By David Tomsic
When Mendocino County in California passed its historic Measure H, with 57% of the votes cast, it became the first county in the United States to ban the cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). More recently, Trinidad and Marin Counties, also in California, have passed similar bans, with Sonoma County soon to do the same. I guess the people of these places didn’t like being passive test rats in some giant food corporation’s experiment. Do you?
Shall We Dance?
Like all living things, plants reproduce. They exchange genetic material through the process of cross-pollination. Pollen moves from one plant to the next on the wind, or on the feet and wings of bees and butterflies. The actual traceable movement of genetic material is called “gene flow”, and is the reason that we have such prodigious and opulent diversity in the flora realm. The result is the fecundity of the world, with grains, fruits, roots, vegetables, nuts, and all the cornucopia of plants we consume. No doubt about it, we are the direct beneficiaries of this miraculous process.
Now, through the clever inventiveness of human ingenuity, we have one-upped Mother Nature. Human beings can now directly modify the genetic material of a plant to make it act in certain prescribed ways. Such plants can only be understood as designer organisms, with specific traits or relationships built into their genes, thus changing their behaviors forever. It may still look like wheat, for example, but there are profound differences between it and all of the other, naturally occurring wheat plants in the world.
This is no cosmetic alteration; it is systemic. And it is vastly different from the guiding of plant reproduction that humans have been doing for centuries. All prior manipulations of the gene pool have been restricted by implacable natural barriers that dictate “who can breed with whom”, or to put it another way, nature has firm boundaries governing which genes can mix it up together. The creation of GMOs has smashed these barriers like a tsunami crashing over an island.
Arguably, this development could be viewed as a miracle of modern technology. Why, just think of the possibilities! We can splice in an antidote to a chemical poison so the plant doesn’t die when mass quantities of that poison are poured over it. Now we can kill all the weeds with the impersonal and remote precision of a smart bomb. Think of the yields! Think of the extra money to be made in the marketplace! Such excitement has been the buzz in the boardrooms of giant corporations like Monsanto, Lumen Foods and others for over a decade.
Problem is, there are big problems raised by this genetic tampering, and we’re only now starting to see them show up. Nature doesn’t just passively allow a single surgically precise gene splice to remain isolated, affecting only that plant in precisely the intended way. Plants are living, not technical, things, and their procreative behaviors, as they keep combining and recombining, are unpredictable. The cumulative impacts generating from such individually designed mutations have not been taken into account when it comes to GMOs. Another way to understand this is that, in the natural world, where everything is connected to everything else, when you change one thing, you affect all others.
For a decade, anxious observers of this massive science experiment in food production have predicted that we may live to regret some of the unintended corollary effects of these corporate activities.
Such predictions have borne out. With GMOs, a host of unanticipated problems has arisen. One of these is the contamination of non-GMO (organic) plant material by corporate GMOs through the natural process of cross-pollination.
Example: According to an article in The Non GMO Source (October 2004), “Nearly 20,000 papaya seeds from across the Big Island in Hawaii, 80% of which came from organic farms and the rest of which from backyard gardens and wild trees, showed a contamination level of 50%.” There are many such examples.
Bringing this into your backyard, an Associated Press article written by Paul Elias and published in the Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon (9/24/04), quoted a U.S. government study in Oregon’s Willamette Valley which showed genetically engineered grass had cross-pollinated conventional grass growing 12 miles away.
Multiply this expansion by ten growing seasons and you can see why people are scrambling to pass legislation to ban the cultivation of GMOs.
On The Road
I recently drove south to Mendocino County in hopes of digging up some information on this issue. After crossing the county line I stopped at a food store in Laytonville. Buying some organic produce at the checkout counter I enquired about Measure H. A moment later, I was in the company of a wise and beautiful woman in her 50’s. “You need to go to the Ukiah Brewing Company,” she told me, her dark eyes glimmering. “That was the center of what went down.”
Two hours later I found myself having a beer with Alan Cooperrider, owner of the Ukiah Brewing Company. Mr. Cooperrider and his wife Els, both former biologists, were the originators of Measure H. He was deliberate, intelligent, and soft spoken.
Aside from the usual bureaucratic hurdles, Mr. Cooperrider noted the depth of his opposition’s pockets. “The previous record for expenditures on a Mendocino County ballot measure was $120,000. Monsanto exceeded that in the first week. In the end they spent over $600,000 trying to defeat the thing. In fact, the sheer volume of money coming from OUTSIDE the county stimulated the curiosity and involvement of many folks inside the community.”
My next stop was the Fetzer Vineyards tasting room in the beautiful coastal town of Mendocino. It was here, quite by chance, that I conversed with an attorney who specialized in environmental litigation. It was his view that “. . . a lot of this type of legislation is defeated due to lack of funding.”
The conversation was ironic in that Paul Dolman, at that time with Fetzer and now with Parducci Vineyards as part of the Mendocino Wine Co., was a key instrument in the orchestration of vital business support for Measure H. In fact numerous Mendocino County vineyards and wineries were active contributors. Even wine and spirits giant The Brown Forman Group, who recently purchased Fetzer Vineyards, supported Measure H. Public relations director Jim Caudill was quick to return my call, stating, “We don’t think we know enough about them (GMOs). We need much more controlled testing.” The Brown Forman Company insists that most of its products, which include Jack Daniels Whiskey, be made without GMOs.
Monsanto, the vast multinational corporation leading the charge to patent life forms, is best known for its “Round Up Ready” line of genetically modified seed. This genetic modification allows farmers to douse their fields with the general herbicide “Round Up” (also made & sold by Monsanto) without affecting the “Round Up Ready” crops growing in those fields. In order to get the “Round Up Ready” line to market, Monsanto petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) vouching that their product was safe for consumers.
Can we trust the FDA to “do the right thing” when it comes to protecting the health of the citizenry? In most cases, I would say yes. But past history shows us, with Vioxx, DDT, asbestos, lead paint, etc., that this is not always the case. In the case of its “Round Up Ready” line, Monsanto had to convince the FDA to increase the allowable amount of herbicide in produce on supermarket shelves 100 fold. Hmmm . . . more poison in our food. Now THAT’S a step in the right direction! Sadly, the FDA ruled in favor of corporate profits over consumer health in this case.
Alan Cooperrider told me another true story that illustrates one of the problems of GMOs. Monsanto was unable to control genetic drift from crops using its patented GMO wheat in eastern Canada. Inevitably, the GMO genes made their way via cross-pollination to the fields of a neighboring farmer. Now it just so happened that this farmer grew organic wheat and, from his point of view, Monsanto’s uninvited gene flow was a contaminant making it impossible to sell his wheat as organic. He sued.
The farmer lost the case... and when he tried to sell off his contaminated crop as conventional, MONSANTO SUED HIM for patent infringement, and won.
This is where the corporate motives of GMO producers become crystal clear. If you spread the predicament of the Canadian farmer out upon a larger canvas (say, the entire world’s agricultural production), it becomes apparent that Monsanto et. al. are attempting to seize a royalty on the production of all food crops through the means of cross-pollination. They intend to demand their royalty on every grain or kernel of food produced, anywhere in the world, regardless of whether or not you wanted their genetically modified version in the first place. And incredibly, to judge from the case in eastern Canada, they have the courts ruling in their favor. That is tragic for organic growers worldwide.
The tragedy for consumers of organic foods worldwide is that, given the way cross-pollination works, if GMO production goes unchecked, we will all be eating genetically modified organisms whether we like it or not.
In a world where individuals should have the right to choose, this is diabolical. In the world of competitive markets, this is business as usual. Which world do you want to live in?
Givin’ Howleys A Bad Name
To further illustrate the situation let’s go back in time. Roughly 200 years ago the first ocean going trade vessels inadvertently brought the rat to the Hawaiian Islands. Without a natural predator to check its numbers, the rat population grew out of control. A solution was devised, introducing a voracious predator, the mongoose, into the food chain in hopes of attaining some sort of natural balance.
It was soon discovered that the mongoose hunted by day, while the rat was nocturnal. This meant that the mongoose had to find another food source, so it went to work on the bird population. Today, Hawaii has lost over 90% of its native bird species to extinction due to this simple oversight.
Human error stemming from human ingenuity caused the Hawaiian calamity. What, I ask you, is the potential for a similar oversight when we start splicing genetic materials together and releasing them into the wild? It is unfathomable. With cross-pollination as an unstoppable force, it could make Adolf Hitler look like a kid with a cap gun.
Winning the Blame Game
I predict that if the consumption of GMOs results in widespread complications involving human health, the resulting tragedy will likely follow the liability pattern seen with Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, Love Canal and many other environmental toxin cases. The common thread in all such cases involves exposure to a toxin shared by a vast number of sufferers, statistical evidence strongly suggesting the link between that toxic exposure and a syndrome of horrific health conditions, and the unwillingness of government agencies and the courts to find in favor of the victims. In the case of GMOs, there will no doubt be statistical evidence strongly suggesting the link between GMOs and some unforeseen health issues, but establishing a “direct correlation” between the two in a court of law will prove very difficult. The taxpayer will, once again, shoulder the financial burden of these consequences, while the corporations responsible for the disaster will, once again, walk, taking no responsibility for their actions.
Pulling a Weed
The traditional Chinese pictogram for “Crisis” and for “Opportunity” is the same. The connotation in this pictogram is “turning point”, that we must change whatever course we have been on. To avert disaster we must seize the opportunity presented by the crisis and make a decision, one different than before.
There is wisdom in this ancient linguistic form. The crisis that we face holds its own solution—our opportunity—within itself. We have an opportunity to get the attention of these corporations and their agents in government in the ONLY way that seems to matter to them: go after their bottom lines.
We all eat food every day of our lives, and it is absolutely 100% our choice as to what we put into our bodies. Even if there is no Measure H type GMO legislation in your neck of the woods (yet), when you consider how much money you spend on food in your lifetime, one fact becomes very clear: Your involvement can make a HUGE cumulative difference! All of those thousands of dollars spent on food during your lifetime represent your vote for the world you want to live in. You cannot downplay your own importance and responsibility in this matter. Just as important, your actions bring others on board, and all of our money combined supports the people who are working hard to do the RIGHT thing. Every dollar you spend on organic food is a dollar that doesn’t trickle towards Monsanto.
All this without raising your voice, your fist, or even an eyebrow... just your fork! Forty years later Gil Scott Herons’ words are still ringing true, “The revolution will NOT be televised.”
A genetic blueprint was created over eons of time in nature’s, and no one else’s, kitchen. Monsanto has merely hacked apart, and spliced together a couple of these genetic sequences. They did not invent the thing, they’ve merely manipulated it. They present their bastard child before the world as if it were a king, when in reality it more closely resembles one of Dr. Frankenstein’s fantasies. It’s time to bring this issue out into the open. Local governments have the power to make the difference using democratic means, such as Mendocino’s Measure H. I will be working with others to craft such legislation in our area of Oregon. Are you with me?
David Tomsic is an arborist and writer living at Cascade Head on Oregon’s coast. If you would like to become a part of a network of concerned and non-violent citizens taking on the issue of GMOs, please contact Mr. Tomsic at: the website: www.gmoactive.com, or email him at [email protected] Thank you.