By Liza Rognas
Remember when you were a teenager in a life-sciences class where genetics was first explained to you using Mendel’s experiments with peas? We all learned about dominant and recessive genes and their manipulation, producing hybrids. Genetic manipulation explained why Mendel could produce different colors of peas and pea blossoms; and why wolves don’t look like golden retrievers even though they’re all canines; and how brown-eyed parents could produce blue-eyed or green-eyed babies but not the reverse. If you want a refresher course on basic Medelian genetics, check-out this video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWqgZUnJdAY
On February 19, 2016, Washington State Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, sued the Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose members contributed $11+ million to defeat Initiative 522, a 2013 state ballot measure that required foods sold in the State of Washington to carry a GM/GE label if those fresh foods, or the ingredients of processed foods, were genetically modified or genetically engineered. (Read more about this later in this article.)
The great concern is about the unintended consequences of GM foods upon human health and ecosystems. There’s a huge difference between selective breeding—that which produces hybrids within a specific varietal, like peas, carrots, cabbage or grains using controlled parent plants and controlled pollenation techniques –and GMOs, where genetically modified organisms become something other than what their genetic make-up produced. For example, a hybrid plant like wheat, hybridized from Triticum grass stock and domesticated by humans about 10,000 years ago—becomes a GM plant when genes or parts of genes from other organisms or chemicals are inserted into its cells using a technique called gene-splicing.
Soy beans, corn, rice and wheat are among the most genetically-modified, human/animal “food/feed” products in the world. For example, studies now show that genetically modified (GM) wheat, engineered to be high in protein (high gluten) and resistant to disease and to pesticides/herbicides, contain non-wheat amino acids that can penetrate cell walls. Emerging research shows that the GM wheat used throughout the US food industry may be contributing to Celiac Disease. Industrial agriculture has countered the debilitating effects of high gluten, GM wheat, by producing and marketing gluten-free products, at a much higher price, to the general public.
Another example can be found in beef. The average feed-lot beef steer slaughtered between age two and three ingests almost 100 liquid pounds of petrochemicals through his diet every year. Where does he get this food? From high protein, GM food-like, feed pellets (corn and soy) grown specifically for feed-lot animals, laced with petroleum-rich insecticides/herbicides, and fertilized with petroleum-based “nutrients.” The bovine species, Bos Taurus, cannot well digest corn or soy. Cattle evolved eating grass, not legumes (soy) and not GM corn —which moved from a grass, to a grain, to a starch under human manipulation as hybrids, but which is now almost totally GM, except for heritage corn plants found in Central and South America.
Cattle in feedlots eat GM corn and soy food pellets to fatten them up so they can be slaughtered at about 1500 pounds at two years, rather than the 3-5 years a grass-fed steer takes to gain that weight. Feedlot cattle get sick from this fast-fattening feed diet. They are then inoculated with antibiotics, followed by doses of bGH (bovine growth hormone) to boost their weight to maximum before the final moment of slaughter.
What happens when cattle are force-fed corn and soy, which make them sick, and are then injected with antibiotics? They get diarrhea. The most common infection they harbor from being fed food they cannot eat is E.coli. The ethal strain of E.coli known as 0157:H7 evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle. Poisoned beef poisons humans who eat it—witness the decades of E.coli reports/recalls for grocery store beef, fast-food restaurants and frozen “food-like” meat products.
In the larger, human-only, industrial “food” world: GM “food” producers create plant seeds infused with genetically spliced, high-protein nut, various bacteria and chemical genes. These GM plants are designed, not mated in a Mendelian fashion. Genetic engineering is now used by major food corporations to manufacture food-like substances for industrial food production. Biotechnology now makes it possible to insert genes, or parts of them, folded into proteins from one plant family to another (Brazil nut proteins into a wheat clone); and from plant genes into animal genes, creating an assorted mix of common GM “foods” as whole ingredients or as additives to processed human food products. One worst-case result? Latex-intolerant allergic reactions by people ingesting genetically modified corn and soybean products.
As consumers, we can escape the spiral of GM food -produced or -enhanced diseases by refusing to buy and eat them. Of course the question is, how do we know what is genetically modified and what isn’t? That was the question fueling informed citizens of this state to successfully qualify I-522—the Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food Measure—which appeared on the Washington ballot in November 2013.
Back to the politics of the I-522 campaign and the current case before the Washington Supreme Court.
In 2012, support for I-522 was coordinated by YES on 522, a group that included individual citizens, food activists, small-scale producers and several food co-operatives such as PCC Natural Markets, Olympia Food Co-op, and retail grocers like Whole Foods Market. It was also promoted by the Organic Consumers Association, and by Washington and Oregon Tilth. Dr Bronner’s Magic Soaps issued a special label in support of I-522.
Labor groups supported the initiative, including the Washington State Labor Council, over 350 businesses, 25 seafood groups, 150 farms, more than 100 other groups, 45 elected officials and many individuals. Reported state campaign donations for YES on I-522 totaled more than 13,000 donors, giving $6.2 million with a median donation of approximately $25.
Full disclosure by author: I gave $50 to the I-522 initiative.
The largest donation in opposition to I-522 was $7.2 million from the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The top five contributors in opposition to I-522 were the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences LLC, and Bayer CropScience.
Currently, the State of Washington is suing the Grocery Manufacturers Association for concealing major contributions from international companies: PepsiCo, Nestlé USA and Coca-Cola each gave hidden donations of more than $1 million to the NO on I-522 campaign. The opposition to I-522 raised nearly $17.2 million, with most of the money coming from “food” companies Pepsi, Nestlé and Coca-Cola, and the rest from “food” chemical/biotech companies: Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and Bayer.
Do you want to eat “manufactured food?” Or do you want to eat real food? Let’s imagine a world we can take food for granted. A real food world where peas are peas, carrots are carrots, lettuce is lettuce, beets are beets, right? Is that a good assumption?
So, here’s the take-away, in popular media parlance:
Eat real food, fresh and organic, locally and seasonally grown.
Don’t buy mass-produced wheat, soy or corn products.
Reduce or eliminate highly processed foods.
Buy organic, sprouted grain breads and bread products.
Give your money to the farmer at the market, or to local vendors.
Keep in mind that every dollar you spend in locally-owned businesses circulates in your community 12 times before it leaves. Every dollar spent at a big-box corporate store leaves about 10-15 cents in the local economy when it’s spent. The rest, let’s say, 85 cents, immediately translates into corporate profits and dividends to shareholders within about 48 hours.
If we want to have safe local food, we must support our local organic growers. These farmers—small-scale (less than 20 acres)—are all around us. Most of them are organic or nearly so. In Thurston, Lewis and Mason counties, buying local and organic means no GMOs in the plant world; many opportunities to buy plants or seeds from heritage growers—very tasty and often higher in nutrients; no GM feed, antibiotics or hormones in the meat world; no weird, genetically modified cells making crazy diseases in our human bodies or being flushed into the rivers, aquifers and oceans from which we draw water and life.
Readers, I’ll wager that my words confirm what you already know. I’m excited that our state’s Attorney General is calling the question and proving the point related to campaign financing and corruption. I must say that I’m dancing with glee that in this instance, local organic food may win the day against the behemoth corporations on the GMO issue.
Full disclosure: I did drink a cola at a locally-owned restaurant the other day. While drinking the soda, I never once confused it with food.
Liza Rognas is an academic librarian and a research professional, and has been a community food security activist and researcher for 20 years in Washington State.