I hadn’t thought much about Monsanto until recently. It was a hometown company that sponsored the science fairs I participated in when I was in elementary school. Its headquarters was a 10-minute drive from my high school. Its website makes it sound respectable enough: “Producing more, conserving more, improving lives. That’s sustainable agriculture. And that’s what Monsanto is all about.”
I wasn’t naïve to the increasing occurrence of protests such as March Against Monsanto. But I didn’t understand why they were so angry, other than a possibly exaggerated fear of genetically engineered (GE) crops. I had heard horror stories, but I had also heard about victories, such as what the golden rice had done for people in Asia.
I would describe my prior opinion of genetically modified organisms (GMO) as uncertain. I could relate to both sides of the argument in certain ways, but I also knew that they both had their flaws. But after doing some more research, I’ve come to the conclusion that we should avoid GMO as much as possible.
Avoid them for your health
North America is the only continent on which no country requires GE crops or ingredients to be labeled! In 64 countries worldwide, labels are mandatory. But because they are not required in the United States, it is difficult to track the health problems associated with GE crops. Some brands might use a combination of GMO and non-GMO ingredients from the same species of crop, making things even more complicated.
Still, scientists and doctors are aware of potential and definite risks of consuming GE crops. The first publicly available GE crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, was released to the United States in 1994. It was made to be more resistant to rotting by an engineered delay in enzyme reaction.
But it wasn’t until 2000 that Americans were aware that products on grocery store shelves were commonly altered. Kraft recalled its Taco Bell taco shells after people had extreme allergic reactions to the unapproved GE corn they contained.
The problem is that seed companies exist to generate revenue, not to improve people’s health. And there is minimal regulation by the FDA, USDA and EPA, largely because GE crops simply have not been around long enough for us to have a reasonable set of data. We are still unsure of how much caution they deserve.
On Oct. 25, 1998, a Monsanto executive was quoted in the New York Times, saying, “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” We can only hope that the company has changed its perspective since that story was published.
Avoid them for your farmers
Because they are companies seeking profit, seed developers like Monsanto do whatever they can to control the agricultural industry.
In the 1970s, Monsanto developed Roundup as an effective weed-killer. The problem was that as an herbicide, Roundup killed every plant it came across, which included the crops themselves. Monsanto then began to genetically engineer crops to be resistant to the specific chemical properties of Roundup. These seeds were declared “Roundup Ready.”
As science advanced in the 20th century, it became an enterprise. The 1980s saw the first patent on a living organism: a microbe designed to help clean up oil spills by consuming the oil. This opened a door to patents on other organisms, including plants. Seed companies patented whatever GE seeds they had developed, and they also began taking non-patented seeds from seed banks and placing their own patents on them.
Now, any plant that contains a Monsanto gene (whether purposely engineered that way or accidentally as a result of cross-pollination) lawfully belongs to Monsanto.
This is a huge danger to the livelihood of sustainable farmers. According to the documentary The Future of Food, as of 2004, 9,000 farmers had been sued for raising Monsanto crops without a license. In most cases, seeds had fallen off of a passing truck, or blown in from another farmer’s field. The sustainable farmers were unaware of this occurrence because at a macro level, GMO and non-GMO crops look the same.
Unable to prove that they had not intentionally been growing Monsanto crops, these farmers were forced to destroy their deposits of saved seeds. 75 percent of the world’s farmers rely on saved seeds, but seed companies try to scare them into buying a license for GE seeds, since that is financially safer than risking a contamination and suit.
How to support non-GMO farms
If more people intentionally supported non-GMO farms, there would be less of a market for GMO crops, and seed companies would be forced to alter their practices. It is very difficult to identify non-GMO ingredients in packaged foods without contacting the producer directly, but here are a few ways to know whether your produce is sustainable:
Anything that is USDA-certified organic is automatically non-GMO.
Other products that are labeled “organic,” even if not certified, are much less likely to be GMO (USDA certification is expensive, so many farmers technically adhere to the standards but cannot afford a certification).
Check the four-digit PLU code on your produce sticker. If it starts with a 9, the produce is organic. If it starts with an 8, it is GMO.
To join a larger organization in its advocacy for sustainable agriculture, you can support our alliance partner ECHO. ECHO’s seed bank provides non-GMO seeds to farmers worldwide.
Photo: Courtesy of USDAgov on Flickr.