.
The development of golden rice was, it seemed, compelling and inspiring evidence that GM crops could be the answer to malnutrition and hunger. Time quoted former U.S. President Jimmy Carter: “Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy, starvation is.”
Shortly after the Time cover story, Monsanto and other biotechnology companies launched a $50 million marketing campaign, including $32 million in TV and print advertising. The ads, complete with soft focus fields and smiling children, said that “biotech foods could help end world hunger.”
Other ad campaigns have followed. One Monsanto ad tells the public: “Biotechnology is one of tomorrow’s tools in our hands today. Slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford.”
Within a few months, the biotech industry had spent far more on these ads than it had on developing golden rice. Their purpose? “Unless I’m missing something,” wrote Michael Pollan in The New York Times Magazine, “the aim of this audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me — well-off first-worlders dubious about genetically engineered food — on the horns of a moral dilemma … If we don’t get over our queasiness about eating genetically modified food, kids in the third world will go blind.”
If you believe the ads, you’d think that lifesaving food is being held hostage by anti-science activists.
In the years since Time proclaimed the promises of golden rice, however, we’ve learned a few things.
For one thing, we’ve learned that golden rice will not grow in the kinds of soil that it must to be of value to the world’s hungry. To grow properly, it requires heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides — expensive inputs unaffordable to the very people that the variety is supposed to help. And we’ve also learned that golden rice requires large amounts of water — water that might not be available in precisely those areas where Vitamin A deficiency is a problem, and where farmers cannot afford costly irrigation projects.
And one more thing — it turns out that golden rice doesn’t work, even in theory. Malnourished people are not able to absorb Vitamin A in this form. And even if they could, they’d have to eat an awful lot of the stuff. An 11-year-old boy would have to eat 27 bowls of golden rice a day in order to satisfy his minimum requirement for the vitamin.
I’m sure that given enough time and enough money, some viable genetically modified (GM) crops could be developed that contain more nutrients or have higher yields. But I’m not sure that even if that were to happen, it would actually benefit the world’s poor. Monsanto and the other biotech companies aren’t developing these seeds with the intention of giving them away. If people can’t afford to buy GM seeds, or if they can’t afford the fertilizers, pesticides and water the seeds require, they’ll be left out.
Poverty is at the root of the problem of hunger. As Peter Rosset, director of Food First, reminds us, “People do not have Vitamin A deficiency because rice contains too little Vitamin A, but because their diet has been reduced to rice and almost nothing else.”
And what, pray tell, has reduced these people to such poverty and their diets to such meager fare? In the words of the British writer George Monbiot:
“The world has a surplus of food, but still people go hungry. They go hungry because they cannot afford to buy it. They cannot afford to buy it because the sources of wealth and the means of production have been captured and in some cases monopolized by landowners and corporations. The purpose of the biotech industry is to capture and monopolize the sources of wealth and the means of production …
“GM technology permits companies to ensure that everything we eat is owned by them. They can patent the seeds and the processes which give rise to them. They can make sure that crops can’t be grown without their patented chemicals. They can prevent seeds from reproducing themselves. By buying up competing seed companies and closing them down, they can capture the food market, the biggest and most diverse market of all.
No one in her right mind would welcome this, so the corporations must persuade us to focus on something else … We are told that … by refusing to eat GM products, we are threatening the developing world with starvation, an argument that is, shall we say, imaginative …”
The biotech companies have invested billions of dollars because they sense in this technology the potential for enormous profit and the means to gain control over the world’s food supply. Their goal is not to help subsistence farmers feed themselves. Their goal is maximum profit.
While Monsanto would like us to believe they are seeking to alleviate world hunger, there is actually a very dark side to the company’s efforts. For countless centuries farmers have fed humanity by saving the seed from one years crop to plant the following year. But Monsanto, the company that claims its motives are to help feed the hungry, has developed what it calls a “Technology Protection System” that renders seeds sterile. Commonly known as “terminator technology” and developed with taxpayer funding by the USDA and Delta & Pine Land Company (an affiliate of Monsanto), the process genetically alters seeds so that their offspring will be sterile for all time. If employed, this technology would ensure that farmers cannot save their own seeds, but would have to come back to Monsanto year after year to purchase new ones.
Critics refer to these genetically engineered seeds as suicide seeds. “By peddling suicide seeds, the biotechnology multinationals will lock the world’s poorest farmers into a new form of genetic serfdom,” says Emma Must of the World Development Movement. “Currently 80 percent of crops in developing countries are grown using farm-saved seed. Being unable to save seeds from sterile crops could mean the difference between surviving and going under.”
To Monsanto and other GMO companies, the terminator and other seed sterilizing technologies are simply business ventures that are designed to enhance profits. In this case, there is not even the implication of benefit to consumers.
I wish I could speak more highly of GM foods and their potential. But the technology is now held tightly in the hands of corporations whose motives are, I’m afraid, very different from what they would have us believe.
Despite the PR, Monsanto’s goal is not to make hunger history. It’s to control the staple crops that feed the world.
Will GMOs help end world hunger? I don’t think so.
The debate over healthcare can be intensely polarizing. But whatever role you believe government should play, one fact is indisputable. The cost of health care just keeps on rising. In fact, medical care now represents nearly 20% of total US GDP.
Health care spending is so far out of control that not only individuals and families, but also the entire economy is buckling under the strain. General Motors spends so much money for its employees’ health care that Warren Buffet has called the corporation “a health and benefits company with an auto company attached.” Each year, General Motors, like Ford and other U.S. automakers, pays more than $1,500 in health care costs for every car they make. Japan’s Honda pays only $150.
The chairman and CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, says that his company spends more money on insurance for its employees than it spends on coffee.
It hasn’t always been like this. We now spend more than $2.5 trillion annually on medical care. But as recently as 1950, Americans spent only about $8.4 billion ($70 billion in today’s dollars). The increase has been mind-boggling. After adjusting for inflation, we now spend as much on health care every ten days as we did in the entire year of 1950.
But Aren’t We Healthier Than Ever?
Perhaps skyrocketing spending could be justified if the result was greatly improved health for the nation’s citizens. But the truth is that our health has actually been declining. According to a 2005 Johns Hopkins University analysis, “On most health indicators, the US relative performance declined since 1960; on none did it improve.”
Despite spending far more per capita on health care than any other nation, the U.S. now ranks a dismally low 37th among nations in infant mortality rates, and 38th in life expectancy. In 2010, the World Health Organization assessed the overall health outcomes of nations. It placed 36 other countries ahead of the United States. We are fast becoming the fattest and sickest industrialized country in world history.
What Should We Do?
This would be tragic in any case, but it is especially so because we know exactly how to bring down the costs of health care while dramatically improving our health.
Studies have shown that 50 to 70 percent of the nation’s health care costs are preventable, and the single most effective step most people can take to improve their health is to eat a healthier diet.
If we were to stop overeating, to stop eating unhealthy foods, and to instead eat more foods with higher nutrient densities and cancer protective properties, we would have a more affordable, sustainable and effective health care system. We’d be less dependent on insurance companies and doctors, and more dependent on our own health-giving choices.
The typical American diet is producing devastating rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. It’s making us sick, and it’s bankrupting our families, our companies, and our government. If you were to design a diet to promote heart disease, cancer and diabetes, you’d be hard pressed to do better than what many of us in the US eat today.
Benjamin Franklin spoke of becoming “healthy, wealthy and wise.” We are doing the exact opposite.