When GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were first promoted back in the early nineties, it sounded as if the world was about to be saved from famine. These altered crops would produce much higher yields and the hungry could finally be fed. For regions of the planet where there was little rainfall, plants could be made drought resistant. Vitamins could be introduced, making genetically modified produce more nutritious. Crops would be made resilient to pests and could grow in spite of them. And lastly—the bit of information that would ease all other worries—there would be virtually no difference between these and conventionally grown crops that came before them.
Like some experiment from a science fiction movie gone horribly wrong, we now witness the truth of GMOs. And the truth is many miles from the promises.
“What exactly have these crops done for us?” Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, posed to Organic Connections. “What has this technology really given anybody? There’s not a single human being on Earth who gets up in the morning wanting to buy genetically engineered food. Somehow, in all these years, they haven’t been able to produce one single trait that actually contributes to consumers: better taste, more nutrition, lower fats—you name it; they haven’t been able to produce one.”
If anyone knows the GMO beat, it is certainly Andrew Kimbrell. He is a public interest attorney, activist and author. He has been on the front lines of public interest legal activity in technology, human health and the environment for most of his adult life. In 1997 he established the Center for Food Safety, the organization responsible for knocking down effort after effort of biotechnology giants to pollute our agriculture—and endanger our health—with GMOs. He is also a renowned speaker and has been featured in documentaries and on radio and television programs across the country, including The Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, Crossfire, Headlines on Trial and Good Morning America. He has lectured at dozens of universities throughout the country and has testified before congressional and regulatory hearings.
Despite billions of dollars spent by companies attempting to deliver on the GMO promise, over 80 percent of all genetically engineered crops in the US and around the world are only designed to withstand large applications of herbicides. One major problem with these herbicide-tolerant plants is that weeds are getting resistant to the chemicals, making them very difficult to kill. Wide swaths of American farmland are now infested with these “superweeds” on which the chemicals no longer work. As a result, companies are resorting to creating crops resistant to even more toxic herbicides. But of course eventually the weeds will become resistant to these chemicals as well, a scenario that is inherently doomed to failure.
“I don’t care what people’s view on biotechnology is,” Kimbrell said. “I can’t imagine anybody who understands anything about agriculture who would not oppose plants that are designed solely to tolerate an increase in the amount of weed-killing chemicals so that crops can be massively sprayed with herbicides. Such plants don’t increase yield; they don’t increase taste. They don’t do anything except allow farmers that convenience. And therefore you have 150 million more pounds of these weedkillers sprayed every year. Then you get superweeds—they’re resisting in millions of acres right now.
“Five to eight years hence, current herbicides will no longer work and we’ll have weeds that are resistant to them. So it’s a very cynical game for chemical companies to sell an increasing number of chemicals until they can no longer sell them.”
A similar situation exists with the only other major group of genetically engineered plants, those engineered with insecticides. “Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium that is used as an insecticide] can kill the corn borer in corn, when the corn is genetically modified to include it,” said Kimbrell. “In cotton we’ve seen that there’s actually not enough Bt being expressed; it basically vaccinates the pests, because they get a little Bt but not enough to kill them. But I think we are seeing, and will see, more Bt resistance; and it’s also a non-specific pesticide, so it kills butterflies, caddisflies, bees—whatever it wants to kill. This should have been understood before it was ever allowed out there. We shouldn’t have independent reports cropping up years after a crop is approved saying that butterfly larvae are dying, that there’s decimation of caddisflies in streams, and suspicion that bee colony collapse is related to Bt.”
What happened? What went so wrong between the initial promises and the actual delivery of GMOs?
“There’s a very good reason we haven’t seen these promises come about,” Kimbrell explained. “The theory behind genetic engineering, which is the understanding of what a gene is and what a gene is not, has changed dramatically over the last decade. The idea that DNA—and particularly the part of DNA that we call a gene, which is a little above 1.5 percent of DNA—somehow controls traits is now not scientifically valid. Today most major scientists realize that DNA is not an actor, but is acted upon. There are millions of what are called epigenetic markers—various proteins and chemicals—that control how DNA is expressed in the cell. This idea that the DNA contains a trait such as drought resistance, size or nutrition is naive—and it was wrong. That’s the reason GMOs have been limited to herbicide resistance or tolerance, because those are relatively easy traits to develop. As a matter of fact, a number of companies have developed herbicide tolerance even without genetic engineering.
“They’ve tried over a thousand different ‘events,’ as they call them—a thousand different traits—and those are just the ones that have made the field-trial stage. We don’t know how many failures they’ve had, but they estimate 99.5 or 99.6 percent failure. So genetic engineering is not really even a technology; it’s a fiddling with nature, with one little piece of what makes cells and heredity, called DNA—and it’s a little piece of DNA.”
Many countries, including those within the European Union, require strict labeling and testing of GMOs. As a result of this labeling, GMO products simply do not sell in most of the world. Here in the United States we do not require labeling or testing of GMOs. How is it that in the US GMOs seem to have had free rein?
“Unlike our European allies, unlike Australia, Japan, much of Africa and others, we have failed in the United States, for 25 years now, to pass a single law on addressing and assessing the environmental or health consequences of GMOs,” Kimbrell pointed out. “Every effort has been defeated by the biotechnology industry.
“What we have in this country is a complete regulatory failure with GMOs. We have no mandatory labeling, no mandatory testing. The USDA to this day has never come up with an environmental impact statement on a single GMO plant, though they’ve promised it over and over again, and court after court has demanded they do so.
“The USDA has illegally approved one GMO after the other and has been disciplined by the courts, by the General Accounting Office, and by the Inspector General.
“The problem is that the USDA has pretty much become a rogue agency and a wholly owned subsidiary of the biotechnology industry, and that’s really sad. Former Iowa governor, now US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, was the biotechnology industrial organizations’ ‘Governor of the Year’ in 2001. He brought his current general counsel, Ramona Romero, directly from DuPont this year. The law firm that Vilsack worked for fought us on GMO cases after he wasn’t governor anymore.”
Another problem is a combination of outdated legislation and agency disparity when it comes to attempts to enforce it. “You have a brand-new technology without any congressional guidance, which then goes down to the agency level,” Kimbrell continued. “If you’re EPA, FDA or USDA, you are trying to regulate biotechnology in agriculture under laws that were passed 15 years before anyone knew this technology existed. Here you have corn engineered to contain Bt and they try to regulate it under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. That means they’re trying to treat the plant as a pesticide—the whole plant. When they passed that law in 1972 on pesticides, they thought they were regulating chemicals; they didn’t think they were regulating plants. In another example, we’re now seeing GMO salmon, and the FDA is treating it as an animal drug—the salmon. So what happens here is that because of the failure of Congress to withstand the lobbying of the industry, the entire technology has been shoved down to the agency level. We have about seven different agencies under about twelve different laws that are trying to regulate biotechnology, with laws that were passed long before biotechnology came on line. So it’s a system that’s built for failure.