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Why GMOs Matter—and Exactly What They Mean

Why GMOs Matter—and Exactly What They Mean

So here’s the thing about GMOs: They’re confusing. In fact, most of the people we polled believe that they’re bad, but can’t articulate exactly why—and those same people are generally convinced that GMOs are necessary to feed the world. For clarity, we turned to Gary Hirshberg, who you might remember from Food, Inc. As the co-founder of Stonyfield Yogurt, he created one of the first organic brands to break into the mainstream and win shelf-space at conventional grocery stores, including Wal-Mart, proving that big corporations can and will do the right thing when consumers vote with their wallets and ask for change. Now, he’s spending his energy on Just Label It, a consumers rights focused group that’s mobilizing against what they refer to as the DARK Act, a piece of legislation that passed the House and will hit the Senate in September: It would limit individual states from mandating GMO labeling, and impinge upon the FDA’s ability to create future regulations around food labeling. Here’s the thing about it: What’s at stake is not actually a debate about the safety of GMOs, nor a movement to prohibit a company from using GMOs. It would simply create transparency for consumers, in the same way that we get to know how much fat, salt, and Vitamin D is in our milk: After all, the right to make informed decisions for ourselves, and our families, feels like it’s supposed to be one of the great promises of being American. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of what we can learn about our food and how it is grown or sourced: Imagine being able to scan a QR code to learn about your pasture-raised eggs or Haas avocados.

Here are some facts about GMOs and GMO labeling.

1. 90% of Americans—across political parties, genders, and ages—want labeling on their food.

2. 64 countries require labeling, including 28 nations in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia, and China.

3. 90% of the GMOs in rotation are engineered to be herbicide resistant. Historically, farmers would only spray for a week or two at the beginning of the crop cycle. But with GMO seeds, farmers can use as much herbicide as they want, year-round, without damaging their crops. As a result, in the years since 1996 that GMO crops have been in play, herbicide usage is up by more than 527 million pounds.

4. It is raining chemicals in the Midwest: The U.S. Geologic Survey found glyphosate (i.e. Round-Up) in 60-100% of Iowa rainwater. This past spring, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.”

5. Much like what’s happening with antibiotics, the overuse of herbicides is creating super weeds that are impervious to chemicals. As a result, farmers need stronger and stronger chemicals to combat weeds; a dangerous cycle.

We asked Gary some more questions below. Meanwhile, there are things you can do right now to help: please sign this petition, reach out to your senator, and vote with your wallet.

We simply deserve the right to know what’s in our food. Please add your name.


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Q&A with Gary Hirshberg

Q

So, what exactly is a GMO? Is that an appropriate name for what it is?

A

GMOs are a colloquial term for “Genetically Modified Organisms.” A more accurate term would be Genetically Engineered Organisms for there are lots of ways to modify the genetic make up of living organisms. But the public has come to understand GMO as the term that means: “Organisms that have been created through the transfer of genes from one species into another in way that could not take place naturally.” In other words, humans have created GMOs by taking genetic material from one species to add it to another to make something new and patentable.

Q

How are companies able to go to one arm of government to patent a GMO (and make the claim that it couldn’t possibly occur in nature), and then go to another branch and make the claim that it exists in nature and thus doesn’t need to be labeled?

A

It’s hypocritical. When the actual definition (from Monsanto’s own website) is that these organisms are created in a manner that could not take place naturally, the hypocrisy of efforts, like Rep. Pompeo’s DARK Act (for Denying Americans the Right to Know)—which passed in the US House and is now going to be debated in the US Senate—to define GMOs as natural becomes evident.

Q

You say that GMOs=more chemical herbicides. Can you explain?

A

Over 90% of the GMOs that have been introduced have been designed to make crops herbicide resistant, which means that farmers are free to use as much herbicide as they want without concern that the actual crop will be adversely impacted by the chemicals. Although GMO patent holders assured Congress and regulators that these new life forms would lead to less chemical usage, USDA survey data and published peer reviewed studies clearly show that the exact opposite has happened with hundreds of millions more pounds of increasingly dangerous herbicides being used because of the proliferation of genetically engineered crops. This has led to an explosion of herbicide-tolerant weeds and even more and stronger herbicides being used. The USGS has reported the presence of herbicides in 60-100% of rainwater samples in farm belt states, directly resulting from increased planting of genetically engineered crops. Chemical contamination has become a primary concern about this technology.

Q

What exactly is in herbicides like Round-Up? Is it proven to be harmful?

A

The active ingredient in Round-Up is glyphosate. Glyphosate is clearly linked to B-Cell Lymphoma (see this study), and there are suspected links to other reproductive and developmental disorders due to its over-use and the subsequent over-exposure to citizens. The World Health Organization’s leading body of cancer specialists (IARC, or the International Agency for Research on Cancer) declared just weeks ago that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen.” Thanks to GMO crop technology, glyphosate is by far the most heavily used pesticide in history, both in the U.S. and worldwide—people on the planet are exposed to glyphosate on a near-daily basis.

Q

Are insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides inherently bad, or when used correctly/appropriately, are they good and helpful? Are they like antibiotics, in that overuse and dependence can create significant problems?

A

Most insecticides are effective because they function as neurotoxins, that is, they attack the nervous system of the pest. Unfortunately as a society, we do not require independent long-term studies on the health effects of insecticides or for that matter, any pesticides, over time. So we do not know either the cumulative or synergistic impacts of more than a handful of these compounds. This means that the only real basis for assessing health impacts is to use epidemiologic or historical population data. But where your antibiotic analogy is apt, is that we need to reserve insecticides and herbicides for when they are the only effective hopes for controlling pests. As with antibiotics, when we over-use them, we build natural pest resistance, thus rendering our formerly useful controls useless, and leading to significant increases in toxic residues and exposures.

Q

We’ve heard about superweeds, which you liken to superbugs that no longer respond to antibiotics–if Round-Up stops working, what’s next?

A

To combat weeds that have developed resistance to Roundup (glyphosate), Dow is seeking approval of GE crops that are resistant to an older, high-risk phenoxy herbicide known as 2,4-D. Other companies are working fast to gain approvals for another, even more dangerous phenoxy herbicide, dicamba. Many university weed scientists are speaking out against the dangerous notion that the best way to combat resistant weeds is to spray more herbicides on them—especially herbicides with a proven, negative environmental and human health track record. Because these chemicals were used previously, weeds resistant to them are already widespread. In the US, there are already eight important weeds resistant to 2,4-D. And 28 species worldwide are resistant to 2,4-D and/or dicamba. So this strategy is like pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out. By 2019, it could cause enormous increases in herbicide use, including a many-fold increase in the pounds of 2,4-D currently applied to the American corn crop. And in the most problematic solution to combat glyphosate resistance, the chemical companies are now recommending a mix of 2,4-D at varying solutions with glyphosate and other herbicides. As a result, 2,4-D usage is now dramatically increasing. Dow’s new 2,4-D-resistant corn in tandem with its new Enlist (2,4-D plus Dicamba) duo is estimated to expand 2,4-D usage by three to seven times. 2,4-D Drift will kill any broadleaf plants nearby, disrupting habitats and reducing biodiversity and scientists predict that 2,4-D resistant crops will have only three to five years until obsolesence because of herbicide resistance. There is no debate that 2,4-D is 7-400X (depending on the species) more toxic than glyphosate and the above-referenced Meta Analysis shows a clear link between 2,4-D and non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, Parkinsons, and a long list of brain development and birth defect results. In short, GMOs have led to a one-way road towards more and more toxic exposures. Hundreds of alternatives exist but they tend to be more about farming practices than saleable (and profitable) products, so they don’t get as much attention from the chemical companies who own the GMO seeds.

Q

Is the insecticide that’s planted within the GMO seed itself harmful?

A

We don’t have enough data to know, but we do know that in 2015 insecticide/BT toxin use will be close to double the level it was at 1996 at the dawn of GMOs. Using double the insecticides cannot be good.

Q

Are all GMOs harmful, or are there some GMOs that are good? Are there responsible companies creating GMOs?

A

Just Label It and I are not opposed to the use of GMOs per se. There have been significant medical advances using GMOs and in fact genetically engineered insulin has saved millions of lives. There are also genetically engineered yeasts that have allowed food scientists to create media for growing products (like cheese rennet) without having to use calf stomachs, as has been traditionally used—this has led to more humane practices and lower environmental footprints.

Q

What’s the ultimate goal with Just Label It, and why is it important? Is labeling something that most Americans want? Is it common elsewhere?

A

90% of Americans want labeling. 64 countries, accounting for over half the world’s population, already require GE foods and ingredients to be labeled, including some of our most active major trading partners like Japan, China and the European Union.

Q

Are you hopeful for legislation in this country that will protect consumers?

A

The bottom line is we don’t need legislation to get this done. We just need the White House to require the FDA to implement mandatory labeling as it has done with dozens of other relevant examples. The FDA can label genetically engineered foods. And the vast majority of consumers want them to be labeled so that we can choose what kinds of food and farming practices we want to support. Our nation was founded on the principle of individual liberties, and there is no more basic liberty than the freedom of choice. Once there is clarity and transparency in labeling than we can all vote with our wallets. Consumers have all the power—food companies work for all of us.

Q

What about the argument that GMOs are necessary to feed the world—is that true?

A

There is a full discussion of this topic here on the Just Label It website, but the bottom line is no—feeding the world is a distribution and infrastructure problem according to the World Health Organization, not a food quantity problem. Yields of non-GMO crops have improved just as fast as yields of GMO crops around the world. GMOs do not produce higher yields.

Gary Hirshberg is the chairman and co-founder of Stonyfield Farm. He is also the chairman and co-founder of Just Label It, a consumer rights initiative that is protecting our rights to know what’s in our food. To offer support, there are things you can do right now to help: please sign this petition, reach out to your senator, and vote with your wallet.

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