Food Social Issues

What To Do About GMOs in the Trump Era

8 min read

A special guest post from Institute for Responsible Technology founder Jeffrey Smith Editors note: The vast majority of corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified (GMOs). Monsanto and its allies claim that GMO crops reduce pesticide use, increase yields, reduce water consumption, and offer foods that are more

A special guest post from Institute for Responsible Technology founder Jeffrey Smith

Editors note: The vast majority of corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified (GMOs). Monsanto and its allies claim that GMO crops reduce pesticide use, increase yields, reduce water consumption, and offer foods that are more tasty and more nutritious. But in the nearly 25 years since GM crops first came on the market, studies have found that they have led to higher pesticide use, and no meaningful improvement in flavor, nutrition, yield or water consumption. Instead, what they’ve created are plants that are engineered to withstand massive dosing of toxic herbicides, and plants that function as living pesticide factories. Monsanto’s Bt. corn, for example, is actually registered with the EPA as a pesticide. Many credible scientists have significant concerns about the safety of these crops for human and animal consumption. And the environmental impacts are documented, and alarming.

Perhaps you, like I, had high hopes for a more enlightened approach to GMOs when President Obama came into office. During his 2008 campaign, he had publicly called for labeling and good science. And boy did we need good science, especially when it came to informing US policy makers.

During the Reagan years, Vice President George HW Bush visited Monsanto headquarters and was recorded on video offering them help with getting their products through the government. “We’re in the de-reg business,” he told them.

When he became president, we realized the extent to which that was true. His Vice President, Dan Quayle, was put in charge of a high-level Competitiveness Council, charged with reducing US export deficits. For some reason, they believed that introducing GMOs would increase US exports and US domination in the trade of food. So on May 26th, 1992, in the Indian Treaty room in the White House, Vice President Quayle announced that they would avoid the unnecessary regulations and treat GMOs just like other foods. Three days later, the FDA policy was unveiled, claiming that “the agency is not aware of any information showing that the foods created by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” On that basis, not a single safety study was required, and GMOs could go on the market without any labeling requirement.

Years later, when 44,000 FDA documents were forced to the public domain because of a lawsuit spearheaded by Steven Druker and the Alliance for Bio integrity, we learned that the entire policy was based on a fraudulent premise. Not only had the scientists working at the FDA come to a very different conclusion, warning about unique health dangers and recommending extensive tests, but the person in charge of GMO policy at the FDA was Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney, and later their vice president.

The Clinton administration continued to cheerlead for Monsanto. Dan Glickman, the administration’s Secretary of agriculture, took a road trip trying to convince Europeans to accept American GMO exports. At one point, Glickman veered from his prepared script and indicated that he thought GMOs should be labeled. He later commented, “when I opened my mouth in the Clinton administration I got slapped around a little bit by not only the industry, but also some of the people even in the administration.” He even wondered if he might get fired. A revealing quote from Glickman, which probably applies to all of the administrations so far, is worth a read:

“What I saw generically on the pro-biotech side was the attitude that the technology was good and that it was almost immoral to say that it wasn’t good because it was going to solve the problems of the human race and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And there was a lot of money that had been invested in this, and if you’re against it, you’re Luddites, you’re stupid. There was rhetoric like that even here in this department. You felt like you were almost an alien, disloyal, by trying to present an open-minded view on some of the issues being raised. So I pretty much spouted the rhetoric that everybody else around here spouted; it was written into my speeches.”

Europe didn’t accept Glickman’s pitch on GMOs, but the pressure on other countries was stepped up during the George W. Bush years. The State Department took the lead, and, based on extensive exposés by WikiLeaks, we now know that they were in many ways functioning as a marketing arm for Monsanto and the biotech industry. They promoted pro-biotech speeches, media coverage, training, and pressure around the world.

Did all this change with Obama? Actually, if anything it may have gotten worse. The State Department’s promotion of GMOs picked up, Obama walked back on his campaign promise to implement GMO labeling, and, in fact, he reappointed Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s VP, as the US Food Czar.

He also placed former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as Secretary of agriculture. Vilsack had previously been the biotech Governor of the Year. Numerous other appointees were taken from the biotech industry or their lobbyists. And when it came to GMO policy, their position was even more extreme.

The USDA chose to use a very narrow definition of its regulatory scope and jurisdiction over GMOs, and thereby allow now a whole class of GMOs to be deployed without any consideration or oversight by the government. They have allowed the industry to do their own environmental assessments. They approved genetically modified salmon (not yet commercialized). The FDA gave the green light to genetically engineered mosquitoes. And in spite of papers written by their own scientists in the USDA and EPA pointing out that the regulation was insufficient to guard against the potential dangers, the administration approved apples and potatoes equipped with double stranded RNA (dsRNA) technology. Some experts fear that this technology may have the capacity to reprogram the DNA of those of us who consume it.

We don’t know much about incoming President Trump’s opinion of GMOs. We do know that he doesn’t support labeling foods made with GMOs. And judging from his agribusiness-friendly cabinet appointments, we anticipate that his administration will continue if not expand on decades of US policy promoting the use of biotechnology in agriculture.

Trump has also tapped Congressman Mike Pompeo to be the head of the CIA. Pompeo was Monsanto’s man on the Hill. He authored what became known as the DARK (Deny Americans’ Right to Know) act. With labeling laws enacted by Vermont, and just barely defeated in statewide votes in California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, the biotech industry was desperate to eliminate states’ rights for labeling of GMOs. That’s where the DARK act came in. Eventually also passed by the Senate and made into law, the “DARK Act” eliminates the ability for states to require labeling of GMOs. It gives the appearance of providing its own labeling requirement, but a careful review of the wording demonstrates that it could easily be interpreted by Trump administration to be nothing more than a “voluntary” measure that essentially lets the industrialized food industry do as it pleases.

With labeling largely off the table, and a history of all recent presidential administrations marching in lockstep with the biotech industry, what should the strategy be in the Trump era? For those of us who want safe food, and who don’t want to see Monsanto and the biotech industry dominate our agricultural systems or our dinner plates – what’s next?

I’ve been at the forefront of the movement for responsible technology for nearly two decades, and I learned a long time ago that politics is not stable. This was clearly illustrated some years ago when the Polish government flew me over to give a press conference with the minister of environment. I praised the country’s strong non-GMO position. One week later, that government was voted out of office and a more pro-GMO government took its place.

While in Bangkok, I forwarded materials to the government just before they voted to prevent all GMO field trials in the country. One week later, a new government took over, and reversed the decision – allowing field trials on government land.

In addition to being unstable, the policy of a government is often irrelevant to the actual GMO situation on the ground. For example, few people realize that the European Commission is actually pro-GMO, as is the European Food Safety Authority. There is no law prohibiting the import of genetically engineered foods into the European Union. However, many European food companies refuse to use products that contain GMOs. These companies committed long ago to consumers that they would not use GMOs because there was a general sense among European consumers that GMOs were not safe.

You can trace this back to 1999, when over 700 articles were written in just one month in the UK alone about GMOs. The firestorm followed the lifting of the gag order on a scientist, Arpad Pusztai, who had quite accidentally discovered that GMOs might be dangerous. His highly provocative research had led him to the conclusion that GMO crops may have been responsible for massive damage to the health of rats in just 10 days.

Within 10 weeks of the gag order being lifted, on April 27, 1999, Unilever publicly committed to stop using GMOs in its European brands. The next day Nestlé’s followed suit. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the food industry capitulated — in Europe.

But Project Censored described the whole Pusztai affair as one of the 10 most underreported events of the year in United States. The US mainstream media left most Americans in the dark, and the same companies that removed GMOs for Europeans continued to feed the Americans the stuff that our friends overseas had rejected.

Keenly aware that in the world of GMOs, the customer is King (and more often Queen) the strategy we have undertaken at the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) has been to affect the market through behavior-change messaging.

It’s working!

Depending on which survey you read, the average American now has concerns about the health dangers of GMOs. This has initiated a corresponding cleanout of GMOs by the food industry starting with the natural products sector, and now extending to mainstream food products.

Nestlé’s advertises on television that its coffee creamer is non-GMO. Dannon that its animal feed for dairy cows will be non-GMO within three years. Chipotle has non-GMO signs in their restaurants. Non-GMO Project Verified is the fastest growing label in the natural products industry, representing $19.2 billion in annual sales and more than 39,000 verified products.

And nearly every major food company has products or even product lines that are non-GMO or about to be.

Millions of moms shop supermarket aisles looking for non-GMO and organic products. Social media circulates stories of dramatic health recoveries following the switch to organic and non-GMO. And thousands of patients all over the US are being instructed by their physicians to make the change.

I truly believe that a tipping point is underway in the United States. But so too is the well-organized pushback by the biotech industry. Calling in all their favors, Monsanto’s minions have inspired headlines and even front-page coverage in Newsweek, National Geographic, and many other news outlets. Even a cursory analysis of the arguments reveal that they are often simply the circulation of promotional rhetoric that has been shown to be vacant time and time again. For example, we continue to hear claims repeated that GMOs increase yields, reduce pesticides, and provide more healthful foods, even though each of these points has been authoritatively disproven.

At this point in time, it is my belief that the way we can be most effective in standing for safe and responsible GMO policy is to continue to move the marketplace. As in Europe, that will be the stable basis for a safe, non-GMO food supply.

At the Institute for Responsible Technology, this will be our 2017 strategy:

  1. Finish the tipping point for direct ingredients of GMOs, focusing primarily on moms. Also reach out to those suffering from the diseases (and those who treat them) that we believe are linked to GMOs (and the Roundup weed killer sprayed on most GMO plants).
  2. Implement a strategy to extend the tipping point to include animal feed, which is actually where the majority of GMO crops are being consumed.
  3. Export the successful model used in United States around the world, to generate a global tipping point. Our food supply is global. GMOs anywhere on the planet can spread both in the food supply, and potentially the environment — irreversibly.

If you’d like to make a tax-deductible contribution to this global effort, which we believe will produce powerful behavior-change campaigns in the US and around the world, and will help secure a non-GMO food supply for this and future generations, click here to make a contribution now.

Step-by-step, we’ll keep standing for and working for a safe and healthy food supply for all. Thanks for your partnership in this food revolution.

Safe eating.