Our Food, Our Right to Know

“Future historians may well look back and write about our time, not about how many pounds of pesticide we did or did not apply; but by how willing we were to sacrifice our children and jeopardize future generations based on flawed promises and flawed science, just to benefit the ‘bottom line’ of a commercial enterprise. Greed has been a very powerful motivating factor and it is out there and it is our enemy.” —Dr. Michael McNeill

The climax of this year’s food fight is upon us. In one corner, Coloradoans demanding the “Right to Know” if the food they buy contains GMOs (genetically-modified organisms). In the other, Monsanto and the non-organic food industry claiming labeling will hurt farmers and our wallets.

I won’t go into how the ads on the anti-labeling side of Proposition 105 are deceptive—you can look it up and see for yourself. Here’s a report on just one of those ads: And I won’t tell you I’m unbiased. I certainly am not. Fifteen years of following the subject makes that impossible.

What I find the most disheartening is that we’re fighting at all. Sixty-four countries, including China, India, and Russia require labeling—China has even turned away shipments of our GMO grain, costing us billions of dollars this last year. But here, in the U.S.A., we have to fight for that right.

Some may not think GMO labeling is an important issue, but unless you eat 100% organic and never touch processed food, and never go to a conventional restaurant, GMOs are what’s for dinner. According to the Institute for Responsible Technology’s website: “Currently commercialized GM crops in the U.S. include soy (94%), cotton (90%), canola (90%), sugar beets (95%), corn (88%), Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%), and zucchini and yellow squash (over 24,000 acres).” Processed foods almost always contain one of these ingredients. There are two types of GMOs on the food market: those that are genetically engineered to withstand repeated doses of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, and those that are engineered to be pesticides, such as Monsanto’s Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium) corn.

I recently spent an October day at the Seeds of Doubt GMO Conference in Broomfield, Colorado. I was there from 8 A.M. to 3 P.M. listening to researchers, many of whom are medical doctors and scientists, speak about the GMO situation. Jeffrey Smith, America’s foremost filmmaker on the subject of GMOs in our food (Seeds of Deception, Genetic Roulette) and the man responsible for the event called it the “most powerful GMO firepower gathered in one place in the United States yet.” You can take a look at the speakers here and sample almost two hours of the lectures for free on the website through November 4th.

I attended because I’ve been concerned about GMOs since I first heard of them back in the ’90s. I was a young mom then, and a new and enthusiastic master gardener who had just completed training through the CSU extension. I was also a writer searching for her subject. I hadn’t thought much about food until our daughters came along. Suddenly the health of my children, which was linked to the health of our planet, became real. As I was also newly obsessed with garden writing (I had just fallen in love with Michael Pollan’s first book Second Nature) I began to research. I started with reading about organically grown food. Should I buy it? Was it really better? That led to researching GMOs.

The more I learned, the more alarmed I became. It seemed so out of whack with nature—combining the DNA of not only different species but different animal kingdoms (such as a bacterium with a plant)—creating genetic combinations that would never, ever occur naturally. It seemed like something that could cause problems of epic proportions.

Others thought so, too. Here’s a GMO quote I read back in those early days, from Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-defense Guide for Consumers, published in 2000. It’s from EPA toxicologist Suzanne Wuerthele, as she spoke to four hundred Nebraska farm leaders in March 2000. “This is probably one of the most technologically powerful developments the world has ever seen,” she stated. “It’s the biological equivalent of splitting the atom.”

Take a moment to think on that one.

How sad it is that the potential problems I read about fourteen years ago—gene contamination in wild species and non-GMO varieties, death of beneficial pollinators, the speculation that these products would eventually require higher and more frequent doses of toxic pesticides and would bring about superweeds—how sad it is that these and other horrors have come true.

The day-long conference on October 11th was heavy in science; personal experiences with GMOs became as a secondary theme. We were given information on the potential problems of the Bt toxin in Monsanto’s GM corn, but received the most information on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, the formulation sprayed on all Roundup Ready GMO crops. These crops are genetically designed to withstand this deadly synthetic herbicide. And when I say deadly, I mean deadly. Roundup is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide that kills all plants and does so quickly.

When I became a master gardener, Roundup was touted as the miracle herbicide. It was said to break down in the soil in a few months, and we were told that it had no harmful effects on humans. What I learned at the conference is that the half-life of glyphosate in the soil is actually 22.5 years. When you spray it on a plant, the plant absorbs it and then exudes it into the surrounding soil, killing beneficial microbes. I learned that glyphosate is a chemical chelator that ties up minerals—such as magnesium, calcium, copper, zinc, and manganese. Glyphosate is now found in our water, in human urine, in our blood, in breast milk. We learned that there were horrific correlations between glyphosate ingestion and sickness and death, including miscarriages and birth defects in the offspring of many laboratory animals, farm animals, and humans.

One of the speakers was author Robyn O’Brien, a former financial and food analyst and mother of four who has been called “food’s Erin Brockovich” by Bloomberg and the New York Times.

O’Brien is perhaps best known for a TED talk she gave in Austin in 2011. In it she tells about how her youngest child had a violent allergic reaction during breakfast in 2006, her face literally “swelling shut.” The child was rushed to the pediatrician’s office and when O’Brien found that it was an allergic reaction to food, she was shocked. Growing up, she knew no one with food allergies. How, she wondered, could her child be allergic to food? She learned that allergies were on the rise in the U. S. that afternoon and soon “her analyst training kicked in.” She asked herself what had changed from the time she was a kid, to then. As she looked at our food supply, the biggest change she found was the introduction of GMOs. Her subsequent research prompted her to write The Unhealthy Truth.  It is now Amazon’s #1 best seller in books about food additives.

O’Brien shared information on what our current generation of children, now known to many as “Generation Rx,” is dealing with:

  • Cancer is now the leading cause of death in American children under age 15.
  • One child in 13 has a food allergy.
  • One child in 68 has autism.
  • One child in 10 suffers from asthma.
  • One in three American children is afflicted by allergies, asthma, ADHD, or autism.

As to adult health:

  • One in two men is expected to get cancer in his lifetime.
  • One in three women is expected to get cancer in her lifetime.
  • One in eight women is expected to get breast cancer, and it’s only genetic with one in ten.
  • O’Brien, along with the other speakers, took care to say, regarding GMOs and illnesses: “We know correlation does not equal causation.” O’Brien also spoke about how we have no idea how other food additives and GMOs might interact in the human body. There have been no studies.

There were more personal stories. Jill Carnahan, M.D. was reared on an Iowa family farm with three siblings. Her father and brothers still farm there. Thirteen years ago, as a 25-year-old medical student, Carnahan was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, a cancer almost unheard of in someone her age. She fought her illness and survived, only to be met with another affliction a year later—Crohn’s disease. Dr. Carnahan’s sister developed thyroid cancer at the age of 28. Dr. Carnahan’s functional medicine approach practice has a waiting list booked a year in advance. She became emotional telling us about the messages left at her office—sick people begging her to see them, crying. They wanted more than pills that treated symptoms; they wanted answers. They wanted to know what they could do. Dr. Carnahan said that we are living in “a toxic soup.” She likened our health risks, environmental, genetic, and psychological, as the contents of a “toxic bucket” that, when full, leaves our bodies open to infection and disease. When she showed us her “Clean Diet 101” list of foods to promote health, non-GMOs were near the top of the list.

We also heard from the soft spoken, white-haired Michael McNeill, an agronomist who received his Ph.D. in quantitative genetics and plant pathology from Iowa State University in 1969. He has been a crop consultant since 1983. Dr. McNeill, who farms organically, thanked us for the “day off,” as he was filling in for another speaker, and joked that he’d normally be on a combine on a Saturday morning.

Dr. McNeill covered the toxicity of glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient. Glyphosate is especially damaging after it reaches 10 p.p.m. (parts per million). He informed us that the government is increasing the glyphosate allowed in food and shared that some foods are now recorded to have up to 800 p.p.m. We learned that GMOs make up 90% of the feed given to conventionally raised meat animals. He showed slides; the red, irritated stomach from a GMO-fed hog in comparison with the normal stomach from a non-GMO-fed hog. He showed slides of the carcasses of two yearling heifers—one with yellow fat (GMO fed) and one with no yellow fat (not fed GMOs). He said the yellow fat would be typical of a 15-year-old animal. Dr. McNeill pointed out that one of the problems farmers face is no one will pay a good price for an animal in that condition. Dr. McNeill said that as a chelator, glyphosate binds minerals—both in the soil, and in bodies, making vital minerals inaccessible. This makes the organism (plant or animal) susceptible to many types of disease; with plants it brings on rapid death.

Stomach problems, just one of many issues seen since GMOs began to be used as animal feed, can lead to behavioral changes. Dr. McNeill explained: “My brother had a hog confinement system, 3,000 head of hogs in a barn, and it became my job to bail him out and help load pigs when they were ready for market. As we moved into the GMO feed those pigs became vicious. Vicious beyond control. And you get a 300 pound pig coming at you, you get out of the way. They’re irritated, and they’re mean, and they just don’t feel good. And they become dangerous to load. It’s become a real hazard loading these hogs out of containment systems.”

Dr. McNeill told about the day a very good friend of his, a dairyman, fed his cows in an outdoor lot. He was giving them GMO feed, and they became vicious. “They turned on him, stampeded over him, and killed him,” he said. Another of his friends was trampled in his pasture and had to be life-flighted to the Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Two of my good friends—one killed, one nearly killed,” said Dr. McNeill, “because of this irritation.”

According to all the speakers, there has never been adequate testing of GMOs in the United States. Speaker Steven M. Druker, J. D., says this is a result of the FDA not upholding a law about food safety that has been on the books since the late 1950s. His new exposé, Altered Genes Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public, tells the history behind this law, how it was ignored, and what needs to be done about it now. It will be released this month with a forward by Jane Goodall, who praises it as “without doubt one of the most important books of the last 50 years.”

According to Druker, the single group who is most to blame for the GMO deception, a group that has known about the problems with GMOs from the very beginning but has subverted the information and/or remained silent—is our own scientific community.

Monsanto’s inadequate and flawed scientific studies were a focus of talks given by world-renowned scientists Dr. Michael Antoniou and Dr. Gilles-Eric Séralini. Dr. Antoniou, from England, has 28 years experience in genetic engineering research and holds inventor status on a number of gene expression biotech patents. He explained at length the flaws in Monsanto’s 90-day study of rats that were fed GMOs and the flaws in their GMO corn study. Dr. Séralini, who did his own two-year study of the effects of GMO food on rats, claimed that Monsanto manipulated the very rules of scientific research in their study. (Some of you may have seen the photographs with of the huge tumors on rats—these were from Dr. Séralini’s study.) At the end of his lecture Dr. Antoniou stated, “I can reassure you that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMO foods. You’ll have groups of scientists here, pro-GMO groups in the United States here, arguing that there is an international consensus within science on the safety of GM foods and that the debate is over and that we need to go forward. That is an absolute LIE.”

There were over a dozen speakers in attendance. Topics were varied and included: the horrors of birth defects (babies born without brains) in Córdoba, Argentina, where there was aerial Roundup spraying for years; a slide of a stillborn calf with arthritis; the negative impact of GMOs on honeybees; personal evidence of mice shunning GMO corn; how glyphosate breaks down into formaldehyde which is also a carcinogenic, allergenic, and contributes to reproductive problems; and how the Bt corn toxin has been found in the circulatory systems of pregnant women in Canada.

Time after time we heard that we need more studies.

By the time I left this conference I was more than a little shaken up. It was impossible to see the situation as anything other than difficult and grim. It’s one thing to know we have great power as individuals in our buying choices and in sharing knowledge; it’s another to think about how much is truly needed in order to remedy the situation.

This year in Colorado we’re fighting it out at the polls. The labeling opposition is well-funded.  (During the conference we learned that Monsanto, just that week, had just reported a 23.3% increase in earnings from its chemical applications.) The labeling side struggles to raise money and awareness. There has been complete inactivity and help on this issue from Washington, D. C. (to say the least); we, at least for now, are on our own.

Still, the news is good. This movement is now unstoppable and growing. Even if we do lose this latest labeling initiative, this time, we will be back again to fight. In Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut, legislation for the labeling of GMOs has passed. And this year, there were 35 pieces of legislature introduced in 20 states.

It’s our right. It’s our time.

Perhaps Robyn O’Brien said it best:

“We’re not asking them to reinvent the wheel. We’re simply saying we want you to place the same value on the lives of our families that you’ve placed on the lives of families that live in the U.K., Europe, Japan, Australia, Russia, China, and India. And when they labeled these ingredients in those countries it did not cause economic ruin and collapse. The price of groceries did not change, at all, and the farmers were totally fine. So all that messaging that you hear out there—that is P.R. spin for their product. The truth is in the 64 countries around the world that have given their citizens this informed choice.”