If you’re headed to Austin, Texas, next week to attend the “Southbites: Feed Your Mind” session during Austin’s South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, don’t expect to hear an honest debate on the health and safety of genetically engineered crops or food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—at least not if the biotech industry can help it.
According to Cathleen Enright, executive vice president food & agriculture, for the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO), there is nothing to debate. GMO agriculture is “sustainable” and GMO foods are “safe.” Anyone who says otherwise is making “scary” statements that have no basis in fact—because every shred of scientific evidence suggesting health or safety concerns related to GMOs “has been discredited,” Enright told me during a March 3 (2015) phone conversation.
We weren’t surprised to learn that BIO doesn’t want to debate the health and safety of GMOs. How do you defend a technology invented for the sole purpose of selling toxic chemicals—to spray on food?
So I guess we also shouldn’t have been surprised that after the organizers at SXSW invited OCA to participate in the conference, Enright told them to disinvite us.
I called Enright to confirm that she had vetoed OCA’s participation in a SXSW session entitled, “Can Common Food Goals Find Common Ground?” It was true, she said. Enright also confirmed that the session was proposed by her organization. (Neither Enright nor SXSW could/would confirm whether or not BIO is bankrolling the “Common Food Goals” session).
Briefly, here’s the background behind my call to Enright.
On January 19, I received an email from a SXSW organizer asking if someone from OCA would be available to “speak at SXSW Interactive this year, as a part of a new food-focused track of talks.” I accepted on behalf of OCA. The organizer responded thanking me, and wrote that she was “talking to Cathleen Enright’s folks about locking in a specific day for this.”
But then, the organizer went radio silent. I emailed her multiple times for confirmation, so I could make travel arrangements. No word. Finally, a month later, I emailed to say that I assumed the panel wasn’t happening, so I had taken the event off my calendar.
That’s when the organizer got back to me with this explanation, in a February 20 email: “Apologies for the much delayed response. To my surprise, the GMO answers folks were hesitant to commit to an OCA addition.”
The “GMO answers folks” refers to Enright and BIO, which funds the pro-GMO website, gmoanswers.com. That Enright and her industry front group didn’t want to include OCA on the panel wasn’t so much a “surprise” to us, as it was confirmation that BIO wants to control the message around GMO foods, rather than expose SXSW attendees to opposing views.
When I spoke to Enright on March 3, she told me that the panel was about “having a conversation” around achieving “common objectives,” and that she chose not to have that conversation with anyone from OCA because we have “demonized” the (GMO) technology and are more concerned about “fear mongering” than we are about “the facts” or finding common ground.
So who is approved to participate on this two-person panel?
Instead of someone from OCA, Enright will have her conversation with Chris Miller, social mission activism manager for Ben & Jerry’s. Because, according to Enright, Miller (and presumably the company he represents) believe there are no health or safety hazards associated with GMOs. So there will be no debate around that issue.
To get confirmation of Miller’s (and Ben & Jerry’s) position on the health and safety of GMOs, I spoke with Miller on March 4. Enright might be surprised to learn that that’s not exactly Ben & Jerry’s position. According to Miller, Ben & Jerry’s is “concerned about the lack of a proper regulatory scheme,” related to GE crops, and by the fact that GE crops are approved on the basis of industry-funded studies, not “peer-reviewed science.”
“I’m not going to go to Austin and say GMOs are either safe or not safe,” Miller said.
What he will say, according to our conversation, is that GE crops lead to an increase in the use of pesticides and herbicides, and that should concern everyone. “The only reason for the commercialization of GE crops is to sell pesticides,” he said.
Ben & Jerry’s publicly supports laws requiring mandatory labeling of GMOs and has pledged to remove them from their products.
Miller admitted, however, that Ben & Jerry’s products are not organic, and therefore the company sources dairy ingredients from farms where the animals are fed GMO crops. (Far more GE crops are used to feed animals in industrial factory farms, than are used by food manufacturers).
“We are working on transitioning to conventional non-GMO feed, but it’s a process that will require time,” Miller said. (We’d rather Ben & Jerry’s transition to organic, not conventional non-GMO, but that’s a blog post for another day).
I explained to Miller that Enright told me that BIO supports the consumers’ right to know—but not labeling, to which Miller responded: “That’s absurd on its face. If they’re so proud of their products, why not scream it from the rafters?”
Will Miller still be on the panel after “the folks at GMO answers” read this blog post? We’ll see. Either way, Miller insisted he doesn’t “intend to say good things about GMOs” and that if the organizers of the panel wanted only pro-GMO participants, “That’s a commercial, not a panel.”
But back to Enright, the SXSW panel and our phone conversation. During the course of our approximately 30-minute phone conversation, Enright hit all the industry talking points. GMO foods have been “rigorously tested” and “proven safe.” GMO crops represent a form of “sustainable” agriculture. GMO crops lead to a reduction in the use of pesticides. GMO crops are needed to “feed the world.”
And my personal favorite: “We have the science on our side.”
It was a private debate, during which I was told that I was being “argumentative.” I couldn’t argue with that—perhaps the one and only point Enright and I agreed on. And Enright did say that she would be happy to debate OCA anytime—a promise we intend to hold her to.
In the meantime, please sign this letter to Enright explaining why we reject all of her talking points, and why the real science is on our side.
And in closing, this from a new book by E.G. Vallianatos, who worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1979-2004. The book exposes how the EPA knowingly and systematically approves dangerous chemicals in the name of “free enterprise”:
Such a tectonic shift—from small, family-run, and largely nontoxic farms to industrial-scale, intensely toxic industrial farms—had ecologists and health experts worried from the beginning. Margery W. Shaw, a scientist and physician writing in 1970 (the year the EPA came into being), feared that the introduction of hundreds of chemicals into the environment would result in a “genetic catastrophe.”
Six years later, at a conference in Washington on “Women and the Workplace,” three American scientists (Eula Bingham, Marvin S. Legator, and Stephen J. Rinkus) warned of the high price we were likely to pay for the use of the “miracles” of the chemical age. Scientists, they wrote, “can only speculate on the detrimental effects on the genetic pool from injurious chemical exposure. In terms of ourselves as a population of living organisms, we are suffering chemical shock.” – Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA, E.G. Vallianatos, 2014.
In the next conversation I have with Enright, I think I’ll ask her if she and her family eat pesticide-drenched, GMO-contaminated foods—or if they eat organic, instead.
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.