If you shop in major grocery stores, chances are you’re eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. An estimated 70 percent of processed foods, including soup and corn chips, contain genetically engineered ingredients, and over 90 percent of the world’s GMOs are owned by the biotech goliath Monsanto.
Listen to the Your Call show that explores the question: How are genetically engineered crops affecting foods?
According to the Center for Food Safety, “a number of studies over the past decade have revealed that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment. Human health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression and cancer. The use of genetic engineering in agriculture will lead to uncontrolled biological pollution, threatening numerous microbial, plant and animal species with extinction, and the potential contamination of all non-genetically engineered life forms with novel and possibly hazardous genetic material.”
Thirty countries around the world, including Peru and Hungary, have either banned or have plans to ban GMOs. Here in the United States, you’re on your own. GMOs aren’t even regulated.
Monsanto has all of its bases covered in the US. Michael Taylor, a former lawyer whose clients included Monsanto, worked as a policy commissioner for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. While there, oversaw the development of government policy. He then served as Monsanto’s vice president for public policy from 1998 to 2001. In 2009, under the Obama administration, he returned to his old job, becoming senior advisor to the commissioner of the FDA. Over the past few decades, several executives have moved back and forth between Monsanto and the government, highlighting the ongoing problem with revolving door.
How did we get here?
In the must-see documentary, The World According to Monsanto, former vice-president George HW Bush is shown touring the company’s headquarters on May 15, 1987. During a conversation with Monsanto executives about a request before the USDA to test genetically engineered soybeans, he said, “Call me, we’re in the dereg business.” Deregulation or no regulation at all continued through several administrations.
In 1996, the Clinton administration approved genetically engineered soybeans, the country’s first ever bioengineered crop to hit the market. Since then, genetically engineered crops have spread far and wide, now covering over 250 million acres of land in North and South America.
The biotech industry and its proponents said genetically engineered plants offer increased crop yields, enhanced nutrition, and protection from infestations of pests and weeds.
Scientists and government officials who’ve disagreed with these claims by raising questions and concerns have been silenced and even fired.
In the film, Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture under the Clinton administration from 1995 – 2000, said when he was involved in the regulation of biotechnology in the early years, there was a feeling inside that government that if you weren’t marching lockstep forward in favor of rapid approvals of GMO crops, you were anti-science.
“I had a lot of pressure on me not to push the issue too far. Even when I opened my mouth in the Clinton administration, I got slapped around a little bit by not only the industry, but also some of the people in the administration,” he said. “I made a speech once saying we needed to more thoughtfully think through the regulatory issues on GMOs and I had some people within the Clinton administration, particularly in the US trade area, that were very upset with me. They said, how can you in agriculture be questioning our regulatory regime?”
James Maryanski, Biotechnology Coordinator for the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition from 1985 – 2006, admitted in the film that regulation is based on politics, not science.
In public, FDA officials used to say there's a profound difference between GMOs and non-GMOs, but FDA documents show the agency ignored alarming safety warnings from their own scientists. In 1994, attorney Steve Druker sued the FDA forcing the agency to declassify its internal files on GMOs.
“We received over 44,000 pages from the FDA's own files and they revealed that the FDA has been lying to the world since 1992 if not before,” he said in the film. “But they continue to lie. They are still lying. They claim that there’s an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that genetically engineered foods are as safe as their conventionally produced counterparts. They claim that there has been sufficient data to back up this consensus. Both of those claims are blatant lies.”
So where does this leave citizens? What does this mean for the future of food? How are GMOs affecting our health, agriculture, and the environment? In Europe, these questions are regularly explored in the media. That’s not the case in the US.
This weekend in San Francisco, the California Biosafety Alliance is hosting ‘Justice Begins with Seeds,’ a conference focusing on the future of food and farming and how genetic engineering is affecting farmers’ livelihoods and the global food supply.
Your Call invited Monsanto, the USDA, and several university professors who advocate for the use of GMOs, to join our show, but they all declined our interviews.
Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First and author of Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice
Ignacio Chapela, associate professor of microbial ecology at UC Berkeley
Mike Ludwig, Truthout reporter who covers the biotech industry
Jim Gerritsen, organic seed farmer in northern Maine and one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Monsanto