What are GMOs? Are they limited by the scientific and legal definitions provided by the international and regulatory bodies? In terms of genetically modified food, GMOs are the application of modern biotechnology to alter the DNA structure of a food product by humans in a way that does not occur in nature. Monsanto defines GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms as “any organism the genetics of which have been altered through the use of modern biotechnology to create a novel combination of genetic material. GMOs may be the source of genetically modified food ingredients and are also widely used in scientific research and to produce goods other than food.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) uses this definition: “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. The technology is often called ‘modern biotechnology’ or ‘gene technology,’ sometimes also ‘recombinant DNA technology’ or ‘genetic engineering,’ It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between nonrelated species. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods.”
Vermont recently passed a GMO labeling bill (Act 120) which defines genetic engineering as:
- (4) “Genetic engineering” is a process by which a food is produced from an organism or organisms in which the genetic material has been changed through the application of: (A) in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or (B) fusion of cells (including protoplast fusion) or hybridization techniques that overcome natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers, where the donor cells or protoplasts do not fall within the same taxonomic group, in a way that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural recombination.
- (5) “In vitro nucleic acid techniques” means techniques, including recombinant DNA or ribonucleic acid techniques, that use vector systems and techniques involving the direct introduction into the organisms of hereditary materials prepared outside the organisms such as micro-injection, chemoporation, electroporation, micro-encapsulation, and liposome fusion.
Most food products that have been genetically engineered involve extracting a gene (or genes) from one (or more) species and inserting it into plant cells of an unrelated species (although the term GMO is not limited to this). This process usually includes the insertion of other genes that assist, among other things, in forcing the target species to “accommodate” the insertion of a new gene. Other genes enable genetic engineers distinguish which cells have received the donor gene (the most controversial may be the antibiotic resistant markers). The entire overall process is extraordinarily imprecise. The term GMO also includes another method called cisgenesis, which involves (in part) transferring a gene between plants of the same species. Another technique includes the alteration of the DNA through RNAi (RNA interference) which basically “silences” traits within the DNA of a given species. Whatever techniques are used, there are hyped-up claims that differ from the reality. For example, RNAi isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be; Jack Heinemann points out that, “Changing the nature, kind and quantity of particular regulatory-RNA molecules through genetic engineering can create unique risks. For some GMOs, this outcome is intended but for many others it is not.” (See: “Early warning on food safety issues: How regulators got it wrong on dsRNA,” By Jack A. Heinemann, Third World Network; October 2013 – 4 pages)
These are all technically accurate definitions, but do they really describe what a GMO is in a comprehensive way? No.
GMOs are not isolated “things” that exist apart from the rest of the world in which they exist, yet we constantly see them referred to this way. The fight over GMO labeling is a prime example. The GMO supporters argue that they should not be labeled based on the false premise that you cannot label a process. This is wrong on so many levels, but the point here is to focus on this compartmentalization – of separating them from everything else, and in so doing, redefining what they are.
It is necessary to point out that all the issues about GMOs are interrelated. There is no way to talk about how GMOs affect farmers without also talking about the effect that GMOs have on the environment. There is no way to talk about whether or not GMOs benefit consumers without talking about the regulatory process, and there is no way to talk about the regulatory process without discussing the history of those regulations, or about health and safety issues, or political issues, and so on. GMOs do not exist in isolation apart from everything else around them. When they are grown as crops, they are part of the environment; they are part of the socio-economic lives of farmers; they are part of the policy and political decisions around them; they are part of the lives of people around the world in ways that are often overlooked.
GMOs do not exist in a vacuum. Everything is connected to everything else; life is a vast web – a network, and GMOs are no exception. Yet the mindset behind the creation of GMOs is based on an incorrect assumption known as the Central Dogma of biology. This doctrine is over fifty years old, and it regards individual genes as though they exist in isolation, apart from the complex and fluid network in which they have evolved. The way they function in that constantly changing network is based on an interdependent relationship with its environment; they do not exist in an isolated world where they can be removed and placed somewhere else like a Lego block without extreme consequences. To base an entire industry on the misguided idea that a gene from one species can be forced into the DNA of a different species and expect – insist – that it will behave in anticipated ways without unintended consequences, requires an extreme level of hubris. As Mark Spitznagel and Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, “The G.M.O. experiment, carried out in real time and with our entire food and ecological system as its laboratory, is perhaps the greatest case of human hubris ever.” (See: “Another ‘Too Big to Fail’ System in G.M.O.s,” by Mark Spitznagel and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, New York Times; July 13, 2015)
And that is the fundamental problem: everything about GMOs, from the scientific process to the way GMO proponents assess benefits to farmers, from the way the so-called safety of GMOs is alleged to the Great Lie (“GMOs are needed to feed the world”) – are all based on this compartmentalization of things. In the biotech world, nothing is related to anything else. Everything is sectioned into isolated and separate parts, like a machine.
Sadly, that’s not the characteristic of how truly sustainable agriculture works. Sustainable agriculture is not a separate entity apart from its local environment. It is not separate from the local climate and ecological conditions and it is not separate from the community, or the culture of the people who live in that unique location. Yet Monsanto and other biotech corporations would have everyone believe that (after thousands of failures to get one product in the market that they never mention*), they can force regional communities around the world to grow their GM crops with great success. By compartmentalizing everything, they arrogantly presume that if it can grow in a field in Arkansas, then whatever worked in that location will of course work in Kenya or India.
[*] “[I]t generally takes about ten times more money and ten years longer to bring a biotech crop to market compared to a conventional crop,” Professor Peter Saunders (“Genetic Modification Trails Conventional Breeding By Far,” Institute of Science in Society; October 15, 2014). Jonathan Latham et al. confirm this: “In transgenic breeding it is common to make thousands of primary transformed plants in order to obtain a single line or event suitable for commercialization. This number is necessary chiefly because the plant transformation process is subject to somaclonal variation [variation seen in plants that have been produced by plant tissue culture], the insertion of transgenes at random and the complexity of the insertion event itself.” [Citations omitted]. (See: “Off-target Effects of Plant Transgenic RNAi: Three Mechanisms Lead to Distinct Toxicological and Environmental Hazards – Draft Report,” by Jonathan R. Latham, PhD and Allison Wilson, PhD, Bioscience Resource Project; May 2015 – 24 pages).
The idea that any specific set of agricultural techniques or products will function completely the same way in every situation and location is a denial of reality based on that extreme level of hubris. The result, just like in genetic engineering itself, is a history of unanticipated negative events. Unintended cultural consequences have resulted in the suicidal deaths of nearly 300,000 Indian farmers, and the proliferation of forced child labor – this is what happens when you see agriculture like part of a machine and compartmentalize everything. Sustainable agriculture is a way of life and it is completely and utterly intertwined with the local culture and climate. GM agriculture is the antithesis of that.
To truly understand GMOs, an inter-disciplinary approach is required. GMOs do not happen in isolation. What happens in a lab is not the same when the findings of science are applied in real-world conditions with real-world ramifications.
Socio-economic and social impacts of the use of GMOs in localized communities and cultures have to be understood and examined. As Dr. Helen Wallace points out, “The role of new technologies in agriculture is critically dependent on their socio-economic context, including whether they are likely to drive poorer farmers into debt, and the loss of autonomy involved buying seeds and chemicals from large corporations.” [Emphasis added] (See: “Bioscience for Life? Who Decides what Research is done in Health and Agriculture?” by Dr. Helen Wallace, GeneWatch UK; March 2010 – 219 pages).
See: “Genetically Modified Organisms, Consumers, Food Safety and the Environment – FAO Ethics Series 2,” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FOA); Rome, 2001 (35 pages)
There is yet another element that is overlooked. Nearly every day anti-GMO activists tell others, “Buy organic, eat organic food, grow a garden,” or some variation. But the question is: is this helpful? Or is it counterproductive to the anti-GMO movement as a whole?
It certainly is a good idea to eat organic food, and grow a garden. But – who are these people who are doing this? Who has access to an organic market and who doesn’t? Who can grow a garden and who can’t?
The reality is that very few can buy organic. Economic and geographical situations (such as food deserts*) restrict people’s abilities to make choices. Even SNAP (food stamps) are little help to most; even if people have access to organic food, the amount of benefits provided by the SNAP program is insufficient to feed any family. There have been massive cuts to such social programs – especially in the context of the growing cost of living: eat organic or pay the electric? There are so many people living on the edge, forget going ‘paycheck to paycheck;’ think in terms of: “What do we have to sacrifice (or what bill do we delay paying) in order to eat (crap) for dinner tonight?”
[*] “Food deserts can be described as geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance. For instance, according to a report … by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, about 2.3 million people (or 2.2 percent of all US households) live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car … The other defining characteristic of food deserts is socio-economic: that is, they are most commonly found in communities of color and low-income areas (where many people don’t have cars). Studies have found that wealthy districts have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do, that white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones do, and that grocery stores in African-American communities are usually smaller with less selection. People’s choices about what to eat are severely limited by the options available to them and what they can afford – and many food deserts contain an overabundance of fast food chains selling cheap ‘meat’ and dairy-based foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. Processed foods (such as snack cakes, chips and soda) typically sold by corner delis, convenience stores and liquor stores are usually just as unhealthy.” [Citations omitted, emphasis added] (See: “Food Deserts,” by the Food Empowerment Project).
I get the sense that many, if not most, anti-GMO activists on social media websites who tell others to buy organic or grow a garden may be somewhat oblivious to these realities; that is, for the most part, they appear to have a limited understanding of what the poor are really up against when it comes to food security and food freedom.
“In hard times, poor Americans struggle to feed their families” – YouTube (2:05) published by AFP news agency on September 29, 2011
It’s pretty well-established that organic generally costs more than non-organic. Even the GMO supporters recognize that buying organic is more expensive as they often refer to it as a “waste of money.” It’s not a waste of money to those who know there are valid reasons to buy organic AND who can afford it. But for people who struggle with food security every day, it is a luxury that they cannot afford; consequently, they have to buy non-organic which includes GMOs, even if they don’t want to.
I think it’s fair to say that GMOs discriminate against the poor. When GMOs are seen not just as ‘things,’ but rather through a comprehensive perception that includes the impact they have economically, sociologically, environmentally, and more, we see a pattern where those most impacted are minorities and the poor. To put this in context, I see anti-GMO activists telling others on social media websites, “Well, you know you should eat organic” and so on.
What most of these people don’t seem to realize is that this alienates people who do not have access either through geographical or economic restrictions; as a result, those people are less likely to participate in activism to change the system.
Very few can buy organic, relatively speaking. In the struggle for food rights, there tends to be a lack of awareness of how the poor are not represented by anti-GMO groups in general. To stress the point, the poor are least likely to have little to access to organic foods, much less a garden. Consequently, they are more likely to consume GMO based foods – even if they don’t want to, they can afford to do little else.
We know from a number of studies that minorities and the poorest who work in agriculture are most negatively affected by the toxic chemicals (for example, see: “Kids on the Frontline,” Emily C. Marquez, PhD et al, PAN North America; 2016 and “Lost in the Mist: How Glyphosate Use Disproportionately Threatens California’s Most Impoverished Counties,” by Nathan Donley, Scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity; November 2015).
This is the concern: is the anti-GMO activist movement – elitist?
It seems that there is an overwhelmingly large number of middle and upper-class white people in this country who participate in anti-GMO activism (look at photos of the March Against Monsanto, for example). This is good except, it’s not good. In the interaction on social media websites, I see alienation taking place; rather than inclusion of those most in need, the current status seems to be creating a gulf between one group of people who can afford to avoid GMOs, and another group of people who cannot.
GMOs discriminate against the poor.
When those within the group of people who cannot afford to avoid GMOs try to participate (such as engaging on social media websites), they are seeing what everyone else sees: advice to buy organic and grow a garden. Now, put yourself in their place: if you could not afford organic food and opposed GMOs, and more than half the time the “solution” offered to people about GMOs is to avoid them by paying more for food which you cannot afford, would you continue to participate in anti-GMO activism?
In psychology, we know that when people’s worldviews, opinions and feelings are not validated by others, then alienation occurs; isolation follows. If anti-GMO activists and groups are insensitive to the needs of the poor, they are not going to see any reason to communicate their messages differently and they will most certainly not have any outreach program or policy to rectify the absence of those affected the most that have the smallest voice.
Ron Finley, urban farmer: ‘Some people they’re blind to the fact that there are cities – communities – in the US which equal nothing more than 3rd world countries. You cannot buy any healthy food whatsoever.’
Telling someone who cannot afford to eat anything but crap or risk having their electricity cut off, when that person knows they should be eating better, is not just un-helpful, it is harmful. It may be better to assume a default perception that most people know they should eat better but they may have circumstances that serve as obstacles to achieving that goal that are not obvious.
GMOs are inherently discriminatory against the poor. Clearly, there are many people who are unable to afford to buy what they would prefer to choose to eat if they could, or who are otherwise affected by economic restrictions who don’t even know they should choose different foods. These are the people who are most negatively impacted by GMOs and yet who have the least representation, the smallest voice.
Can this be addressed by leaders of the various anti-GMO movement groups? Will it be? There is no doubt that it should be. Can there be a way to empower those who need the changes in policy the most?
My sense is that if this exclusion is not considered and addressed, the effectiveness of all anti-GMO activities will be greatly limited in its ability to create policy changes. Perhaps this is one reason why, after more than two decades, Americans still do not have GMO labels as a matter of law.
The anti-GMO movement needs to include the poor to create substantial policy changes – but they are ignored.
It’s bad enough that GMOs discriminate against the poor. If the anti-GMO movement doesn’t recognize the need to be inclusive to the needs of the poor and find ways to empower them instead of alienating them, then this inattention results in a type of discrimination against the poor as well.
Perhaps there is a need to self-examine what it means to be an anti-GMO activist. If the leaders and members of the anti-GMO movement in general do not evaluate this aspect of inclusion and exclusion, then there will always be an obstacle to achieving any kind of meaningful policy changes.
The reality is, GMOs should have been banned long ago, and the movement has been struggling for over twenty years just to get the damn things labeled.
I wrote this piece because there were so many posts this past week, from articles to comments about how eating organic is better and healthier and more nutritious – and that having a garden can be good for your state of mind. I saw people say in their comments: “I can’t afford it,” and “Not everyone can have a garden.”
And the responses to these comments were grossly inadequate and shallow. I’ve seen this for a long time; one time there was a similar post that said the solution to not eating GMOs was to have a garden. “Oh everyone should have a garden!” So I did some research, and posted a reply about how many people live in large cities with no ability to have gardens (this was not even a financial issue – it was an environmental one). And the reaction was alarming; it basically demonstrated somewhat of a callous disregard for those less fortunate who could not have a garden.
The repeated storyline is: “GMOs suck, eat organic and grow a garden!”… And it doesn’t cut it. It alienates those who have neither the capacity nor ability or whatever means are necessary to have a garden or buy organic food. It is NOT a solution – but it’s being promoted as a solution. It isn’t. It’s a good idea for those who have the means, but it’s not a solution to a much greater problem.
The entire food system needs an overhaul, from patent reform to international trade agreements. GMOs are not just isolated things or products; they have an interactive relationship that includes impacts on the environment, the economy, on politics, on (the lack of) regulations, and with people. GMOs have socio-economic impacts in local communities here and globally. The overwhelmingly negative socio-economic impact of GMOs on the poor appears to be overlooked, even disregarded in some cases.
Eating organic is NEVER going to address the root of those problems, but the manner in which it is promoted as a solution, which is what I see day in and day out, ends up as a form of discrimination against those who are unable to afford it. Consequently it pushes them away, it alienates them and they may no longer participate when the ‘solution’ that is constantly repeated is something they cannot do. It is intrinsically exclusionary. This needs to be taken into consideration by those who promote it as a solution. In a way, it can be perceived as a very self-centered worldview: ‘I’ve got mine, to hell with the rest.’ That’s what is happening, that’s the underlying message: “Well I eat organic and have a garden, so why can’t everyone.”
It’s not a solution; it’s helpful to YOU personally, but it won’t impact policy one iota. And that means those who suffer the most will continue to have no voice. Increased awareness and mindfulness about this issue would benefit not just those most in need; it would also empower more people which would help efforts to change policies that affect the entire food system.
“The American Food Disparity: The Story of America’s 49 Million Food Insecure” – YouTube (31:42) published by Christopher Putvinski on May 27, 2015
According to the USDA, “food secure means that all household members had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” The USDA reports that in 2014 U.S. households with children that were food insecure was 19.2%. In 1998, the number was 17.6%. Another, more severe measurement (very low food security) was 0.9% in 1998 and it increased as well to 1.1% by 2014. (See: “Household Food Security in the United States in 2014,” by Alisha Coleman-Jensen et al, USDA; September 2015 – 43 pages)
“Food Sovereignty” – YouTube (4:24) published by Daniel Tucker on March 4, 2011
सत्यमेव जयते – Satyameva Jayate
(Truth Ultimately Triumphs)
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Copyright © Jeff Kirkpatrick 2016 Ban GMOs Now All rights reserved.