Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) a threat to organic agriculture? Are they dangerous when consumed? Do they lead to higher use of chemical herbicides and pesticides? And why aren’t GMOs labeled so we know which foods are made with them? We find and discuss the latest news on this critical issue.
Your friendly and equally inquisitive Planet Natural Blogger gets questions. Sometimes they’re real stumpers. Here’s one:
If you are composting GMOs without knowing it does it mean you are growing them by using the compost?
We had to think about this awhile. We know that the composting process is capable of great things. We know that it can help “repair” contaminated soils and prevent toxic runoff into our watercourses; that it can reduce to some degree the toxicity of soils contaminated with chemicial substances such as creosote; that it can even reduce the toxicity of explosive residues of the sort found in dumps on military reservations (but that it leaves behind another problem: mutigenicity).
But what happens when genetic plants are composted? Will the genetically-mutated materials break down? And will any of the components that the mutation generates — say the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that acts as a pesticide in GMO corn — will those be broken down as well? (more…)
An article in The New York Times seems to celebrate weeds: their hardiness, their adaptability, their ability to quickly evolve. It’s overall theme? In the battle between weeds and chemical herbicides, weeds eventually and always win. And while it takes some reading between the lines, the article also draws conclusions that organic gardeners have known all along. One… herbicides can be dangerous. Two… a variety of techniques, many of them organic, are needed to actually reduce crop losses caused by weeds.
So why use herbicides? Their development (PDF format) was thought to be a tremendous breakthrough. As far back as Roman times farmers spread salt on their fields to destroy their enemies’ crops. Modern weed killers were introduced during World War II and their use skyrocketed after that. Chemical companies soon learned that herbicides meant big money. But almost as quickly, weeds began to develop resistance to the chemicals. Today, it’s estimated that at least 217 varieties of weeds have developed resistance (follow the link to see a frightening photo of giant ragweed taking over a field of Roundup resistant corn). (more…)
That so-good-for-you vegetable — broccoli — is in the news. A “dream team” of botanists, agrarians, and marketers has come together at Cornell University to create a broccoli that will grow in areas where the heat-sensitive cruciferous won’t normally grow. And therein lies the problem. Since nearly all commercial broccoli is grown in California, the plant suffers days of transportation before its delivered to midwestern, southern and eastern markets, a time that saps the broccoli of its fresh taste and snap. The new hybridized broccoli can withstand the relative evening warmth and humidity that has made successful commercial farming of broccoli east of the Rocky Mountains difficult. The New York Times has the story.
The piece is actually a double profile of both broccoli and the plant physiologist who fronts the broccoli effort, Dr. Thomas Bjorkman. Bjorkman, himself a vegetarian, has envisioned making broccoli more readily available in American markets. He’s also sought to make it more palatable and nutritious. Apparently he’s succeeded. The new hybrid broccoli contains more glucoraphanin, a compound that’s been found to prevent cancer. (more…)
Disguised in the cover of a favorite summer time topic — why don’t store-bought tomatoes taste good? — The New York Times has printed a story, “You Call That A Tomato?”, with an accompanying video that frames the movement to label genetically modified food sources in the GMO development’s first failure: the Flavr Savr tomato. Brought to market in 1994, the Flavr Savr created a small sensation. Here was a tomato designed to withstand the rigors of shipping, one that would last in your kitchen for weeks while regular tomatoes shriveled and went bad. It was clearly labeled and marketed by its manufacturer Calgene as a product of “trans genetic plants.” Everyone knew what it was and why. At the time, it was seen as the leading edge of a Brave New World technology.
Watch the video for its historical and modern contrasts. You’ll hear celebrity news person Connie Chung announcing its release and Tom Brokaw repeating, “and they say it’s tastier.” How the tomato’s sale ended in disaster is more a product of marketing and a lack of practical information on the raising and shipping of tomatoes. The Flavr Savr, grown in Mexico and poorly packed and shipped, often arrived in American markets as soup. The price for them was at least twice as high as that for a regular tomato. And in a bit of the emperor not wearing clothes, consumers were shown savoring the taste of the tomato when in fact it had little taste at all. (more…)
Not quite under the radar, but not visible enough to gain attention from national media, was a bill introduced in Congress that would require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.
Introduced in April, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was brought to the Senate by California Democrat Barbara Boxer and to the House by Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio. Here’s Senator Boxer’s announcement of the national gmo labeling bill complete with cosponsors and approving organizations, a group that includes the Consumer’s Union, the Center For Food Safety, and the Center for Environmental Health as well as several food marketers, a group that ranges from Lundberg Family Farms to Ben & Jerry’s.
While not completely ignored — the gmo labeling bill has nine cosponsors in the Senate and 22 in the House — its chances of even being given a hearing are slim considering the state of our dead-in-the-water congress. Only one cosponsor from both houses is a Republican and both of those are from Alaska. (Alaska state legislators have passed a law requiring the labeling of all genetically modified fish and shell fish and the state recently turned down a petition from AquaBounty Technologies to produce GMO salmon in state waters. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other grocery marketers have announced they will not carry AquaBounty salmon when it reaches the market.) (more…)
On Monday, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling bill. But before breaking out in cheers, listen to this: the bill comes with a few, at least temporarily knotty strings attached.
Due to heavy lobbying, several conditions were attached to the bill. One would require at least four other states to join Connecticut in passing GMO labeling laws. Those states must have a total population of 20 million. And one of them must border Connecticut.
Many labeling supporters see the conditions as a way to permanently cripple the bill. Others have saluted the bill as progress. One report called the compromises a “condition of virtual impotence. ” This report also identified the largest and most active opponents to the measure, a group that includes lobbying organizations supporting the Connecticut bio-tech industry, giant grocery retailers and — you guessed it — Monsanto. (more…)
– Here’s a study that reaffirms what organic farmers and gardeners already know: the use of inorganic fertilizer may help plants one season but does nothing to improve soil conditions. How important is soil to the survival of our planet? Read this article about soil depletion. Estimates say we’ve already lost 40% of the world’s topsoil, much of it because of non-organic farming practice.
– In the interest of fair and balanced reporting, here’s a British study that claims organic farming isn’t really all that better than conventional farming. Notice that the focus is on production. Also notice that it doesn’t say anything about improving soils. Careful readers will see all kinds of omissions in the comparisons the study makes.
– Here’s a great chart that shows how heirloom and wild fruits and vegetables are higher (much higher) in phytonutrients than conventionally cultivated cousins. If you find this interesting, follow the link to the accompanying article. (more…)
Today, as this is written, is the big day: the world-wide protests against Monsanto and GMO food. While your usually politically active Planet Natural Blogger will be traveling to visit his dear mother on the plains of Nebraska, a place where more than a few bushels of genetically engineered soy is grown, and won’t be participating in any rally (yes, there’s one right here at home, and, too, in our beloved, former home as well, we can’t help but be there in spirit. Here’s hoping our organic community, no matter where they may be, will report back on what happened Saturday in their location. Here’s a partial list of all the May 25th events that were scheduled to be held. Scroll way, way down to find the United States.
In the meantime, here’s an article detailing the history of Monsanto (notice that this article claims to have been monitored by U.S. Counter Terrorism apparatus) beginning with the company’s founding in 1901. Notice that Monsanto has been involved in a lot since then, including the manufacture of aspirin and the production of the first atomic bomb. The piece also gives a good accounting of Monsanto’s role in genetically modified crop production and the various tactics it’s used against farmers. (more…)
Now in the hectic middle of planting season, it’s good to step back and take stock. After decades of limited availability and dismissal as a counter-culture industry, heirloom and organic seeds are the center of interest as never before. This phenomenon has been going on for a few years, but its continued growth and the promise of an even bigger future can make even the most cynical of us more optimistic.
Look around. Organic seeds are available in an ever-widening array of outlets. Nurseries, even hardware stores now stock organic seeds. Even my local grocery store stocks them as do our local food co-ops. Not only are they more widely available, they’re available in wider selection. Seed companies that weren’t even on the radar a few years ago now put out big glossy catalogs offering heirloom and “pure seeds.” Large activist organizations, like the Seed Savers Exchange, have dedicated themselves to preserving our garden seed heritage. Smaller, local organizations and exchanges are also popping up. (more…)
Not an online discussion about the dangers of genetically modified foods goes by without someone claiming, “What’s the big deal? They’re no different than any other hybrid. Hybrids and cross-breeding are genetic manipulations, just like GMOs. The only difference is that they’re done in the laboratory.”
Okay, maybe that last bit is true. And there are similarities. It’s true that both hybrids and GMOs are genetic manipulations. Hybrids can occur naturally or they might be facilitated by humans. GMOs are always created in laboratories. GMOs and many F1 hybrids may both be realized in controlled conditions, but one is simply doing nature’s work: pollinating. GMOs involve gene splicing. Both are patented by the business/corporate owners (full disclosure: not all F1 hybrids are patented). What does the GMO patent mean? That you better be careful.
But there are differences. The negative effects of GMOs on diversity and organic crops are markedly more serious than corporate- controlled hybrids. You can grow the “Heritage Hybrid Tomato” or the “Brandy Boy Hybrid” organically (marketing alert: notice how these relatively recent hybrids carry names that suggest heirlooms). (more…)