GMOs and our Food System from seed to plate to belly Written by Rebecca Brumberg Frimmer
Hi, I’m Rebecca Frimmer and I am the general manager of Greensgrow Farms in North Philadelphia. I’d like to thank Hazon and Lori Dafilou for inviting me to speak to all of you today about GMOs.
At greensgrow Farms, we feed over 1000 families through our community supported agriculture program, and we work with over 75 farms producing fresh fruits and vegetables, livestock and dairy, so I get to see a wide range of farming operations. I’m here today as a farmer and a researcher to talk to you about GMOs and how they impact our entire food system, from seed to plate to belly.
I was personally drawn to this issue after experiencing major changes in my health that led me to attempt to eliminate GMOs from my diet â€“ after which I did a lot of research and became furiously frustrated with how difficult it is to eat GMO free in this country, and even more furious when I discovered the volume of chemicals being used to cultivate these crops.
This issue is important to me, and should be important to all of us because we live on this planet! We breathe the air, we drink the water and we eat food â€“ a lot of it! And the way that food is grown, raised and processed effects our health, the toxicity of our land, air and water, and the health of future generations. The land we are farming now is the same land that our
grandchildren will need to use for growing food, and we need to maintain the fertility of the soil – mass cultivation of GMOs jeopardizes that future.
I’m going to take you through a range of information about GMOs today, and after all of the speakers are finished, we’ll have a Q&A panel, so please do hold on to any questions that you may have.
Let’s start with the basics – identifying where GMOs are hiding in your pantry, and what GMOS are out there on the grocery
store shelves. Since GMOS are currently not labeled, it can be confusing. The only crops that are currently approved for commercial cultivation in the USA are:
Alfalfa, Canola, Corn Cotton Papaya Soy Sugar Beets Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx. 25,000 acres)
Think about how widespread these products are in food processing – soybean oil as the main ingredient in mayonnaise, corn syrup in every cereal, cottonseed oil in relishes and salad dressings, and sugar beets – the refined white sugar that is in a frightening majority of foods and drinks. These GMO crops are also hiding in ingredients with unsuspecting names, like “natural flavors” or “cane sugar”. Most baby formulas are made from GMO soy.
Over the last 17 years, GMO corn, soy and cotton have become so prolific; that only a small percentage of the US crop is grown is grown from natural seed. They have virtually taken over.
The other products that contain GMOs are dairy and meat – RbGH is a GMO lab hormone injected into cows to produce more milk – and with a vast majority of non-organic meat products, the livestock are fed GMO feed. This also means that most eggs are GMO fed, and your honey could also contain GMO inputs if the bees come into contact with GMO pollen. Let’s be clear about this – a sweeping majority of non-organic products in your grocery store – every box on every shelf, in every aisle, every piece of meat that’s not organic – contains GMOs. How did this happen? And are they safe?
GMOs are a fairly new issue in the world, they were legally approved in the mid-90s, which means they’ve been on our plates and in our food system for less than 20 years.
Because of their short life span, there has been relatively little testing. In the last 10 years, biotech companies that make GMO seeds, and the chemicals used for growing them, have spent over $500 million dollars on advertising to convince us that they’re safe, and to convince farmers that GMOs are the future of the farming industry.
Until unbiased research and long term testing is done on the health effects of GMOs, we’re all unsuspecting guinea pigs in this experiment. And none of the organizations monitoring our food are claiming responsibility for GMO food safety.
Many countries have rejected GMO crops, and many more have required labeling - but our nation does the opposite, promoting them domestically and overseas, pushing our biotech agenda overseas to boost business back home and convince hungry nations that our exports are safe.
No other country in the world has so widely accepted GE crops, this chart shows that our great nation has dedicated 69M hectares to GMO farming. The world bank report says that we have about 165M hectares of arable land in the united states, so that’s about 40% for GMOs. That’s a lot of farmland.
Historically farmers have grown crops and saved their own seeds. They would selectively save and breed those seeds from their best fruits, an art that became known as selective breeding. This eventually led to crop hybridization, cross-breeding with varieties that showed traits like disease resistance and cold hardiness for commercial production. Then, GMOs came on the scene.
Biotechnology companies realized that they could use pieces of DNA from any plant, animal or organism to force a desired trait onto a plant, using a gene gun (which is exactly what it sounds like), or a virus to spread the trait. This can also be done with
animals, and the current pipeline for GMOs includes livestock and fish in addition to more fruits and vegetables.
The GMO crops are designed to combine DNA that would never be related in nature – like spiders and corn for example - for different results – They can be pest or disease resistant crops – or herbicide resistant crops (we’ve all heard of “round up ready”)
which can be sprayed with copious amounts of weed killer glyphosate, and survive.
They can be nutritional traits like with golden rice – or they can have industrial traits like for biodiesel or making pharmaceuticals.
Here’s an example of a pest deterrent crop – BT corn. BT, or Bacillus thuringiensis – which is a bacteria found in the soil that makes certain species of insects die by punching holes in the insect’s gut. If this DNA is inserted into corn in the lab, the corn contains the insecticide, and kills the caterpillar.
Some scientists think that when we eat this corn, our gut flora becomes genetically modified and starts making this bacteria inside of our system.
Overall we are losing biodiversity out there in the fields, and we’re losing it fast. Seed sovereignty – the right of people to define their own food system – is at risk of being lost. For what? Biotechnology and predatory capitalism?! Seed saving is a business, and it’s a big one. And seed patenting is affecting farmers all across the world. When a farmer or university purchases GMO seed, they are purchasing that seed as well as a technology license to utilize the patent.
This means that farmers are not allowed to save their seeds, and are forced to keep purchasing new seed year over year at higher and higher license fees. When using herbicide resistant seeds like round-up ready corn year after year, farmers don’t rotate their crops, depleting the nutrition in the soil. Then they apply fertilizer, and spray chemicals like Round up onto their crops to kill weeds. Are you surprised that the companies making the seeds and chemicals are one in the same? Don’t get me started on all of those chemicals washing into our water supply.
The very same patent protection that keeps farmers from saving their own seeds also restricts research. The same companies that are developing the seeds and making the
chemical herbicides get to decide what research can be published and publicized. This means that tests are often too short and come out biased. These companies know that large land grant universities need their funding, and professors know that they need to bring in research funds to be tenured, and we’re caught in a vicious cycle of information suppression. This chart from Food & Water watch shows how professors at Iowa State are basically sponsored by the biotech industry.
The same cross pollination and conflicts of interest are shown in our government officials, as they hop from the private to public sector, trading truth for money.
But, let’s get back to farmers and seed sovereignty and patent laws for a moment, because this is really important, and a huge part of the problem for farmers. Let’s say I’m growing organic corn; or some kind of beautiful red Aztec heirloom corn in my fields. And my neighbor is growing GMO corn.
Corn pollinates on the wind, and if my neighbors GMO corn pollen drifts onto my field and pollinates my corn, I now have GMO corn. I didn’t want it, and I certainly didn’t buy it, but it’s here. What does that mean?
These patent laws put the burden of protection on me – not my GMO happy neighbor – and so I must build a barrier of corn plants that I will trash at my expense, and understand that my corn is at risk – and there’s nothing that I can do, short of staggering my plantings over time to try and avoid cross pollination.
Even crazier is that one of these biotech companies can send a representative to trespass on my property and sample my corn. If its tests GMO positive in a lab – wanted or unwanted – I’m required to pay patent license fees on that corn. They’ll sue me, and I’ll be powerless. This is the true and sad current state of affairs, and farmers are really getting sued. There’s a whole other moral dilemma to think about here – companies are being given rights to owning life forms, both plant, and animal.
To add fuel to the fire, these biotech companies are buying up seed companies left and right – and further limiting options for farmers.
Less seed companies means less varietal seed choices, which means less bio diversity, and less disease resiliency, and therefore potentially big trouble leading into our era of climate change. We’re really just stacking the cards against natural selection.
Aside from the business of seed saving and dominating the world food supply for capitalism’s sake, why else might farmers be wary of GMO seeds? Herbicides. There’s a biotech advertising myth out there that GMO crops reduce agricultural chemical use. The truth is that since 1996 our agrochemical use has increased by more than 400 million pounds because of all of the glyphosate being sprayed on round-up ready crops. Glyphosate also creates salt
buildups in the soil, leaving the land less fertile and more susceptible to erosion. It’s also not good for humans to ingest at these high levels, glyphosate is a proven hormone disruptor.
On top of that, the weeds that are being sprayed are still evolving – they’re not genetically modified after all. And they’re becoming resistant to the Round Up spray, and are today known as superweeds. They have become a big problem in about 20 different states.
Now, agrochemical companies are using 2, 4-D in their weed killers. Ladies and Gentlemen, 2 4-D is also known as Agent Orange. And it’s on our food because of GMOs.
All of these chemical sprays and stronger herbicides are impacting the bee population, and the honey supply, with scientific evidence to back this up. I’m sure you’ve heard about entire bee colonies disappearing, about apple orchards in asia pollinating thousands of trees with paintbrushes, and the fact that our bees are in trouble – it was on the cover of TIME Magazine last month, I’m sure you’ve heard. About 100 different fruit and vegetable crops that we eat are bee pollinated, and about 1/3 of the food that we eat would cease to grow if bees, bats and butterflies were to disappear.
Pollinators are in trouble because of the copious amounts of herbicides that we spray with GMO crops.
And last but not least, we have to feed our Livestock, which makes up the largest piece of the GMO market. In the USA, if a meat product is not labeled organic or 100% grass fed (note the 100%) â€“ it most certainly has consumed soy, corn or alfafa GMOS.
Because the GMO feeds are commercial grade, they also often contain antibiotics – manufactured by the exact same companies that make the seeds. Are you following me yet?
Many anecdotal reports have shown that livestock eating nonGMO feed are much healthier, and there are even studies that show 3rd generation GMO fed livestock becoming sterile, and the general decline in the health, fertility, and energy levels of the animals. Sounds delicious, right? There’s a very relevant case study I’d like to share with you – a livestock farmer took 2 feed buckets – one GMO and one nonGMO, and given the choice, the animals chose to avoid the GMOs. To be fair, the farmer also switched the buckets. The animals instinctively knew, and followed the non-GMO feed. Then the farmer took away the non-GMO feed altogether,
leaving the animals no choice. It took 3 days of no food at all before the animals went back to the feed bucket for their GMO dinner.
At this point we’ve covered a little bit about the origins and proliferation of GMOs, and the seed to plate part. So what happens after we eat these laboratory foods? In my research I’ve found evidence of the dangers of pesticides and herbicides, as hormone and endocrine system disruptors.
I’ve also found evidence of widespread allergies and autoimmune disorders, as well as cancer theoretically tied to GMOs. There are not a lot of tests because of the short time GMOs have been available and because of the seed ownership issues. Food intolerances are on the rise today, as well as allergies – this was the health problem that I was dealing with – and it all starts with leaky gut syndrome, which comes with a lot of inflammation and fatigue. When we eat, food breaks down into tiny particles, each with a celluar ID tag that our bodies recognize. When we eat GMO foods, our bodies don’t recognize the ID tag, because it’s a new, man-made laboratory food particle, made from 2 different species that would never be together in nature – our bodies have not evolved to digest it, and our own DNA with millions of years of evolutionary record can’t recognize it! Thus, the food particles present as a foreign invader, much like a virus. Then our bodies respond by sending white blood cells to the area, which calls for more blood volume, which inflames the intestinal wall. Then we continue to eat GMOs day after day, year after year, and begin to see cracks in the intestinal wall from prolonged inflammation, like a dam ready to break – and undigested food particles enter the bloodstream, causing the immune system to respond again – and food intolerances are born in the system as your body has tagged these particles as foreign invaders. Then the immune system is weakened, and
we’re more susceptible to disease and illness, everything from the common cold to auto immune disorders where our bodies attack our own cells regularly - Autoimmune disorders include lupus, IBS, thyroid disease and rheumatoid arthritis – As a result of these food intolerances, our immune system is dedicating a significant portion of its resources to rid the body of the food that we are eating instead of using the food we eat as nourishment to strengthen it. It is no wonder that Americans are experiencing so much chronic illness. One could also make the connection between an abundance of cheap corn syrup and refined sugar from GMO crops and the onslaught of diabetes in our country.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about the great myth that we need GMO seeds to feed the world because they’re supposedly higher yield or drought resistant. This is simply not true. It is propaganda. Earlier this year I visited the Rodale Institute – the foremost institute for collection of data on organic growing methods. Guess what else they’re growing? Side by side field trials of GMO, conventional and organic corn. They have proven that the organic seeds are more adaptable and offer higher yields in a drought year that the GMO corn. Additionally in 2009 the union of concerned scientists conducted an agricultural survey that found that herbicide tolerant corn and soybeans had NO yield advantage over non GMO crops. They did not perform better.
By this time you should all feel well informed as to how GMOs end up on our plates and in our pantries, and in our bellies, sometimes unbeknownst to us, and understand how farmers are effected by GMO seeds via drift and patent laws, as well as understand a little bit about how the agricultural landscape has changed in the last 15 years in this country and worldwide.
There’s a lot of information here and I want you all to go home with a positive feeling, armed with information to make educated decisions and change the world for the better! So what can you do today? 1) Call you state legislator and let them know you want them to vote for the labeling bill. GMO labeling is the first step. Then, the power shifts to the hands of the consumer, and we get to vote for a better food system with every penny, supporting responsible farmers and seed companies. 2) Feel empowered by this knowledge. Made decisions that dovetail with your beliefs, whether its eliminating GMO baby formula today, or asking your server that your dish be cooked in olive oil tomorrow. At least start reading food labels to better understand your exposure. Ask the farmer at your market if his corn and zucchini are GMO free, or what kind of diet the chickens had that produced your eggs. Look for the non-GMO project label and buy organic foods when you can. 3) Talk to your community – you now have the information, so spread the word because a lot of people don’t know what they’re eating!
4) Stay informed through your local advocacy organizations like Food and water watch, and speak up when you hear something that you don’t like! Thank you so much and I hope you learned something today that you can work with to make your world a greener and more sustainable one!