Genetically Modified Facts

Don’t buy food from the center of the supermarket. That’s were processed and packaged foods live. However, you might feel better about buying processed and packaged food labeled as containing natural and organic ingredients at grocery chain stores such as Whole Foods Market®, which has spent considerable effort at developing a reputation for “selling the highest quality natural and organic products.”

One of the reasons for avoiding the center of the supermarket is that processing generally removes much of the nutrient value from the food. Setting that aside, an equally important reason for avoiding the center of the store is that it’s quite easy to assume that foods labeled “natural” and “organic” are of equal quality. They are not.

Even now, a “natural” food product might contain ingredients from genetically modified organisms. For example, the sweetener in the cookies you just can’t get enough of is likely derived from genetically engineered corn.

This issue made it into the news last week when Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack approved the general use of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa. What that means is that agribusinesses can use the genetically modified organisms anywhere and at will. The decision was held up for 12 years by activists who took various political and legal steps, which last year came down to a Federal Court directing the Department of Agriculture to forbid use of Roundup Ready alfalfa until an environmental assessment had been performed.

The assessment was completed in December. No problem, it concluded. Secretary Vilsack announced that he was considering two alternatives: general use or restriction of use to specific locations. Agribusiness, biotech, and the incoming Republicans landed on Mr. Vilsack and so the restrictions option got taken off the table. It’s likely that incoming Republicans had little to do with the outcome, although I’m sure many will cling to it with the fantasy that the Obama Administration wouldn’t do such a foolish and dangerous thing on its own.

Here is one of many reasons why agribusiness and biotech got what they wanted: in 2001, Tom Vilsack was the Republican Governor of Iowa and was awarded Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Here’s another reason: the CEO of Whole Foods Market® has been a consistent contributor to Tom Vilsack’s campaigns and, along with other large scale players in the natural and organic market, supported Mr. Vilsack’s decision.

My high school biology teacher defined “promiscuous” as “anytime, anyplace.” Mr. Vilsack’s decision wasn’t just about permitting the promiscuous use of Roundup Ready alfalfa. It was about setting the precedent for the promiscuous use of any GMO crop. An essential part of the decision is that, except for those products with a USDA Organic label, you’ll have no idea what’s in the food you’re eating.

Why is this such a big deal?

Because everyone in the food industry knows that when a food is labeled as containing ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms, sales will drop like a rock. Sales of products in the center of the supermarket accounts for two thirds of the revenue taken in by chain retailers such as Whole Foods Market®.

Organizations such as the Organic Consumers Association and the Center for Food Safety advocate activism at both the national and local levels. Nationally, they call for further legal action and heavy lobbying of the Obama Administration. At the local level, they call for local labeling laws and ordinances.

The absurdity here, of course, is that Roundup Ready seeds do nothing for crop yields, the supposed reason for developing and using them. They do create an environment for weeds that are resistance to the Roundup herbicide. In an agricultural version of planned obsolescence, this forces growers to use more Roundup, further selecting for herbicide-resistant weeds.

In addition to failure to increase food production and succeed in damaging the environment, Roundup Ready organisms have health risks. For example, in public the FDA said they were “not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” Yet in their internal documents the technical people worried about these very issues and asked for studies of health and safety effects. They were turned down. The administrator in charge of the evaluation was a former Monsanto attorney.

Accommodation for its own sake that has become the hallmark of the Obama Administration is disgraceful enough without the further accommodation to money making. We’re then supposed to be mollified by statements such as this from Secretary Vilsack: “We think the decision reached today is a reflection of our commitment to choice and trust;” and this from Whole Foods Market®: “The policy set for GE alfalfa will most likely guide policies for other GE crops as well. True coexistence is a must.”

But the real disgrace is that scientists feel compelled to say “We don’t really know enough” which is restated “We don’t know” which is then used as the basis for concluding “There’s no problem.” I’ve seen enough of the science to know that a reasonable person could conclude that there’s a very big problem. But even if you accept “We don’t know enough” as an accurate statement about the science, it seems to me that a reasonable person ought to find out before they do something stupid.