Written by Fred Gerendasy
In this video, molecular biologist and organic, public domain plant breeder Alan Kapuler, shares his personal views on GMOs. Not only as a qualified scientific expert on the technology of genetic engineering, his unique perspective as a organic farmer and one who (literally) owes his life to genetic engineering goes beyond the talking points that are often presented by both sides of this ongoing debate.
Love of liberty means the guarding of every resource that makes freedom possible—from the sanctity of our families and the wealth of our soil to the genius [of] our scientists… Dwight David Eisenhower, 1953.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. Dwight David Eisenhower, 1961
In the post below, I share my own personal views on one of the most contentious issues of our time.
First, I have a confession to make.
The entire subject of genetically engineered foods puts me in a foul mood.
On the one side, the proponents who are comprised of the biotech industry, trade groups, scientists, farmers and others often tout the standard GMO talking points, summarized in succinct fashion, thusly: folks, the technology is safe, trust us, we have science on our side and those of us in lab coats, we’re pretty smart.
On the opposite side, industry groups (including the organic food industry), scientists, farmers, trade groups and others with their own set of talking points that can be summarized in succinct fashion, thusly: folks, GMOs are not safe, trust us, we have science on our side and we’re pretty smart too plus some of us are even hippies.
With no ax to grind, here’s what I have come to believe over a number of years talking with experts and reading articles and papers. I am not a scientist.
Although many people turn to science as an independent, evidence-based methodology for guidance on important societal issues including public (and personal) health matters, science is an evolutionary process. It’s a living body of knowledge that grows (and changes) over time and gradually coalesces around a consensus doctrine (truth). Climate science is an excellent, relatively recent example. Although there were scientists that clearly understood the implications and causality of human activity and the direction of global warming in the 1980’s, only in the past 10 years has a strong scientific consensus finally emerged (pdf).
On the issue of GMOs, I believe the science is simply not there— yet. There are certainly a plethora of studies that purport that the technology is safe. To the contrary, there are also a growing body of scientific studies that suggest GMOs may cause cancer and other serious health issues. There are also environmental concerns that have not been properly assessed.
There is no current scientific consensus around GMO safety based upon a solid body of evidence. To be more specific, to my knowledge, there are no long-term studies (10 years and beyond) that have examined the chronic exposure to GMO foods on a human population (or animals either) compared against a non-GMO diet to measure overall individual health. There have been no independent long-term studies on the effects of pesticides and the increase of pesticide usage (both on populations surrounding farms through direct exposure or on wide-scale human populations who consume varying levels of pesticide residues in the GMO foods that are eaten.
That’s just the surface stuff.
Digging deeper, the rot is systemic within both the scientific and regulatory system. For starters, many scientific studies are funded by the very industries that stand to gain or lose depending upon both the scope of a given study (what answers are being sought) and the results. Often, the kind of studies (as mentioned above) that independent researchers would like to investigate, the funding is not available because the industry has no interest in providing funds that (in effect) may harm their financial interests.
Also problematic, is the proprietary nature of the GMO products themselves. Living organism’s can now be legally owned and their use by others restricted. Indeed, the entire point of genetic engineering for commercial purposes, is dependent on proprietary intellectual property rights. Without patent protections, even if you believe that this technology will help feed the world, Monsanto and their ilk would not be involved.
Then, there’s the issue of GE contamination of non-GMO crops. By definition, organic crops tend to be more expensive (valuable) than both their conventional and GMO crop counterparts. One of the ongoing concerns in the organic world pertains to issues of cross-contamination, where a nearby crop may transfer certain GM traits to an organic related crop (a crop that’s part of the same family and is also susceptible to open pollination). Since the Supreme Court decision allowing commercial patents on living organisms (Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 1980) the law of unintended consequences has blown foul winds across the land.
As crazy as it sounds, a farmer in Canada was sued by Monsanto for copyright violations because some of his nonGMO crops were found to contain genes that were owned by Monsanto and of course he was not paying a license to grow them. In effect, this farmer who claimed he did not use any GMO seeds to grow his crops had to defend himself in court (and lost) though (depending on ones perspective) the apparent culprit was a nearby field owned by a farmer that had licensed the GMO seed from Monsanto. Beyond the specifics of this case, the party being polluted had potential liability. The party that was the polluter had no potential liability. Monsanto maintains that the farmer is lying, on their website, they write of Percy Schmeisser: “He’s simply a patent infringer who knows how to tell a good story.” Does this make sense to you? In addition, some organic farmers that sell to Europe and Japan are worried that their crops could become contaminated with GM and (through genetic testing) lose access to those foreign markets that do not want GMOs at almost any measurable level. If they should lose those markets, will they have future recourse in the courts?
It should also be noted, the ability of biotech companies to obtain patents on their genetically engineered plants also gives them the ability to restrict access to researchers.
Ah, but the muck continues to ooze further.
One of the talking points why GMOs were so invaluable to the human race was their supposed ability to reduce the amounts of pesticides that farmers would need to use in the field. Instead of having to rely on older (and more dangerous), systemic poisons like 2-4-D, farmers would be able to rely upon herbicides (in particular, Glyphosate, the principal ingredient in Round-Up) instead.
But just like the battle between the microbe and antibiotics—over time, bacteria develops resistance to particular antibiotics (news flash: there’s been a change in plans, man will not be able to conquer nature—good try, chaps :)) requiring stronger substitutes to combat infections. This has lead to real concern we may be running out of the antibiotic arsenal to fight certain infectious diseases. Translation: we may soon be entering a post-antibiotic world where a simple cut could lead to amputation and death.
We won’t talk about antibiotic resistance caused by agricultural practices related to factory farming. Suffice it to say, 80 percent of all antibiotic use is administered to livestock, not humans. Suffice it also to say, antibiotic resistance is likely less related to individual patients failing to adhere to the full antibiotic regimen (thus promoting antibiotic resistant strains to emerge), and physicians merely overprescribing to their patients. Just as personal identity theft has less to do with the individual failing to properly safeguard their sensitive information, than identity theft resulting from cyber attacks on large databases stored by the government and industry. But hey, we live in the rise of libertarianism—where the individual is their own form of god; to our own destiny and beyond :).
And finally, those factory farms we mentioned above. Those animals are often fed GMO corn and soy that we end up eating, as well. The old adage: you are what you eat. It should also be noted: you are what you eat, eats. That too, is not well understood by science, the effects on the animals who eat GMO corn and soy that we end up consuming.
By now, if you are one of those GMO believers, you’re possibly foaming at the mouth with rage reading this post. Lies! Ignorance! Propaganda! I hear you. You say: look at all the respected scientific organizations that have deemed GMO foods to be safe? What do you mean, no true scientific consensus, you moron (meaning me)? What about the National Academy of Sciences, the gold standard for scientific integrity and excellence throughout the world?
Since you asked:
In 2000 and again in 2004, the NAS weighed in on the safety of GMO foods. It said the foods were safe. But… They looked mainly at the genetics of the GMO crops; they did not examine the issue of the entire GE regimen on farming practices. Remember, the value of designing Round-Up resistant crops meant that it was now possible to spray Round-Up on the crops and only kill the weeds not the cash crop. But as herbicide use has gone up, resistance to Round-Up has emerged as a real problem. Now, the biotech industry is stacking resistant traits to withstand not only Round-Up but 2-4-D and Dicamba, two dangerous pesticides whose usage will also likely climb.
But that’s not the end of the National Academy of Sciences story. They may yet again be reviewing the GMO issue in 2016 from a wider perspective. Since their last review, more recent studies indicate that Round-Up is not as safe as once thought and is now listed as a probable carcinogen. Ironically, the principal ingredient may be less toxic than the adjuvants that are present in the commercial blends. In addition, because of the increase use of pesticides that are intwined with growing GMO crops, there has not been an examination of the effects of these chemicals on children and fetuses that’s required by federal law. To give a sense of what’s potentially at stake, these pesticides may produce epigenetic effects on workers in the field and surrounding communities. Possibly too, to a lesser extent through the consumption of food with pesticide residues. Epigenetic effects are considered more serious because not only can they increase the chances of the individual effected toward future diseases (cancer, for example), women who are effected, may pass those altered genes to their future progeny. This is not fear mongering or chasing shiny objects. This is merely one aspect of GMOs that’s not been properly assessed in scientific studies.
In addition, the NAS made certain recommendations from both their studies to monitor GMO foods in the general public. Those recommendations were not subsequently instituted by Congress.
Although the EPA expects that 2-4-D usage will increase 3-7 fold over the coming years, how much has pesticide usage actually increased in recent years? We don’t know. The government (EPA) stopped recording the actual usage in their national pesticide database since 2008.
Science is an incredibly powerful tool that can uncover truths that otherwise we (mere mortals) would not otherwise see. This powerful tool comes with several caveats if it’s to be truly useful to guide public policy and protect the general public. It requires good data. It requires good scientific protocols to ensure accurate and consistent results. It requires scientific integrity. It requires time. It requires adequate levels of funding to conduct independent scientific research. Nonindependent research (ie, research funded by industry) should be treated as suspect. If any one of those requirements is skirted, this powerful tool becomes less reliable and more prone to manipulation.
How can science evaluate over time whether the general public is being harmed by pesticides used in agriculture? That’s a big question, too big for this post (and probably this author) but one component is clearly missing. If we are not tracking actual agricultural pesticide usage, we don’t have data on the where, when, how and in what quantities and type are being applied in the field. That’s a pretty big piece of missing data.
In addition, imagine if government funding for independent research is inadequate. And, the studies being conducted, many are funded by industry? Does that sound an alarm? Of course it does, it goes right to the heart of scientific integrity, one of the bedrock principles good science (the science we can depend upon for reliable answers) depends upon. It’s a little like the politician that receives a pile of money from a wealthy donor, but says, hey, I’m my own man. Right :).
That’s where the present set of GMO safety concerns reside: in the shadow lands. We can turn to Science and pose the $64 question. Just as in 1960, we could have turned to Science, to ask: doctor, is smoking injurious to my health? Or in the 1940’s, just before the pre-frontal lobotomy operation, now doctor, this will cure my son? Or to the 1960’s, where mothers were discouraged by their doctors to breast feed their babies. Or when margarine was once deemed healthier than eating butter before they knew about trans-fats.
Or, we can look into the mirror, and ask ourselves this simple question: is it worth it?
If the answer is yes, by all means keep eating highly processed foods and urge your congressmen to block the GMO labeling laws to keep food prices at bay. Oh, by the way, have you noticed food prices rising over the past few years in your area? Gee, maybe we also need to add even more subsidies in the Farm Bill for the big commodity crop growers.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Perhaps the only saving grace of having systemic problems, it only requires a relative few number of changes to effect a powerful solution.
Here are my suggestions based more on common sense than technical expertise:
- Have congress pass federal legislation mandating that all food products containing GMOs be labeled as such.
- Reinstate the national pesticide database to ensure that agricultural data relating to usage is accurate and kept up to date.
- Levy a sizable tax upon the entire agricultural biotech industry in order to fund independent research to determine the long-term chronic effects of GMO foods on the general public. If we are to be guinea pigs, at least allow us to contribute to science regardless of the outcome, good or bad.
- Implement the safeguards that the NAS recommended in 2000 and 2004, and when they do another assessment—this time follow their council assiduously.
The only effective counter-balance to corporate control is government. However, if government is in bed with corporations, those safeguards—the very essence of what defines a democracy—is directly threatened.
Toward that end, I add these additional recommendations to the short list above:
- Eliminate the revolving door for those in Congress. Require that a minimum of 10 years pass once leaving office before any type of related industry employment (including independent contractor status, speaking engagements, lobbying efforts, etc.) be allowed.
- Make it a felony crime to introduce any legislative bill that contains language, written in-whole or in-part by outside lobbyists.
- Make all contributions whether to individuals in office, running for office, to PAC’s and super Pac’s, be required to disclose the identity of every donor and the amounts given. If we are going to open the flood gates for money, let’s make it fully transparent.
- Same goes for scientists. Those doing research or performing any type of outreach endeavor, make it a requirement to disclose all financial industry dealings relating to their work.
- Lastly. Restore treble damages at the federal and state level for all (public health related) injury lawsuits now and into the future as a direct result of the introduction of new technologies. Make the standard, not only what you know, but what reasonably should have been known—the new standard for conduct and potential future liability.
Hey, this is all very timely. After a setback on GMO labeling in the House, the Senate may be set to look at the labeling issue in the Fall (2015). Maybe someone will pass this on to a key senator as a source of possible suggestions.
I’m in a much better mood now. This post is over.