GM Foods: Heading for a Train Wreck?

It really has all the elements of an old-time action thriller: the forces of good and evil, the unsuspecting victim, the damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks while the locomotive chugs mindlessly towards its destination, and, of course, the dastardly villain causing trouble behind the scenes. I’m talking of course, of the longstanding battle raging over genetically modified foods, which seems to be heading towards some kind of climax.

On the one hand, you have the California ballot initiative that would require all foods containing GMOs to be labeled, the way it is in most of the rest of the world. The way that the industry is fighting this, you would think that the state wants to ban these foods entirely. But all the “right to know” initiative is asking, as its name suggests, is for people to be aware of what they are buying so that they can make an informed choice.

The biotech industry has long held the position that ‘if they knew what was in it, they wouldn’t eat it,’ (which is probably true of a lot of the foods being sold today) to which their response has been, ‘let’s make sure they don’t find out.’

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has agreed to begin selling Monsanto’s genetically modified sweet corn in their stores all across the country. Wal-Mart is America’s largest grocery store, with more than 15% share in 75 major markets. This will be the first time GM foods have been sold directly to consumers, rather than as ingredients in prepared food.

Food activist Michael Pollan has said that GM foods are not fundamentally evil, though they should be adequately labeled. The food may or may not be evil, but the way that some of its purveyors are behaving is another story altogether.

Take, for example, the way that biotech companies have used their financial muscle to co-opt Congress into doing their bidding. They have inserted their wish list, in the form of several riders into the Farm Bill that would prohibit EPA from reviewing any genetically engineered crop under the Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. It would also provide an extremely short time frame to hold up the approval of any GMOs. If no objection is raised within that time frame, the new food would be automatically approved. It would also limit any review process to their friends in the USDA. The changes would also make it all but illegal for farmers to grow anything but genetically modified crops. And they would allow GM crops to be planted even if they are deemed illegal by the courts. The sheet audacity of these insertions is absolutely mind-blowing. Is it not analogous to a group of felons kidnapping key members of Congress and forcing them, at gunpoint to rewrite the sections of the criminal code that applies to them? The only difference is that cash and the promise of more cash, rather than guns are providing the incentive.

If that wasn’t bad enough, their lackeys in the House have tried to bypass the standard conference committee process by substituting a more industry-friendly version of the bill that was never approved by the full house, for the one that was.

Fortunately, the Farm Bill imploded, largely because House Republicans couldn’t decide whether they would rather give breaks to biotech, or refuse to spend money altogether. Sadly, this leaves farmers, who have been devastated by this summer’s record heat and drought, uncertain as to whether they will receive any kind of aid. Of course, these are only the latest in an ever-growing list of grievances against these companies, Monsanto in particular, who has made a lot of enemies by throwing their weight around and bullying farmers, legislators and consumers alike.

Meanwhile, the science, like a child hiding under the bed while his parents are throwing dishes at each other, is trying to get someone’s attention. Numerous studies have concluded that GM crops not only fall short of their agronomic claims, such as higher yields and reduced chemical use, but they also pose significant health risks in the form of toxins, allergens and inferior nutrition. A recent study conducted in Russia, also found that hamsters fed Monsanto’s GM soy for two years gave birth to infertile offspring (in the third generation), caused increased rates of infant mortality, and stunted growth. It also caused strange pathologies in some of these animals, like hair growing inside their mouths. The infertility finding was particularly troubling. Most of the testing, conducted by industry and accepted by the FDA for approval, did not follow the animals for three generations. Given these kinds of potential harms, are you ready to feed this stuff to your family?

Speaking of children, Monsanto recently sponsored the release of a children’s activity book entitled, “Look Closer at Biotechnology.” Apparently they want to do what they can to ensure that today’s children won’t have the same objection to this type of food that many of their parents do. According to the work book, which is filled with games and puzzles and cartoon-like pictures of children with happy faces, “You will see that biotechnology is being used to figure out how to: 1) grow more food; 2) help the environment; and 3) grow more nutritious food that improves our health.” What could possibly be wrong with that?

If only that were true. According to Michael Pollan, GM foods will disappear within a decade. Why? Because they do not live up to their claims and they do not provide any value, only risk, to consumers. “We’ve yet to see the GM product that the computer people would call the ‘killer app’.” The whole industry is being propped up by Monsanto’s incestuous relationship with the government, and according to Pollan, the products themselves will prove to be a failed experiment that simply didn’t live up to its promise. “In ten years we won’t be talking about it [GM]. It hasn’t been that successful.”

In other words, if there is any justice remaining in this country, the whole thing will just collapse like a house of cards.

[Image credit: jwinfred: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

9 responses

  1. Genetic modification is the fundamental mechanism of evolution.  To propose that it can’t be intellligently directed is unreasonable. What sets humans aside from other species is our ability to optimize our enviornment.  Not all of our tool building attempts are successful – empiricism is still the cornerstone of development and we should welcome our failures as opportunities for insight.  The human race is at the first stage of understanding how to modify DNA to our benefit – doing it badly is a requisite first step to doing it well.  Let’s not embrace Luddism in response to any initial missteps.

    1. John, I think the jury is still out on whether transgenic manipulation of the kind not found in nature (e.g. splicing genes from a fish into a tomato, or bacteria into corn) can ultimately provide more good than harm. No doubt each case must be evaluated individually and far more carefully than is being done today in the rush to profit.But let us remember that all good science begins with observation. Observation then forms hypothesis which suggests governing principles and laws. It’s become clear that applied science and technology in their enthusiasm have rushed past some critical system boundaries and overrun them. Now is the time to step back and reconsider what those governing laws and system boundaries are. I would hope that in the future no scientist would propose violating the laws of biology, or the laws of nature, any more than he would consider violating the laws of physics. To do so, would be a replay of the kind of scientific hubris that has gotten into the situation we are in today. We need to internalize the fact that it is not only whether or not we can do something, but additionally, and perhaps more importantly whether we should. We’ve proven that we can break the system. That should give us pause.

  2. I sympathize with scientists who are definitely advancing our understanding of how things work.  But remember there are many issues with GM food that are not science related.   Most notably their ability to be patented and thus put more and more of our food supply under the legal ownership of a small number of large corporations.   We need less processed, industrial food.  Not more.

    1.  I agree, Devon. Clearly the widespread adoption of these crops has as much to do with the work of lobbyists as it does of scientists. How can it be otherwise, when, as Pollan points out, they simply don’t work that well? Yes, farmers like them because they get to spray more, but that is a short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating approach to pest control as any classical geneticist will tell you. But look who’s selling them the spray. Follow the money.

      One other point for Johnveen:
      As sentient beings we can indeed conceptualize amazing ideas that extend well beyond the natural limits of our ecosystems. But, as experience is beginning to show, we implement them at our own peril and that of our fellow inhabitants.Our imaginations and our desires are limitless, our ecosystems are not.

  3. I think *evil* is a bit of a strong word here. There’s nothing evil about GMO crops. Personally I find them fascinating. there is also very little likelihood that they are dangerous if eaten… now, possible ecosystem damage due to pesticides is another story.

    Still, a company like Monsanto has a certain point of view in terms of using technology to improve food. I don’t really have a problem with that point of view as long as it’s easy to avoid it if you can. That’s the whole point of labeling. SO even though I’m happy to eat GMO food, or at least consider it, I have absolutely no problem with labeling.

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