Andrew Kimbrell: The GMO Reality Check
01 Mar, 2011
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.
The Failed Promise
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.”
GMO Dangers Ignored
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.
“Because of this inefficiency at federal level, it is forced down into the state and local levels. And we’ve definitely seen some very courageous counties go GMO free. We’ve seen states pass laws to protect farmers, and laws to stop GMO agriculture in their states. It’s actually good and valid legislation, but obviously not enough to effectively regulate the whole technology.”
However, it’s not just the crops the biotech companies are after; they are attempting to own the seed market as well. The biotech industry is on the verge of incorporating what is known as terminator technology into seeds—a method that causes the second generation of seeds from genetically modified crops to be sterile. This of course results in farmers having to purchase seeds for their next planting of the crop.
“For 10,000 or so years of agriculture, the whole idea has been to have seeds that were more resilient, seeds that were more adaptive, seeds that provided a more and more robust future for the farmer,” said Kimbrell. “Now, we’re actually breeding seeds for planned obsolescence. We’re saying that we want a seed that only performs for one season, and we then force you to get another one. It’s a silly way to try and do things. What is really needed now are seeds that will provide the most food and will be the most robust, the most resilient, under changing climate conditions. Instead we’re looking at seeds that are actually built not to produce over a series of seasons, because that’s how the biotech industry can make money. The seed becomes a commodity versus being seen as it should be seen—as a common heritage.
“The major biotech companies currently own 50 percent of the world’s commercial seeds, and we certainly don’t want to get into a situation where a few chemical companies own all our commercial seeds. The anti-GMO movement has gotten strong; we’ve turned the tide in the United States, and of course in Europe and elsewhere even more so, with our work and all the work of our allies. But I think it would be a shame if we were to turn back GMO technology only to see these companies cry all the way to the seed bank, where they would be able to own, engineer and ultimately maybe even use terminator technology on the seeds of Earth.
“So at the Center for Food Safety, we’re starting an SOS program: Save Our Seeds. It has four prongs: one is to stop the acquisition of seed companies by these chemical companies; two is to stop the patenting of seeds; three is to look at the Technology Use Agreements that imprison farmers and stop them from seed saving; and four, of course, would be an international ban on this terminator technology that would make crops sterile after one growing season.
“We need to understand that seeds really are our future. Food security is our security, much more than any national security. As we fight the GMO battle, I’m afraid there’s another one on the horizon, and that is to save the fate and the future of these seeds that are so beautiful and that we all love so much.”
How Should GMOs Be Regulated?
“I don’t think GMOs should be regulated at all; I think they should be eliminated,” Kimbrell stated. “I see no excuse whatsoever for anyone to support a technology whose sole aim is to increase the amount of chemicals that we’re putting on our crops and our cropland, destroying the insects and life in those crops because of this massive dose of killing, of poison. It is totally antithetical, exactly opposite, to the organic ethic. We’re trying to eliminate chemicals, and just as we’re trying to do that, biotech is pouring 150 million more pounds of them out there. We’re in a direct opposition. So I think herbicide-tolerant crops should be eliminated, because I don’t consider there is any room in our society for those. They are against our vision.”
Fighting the Tough Fight
Stepping back, we can see that the fight against GMOs is a tough battle for us all. Someone like Andrew Kimbrell, “taking point”* in such a conflict, might be thought to cringe every day at the odds he’s up against. But he doesn’t. And the philosophy which motivates him can be a lesson to us all.
“Years ago, people may remember Bovine Growth Hormone, Monsanto’s flagship product. Originally I litigated the case to try and halt the approval of it; the FDA under Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto attorney, had approved that animal drug. We won some preliminary motions, but we ended up losing the case at the time.
“I was very, very depressed. I called my brother, who’s also my best friend, and was bemoaning this loss. My brother said, ‘Sounded like you really wanted to win.’ And I said, ‘You bet I wanted to win!’ He replied, ‘You have to remember: you’re not required to be successful, but you are required to be faithful.’
“You know, no one is required to be successful. I am not required to defeat Monsanto, or to single-handedly save the organic standards or create an ‘Organic and Beyond’ future. That’s way beyond anything that any of us can do. But what we are required to do is be faithful, to have a vision, to understand what we want, what we see as the future of food, and how we want our relationship with nature and our relationship with food to be. And I need to try and live personally, as well as work professionally, in faithfulness to that vision.
“I’ve been working in Washington for 25 years. We’ve been in litigation against every major biotech company and many others, not to mention government agencies. I’m not stressed and I’m not burned out, because that mantra has always stayed with me. If you put the burden of success on yourself, then you’re just as stressed as somebody who is trying to make a successful business deal or be a successful politician—but that’s not our job. Our job is to be faithful to this vision that we share, and do everything each of us can individually do, within reason and professionally, to make that happen—just to be faithful. If you do that, then be at peace. Act faithfully to that and let the rest take care of itself.
“Another thing that people often ask me is, ‘Why do you fight? Were you born to fight?’ Actually, no. I was a musician and concert pianist, and I taught music for years before I became a lawyer. I’ve always loved Lincoln’s adage that I was born a lover but I was forced to become a fighter. And I think that the best fighters are basically lovers, because when they see that that which they love is being attacked, then they fight. They don’t fight for the purpose of just taking on a corporation or just for the joy of the battle. For those of us who have a true sense of wonder and love for the natural world, and a vision of a new relationship with it, that’s what we love. And when we see the kind of horrific technological manipulation represented by biotechnology; when we see what it does to the bodies of salmon or the bodies of animals, or when we understand that they’ve somehow turned a corn plant into a poison for butterflies and caddisflies and potentially for bees; when we realize that they’ve actually changed the heredity of corn and soy so they can withstand ever more and more chemicals; when we see all that, it’s an assault on something that we love. So we respond, not for the sake of attack, but because things that we value and love are being attacked. Anybody would feel that way with their child or pet or anything they care about.
“So the great thing about the work you do, and the work a lot of us do, is if we can get people to fall in love with the organic vision and with the farm communities, and fall in love with this new relationship with food, they’ll fight for it. We’re not passive consumers; we’re creators, and that creative process is very exciting. And when we see that attacked, yes, we’ll defend it and we’ll defend it vigorously. But we don’t do it out of a sense of simple aggression; we do it because we’re defending something we love. So beware of the lover, because when you attack that which a person loves, you’re going to have a pretty vigorous fight on your hands. And that is, I think, what all of us do.”
For the latest update on the Center for Food Safety and their many activities, visit www.centerforfoodsafety.org.
* take point: Military to assume the first and most exposed position in a combat formation, that is, the lead soldier/unit advancing through hostile or unsecured territory. (Wikipedia.org)