When people first hear about just the basic facts concerning Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs or Genetically Engineered Foods) – the DNA of seeds altered with genes from other organisms like bacteria so food crops can withstand herbicides that will kill all other plants, patented by giant chemical companies and found in 80% of processed foods – the standard response is “Oh, my God.” For some, it’s just an exclamation, but for others, I imagine, it’s the beginnings of a prayer. There’s a mixture of horror and disbelief, as if finding out we’re living inside a very strange sci-fi novel. Beyond that, it’s the sting of humiliation from being ignorant about something so big, mixed with the anger that comes from feeling like you’ve been duped.
Even without understanding what a GMO is or why it matters, most of us believe as citizens of a supposedly free and democratic society that we have the right to know if GMOs are in the food we eat. The fact we don’t know, and that our right to know has been taken away by corporate greed and government collusion, should upset and mobilize people. When all the food and seed and water and air is owned and patented by giant multinational corporations, will we even protest? Do we have the wakefulness and willpower to take that first step and stand up for this basic right?
That central question is why a tiny story from Haiti impacted me so deeply and inspired me to make a film about this hidden takeover of our food and the world’s seeds. Months after the horrific earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, ten thousand rural farmers marched in the streets against Monsanto. In the midst of their hardships, these farmers rejected seeds donated to Haiti by the giant agrochemical company, crying out “Down with Monsanto!” They symbolically burned Monsanto’s seeds which represented slavery, debt and the extinction of their own seeds and way of life. They stood unified in their fight for food sovereignty and native seeds as a common inheritance of all humanity.
I kept asking myself “What do they know that we don’t?” Having long suffered, they possess courage and conviction that we have never even begun to arouse in ourselves. We haven’t known that we needed this courage or conviction because most of us didn’t even realize there was a fight on our hands for the future of food, our right to choose and the health of the environment and our families.
After a long drive north from the ruins and tent cities of Port-au-Prince into the treeless mountains, and then hours further to Hinche and Papaye, I remember my very first conversation with Chavannes Jean Baptist, the leader of the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP). He began with a big smile on his face, saying “The objective of Monsanto is to make money. The objective of Monsanto is not the quality of food that people are eating. Monsanto’s objective is not to protect life. It’s not to protect the environment.”
Chavannes’ smile then disappeared, replaced with passion and urgency: “When people like me say these types of seeds are poisonous, when I say these seeds are destroying the life of the land and destroying the people, that’s when I attack the interest of Monsanto.”
He cut to the heart of the issue, and it was right there in the open for everyone to see. The agrochemical industry spews lies just like the lead and tobacco industries did before them; and we believe them until the truth finally bursts forth, usually from the work of brave scientists, researchers, professors and activists who risk their careers and reputations to go against the status quo.
Monsanto says they’re all about farmers, and yet the company has sued hundreds in court and bullied thousands with its mass of lawyers and private investigators. The biotech industry says we need GMOs for higher yield, and we need that higher yield to feed the world, but, for anyone paying attention, that is the furthest thing from the truth. The facts on the ground show that GMOs don’t actually increase yields, and thirty years of peer-reviewed research from the Rodale Farming Systems trial shows that organic farming can match their yields and do even better in times of flood and drought … all without toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers and patents. We also know that the wealthiest countries waste almost half of the food they produce, meaning that the world produces enough food to feed nearly fourteen billion people right now. And it’s no secret that most GMOs go into making the worst food on the planet, devoid of the nutrients we need for real health, or into ethanol production – not into feeding the poor. But they tell the lie so well, exploiting the poor to prey on our emotions, that most of us believe it without looking beyond their slick thirty-second advertisements.
Are we surprised that the industry is lying to us? A giant corporation only focused on profit and securing markets for further growth is almost beholden to itself and its shareholders to lie if lying means profit. I don’t want to become a jaded, pessimistic person, always thinking the worst, but I also don’t want to be a fool either. And not being a fool in the current climate of “corporatocracy” means assuming that giant corporations monopolizing the market are probably lying to us and abusing power. That isn’t being cynical; it’s just common sense.
Chavannes wasn’t deceived by the promises of increased yield and profit, miracle seeds and wonder chemicals. He knew, as we all know, that these companies aren’t asking themselves “What’s good for this society, for people’s health, for the earth?” No, the questions they are asking are “What will increase profit? How can we produce more in a shorter amount of time, eliminate competition, ensure repeat customers and make more money?”
The new reality of the world is that giant chemical companies are feeding us and our families. And those questions of profit and growth are the ones they’re paying attention to, not the ones concerning you or your family or this land we all share and live on.
Maybe corporate greed and corruption aren’t enough to deter people from a cheap hamburger because, well, there will always be selfish monsters abusing power, but we still have to eat, right? Perhaps the death of the family farmer under the current paradigm of big industry and corporate consolidation within the food system doesn’t really hit home enough to make a change?
But I would hope that the potential health risks would at least cause parents to stop feeding their children GMOs until all the data is in. Long-term, independent studies show damage to rat livers and kidneys when fed an exclusive GMO grain diet, and new findings link Monsanto’s “Roundup” weed killer to Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
With peer-reviewed, independent studies coming out with real results that contradict the industry’s short-term studies, it seems safe to say that all is not well with this genetically altered food. Should we really allow ourselves to be a part of this experiment? And even if you’re willing to take the risk, do you have the right to subject your fellow citizens or children to it?
How can we live without destroying the sources of our life?
– Wendell Berry
Once you know about GMOs, it is not an issue you can stay on the fence about, because you eat every single day. There’s no way out, because what you eat shapes the world around us. What you eat makes you a participant in a larger system, one that interacts with the planet, whether you like it or not.
In his book, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes “In order to understand our own time and predicament and the work that is to be done, we would do well to shift the terms and say that we are divided between exploitation and nurture.”
That is the real divide in our food system, in energy, in consumerism and in our relationships with one another. If you choose to ignore GMOs and the giant corporations taking over our food because it’s overwhelming or you like the convenience and affordability of their products, then you’ve chosen to participate in the system of exploitation.
Those of us who do not live on and from the land, must stand in solidarity with farmers here and around the world who choose the way of nurture – understanding the interconnectedness of all life and embracing a way of living that regenerates soil, seed and life, so we have something to pass on to our children.
If you choose to be a “nurturer” rather than an “exploiter,” then there are simple, powerful, practical ways to live out that philosophy. First, vote with your fork; second, demand labeling for GMOs and stand up for your right to know; and, third, participate in our democracy and help promote fair food and farm policies, creating the systemic changes necessary for true sustainability.
On a personal level, which collectively can grow into national significance and create real change, you can vote with your fork. Don’t buy GMOs or any products that come from the biotech or agrochemical industry. Buy organic, local, seasonal food. Shop at farmers’ markets and join a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). It will be tough making the transition, and it will cost more, but this is something you can start doing today.
To make this first step achievable, we have to fight for the labeling of GMOs, and that fight is happening in states across the country right now. The biggest push happened in the fall of 2012 with California’s Proposition 37. Over six million people voted for their right to know, but the pesticide and junk food industry (companies like Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dupont and Monsanto) spent over a million dollars a day on deceptive ads in the last month to narrowly defeat the proposition. However, no one in the movement saw it as a defeat. They had exposed the industry’s fear of labeling and willingness to spend millions to keep us in the dark, and they raised consciousness across the nation, paving the way for labeling efforts around the country. Connecticut and Maine have already enacted mandatory GMO labeling, as long as other major New Engla nd states do so, and Washington state’s I-522 ballot initiative is the battle that promises to blow this issue wide open this year.
In November, the people of Washington will vote for their right to know, but they will be voting for all of us, and thus all of us should sign up, donate and volunteer. A victory in Washington, close on the heels of victories in Connecticut and Maine, will force “Big Food” to accept that labeling GMOs at the national level is inevitable and cut a deal with regulators (the FDA in this case), as happened in Europe a decade ago.
If we can’t stand up against these companies and raise our voices for ourselves and our children, then we may truly be lost. But I don’t believe we have lost our capacity for outrage just yet. I believe once people know, once the darkness has been chased away by flickers turning into bonfires of light, people will act. Indeed that is what’s happening right now, in big and small ways, and it’s just a matter of time before the almost imperceptible swell deep in the ocean moves closer to shore, picks up speed, rises into a great wave and pounds us. Watch out Monsanto and Dow and Dupont and CEO Hugh Grant, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and President Obama and the FDA, and all you colluders in industry lies, big money and injustice. Watch out, because the crashing wave is coming soon – and we won’t stop until our basic freedoms to choose and know what we are eating are fully restored.
Beyond voting with our forks and the immediate fight for GMO labeling, I agree with Wenonah Hauter, author of Foodopoly and Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, that the next step is politicizing the growing numbers of people joining the movement for real food, who are voting with their dollars, and organizing direct relationships between farmers and eaters. She writes, “Creating a just society where everyone can enjoy healthy food produced by thriving family farmers using organic practices can only be realized by making fundamental structural changes to society and to farm and food policies.”
I feel hope every time I see my son, Finn, with his seed collection, showing his awe and wonder at the world around him. I feel hope when I realize that we don’t have to keep doing what we’re doing, exploiting the earth for profit and applying the industrialized model to how we grow our food. I feel hope when I see the power of the Earth to regenerate itself and heal the damage we have done, if only we will stop our plundering and let it heal. And seeds give me hope as well – every one a tiny miracle and promise of life.
Yes on 522
The focus of most people in favor of labeling genetically engineered food is the need to know what they are putting in their bodies and feeding their children.
I get that. In this day and age, we count every calorie and every gram of fat. People want to know what they are eating.
That is the biggest part of the motivation behind Initiative 522, which will appear on the November ballot in Washington State. If approved, it will require that our state establish a system for labeling genetically engineered food.
I, too, am concerned about the long-term health impacts of consuming genetically engineered food, but my primary concern today is one even more universal than calorie counting. My primary concern is about the economy.
Many of our trading partners, specifically those in the European Union and Pacific Rim, have banned the importation of unlabeled genetically modified foods. All told, more than sixty countries now refuse to import such products without proper labeling.
I would prefer that we had a federal labeling system in place, but I don’t have to tell you that waiting for the Feds to act on anything takes more time than we have. Instead, we have to protect the health of our communities by developing our own system now.
Connecticut became the first state to pass a law requiring such labeling, but the law will not be enacted until neighboring states follow suit. Fortunately, similar bills are indeed advancing through other legislatures throughout New England.
Washington is still the only state where labeling is currently on the ballot this fall – so we will be letting our voters decide if they want genetically engineered foods to be labeled. Success in Washington will not only help build national momentum and engage more Americans in the effort, but it will also help lay the groundwork for future campaigns across the nation.
Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, represents the 32nd Legislative District which includes Shoreline, Lynnwood, Edmonds, Woodway, Mountlake Terrace and north Seattle. Senator Chase is Co-Chair of Yes on 522, the campaign to label genetically engineered foods in Washington.