I've been a farmer for more than 40 years. While I no longer live or farm in California, I do co-manage 120 acres of farmland in Vermont, and I know that a GMO labeling law passed in California will have widespread implications for consumers and farmers in every state in the country. As a farmer who has experience in both conventional and organic farming, I'm compelled to address the anti-labeling campaign's so-called "concerns" for farmers and consumers.
But first, make no mistake: The folks who are running and funding the campaign against California's Proposition 37, the Nov. 6 citizens' ballot initiative that would require mandatory labeling of GMOs, have never worked on behalf of small farmers or consumers. Why would we think they are suddenly on our side? Heading up the campaign are the same folks who, backed by Big Tobacco, fought anti-smoking initiatives in California. They are the same people who, with a little help from Big Oil, tried to repeal California's clean energy and climate laws. The $25 million that has so far poured into the "No on 37" campaign comes from huge biotech, chemical and food processing corporations (Monsanto, DuPont, Dow AgriScience, Pepsi, Coca-Cola). These are all companies whose primary motivation is profit, not the protection of consumers or farmers.
Here's my farmer's-eye view of the propaganda coming out of the No on 37 campaign, which, by the way, is dubiously named: Stop the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme.
Propaganda statement #1:
The initiative would close off opportunities for farmers and food producers who might want to take advantage of future advances in crops bred for disease and pest resistance, drought tolerance, improved growth, nutrition, taste or other benefits.
This is perhaps the most outrageous of the No on 37 campaign's purported concerns, and it's directed at us, the farmers. The GMO giants claim to be concerned that we will not get a chance to grow GMO crops. Really? After suing and harassing thousands of farmers and driving small seed dealers out of business and into court, it is beyond disingenuous for Monsanto and the GMO gang to feign concern for our interests. I can assure them that we farmers are more afraid of Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta than the biotech giants are at the prospect of losing their genetically altered seed.
Farmers in several states have tried to pass farmer protection laws against the spillage and drift of GMO seed and pollen. These laws were designed to respond to the fact that biotech companies can sue farmers for patent infringement if GMO crops inadvertently sprout up as "weeds" on their farms - the result of pollen drift or seed spillage from a neighboring or nearby farm that grows GMO crops. Most of us farmers see this differently. We believe that when GMO seeds spill onto our land, or pollen from GMO crops drifts into our non-GMO crops and contaminates them, this constitutes trespassing, not patent theft. In spite of this trespass, Monsanto alone has brought 136 cases against more than 400 farmers. Thousands more U.S. farmers have been threatened with lawsuits by Monsanto.
Farmers growing cotton, corn, soy, and canola are in a tight spot because biotech companies have bought a majority of the seed corporations in order to control what seed can be grown. In the last several years, more than 90% of the seed available to farmers for these four crops has been genetically modified. So if a farmer wants to grow any of these commodity crops, he's forced to grow the GMO variety - or not grow them at all.
Propaganda statement #2:
To avoid labeling a product as non-GMO will require farmers, food processors, and food distributors to document that ingredients are not produced through biotechnology.
This massive new paperwork and record keeping requirement - on tens of thousands of crops and food products - will add significant cost and bureaucracy for farmers and food producers.
Exaggeration upon exaggeration. The regulation and record-keeping process is not that difficult and there are not tens of thousands of GE crops grown in California. When our farm first converted to organic production, we were leery of the regulations and the requirements for record-keeping and documentation for organic certification, so we understand the trepidation farmers have over regulations and record-keeping. Now, however, it is a regular part of our routine. Our staff regularly documents our growing and sales practices on computers, which makes it easy to track and segregate inputs and products if necessary.
While the organic regulations are strict, their existence provides the consumer and the farmers with a guarantee that a third-party inspector is reviewing the farmer's records and growing and sales practices, and are rooting out mistakes or any instances of deliberate cheating. Excellent and easy-to-use record-keeping computer programs are available for small, medium, and large farms. Given our experience, we believe that creating an accurate paper trail for organic, GMO-free, or naturally grown products should not be seen as daunting by farmers or be used as a reason to not label GMO products. And let's not forget - in almost 50 other countries, this process is required - and executed without undue burden on farmers.
As for the issue of "tens of thousands" of GMO crops in California, that's simply not true. Currently, genetically engineered cotton, corn, sugar beets, soy, a bit of canola, and experimental alfalfa are grown commercially in California. These same crops are the only ones grown on large acreages in the U.S. So there are not thousands of GMO crops that are grown anyplace in the U.S. or the rest of the world. There are, however, tens of thousands of products that have genetically modified ingredients. About 75% of our processed food has GMO ingredients - and processed food accounts for 80% of the food U.S. consumers eat. That should give consumers pause.
Propaganda statement #3:
This provision (Proposition 37) would significantly impact farmers' ability to market their foods as natural, even if there are no GE ingredients. So, for example, under the measure a raw almond could be marketed as "natural" but the same almond that has been salted and canned could not. Apples could be labeled "naturally grown," but applesauce made from the same apples could not be advertised as "natural applesauce" simply because the apples were cooked.
Since there are no government or industry guidelines or regulations governing what is or is not "natural," food processors have stamped the word "natural" on everything from corn flakes to processed meats to shampoo. Biotech companies, cosmetic companies, and food processors all want to keep up the illusion that processed foods are "natural" and thus safer than non-natural products. Why? Because they can charge consumers more for anything with the word "natural" on it. Sales of "natural" foods have reached about $50 billion a year, compared with $32 billion in sales of certified organics.
From a farmer's or consumer's perspective the existence of labeling requirements for GMO foods or natural foods is an important piece of information that enables farmers to decide which seeds to plant - and consumers to decide which foods to choose or reject for their families.
Propaganda statement #4:
The overwhelming majority of scientists, medical experts and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration have all concluded that genetically engineered food products are safe and that requiring special labels is unnecessary.
The anti-labeling advocates repeatedly make this claim. True, the FDA has said that GMO foods and feed crops are safe. But how would the FDA know? The government agency charged with protecting the health and safety of U.S. citizens has admittedly conducted no independent testing of any GMO product. Instead it naively - or perhaps conspiratorially? - accepts the testing done by the genetic engineering corporations themselves. And we know full well that these corporations are more interested in protecting their profits than they are in protecting our food.
The world-wide scientific consensus is that GMOs are not safe, which is why more than 40 countries require mandatory labeling for GMO products and some countries have banned them altogether. No long-term or multigenerational feeding studies have been conducted on GMO foods or feed grains. GMO products have been on the market for almost twenty years and all we have are a small number of short-term feeding studies. Yet even despite their brevity, those studies are alarming. French scientists reviewing nineteen 90-day GMO feeding studies found that 30.8% of female test animals had liver abnormalities and 43.5% of the males had kidney abnormalities. Other tests have found a consistent thickening of the intestinal wall in a high percentage of test subjects. These findings are alarming, but GMO feeding studies by independent laboratories are not considered in regulatory decisions made by the FDA .
Even more recent feeding tests suggest that significant weight gains are another unfortunate byproduct of consuming GMO food and may be a significant factor in our ballooning obesity epidemic. If GMO foods make us fat wouldn't we want to have a label that alerts consumers that GMO ingredients are in the food?
Propaganda statement #5:
Requiring farmers and food producers to put scary sounding labels on their foods will confuse and mislead consumers.
This is just insulting. Consumers rely on labels on the foods they purchase to inform them of everything from additives to calories to protein and vitamin content. But we're not intelligent enough to understand what "this ingredient was genetically engineered" means? Are the millions of consumers in nearly 50 other countries that require labeling dazed and confused? Or perhaps, just better informed than American consumers who are kept in the dark?
GE crops are no friend to farmers, consumers, or the environment
Biotech corporations brag that their genetically altered crops are going to eliminate hunger, reduce pesticide use, reduce chemical fertilizer use, better tolerate drought, and increase yields. If they really believe this, why would they think that a genetically modified organism (GMO) label is scary? If they are proud of their successes, if they believe their products are so superior, why be afraid to label them?
Maybe they are not as superior as the biotech industry alleges. Genetic engineering's less-than-superior results have been well-documented - and are well known by responsible, informed farmers all over the world.
The failure of GMO crops has resulted in farmers being forced to use the most dangerous pesticides and worm insecticides, and these substances are now showing up in pregnant women and newborn babies. The second most inserted GMO product in crops is Bacillus thuringensis (Bt), a bacteria that attacks worms. This is a related organism to the Bt that organic and chemical farmers have used for years, but it is a genetically modified version. This GMO version has already begun to show resistance to corn rootworms. It has also shown up in 93% of the fallopian tubes of pregnant women.
RoundUp Ultra, the weed killer that is used with RoundUp Ready genetically altered crops, has developed resistance in 12 major U.S. weeds. That means that RoundUp Ultra will not kill most of the most pernicious weeds on millions of acres of commodity cropland. Chemical companies have responded by recommending that farmers use 2,4-D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange), Paraquat, and arsenic compounds on weeds that RoundUp will no longer kill. All of these replacement chemicals have been proven to be oncogenic (cause cancer) in test animals by the California EPA. To deal with this resistance problem, the genetic engineering firms are now inserting genes resistant to 2,4-D into corn and soy crops.
The promise of dramatically increased yields has also not been realized for GMO crops. All of the four major GMO crops have shown yield drags in the U.S. and total yield failures around the world (especially in India). Charles Benbrook studied yields in the U.S. and his research showed significantly lower yields in GMO soy. More recent studies have shown yield drags in cotton, soy, canola and no increase for corn. Since costs are higher for GMO seeds than conventional seeds, any loss of yield is doubly costly.
And just to make things a little more trying for farmers, we're now finding that GMO corn and cotton plants are so tough they puncture tractor tires. Amusing to some, maybe, but to farmers who have to maintain expensive equipment, this is no laughing matter. Tractor tires are very expensive, but we count on them to last for five or six years on large-scale farms. On GMO farms growing corn or cotton, they are lasting for only one or two years. To replace the eight tires on a 200 horsepower John Deere costs $30,000. One tire manufacturer is experimenting with Kevlar-lined tires. How much are these armored tires going to cost?
Let's be clear. Whether you're a farmer in California or Vermont, or India or Brazil, GMO crops are nothing but trouble. Factor in the cost to the environment, and the cost - and pain - to consumers in related healthcare expenses, GMO crops are a disaster. Propaganda aside.
Will Allen has farmed both chemically and organically for more than 40 years. He is on the board of the Organic Consumers Association and currently co-manages a 122-acre farm in Vermont.