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Friday, April 29, 2011

‘Food Crisis’ symposium in San Rafael takes on our genetically modifying veggie aisles

Pacific Sun

Feature: Dinner straits

Think a farming crisis on the other side of the planet doesn't affect Marin? Think again.

At the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, workshop attendees listened closely as Vandana Shiva—one of the world's most revolutionary anti-GMO environmental activists—explained the dangers of genetically modified crops. She was passionate, engaging and poignant in her delivery of what she believes to be not only the alarming impact of GMO crops on the world's fragile ecosystems, but the brutal reality of farmer suicides in the very rural Indian farming communities she was advocating for.

In these communities, and many others like them throughout the world, farming isn't just a method of providing sustenance and generating income—it's a way of life. Passed on from generation to generation, many rural farming practices are the threads that bind the culture together. Saving seeds to plant for the following year's crops is free and keeps farming families connected to the land and each other while bringing in modest profits for other necessities.

However, with seeds from cotton, rice, chickpeas, sugarcane, mustard and other crops vital to India undergoing genetic modification—the altering of an organism's genes through human engineering—many seeds can no longer be saved.

These "new" seeds, it turns out, are owned under patent by the biotech companies that genetically modified them.

Many of these seeds that for centuries have been part of rural Indian culture today must be repurchased from mega corporations like Monsanto, along with the fertilizers and pesticides needed to maintain them until harvest season. Ancient, longstanding agricultural methods are no longer useful, water sources become polluted with toxins, and many once tried-and-true crops—like India's 2002 catastrophic cotton loss—don't cultivate with the ease that biotech corporations hope for.

As a result of these financial and cultural burdens, says Shiva, over 40,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last decade (some put the number over 100,000). And the genetic modification of the crops they have planted can never be reversed.

• • • •

WORLDS AWAY FROM the struggles and complexities of rural India, farmers and consumers in GMO-free Marin are much more fortunate. Still, the concerns of the safety and potential harms of GMO foods will not disappear overnight. In fact, the corporate agriculture industry continues to push for an expansion of the GMO crops—corn, papaya, soy, squash—readily available in the produce aisles. And according to some reports, over 70 percent of conventional foods contain GMO ingredients.

The global and local issues around genetically modified foods are among the primary moral matters of our time. Although the idea of altering the genetic makeup of living things—whether it's fusing fish genes with tomatoes or depleting germ-carrying genes from insects—incites fascinating sci-fi curiosity (it's no wonder the Europeans refer to GMOs as "Frankenfoods"), the rate at which under-tested and permanently irreversible genetic modifications charge forward is alarming.

The scientific complexities of genetically modified foods are varied. Many consumers are left confused about the process of genetic modification. In short, genetically modified organisms result when a gene is removed from a species of plant or animal—or even created in synthetic form in a lab—and inserted into the cells of another plant or animal. The desired results range from creating freeze-resistant crops (by fusing genes from cold-water fish into tomatoes), pesticide resistant crops (from combining chemical compounds into the proteins of cotton seeds) and even creating non-browning apples, simply for the viewing pleasure of consumers. Sometimes scientists are successful at attempts to alter life forms with no immediately harmful side affects. Other times, entire crops fail, unexpected toxins are created and communities of plants, animals and humans become ill as a result.

Monsanto, the company that, prior to its merger with Pharmacia in 2000, created controversial chemicals like Roundup Ready pesticides and even the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange that was dumped on Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, is the usual suspect for perpetuating the expansion of GMO foods. However, companies like Bayer and Dow are catching up to Monsanto's level of commitment to genetic engineering.

Here in Marin, the concern about introducing GMO crops into our local farms became less of a threat in 2004 when voters passed a law prohibiting the cultivation of genetically modified foods within the county's borders. Though it is illegal to cultivate the crops within the county, GMO seeds can find their way into Marin through cross-pollination and wind patterns. And GMO food products continue to be shipped to Marin's grocery stores.

The ban on planting and growing GMO crops in Marin was preceded by a ban in Mendocino County and followed by one in Trinity County; similar measures failed in Butte, Lake, Humboldt, San Luis Obispo and Sonoma counties.

But ban or no ban—seeds travel and plants can be cross-pollinated; GMO concerns are warranted in all farming communities.

"Food grows across all sorts of dotted lines on the map," says environmental activist and 2012 congressional hopeful Norman Solomon over lunch at the Pine Cone Diner in Point Reyes Station. "Normally, this sort of policy would be a tragedy."

Solomon is preparing for his role as moderator at the May 6 "Symposium on the Food Crisis," a panel discussion at the San Rafael Community Center that will pose the question: "Why and how did corporations start to change the proteins in our food supply?" The symposium's panel of experts includes author Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Food Safety, Uncertain Peril author Claire Cummings and Mark Squire of the Non-GMO Project (and better known locally as a partner in Good Earth Natural Foods). The symposium will focus on the health and environmental implications of GMOs.

One of the hot topics at the symposium may relate to plans currently in the works to introduce genetically modified alfalfa—the fourth largest crop in the United States—to the nation's agriculture business. Fears about cross-pollination from GMO alfalfa to non-GMO crops only scratch the surface with this food-of-choice for livestock. GMO critics say the greater fear is the effects of modified alfalfa on the dairy industry once the plant is consumed by dairy cows and what sort of concerns should there be over GMO-contaminated milk.

"When you combine large-scale industrial farming with corporate power," says Solomon, "the result is an eco-disaster."

Proponents of GMOs argue that the overwhelming benefit is that the food production process can be sped up, providing more food faster for our growing global population. By genetically modifying seeds to be drought- and insect-resistant, it is hoped that the new breeds of plants can sustain threats to the crops, thereby resulting in bountiful harvests for the world to enjoy.

• • • •

OF COURSE, NO one is against providing an abundant supply of edible food and eradicating hunger across the globe. But what GMO opponents say isn't being considered are the long-term impacts of the short-term agenda of introducing rarely or under-tested foods into the world's supply—what effect will that have on the health of humans and the environment?

Possibly a big one.

An obvious concern with GMOs is over allergies. If someone is allergic to, for instance, shellfish, and a gene from a shellfish is introduced into a vegetable—will that vegetable now cause an allergic reaction to that person? So far all testing of this has largely been conducted by the companies creating the GMOs—they say they've found no direct evidence to the transfer of allergens. (A 2005 study by the Australian government, however, found a bean-pea hybrid resulted in an allergic reaction in mice.)

Still other questions abound, not the least of which is the potential for gene transfers into the human body, creating new illnesses that the medical industry is not prepared to treat.

Genetic-modification critics also point to dangers of GMO foods beyond merely plant life—some say they have the potential to severely alter entire ecosystems. The USDA is currently set to breed genetically modified salmon at a test site in Ohio. If the approval is granted to introduce GMO salmon to water sources, says Mark Squire, the effects could be catastrophic for the already endangered Atlantic salmon and its fresh-water relatives.

"If the [GMO] salmon are released," Squire said when we spoke at his office at the Good Earth in Fairfax, "it would only take 20 generations for all wild salmon to have GMO genes. This would effectively destroy all wild salmon."

And while California farmers aren't suffering quite the same fate as their Indian brethren, they are feeling the strain—mostly a result of profit drops in the dairy industry—and the introduction of more GMO crops like alfalfa may impact local farmers on a much larger scale.

"Farmers have been pushed economically to their limits," says Squire. "They are manipulated by big corporations that promise things that could be beneficial."

One example, which many concerned about GMOs are familiar with, is the plight of Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser, whose story was featured in Marin filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia's 2004 documentary The Future of Food. Schmeiser was famously—or infamously, as the case may be—sued by Monsanto for patent infringement when the company's genetically modified "Roundup Ready Canola" plants were found growing amid the natural canola on his property.

"Monsanto's seeds sprouted in his farm," says Squire. "Then they and the federal courts demanded that he destroy his crops because he didn't have permission to plant their patented seeds." (The Canadian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto's claim of patent violation, though no monetary damages were awarded.)

Squire is no stranger to the controversies surrounding GMO foods—he and his group, the Non-GMO Project, helped lead the way toward the voter-approved Marin County ban against GMO crops in 2004; a similar initiative in Sonoma County failed in 2006.

"There is very little benefit to farmers and no benefits to consumers," says Squire about GMOs. "The only benefit is to the companies that hold the patents."

• • • •

NOT ONLY ARE genetically modified alfalfa crops currently on the table—if not yet on the dinner table—also in the works are proposals to add sugar beets, apples and grocery aisle items to the list.

And, of course, there are questions of ethics and fairness.

"There is lunacy in thinking that you can own the genes in a plant," insists Squire. "The underlying flaw that exists with corporate agriculture is that it is based on control of nature. You can't put life in a bottle."

With the continuous flow of disconcerting information about GMO foods and their effect on the planet, Solomon and Squire both have hope that if the information reaches enough consumers and farmers, there may be a shift in how corporate agriculture engages in farming practices.

"The vibrant organic farming community tends to be small-scale and they federate together for positive synergy and have support from organizations like Marin Organics and even MALT [Marin Agricultural Land Trust]," says Solomon. "The biggest challenge [at the local level] is to synthesize with the global movement."

"It doesn't take a lot of people to object before the food industry responds," adds Squire. "And there are only five or six [GMO] crops at this point."

Many organizations, such as the Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Responsible Technology, are also monitoring the agriculture industry and provide readily available, up-to-date information about safety and policy issues. Organic food companies have also initiated labeling of GMO-free products, while advocates push a labeling policy at the local and federal government level so that consumers are educated and informed well before they reach the check out line. (Their efforts to regulate labeling of GMO products have thus far been unsuccessful.)

To address these growing concerns and engage in a dialogue about the types of labeling regulations that would inform consumers as to whether the snacks on local shelves contain GMO ingredients is on the agenda for an informational meeting next Friday.

In the end, GMO critics insist, it comes down to whether or not the local and federal governments should put policies in place to rein in corporate food and agricultural suppliers in order to protect the environment, farmers and ultimately the safety of our food itself.

"Scientists, and politicians for that matter," says Solomon, "are not any more qualified to make moral judgments than anyone else.

"And," he stresses, "when corporate power comes in—the implications are huge."


The Symposium on the Food Crisis: Why and how did corporations start to change the proteins in our food supply? takes place Friday, May 6, 6:30-9:30pm at the San Rafael Community Center, 618 B St., San Rafael. $5-$10. For info, call 415/454-9898.

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