There's a Lot You Don't Know About What's in Your Food
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Nearly three quarters of all processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients, but you'd never know it by reading the back of your kid's cereal box or that pint of ice cream you've been craving. Rather than being relegated to its own supermarket section, this food sits unlabeled on grocery store shelves, allowing a handful of transnational biotech companies to profit handsomely as consumers shop blindly.
In his new book, Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food , Andrew Kimbrell explores the risks of this technology and what genetic engineering means to our health, the environment and the future of agriculture.
Although Kimbrell's book aims primarily to educate, it is also an easy-to-use activist guide on how to identify -- and avoid -- genetically engineered foods.
Andrew Kimbrell is founder and executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Food Safety and the International Center for Technology Assessment. As an author, lawyer, and activist for more than 20 years, Kimbrell has been at the forefront of legal and grassroots efforts to protect the environment and promote sustainable agricultural production methods. His written work has appeared in the New York Times , Washington Post , and Harper's. He has testified at numerous congressional and regulatory hearings, and in 1994, Utne Reader named Kimbrell as one of the world's leading 100 visionaries.
AlterNet talked with Kimbrell via telephone.
Vanja Petrovic: How did you become interested in genetically engineered food?
Andrew Kimbrell: I became very interested in genetic engineering in general; it stemmed from my early work in appropriate technology. There was an E.F. Schumacher book, Small is Beautiful -- great book, everyone should read it. What Schumacher was saying is that we're going to have to devolve our technologies and change our economics to fit nature, otherwise we're going to destroy ourselves. And I thought that was inevitable and became part of that. And it wasn't until genetic engineering that I realized that some people were saying, "Listen, let's not change our technology or our economic system to fit nature, let's change nature -- including human nature -- so that it fits our technology and our economic system."
So, for example what we have with genetic engineering, if you spray herbicide on crops, it kills them, it kills everything green, it doesn't just kill the weeds, it kills the crops. So, the idea would be, as weeds become resistant to herbicides, to stop using them, and find other ways of weed and pest control. But that didn't fit the needs of ... the chemical companies. That would mean less of their product. So, instead of changing their technology and economics to fit nature, they said "let's change plants so they can withstand huge amounts of our chemicals" -- herbicides -- and four out of every five acres of genetically engineered plants in this country and in the world are planted solely because they can tolerate these herbicides.
Petrovic: Why did you choose to write this book now?
Kimbrell: Actually, I didn't choose to write this book right now. I wish I could have stopped my fingers three years ago.
But, there are a number of reasons I wrote this book. One, the industry has been very powerful in the media. It has been able to influence the traditional media. So, a huge number of Americans believe that genetically engineered food is feeding the world, that it's increasing nutrition, that it's making better flavored food, is creating drought resistant crops, it's curing kids in Africa. This is complete science fiction. ... It's a marginal technology at best -- it is not curing anything, it is not feeding anything.
As a matter of fact, as we've seen in corn and soy, we have seen actual yield decreases because of genetic engineering. Not an increase, no more vitamins. We've seen, actually, FDA studies that show that it actually decreases vitamin content in food. So, why is it popular? Why do farmers use it? Because it's very convenient. You don't have to spot spray your herbicide just on the weed, you can, for the first time, aerial spray your herbicides over your entire crop and it won't kill your crop, it'll just kill the weeds. Although, those weeds are becoming more and more resistant and now we're having to use more and more.
Petrovic: What are the dangers of genetically engineered food?
Kimbrell: Genetically engineered food is the first really artificially lab created food that we have. Basically, you (the scientist) are putting foreign bacteria, foreign viral chains, foreign anti-biotic resistant genes into each cell of every food. So, every cell of every genetically engineered food, every one, has a novel bacteria, has novel viral promoters, has a novel genetic construct whether it be the herbicide tolerant gene or the Bt, and has an anti-biotic marker system.
So each one of these, this genetic set, which is completely new and is placed at random really within each cell within each genetically engineered food, brings with it threats. Those threats are documented by the FDA, by the good scientists there -- not the policy people who forgot to listen to them -- and the risks are: it could take a nontoxic food and make it toxic. ... It can create new human allergies ... significantly reduce the vitamin content in the food, and ... there has been peer-reviewed scientific evidence that it can be harmful to the immune system.
The environmental risks are that it's biological pollution. We know now, we've seen over and over again that this is not simply a tool for the farmer, this is an evasive living pollution. It pollutes conventional, it pollutes organic, makes these farmers unable to sell these crops to the European market, to the organic market, and it creates the gene jump to create super weeds. In the case of fish, documented, peer-reviewed science out of Purdue University says that the release of these genetically modified fish, because of the unexpected changes in these fish, could create complete extinction for species like salmon and stripped bass.
Petrovic: Any social risks?
Kimbrell: Yes, there are social risks. What happens here, and we've documented this in the book, is that because of Monsanto (a St. Louis-based chemical company) having farmers signing technology use agreements, what you're basically seeing is farmers becoming tenant farmers for Monsanto. And farmers who have been polluted -- unintentionally polluted -- are being sued, and have been sued by Monsanto. Farmers who did not understand, who did not sign a technology use agreement, and did not understand what this technology was about, are being sued. Saving their seeds, cleaning their seeds is becoming an illegal activity where they are faced with hundreds of thousands worth of damages because Monsanto filed lawsuits.
This is really kind of corporate terrorism against America's farmers. ... It's really (destroyed) the social fabric of a lot of America's farmland and it's amazing to me that this has gone unreported.
Petrovic: Is organic farming in danger of disappearing?
Kimbrell: No, I don't think that organic farming is in danger of disappearing. One of the myths that the book also tries to bust is that people think, "Oh, Pandora's Box is open, we're over, we're doomed." Not true at all. We, the Center for Food Safety, and a number of other organizations who we work very closely with, have been very successful in stopping genetically engineered wheat. ...We have stopped primarily genetically engineered rice, we have stopped genetically engineered fish, and that's in this country. Around the world, these foods are being rejected.
Petrovic: In your book, you talk about Tom and Gail Wiley -- North Dakota farmers who grow over a thousand acres of food-grade soy. When they landed a contract with Japan, the prospective buyers tested the crop and they discovered that the 1.37 percent of the soy had been contaminated with of genetically engineered seeds. Does the Wiley's story ring true for a lot of farmers in America?
Kimbrell: A lot of farmers are facing that and worse. At least they got their crop ... We have literally hundreds of thousands of farmers in the South that literally cannot plant rice because of rice contamination. ... So, yeah, it has become and it will become an increasing problem because it's living pollution. These contaminations to the extent that we now know -- and our government seems to think this -- are coming from very small field trials. Even if (only a few species are affected) ... when it's released, since it's biological pollution, it disseminates, grows and mutates.
Petrovic: Why has three quarters of agricultural genetic diversity been lost in the past century?
Kimbrell: We've seen a devastating loss ... that has happened because of hybrid monoculture, that has happened because of industrial agriculture. In my book, Fatal Agriculture , we have all these experts who explain how that happened. It is the monoculture that we see in our crops even before genetic engineering even came on board in '96, '97. And that's already a tragedy.
It's not like genetic engineering is the only bad thing that ever happened in agriculture. That hybridization of monoculture is bad in a number of ways, but the loss of diversity is also a loss of food security. If you have one type of corn, one type of tomato, one type of wheat out there and there is a corn blight or a wheat blight there is no genetic diversity to protect that crop. We saw that with the corn blight a couple of decades ago and we had to get corn from South America to save us ... Genetic engineering, of course, is monoculture on steroids... It's the ultimate monoculture, but it's also an unnatural monoculture because it has genetic material in it that's never been in that plant ever before. I mean, you're not only crossing species, you're crossing phyla.
Petrovic: Will we reach a point when there is no genetic diversity?
Kimbrell: We'll never reach the zero point because there will always be some natural mutation, but I think we're going in the opposite direction now. We have tremendous efforts now to save local seeds; that's part of one of the documentaries that I'm making, we're showing that there really is a future of food. That's very encouraging.
But obviously if we were to continue down the path of industrial genetically engineered agriculture, yeah, you would get to a point where literally -- and we're almost there in some cases -- where literally you have one variety, or two varieties of lettuce, one variety of corn, one variety of tomato, where it'll be so monoculture because that's the easiest one for them to grow in large quantities, the easiest one for them to store, and the easiest one for them to sell.
We're at a real crossroads for the future of food. ... We're either going to continue down the industrial path all the way to genetically engineering our food so that it literally becomes nothing but a tool of industrial agriculture, including withstanding all these poisons. Or, we're going to go down the organic and beyond way, which says no to genetic engineering, no to irradiation, no to this massive alteration at the atomic and genetic level.
Petrovic: What changes would you like to see the FDA make?
Kimbrell: Oh, thank you for bringing up my favorite agency. ... There is no mandatory testing, there is no mandatory labeling, what they did set up is what they call a voluntary consulting process. So, if you're putting a new genetically engineered food on the market, you can choose if you wish, to consult with the FDA if you have issues. ... Can you imagine this with drugs? If you tell the drug companies, "Oh, no, you don't have to test, you don't have to label your drug, but if you think it's going to kill somebody, you should probably consult us."
I mean, no one would accept that. No one would accept that with car safety, no one would accept that with virtually any aspect of what's going on, yet we're accepting it with genetically modified food? ... That really is a corporate coup d'etat.
Petrovic: With the help of this book can people completely avoid genetically engineered food and for how long?
Kimbrell: Yes, with the help of the book, if they read the book carefully, and follow the instructions, they will be able to avoid virtually all -- there may be some enzymes in cheese, for example, some very, very minor enzyme stuff -- but for all practical purposes, yes, they will be able to avoid GMOs.
The intriguing part of your question is for how long. And we will, on the Center for Food Safety Web site have continuing updates on what's going on. ... For now this will protect you, but that shouldn't make us feel good about our government. If it had mandatory labeling you wouldn't need this book. You wouldn't need to take all this time and effort because they should have done it for you.
Petrovic: Why do you think topics that you cover in this book, such as herbicide-resistant super weeds, super pests, and the dangers to organic farming don't show up in the mainstream media?
Kimbell: You should look at their advertisers. I mean if you look at the advertisers of even National Public Radio -- they're not allowed to have advertisers, but they have underwriters -- you'll see major biotechnology companies. ... And I also think there is a "gee-whiz" quality, particularly in America, that anything that seems technological and new is automatically better.
Petrovic This book is different from other books on genetic engineering in that it's much more practical and accessible. What was the thought process behind that?
Kimbrell: There's been a lot of books out there that are really good, but let's face it a lot of people had a hard time getting through high school biology. A lot of people have not been spending a lot of time on biology. So, we wanted to present it in a very accurate way, and that's why the whole book is exhaustively footnoted ... however, we wanted to present it in a way that would be fun, interesting and I think very beautiful, I hope you agree. I think it's very attractive, very interesting, very engaging and after all, that's what we're about. We wanted people to understand and present this in a very interesting way.
Vanja Petrovic is an editorial intern with AlterNet.