GMO companies kill agriculture, contribute to world hunger - anti-GMO activist

The future seems to offer few bright prospects for humanity. The climate change may undermine our food producing capacity severely, and hunger will run rampant. Therefore, many hail GMOs as a solution to famine. And yet, corporations that control the GMO market today are seen as some of the most pernicious companies on the globe. Why do they have such a reputation? Are GMOs really harmful, or will they help to feed the world? Actually, is feeding the world on the agenda of Monsanto and other agrochemical giants? We discuss these questions with the political director of the Organic Consumers Association, a proponent of healthy diets – Alexis Baden-Mayer is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Alexis Baden-Mayer – activist, political director of Organic Consumers Association, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, Alexis, you were arrested a couple of years back for trying to deliver a petition to President Obama that called for labeling of GMO foods. That seems like a pretty heavy-handed response to a petition, wouldn’t you say?

ABM: Yes, the Obama Administration has been ignoring the pleas of 19% of the American public who are demanding genetically modified foods be labeled, and we collected hundreds of thousands of signatures on a petition, asking for GMO labels. I attempted to deliver that petition to the White House, but without success, and never got a response from President Obama on the issue.

SS: Why are food manufacturers and biotech firms spending millions of dollars to scrap mandatory labeling laws for genetically engineered products, why is that?

ABM: I assume that their fear is because genetically modified foods are not adequately safety-tested, that they fear, that consumers ultimately will not want to buy them, if they have a choice.

SS: Is it working, would you say?

ABM: Unfortunately, it is working to a certain extent, but I believe we have Monsanto and the biotech industry on defensive at this point. We have passed three state laws, the first one to take effect will be in Vermont, which should take effect at the end of this year; Monsanto and its allies, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, led by the largest food manufacturers, like Pepsi, they have sued the state of Vermont and they are attempting to block this law, but I don’t think their lawsuit would be successful, so I expect that by the end of this year, we’ll see the first state in the U.S. adopt GMO labels, and as long as the courts say that states have the right to do so, I believe that we are on the road to ultimate victory, and we’ll join more than 60 other countries in the world that give consumers the right to know about genetically modified food.

SS: Take me trough this -  Why do we need this labeling? I mean, the U.S. department of Agriculture prohibits GMO products from receiving an “organic” label? Isn’t that enough?

ABM: No! Most consumers have no idea that they are eating genetically-modified organism, and if they do have some inkling that GMOs are in the food supply, they would have no idea how to identify them. It’s even difficult for me to keep a list in my mind, of each individual crops that are genetically modified. We’ve got soy, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, now we have apples as well. But it’s just too much information for a consumer to collect on their own and be able to identify these products in the marketplace, it’s virtually impossible, and so without labels, consumers will not be able to make a choice, as to whether or not to eat GMOs.

SS: Now, 80% of foods in the U.S. contain GMOs – can you name a few basic products we might not even know are genetically modified? Because, you know, we know about corn, we know about soy, but things that we’re not even suspecting…

ABM: Well, it becomes complicated: it’s all the various food ingredients that are made from corn and soy. With corn, especially, many different sweeteners, so, I don’t think your average American would realize that whenever they drink soda, like Coca-Cola, they are consuming a product that is primarily made from genetically-modified organisms. So, it’s all of the processed foods, and then, of course, most people are not aware that animals are fed on diet of virtually all GMO crops, mostly corn and soy, so whether you’re eating a chicken or a cow or a pig, you’re still eating, basically, genetically modified foods that the animal was raised on. So, consumers really have no idea about this, and we definitely need more information on marketplace.

SS: You’ve interviewed people on behalf of the Organic Consumers Association about eating GMOs and, say, hundreds have health problems associated with eating genetically-engineered foods. What were those problems exactly?

ABM: These were very compelling stories. I was actually surprised that there were so many people who understood the health risks of GMOs and were able to identify problems that they were having health-wise and be able to link them to GMO foods. But the most interesting aspect of it was not that they were suspicious that GMOs might be causing health problems, but that when they got GMOs out of their diet, by going organic, they were able to cure very serious illnesses like cancer. I had many-many stories from Organic Consumers Association members, that are young people, relatively healthy young people, most of them have lived overseas and were not exposed to GMO for many years; they either moved to or returned to the U.S., were inundated at that point with GMO in their diet, developed serious health problems, cancer or….

SS: What health problems are we talking about? Could you just list them?

ABM:  Well, the most common are cancer, respiratory diseases, diet-related diseases, especially digestive problems, and just ill health: people who find that they are getting sick all the time, they don’t know what’s wrong with them, they can’t digest foods that they used to be able to eat, they develop allergies to many different foods, that are just normal, common foods – and then they realize that, well, we’ve got genetically modified organisms in our food supply now, and, especially, the pesticides that are linked to these GMOs… I believe that genetic engineering, changing the DNA of an organism and then consuming these novel proteins that we’ve never before consumed – clearly, that’s dangerous, and GMOs are known to introduce toxins and allergens into the food supply; but also, it’s the pesticides, linked to these GMOs – 97% of GMOs grown in the world either produce their own insecticide or they’ve been engineered to absorb massive amounts of herbicides and we know that these herbicides and insecticides are very dangerous, and there’s a lot of data that they cause health problems, including cancer.

SS: We’re going to talk about that in just a little bit, but we are talking right now about health problems caused by GMOs, and everything you’ve said so far is based on observation – because you’ve also said there are no studies on the effects of consuming GMOs… how do you know that eating GMOs is the cause for health problems then?

ABM: There is a small amount of science available about health impacts of GMOs. Europe requires health studies, and a review of most of the data, produced by companies like Monsanto, has shown that animals who are fed GMOs develop kidney and liver problems and that is indicative of these systems in our body that are meant to remove toxins and clear poisons from our body. Obviously, GMOs are foreign to the body, and treated by the body as invaders, and this puts a lot of stress on our kidney and our liver which are meant to clear toxins from our systems.

SS: Now, U.S. Food and Drug Administration says GMO plants are as safe and nutritious as traditionally-bred plants. So, are they just blatantly lying?

ABM: The Food and Drug Administration has chosen not to investigate the safety of GMOs. So, anyone who claims that GMOs are safe, they do so on a basis that… they really don’t know, but since no one has put the evidence right in front of them, they claim that since they don’t know that they are dangerous, they must be safe. That’s the basis of the FDA’s insistence that GMOs are the same as normal food. They say, if the GMO has the same nutrition as a normal food, then we can treat is as a normal food and we don’t have to investigate the safety risks associated with it.

SS: One of the GMOs dominating the market enables crops to be toxic to certain insects. The ingredient that does that is the same used in pesticides by organic farmers – so what’s the difference here?

ABM:  Well, BT, the BT toxin is naturally found in the environment, and the version of the BT toxin that organic farmers use as an insecticide has been called directly from the environment, from soil organisms: and so, there’s the natural version, and then there is the engineered version. But what the genetic engineers have done, they’ve taken the natural soil organism and they’ve isolated the toxins from that organism and they’ve engineered those toxins, and they’ve isolated several different toxins and concentrated them into a very strong version, and then put that trait into a plant, so that the plant now produces the toxin. So, the difference between the genetically modified BT crop and a normal BT soil organism that’s used by organic farmers to control pests, there’s really no similarity between these two things. One is heavily changed, engineered, and the other is naturally occurring in Nature.

SS:  Now, you have said that most people think GMO foods are for the future, when we’re going to have no food because of the climate change – and indeed, how can we feed a growing population with less resources and  a warmer planet if not by using GMOs, right?

ABM: Unfortunately, no. It would be wonderful if science could deliver us a quick fix to the world’s problems, but in fact, genetic engineering has produced very little of use to farmers, and virtually nothing of use for consumers. Their problem that they are going to feed the world with few resources is just not the case. There is one variety of drought-resistant corn that’s been approved for use in the U.S., a Monsanto product, but even the USDA admits, that this is going to be useful to perhaps only 15% of corn farmers, and yet Monsanto will market this universally as if it’s a solution to drought in all parts of the country, and it’s only useful to a tiny fraction of the farmers. What about the farmers who are in 85%, who will buy this, thinking that it’s going to help protect them from drought, but it’s not appropriate to climate in their particular area? This “one size fits all” solution that genetic engineering can produce is not adequate to the problems facing humanity.

SS: Maybe, it’s just a start, maybe something come out of it in the future, don’t you think?

ABM: I honestly don’t believe it will. Right now, if you’re talking about feeding the world, it’s important to realize who is actually feeding the world at this moment. Currently, 70% of the food eaten on the planet is produced by 2 billion small-scale food producers. Most people on the planet still live in rural areas and are still producing a lot of their own food and eating local food. Now, the biggest problem facing these people is access to quality land and clean water, and certainly, big corporations all over the planet are pushing these people off of their land, so they can grow monocultures and GMO crops. Now that is contributing to the problem of food insecurity, and if we want to help the people who already produce most of our food, we need to protect their rights to land and resource and to seed – not allow the seeds to be controlled by large corporations.

SS: So, if you want to compete with GMOs, I mean, the attraction to GMO foods is that they are cheaper, right? So, if you want to compete with GMOs, why is eating organics so much more expensive?

ABM: There’s no reason why genetic-engineered food should be cheaper than organic food. The inputs and the research that goes into genetic engineering is astounding – it costs hundreds of millions of dollars in research, on a yearly basis, to bring a new genetically modified crop to market, and so these resources are a terrible waste, because it produces a product that’s not useful for a lot of situations. Organic farming, which is just normal farming, what farmers have done for a millennia on the planet, has produced a vast variety of crops. For instance, tens of thousands of different types of corn – just one crop. Genetic engineering, with a vast resources that they are spending, they can only produce a few varieties and mostly, they are just producing varieties that lie in their pockets. They are producing varieties that work well with their insecticides and herbicides, the agricultural chemicals that they want to sell. That’s their business model. Their business model isn’t about feeding the world.

 SS: Like you’ve said, 90% of corn and 93% of soy in the U.S. is genetically modified. How do you envision taking that out of the food supply altogether?

ABM: One way is that we got to handle the problem of factory farming: most of the GMO corn and soy is being fed to animals. Now, for cattle, the U.S. actually has enough grazing land, for all of the cattle that are currently kept in feedlots, to be out on pasture. Certainly, grass-fed beef is much-much healthier, much more ecologically sustainable than factory-farmed feedlot beef. So, we need to make very large transitions in our diet; but I think that we have the capacity to do that, because if people have a choice between eating a burger that’s going to give them heart disease and one that’s going to provide more health and nutrition – certainly, they’ll make the right choice. But, as of yet, these alternatives have not been widely available on the marketplace. But, I think we’re going to see the market for grass-fed beef, for instance, grow tremendously.

SS: Let’s talk about the giants the organic-eaters are up against. When we hear something about GMOs, the first thing that comes to mind is, obviously, Monsanto that you’ve mentioned many times during this program. Now, it’s been called the world’s most evil corporation – so is Monsanto the only GMO-producing villain? 

ABM: No, we have six large agro-business companies that are chemical companies, they sell herbicides and insecticides and they’ve realized that modifying seeds to promote these pesticides is a great business model for them. So we have some European companies – BASF, Bayer, we also have Syngenta, DOW and DuPont.  So, together these are the “Big Six” GMO and chemical companies. 

SS: But, really quickly, why do opinions differ so much between Europe and the U.S. on GMOs, because in Europe, a lot of countries have actually prohibited the use of GMOs. Aren’t the American scientists, American government, aware of the harm of the GMOs, is that something that they don’t know that Europeans do? 

ABM: I think, because most of these products are produced by American companies, it did give European regulators some breathing space. In the U.S., our so-called “democratic” system is highly corrupted by corporate money, and Monsanto, when it sought to introduce genetically-modified bovine growth hormone and its first genetically modified crops in early 1999s, they’ve made sure to grease the wheels at the first Bush administration, and made sure that they have players from their team, lawyers who had worked them, get inside government and be able to help make these decisions. So, we just have a terribly corrupt political system and corporations have really run over the agencies in the government that are supposed to regulate them. 

SS: GMO producers like Monsanto are known to go after farmers who break the company’s copyright on seeds: that’s to say, those who save seeds after the harvest to re-plant them the following season. Why is this copyright issue such a big deal? 

ABM: Well, our government and our legal system has allowed companies to patent life. Now, I feel that that was a terrible mistake, it has led to some horrible absurdities for farmers, who traditionally have just gone to the grain towers at the end of the season to buy seed for planting the next season: but now, if you do that, you probably will be buying a corn or soy bean variety that has been genetically engineered, and you’re not allowed to plant that unless you have a license from the company. Monsanto will go after farmers, there are hundreds of farmers that Monsanto has sued, and unfortunately none of these farmers in the U.S. have been able to fight them legally. They’ve all caved under Monsanto’s pressure, they just don’t have the money to fight a large corporation like that. 

SS: Biotech companies treat their seed patents like technology patents. That is, they see their products of their research and development as pieces of software. Like, when you buy Windows from Microsoft, you can’t just give it out to everyone you want, so it’s the same with modified seeds into which a lot of time and money has been put in – so aren’t they forced to protect their intellectual property? 

ABM: I certainly do not agree with American law on this subject. The good aspects of these crops are their high-yielding traits. The high-yielding traits come from conventional breeding, they come from the work of farmers over the last thousands of years, who have bred crops for different microclimates and have developed high-yielding varieties. So, Monsanto takes this variety created by all of the farmers together, and takes it as a genetically modified trait to it, and then claims that it owns this variety, because now they have a trait attached to it, that’s genetically engineered. That’s piracy, that’s stealing, that is not Monsanto’s property – but that’s how the U.S. law has interpreted it. If Monsanto can control a naturally-bred variety, attach a GMO trait to it, then they own it. But that’s certainly not right. 

SS:  The seed patenting practice has led to concentration of this seed market in hands of a small number of big companies, Monsanto among them. So, is it fair to say that food supply in the U.S. is being monopolized by private interests, or is it an over-exaggeration? 

ABM: Absolutely. Food supply in the U.S. is completely controlled by large corporations that have undue influence over our government.

SS: Just tell me something really quickly – do you only eat organic? Do you make sure all your products are free of GMOs – and how do you do that? 

ABM: I do try very hard to buy only USDA organic food. You can identify this food by the USDA seal in the grocery store, but I also do make an effort to buy foods directly from local farmers, and some of the farmers that I buy from are not certified organic, but I know that they are operating under organic principle – because I can interact with them personally, it doesn’t bother me that they don’t happen to have a government seal on their products. 

SS: Alexis, thank you very much for this wonderful interview. We wish you all the luck with your fight against the GMO giants. We were talking to Alexis Baden-Mayer, activist, political director of Organic Consumers Association, discussing the spread and safety of GMO foods, and the way they are shaping our society. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.