Although I pay attention to politics, I’d never been involved in a campaign until last year. “2014?” you might say. “That’s so last year.” It was not a campaign for a candidate, however; it was for an issue that remains just as relevant today: labeling GMOs. This issue hits close to home for me since I grew up on a farm in Indiana.
The mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) crops or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food was on the ballot in Oregon, where I live, as voter-initiated Measure 92. Out of 1.5 million votes cast, the measure to label GMOs lost by just a few hundred votes. It was the most expensive ballot measure in Oregon history. The amazing thing is that a sizable majority of people want to know what’s in their food, but the chemical and junk food corporations that largely funded the NO vote spread so many misconceptions about the measure that fewer than half of voters didn’t vote for the labeling law even as the majority claimed to want labeling. A lot of this advertising was shady. I received a mailing, for example, that the law didn’t go far enough and because it wasn’t just right, it should be voted against. Much of it contained outright lies.
The debate over GMO labeling is likely coming soon to your own state. I want to clear up a few common misconceptions about GMO labeling. I also want to point out how I see GMOs as a threat to bodily, environmental, social, legal/justice, and religious health.
One common lie about GMO labeling is that it would raise food costs dramatically. This hasn’t happened where labeling is mandatory. A comprehensive study by Consumer Reports estimated that a labeling law in Oregon would cost consumers an additional $2.30 per person per year.
Labeling wouldn’t burden farmers, food processors and packagers, or retailers. Label redesigns happen all the time. Currently, sixty-four countries mandate labeling of GMOs, including China, India, Brazil, Russia, Japan, Australia, and most of Europe. U.S food producers who export are already labeling for these markets. A handful of countries in Africa and Europe ban GMOs outright—GMO products cannot be grown or imported at all. Three states (Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont) have legislated mandatory labeling of GMOs. Vermont’s law goes into effect next year
But why would someone want to know if their food has been made with GMOs? Many reasons. For one, I believe that GMOs represent a threat to human bodily health. GMO advocates point out that GMOs have no known health consequences. This is partially true. The main reason we know so little about their health effects is that their producers will not allow testing to be done on them.
European food regulators operate according to the precautionary principle: Products must be shown to be safe before they are widely distributed. In the United States, on the other hand, food products are only tested once they’ve been shown to cause health problems, which, as we know from products like asbestos and lead, can take decades to show up.
It’s the fact that GMOs are used in conjunction with massive and increasing amounts of chemicals that they are a threat to human health. The vast majority of corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets (the source of refined sugar) produced in the U.S. are genetically modified to resist herbicides or produce insecticides. As plants and insects become resistant to pesticides commonly used with GMOs, non-organic farmers use even more (and even more toxic) chemicals. Jevons paradox applies: make it more efficient to use pesticides (or fossil fuels), and the net result will be more overall use rather than less. The ecological harm caused by these chemicals has been widely documented.
Glyphosate (aka Roundup), the most common herbicide used in the U.S., is genotoxic (disrupts DNA) and most likely carcinogenic according to the World Health Organization. Plants like soybeans have been genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate, which kills every other plant, devastating biodiversity in farming regions. Atrazine, the second most common chemical, also likely causes cancer and is known to be a devastating hormone disrupter, including in humans. It is also the most pervasive groundwater pollutant in the U.S. You pretty much can’t drink water in the Midwest without drinking dangerous levels of atrazine. It is banned in Europe.
Other GMO technology causes a plant itself to become an insecticide. For example, insects who eat the Bt corn plant will have their digestive system explode. Perhaps not surprisingly, studies have found that Bt corn also pokes tiny holes in the digestive tracts of the livestock that eats it. Bt corn (81 percent of corn planted in the U.S.) is also used in conjunction with neonicotinoid chemicals as an insecticide, which are put on seeds and then infiltrate the entire plant as well. Neonicotinoids are neurotoxic and are believed to be largely responsible for colony collapse disorder, which has devestated the bee population that fertilizes much of our food.
GMOs and their proponents promised a lot, but they have not delivered: GMOs have not increased food yields or nutrition or reduced erosion—these are the same in GE and conventional crops. GMOs haven’t decreased farmers’ debt—it has increased it. They haven’t reduced food prices. (And anyway, food prices are artificially low because oil prices are artificially low and most social, environmental, and bodily health costs are simply not counted.). They haven’t reduced the usage of agricultural chemicals—the chemicals are different now, but their use has increased.
GMOs have delivered on one promise for farmers: the pesticides that come with GE crops are less toxic than the ones that were being used before. My dad would rather use Roundup on our family’s farm than chemicals that are known to be even worse. But that’s not much of a benefit. That’s like getting a meth addict hooked on heroin instead. That substance might be somewhat less destructive, but it’s still pretty bad, and this “solution” does nothing to address the original dependency issue nor anything to address the ongoing harm.
What GMOs have really delivered is vast amounts of wealth and power to a handful of multinational chemical and biotech corporations. The Big Six are Monsanto, DOW, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF, and Bayer. The Green Revolution was initially motivated by poverty, hunger, and starvation. Scholars such as Vandana Shiva have shown how the subsequent Biotech Revolution, now motivated by financial profits, is making poverty and hunger worse even as it claims to alleviate these problems. GMOs, pesticides, and industrial commodity-based agriculture do not “feed the world.” Small, biodiverse farms do primarily.
The chief tool that these corporations use is patent laws to patent genes. U.S. Supreme Court upheld the logic that corporations own the genetic modification technology, and, therefore, they own the life of the engineered organism. No farmer can use their seeds without having the terms dictated by the corporation. Corporations like Monsanto will sue farmers who they suspect “saving seeds,” which has been standard agricultural practice for millennia, effectively bankrupting them with court costs. The “one drop” of engineered genes makes the entire organism the property of the corporation, the same way that formerly in the U.S. “one drop” of Black blood used to make an individual subject legally to be property. It is ironic that these corporations developed their technologies by extracting traditional ecological and agricultural knowledge about how plants and animals work, privatizing that knowledge via patents, and then claiming that farmers are stealing that knowledge if they use it on terms other than the ones dictated by the corporations. They have manipulated the U.S. Justice system in order to perpetrate injustices on nature, poor communities, and small farmers.
Some local communities have been passing laws to curb these injustices because larger governments won’t. Two agricultural counties in Oregon (Jackson and Josephine) voted last year to ban the cultivation of GMO crops. The Oregon state legislature then immediately passed a law to legally prevent any other Oregon counties from following their lead in regulating GMO cultivation. A proposed federal law would do the same on a national level.
GMOs have been in the news again recently because of the introduction of H.R. 1599 as a Congressional Bill. Known as the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, it would prohibit any state or other government from regulating GMOs in any way. It replaces an earlier Act of Congress, the Monsanto Protection Act, which protected the biotech giant from prosecution in court. The DARK Act would nullify existing laws regulating GMOs, including those such as Vermont’s and Jackson County’s, which have been upheld in federal court.
Future findings might suggest that an outright ban on GMOs is the best policy. And there are many other more systemic changes that would better serve our food system. But a GMO labeling law that gives individuals the ability to know what’s in their food and avoid destructive products would be a good start.
All of these agricultural injustices point to a larger problem, which I believe is a religious problem, about missing the value of and our responsibilities to the natural world.
I believe God loves the world, loves life, and loves both human and non-human creatures. This love gives these creatures dignity that shouldn’t be violated by treating them as utilitarian means to financial ends or as mere parts in a larger economic whole. Humans and animals, communities and ecosystems, are wholes themselves that we must work to help flourish and preserve.
I’ve been reading Pope Francis’ wonderful encyclical Laudato Si’. I highly recommend the full text. Paragraphs 130-136 of the encyclical address biotechnology in particular. Francis argues for an “integral ecology,” modeled on Scripture and the example of saints such as St. Francis. This involves addressing troubling issues like climate change and (in paragraphs 130-136) biotechnology, as well as the suffering of the poor due to environmental degradation. I want to close with something the Pope says about his namesake St. Francis, the patron saint of ecology and environment:
He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
If you’re interested in the issue of GMO labeling, which you should be if you care about what you eat, I suggest reading more at sites such as Just Label It or GMO Awareness. There are growing concerns and suspicions around the health consequences of human GMO consumption, which you may learn more about from the documentary Genetic Roulette. I also recommend Food, Inc. and the documentary Bitter Seeds about the social consequences of GMOs in developing countries.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”