The Call and Times, Column 21 – Just Label It: GMO Labeling in Rhode Island

27 05 2015

(May 24th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Just Label It: GMO Labeling in Rhode Island

Yesterday [Saturday], millions of people around the world took to the streets in the annual March Against Monsanto, including in our own capitol of Providence. All were united under a common belief – our food system is sick, and genetically modified (GMO) crops are a symptom, not a cure.

Last year, I wrote about GMOs, and why they might not be such a great bargain for the consumer. Without repeating too much, here’s a quick recap.

Genetic engineering is when the plant’s DNA is changed in such a way that would not otherwise occur in nature. Few legitimate safety assessments have been done on these crops, but in light of the modern understanding that of the complex expression of genes, and a study performed by French molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini that linked GMO corn to cancer and hormone imbalance, there’s genuine reason for concern.

These crops were first grown in the US in 1994, but have now dominated the market – upwards of 85% of the corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, and sugar beets grown here are GMO.

Around 70 countries worldwide have mandatory labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. These people and their governments are weary of GMOs for a variety of reasons, which mostly boil down to: the negative effect on human health of carcinogens, toxic chemicals, and novel allergens; the environmental dangers of increased topsoil loss, pesticide use, and crop monocultures, and uncontrollable “genetic drift”; and the social and political inequities involving Intellectual Property (IP) laws and lax federal regulation, which result in lawsuits and farmer suicides.

Monsanto is the biotechnology company that controls a significant portion of the seed market worldwide. While genetic engineering is more generally used to force crops into the broken mold of industrial agriculture, there are two major varieties of GMO seeds that Monsanto produces. Bt crops have been engineered so that the plant produces it own toxic pesticide, and RoundUp Ready crops are engineered to survive liberal applications of the toxic herbicide glyphosate – both result in toxic residues, destined for your dinner plate.

In response to all of this, concerned consumers have a simple request for their government – label foods produced with GMO ingredients so we can make informed decisions about what we eat. It’s a shame that this simple label has stirred up such controversy, and is opposed so strongly by (emphasis) industrial farmers and special interest groups. Here’s the simple, reasoned argument for the labeling GMOs:

1) Consumption of GMOs is risky for the consumers. As discussed earlier, our health, environmental welfare, and social equity are all negatively affected by GMO agriculture.

2) But it doesn’t provide us any benefit. Flavor and nutrition aren’t improved, and yields don’t really increase on the long-term, so the end product isn’t better, cheaper, or more abundant.

3) They’re easy to label. Farmers know what they’re growing, distributors and retailers know what they’re buying, and companies often change a few pixels of ink without so much objection.

4) Therefore, it’s reasonable to ask for labels. The society-wide benefit of truthful labels is much greater than the benefit of continued misinformation. For capitalism to function correctly, consumers need the information to make rational decisions.

5) People want labels! Polls consistently show 80 to 90% of people want their food labels to be truthful about GMO ingredients, because, surprisingly, they care about what they put in their and their families’ bodies.

6) The duty of the government is to provide for the common welfare. This is in our founding documents and is central to the definition of a representative democracy.

And so, labels are reasonable, they are desired by the people, and they are the government’s duty – in the paraphrased words of Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield yogurt, “just label it!”

So now, the question that I hope is on all of your minds: “What can I do about this?” I’m glad you asked.

Personal changes – buying organic or certified non-GMO when possible and growing your own food – are good ways to minimize risk to your family in the short-term. However, the most difficult battles are won by armies, not individuals.

There are currently bills in the Rhode Island Senate and House of Representatives that would mandate the truthful labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. They have a lot of support, but are currently sitting on committee tables, waiting for us – the consumers, the electorate, the eaters – to convince our elected officials to pass them. We have an opportunity to stand with Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont in a regional push for common sense transparency in food labeling, setting the precedent for the rest of the nation.

I’m working with Right to Know Rhode Island, the organization responsible for promoting the GMO labeling law in our state. Yesterday marked the beginning of our 2015 Week of Action: each day, we invite you to engage your family, friends, and elected officials in different ways, so that we can send a strong, unified message that we have a right to know what’s in our food.

Tuesday, you should Call Your Legislator; Wednesday, we want to Grow the Network of our institutional partners; Thursday in Movie Night, where we will host screenings of the documentary film, GMO OMG; Friday, we need to Stop the DARK Act, in which the federal government is attempting to illegalize state GMO labeling laws; and Saturday, we will be Targeting Leadership by canvassing the district Senator Josh Miller, and chair of the Senate Committee where the bill is being held.

Please go to http://righttoknowri.org/, and http://righttoknowri.org/woa2015/ for more information about each day of action, and to find out how to get involved.

I will be hosting a screening of GMO OMG in the Woonsocket Harris Public Library the next Monday, June 1st, at 7pm. There will also be a screening in the Rochambeau Library in Providence. We hope to see you there.

And now, like I often do, I’ll leave you with a bit of an enigma to ponder as you participate in our Week of Action. The opponents of truthful labeling argue that a mandatory label is as good as a skull-and-crossbones – “if we label it, people won’t buy it!”

Now, readers, if knowing a simple fact about their food would actually make people less likely to buy it, if people would choose not to consume something because their personal assessment, to which they are absolutely allowed in our free society, finds the risks too great and the benefits too few – how, then, is the appropriate, governmentally-endorsed response to withhold that information from them? At what point are we no longer entitled to make such decisions for ourselves?

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call and Times, Column 4 – Agricultural Genetic Engineering

18 02 2014

(January 3, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Do These Genes Fit?

            How would you feel if you learned that much of the food you eat is genetically modified? Most people are completely unaware of that fact, and I’d be hard-pressed to say that this widespread unawareness isn’t exactly the intention of the companies and politicians that have stood to benefit from this technology.

One of the defining characteristics of an urban farmer is a concern for the quality of the food that he eats, and a working knowledge of the many problems with modern agricultural production. It is for this reason that I’ve chosen to temporarily shift gears this month, and discuss the issue of genetically modified (GMO) food. Given the many political, environmental, economic, and health-related concerns surrounding this issue, I hope that this discussion will leave you skeptical of the purported benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture, and motivated to further investigate this topic.

Before I move on, here’s a little primer. Genetic modification is when DNA fragments are taken from one organism and inserted into the DNA of another, ignoring the natural limitations of biological reproduction. This is done with the hope that the second organism will have specific, desired characteristics. In plant biotechnology, this usually means the combination of plant DNA with that of animals or bacteria, a process that would not otherwise occur in nature. This is often done so that cash crops will fit more readily into the processes of industrial agriculture – so they will resist pests or the application of herbicide, show fewer visible signs of being past their prime, and produce bigger yields at the expense of taste and nutrition.

Genetically modified crops were first grown commercially in the United States in 1994. As of this writing, upwards of 85% of the major cash crops grown here – corn, soybeans, canola, cotton/cottonseed, and sugar beets – are genetically modified. In the U.S., we dedicate more of our farmland to GMO crops than anywhere else, and unlike our government, much of the rest of the world heavily regulates, or outright bans, the growing or importing of these crops.

People and governments are wary of the technology for a variety of reasons, but most involve issues of health and environmental protection. From the perspective of the environment, GMO crops often exacerbate the negative effects of industrial agriculture – the depletion of topsoil, the use of herbicide and pesticide, and the growth of massive monocultures. There is also concern about a process called genetic drift, in which the pollen of genetically modified crops can (and does) escape into the environment, raising issues of biodiversity and patent infringement.

In terms of health, GMO foods have been implicated in new allergies and allergenic chemicals, and more disturbingly, an uptick in cancers. To this point, a research study was published last year by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a French professor of molecular biology. The study found a significant increase in cancer generation, hormone imbalance, and other health defects in rats which were exposed to genetically modified corn. Though there are detractors, this is one of the few independent safety studies that has been conducted, and it adheres more strictly to the scientific method than almost all others – and its findings are concerning, to say the least.

There is a single company that is often seen as the face of genetically modified seed in the United States – Monsanto. Monsanto started off as a chemical company, and was responsible for saccharine and aspartame (artificial sweeteners), Agent Orange (a defoliant used in the Vietnam War), DDT (a once widely-used pesticide), dioxin and PCB (highly carcinogenic industrial chemicals), and rBGH/rBST (a hormone for dairy cows). All of these products have negative human health implications, and the artificial sweeteners and rBGH/rBST are still widely used. Early in the 1980s, Monsanto was the first company to genetically modify a plant cell, and has since become primarily an agricultural biotechnology company. Now, they produce genetically modified seeds for two major varieties of crops: RoundUp Ready crops, which can survive being sprayed with the company’s signature weed-killer, RoundUp, and Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) crops, which create their own pesticide. These products are created entirely to fit the mold industrial agriculture, with little regard for the health of their customers or the environment.

As if the problems of genetically modified seed weren’t enough, Monsanto’s involvement makes it an issue of law and politics. To start, a series of Intellectual Property laws, beginning with the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970, have made it possible for biotechnology companies to obtain patents on DNA – as some have put it, Monsanto and its fellows are now allowed to own life. These patents give Monsanto the right to stop farmers from saving and replanting seed, a practice as old as agriculture itself. In addition, there have been cases in which Monsanto has sued farmers after their fields are unintentionally contaminated with patented seed.

With their lax standards and regulatory loopholes, our FDA has been useless in preventing the issues discussed above. On the contrary, they have been unwaveringly supportive of genetically engineered crops. There are many people in these agencies and the rest of the government, including the Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, who have ties to Monsanto and other biotechnology firms. Many believe that these regulatory agencies are unduly influenced by the corporate interests of Monsanto and its fellows, whose products they are supposed to be regulating. These conflicted interests result in regulatory policies that benefit companies like Monsanto, rather than protecting the American people as intended. To date, little has been done to hinder what is being called this “Revolving Door” between the agricultural biotechnology industry and the government.

With all of this, you are probably asking yourself – what can I do to help fix this?

My first suggestion is to educate yourself. The internet is a great resource for research on this issue, as are books like “The World According to Monsanto” by Marie-Monique Robin.

Next, get involved with the growing movement. There are public protest events, online forums, and various forms of multimedia with which you can get involved. As an example, last May, I attended a March Against Monsanto in Providence, with my family and Yvette Ayotte, who are also concerned about this issue. The next March is scheduled for May 24th, 2014.

Finally, change what you eat. For any products that there is a high chance of contamination by genetic modification, opt for organic or non-GMO certification (like the Non-GMO Project). Better yet, and this is where your urban green thumb comes in, grow it yourself. When you grow your food, you have the ultimate control over what does and doesn’t go into it. There are quite a few specifically non-GMO seed sources, like Fedco Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Bountiful Gardens, and any other company that has signed the Safe Seed Pledge.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Nerve

1 05 2012

First of all, sorry all for not posting in a while (has it been over a month?). I’ve been busy with school, an independent alternative energy project, etc.

That being said, here’s the way I see it:

Let’s say that I’m Monsanto (I know, I feel dirty already). 20 years ago, I developed this new technology – I found an efficient way to take genetic material from anywhere in any of the Kingdoms of Life, and put it in a plant. I also found a way to inject cows with something that makes them produce 10% more milk, no questions asked (except for a malfunctioning uterus, increased mastitis, and the chemically altered milk…shhh). I decided that these technologies were quite good, and because I had enough money from the last century of manufacturing toxic pollutants and my Better Living Through Plastic campaign, I went full-force in implementing them. So a little later, I was going about my business, slowly integrating my creations into the food supply, when out of blue, an obstructive Big Government gets in my way with unfounded questions like “Are you sure that’s safe?” and “Should the FDA label your stuff?”. Well, I put them in their place, or more accurately, I replaced them with my own people: Michael Taylor, Deputy Food Commissioner at the FDA, and Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice. You got it, they are both mine. Well, at this point, the unthinkable happened. Some idiots in the local and organic foods movement started talking about my business, my products, and my unannounced presence in the refrigerators of most Americans. They touted lies (i.e. complete truths) about how my genetic tinkering created new allergies, how my RoundUp gave people cancer, and how my milk made 8 year olds go through puberty – well, I would have none of that, so I did what any sensible multinational corporation would do, and denied it all. I hired lots of researchers to worship the merits of my products, got a bunch of lawyers to sue the pants off of people and governments in court, and insisted, in debate after debate, that my opponents had no true arguments and that they were just bitter Luddites. Also, just for good measure, I slapped the phrases “farmers” and “Feed the World” on my website a couple thousand times, to convince people of my altruism. Well, what good any of that did: it was time for brute, multinational corporate force. Try to label milk from cows treated with rBST…BOOM, you’ve got a multimillion dollar lawsuit on your sorry keister. Try to label GMOs…BOOM, lawsuits for everyone! Basically, I adopted the stance: I am here to stay, I make a bunch of probably dangerous food products, and if you don’t like that, too bad. You’re going to eat it, and if your government tries to give you the choice not to, everyone gets sued. Period. Deal with it. It’s not my problem. My newest strategy is working quite well, don’t you think?

Here’s some thoughts that have occurred to me along the way:

  1. Pretty much all of the things I genetically modify and sell are made into fat-based foods – soy, corn, cotton(seed), and canola are damn near the only sources of oil in the U.S. (aside from that olive oil, and those Europeans are hard nuts to crack with their objection to GMOs), and the milk is mostly made into cheese and butter. Plus, soybeans produce a chemical, phytoestrogen, similar to human estrogen (shh, don’t tell anyone) and the milk is laced with IGF-1, a human growth hormone. So, excessive amounts of lipids, sex- and growth-hormones in all the wrong places – I always say, “a fat, hormonally confused population is a subservient population”, so bring on the soybean oil and rBST milk!
  2. Once I got farmers to spray enough RoundUp and petroleum fertilizers on their farms while growing RoundUp resistant soybeans, they were pretty much hooked. Fertilizers depleted the natural fertility of the soil and the residual RoundUp made everything sterile and lifeless, so all they could plant next year was my soy – job security! Corn was pretty much the same. When the bugs became resistant to all but the most powerful pesticides (because of my overuse), I showed up with a corn that produces just that. Yum!
  3. A little slogan I like to live by: If something moves and it’s not a potential customer (so, if it’s a farmer or a bug), spray it with the most powerful neurotoxin available. If it’s a potential customer, give it high cholesterol and hormone imbalances with the ol’ Trinity of corn, milk, and soy, and launch a Monsanto Pharmaceuticals Division.

Am I not the most disgusting, immoral thing you’ve ever heard of? Well, guess what: As of January, 2010, I’m a legal Person in the United States, and I’m allowed to buy off your politicians and tell you nothing. What do you think of me now…….? That’s what I thought.

**Just as a quick note, I want to mention that, when I sarcastically refer to Monsanto’s use of helping farmers and feeding the world, it is not done with malice toward the farmers or poor people in third world countries. I believe in taking action to make sure there are no starving people, and it keeping at the forefront of my mind the value, tangible and intangible, that farmers add to society – I just don’t believe any of what Monsanto does actually helps any of these people, and is in fact making the third world poorer and the farmers bankrupt.





Monsanto, the bane of my existence

5 03 2012

Since Monsanto, the multinational chemical turned biotechnology company, has done more harm to the world in their 100 year tenure than any other person or company in history, I feel it fitting that my first post be a tribute of sorts to them. (All company history comes directly from Monsanto’s website, http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/monsanto-history.aspx)

Monsanto, originally a chemical company, was founded in 1901 by chemist John F. Queeny. In the hundred years between its founding and its conversion to a biotechnology company in 2000, Monsanto was responsible for quite a few well-known inventions:

  • saccharin and aspartame – artificial sweeteners that are believed to cause cancer and other health defects
  • 2-4D – a major ingredient in Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War to kill not only the enemy, but also innocent Vietnamese farmers and, yes, our own troops
  • Roundup – a powerful herbicide that, according to recent studies, causes cancerous tumors and effectively stops the body from fighting them
  • bovine growth hormone – rBGH, rBST, or Posilac; whatever name it is called, it increases cows’ milk production and gives them mastitis, polluting the milk with somatic cells (puss) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF, a human growth hormone)

And then, in the year 2000, EVERYTHING changed. Early in that year, Monsanto merged with a few other companies, and changed its name to Pharmacia Corporation. A few months later, Pharmacia Corporation spat out a subsidiary named – you guessed it – Monsanto, a primarily agricultural biotechnology firm that happened to have the same corporate structure, be staffed by the same people, and operate toward the same goals and products, as “the old Monsanto”. This was “the new Monsanto”, the self-proclaimed messiah, completely disconnected with the shady activities of its past.

Thus, we come to modern day. The Monsanto Company mainly produces what are called genetically engineered seeds. That is, plant organisms which have genetic material from another species, possibly from another taxonomic family entirely, forcibly inserted into their DNA, and that are only minimally tested for safety. Since around 1994, when the company first put its foot through the door of agribusiness, it has specialized in two major “products”, as they insist on calling the living creatures that they mutate and sell to the unknowing public – the Roundup Ready™ and Bt traits:

  • Roundup Ready™, as the name would imply, is a line of plants (mostly soybeans) that have been genetically modified to survive being liberally sprayed with the plant toxin glyphosate (the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand weed killer). What it does not say on the label is that glyphosate bonds to soil molecules, is taken up into the plant through its roots, and is consumed by innocent people like you and me, where it increases our risk of cancer while blocking our cells’ natural defenses against carcinogenesis (the formation of cancer).
  • Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis, is a soil bacteria whose genetic material is inserted into the DNA of plants (mostly corn), so that the organism will produce a toxic chemical, thus making the plant act as its own pesticide. The toxin is present in every bit of the plant, including the part we eat, and studies have shown that it is not as narrowly “targeted” to specific pests as the company would like us to believe.

At this, one might ask: “Well, what do I have to worry about? I eat corn on the cob a couple of times a summer, and I never eat soybeans. This stuff really doesn’t affect me, right?” This, my friends, brings us to the pièce de résistance, if you will, of Monsanto’s invisible corporate empire. According to recent estimates, upwards of 75% of processed foods in the US contain at least one genetically modified ingredient. Through a clever game of intellectual property rights, manufacturing demand, and the “revolving door syndrome” with the US government (issues I will address, in due course, at a later time), Monsanto has unilaterally ensured that some form of its products, especially processed extracts, of extracts, of corn and soy, manifest themselves in most of the things we eat every day. When you start to think about it, the list goes on and on: (high fructose) corn syrup, soy lecithin, citric and lactic acid, dextrose, soy protein concentrate, soybean oil, soy meal and corn flour, soy isolate, mono- and diglycerides, “natural flavors”, of course, and many, many others.

With such a presence in our modern world, your next question might be “Why have I never before heard of Monsanto Company?” To this, I can only say, you – all of us – were never supposed to. In the past decades, Monsanto has spent huge sums of money fighting citizen and government initiatives to label food that contains the company’s products. There is no “fine print” mentioning that the ingredients in any of the processed foods in the United States comes from Monsanto, and there is definitely no indication that they are derived from genetically modified sources. With the help of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with whom the company shares quite a few employees, Monsanto has constructed a system in which the public has absolutely no idea, unless they adamantly look for it, that the food they are eating is different than that eaten by their grandparents. The desire, the ultimate goal, of this shadowy entity seems to be a presence in every house, and every human body, in the world, while ensuring that its name never leaves the tongue of those destined to bear the effects of its unsafe creations. Forgive me, because I recognize that the way I say these ideas, they sound like conspiracy theories. I assure you, however, that they are far from that. Money and power make people to disturbing things, and the Monsanto Company is a perfect example of, in the paraphrased words of a blogger whose piece I read more than a year ago, “a company that is bat-s**t crazy with power”. Though it seems unreal, there is, in fact, a company that holds quite a bit of control over your life, and which takes great pains so that you have no idea that this is the case. What I have discussed here has only scratched the surface. There is a world of lies and deceit, both from this and other entities that feed you their poison and regulatory agencies that allow it to happen – and this is a topic I plan to cover at great length on this blog. At that, I leave you with a quote:

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”     George Orwell, 1984