By Robin Brown
— Diving into the heated national debate over genetically modified organisms, about 100 people gathered for a meeting hosted by the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch of New Mexico. Titled “What’s on Our Plates?,” the event aimed to answer other questions about the effects of genetic modification on food supplies and the push to label products that contain GMOs. It also opened in the midst of major disappointments for anti-GMO activists.
In February, New Mexico saw the failure of Senate Bill 18, legislation to require labeling of genetically modified material in food or animal feed. And on the same day, March 26, President Obama signed a spending bill with a provision nicknamed the “Monsanto Protection Act.” Critics decried it as a move to undermine court challenges of federal GMO crop approvals.
Other state efforts to label GMOs, like California’s Prop. 37, have been shot down with help from deep-pocketed opposition. Corporate donors pitched millions into the “No on Prop. 37” campaign. Among them were Monsanto, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Syngenta, General Mills, PepsiCo and DuPont.
Monsanto opposes initiatives that require GMO ingredient labeling because there’s “an absence of demonstrated risk,” according to a statement on the company’s website. Furthermore, mandatory labeling “could be interpreted as a warning or imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”
Monsanto’s case is strengthened by a list of scientific findings that have so far found GMOs to be safe. A 2012 report from the American Medical Association, for example, stated there’s no evidence genetically modified foods are hazardous.
Bruce Milne, a biology professor and founder of the University of New Mexico’s Sustainable Studies Program, argued at the Food and Water Watch event that farming practices pushed by companies like Monsanto can have devastating consequences. He called the struggling monarch butterfly species “the poster child for what’s going on with genetic modification in the real world.”
Conventional U.S. agricultural practices kill milkweeds that the insects depend on for food, said Milne, adding that the number of monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico in the winter dropped 59 percent in 2013. One-fifteenth of the total population has been lost since 1997.
The vast majority of soybeans, cotton and corn grown in the U.S. have been genetically modified to resist the pesticide known as Roundup, said Milne. Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds and Roundup are designed for use together, so the pesticide can be sprayed without destroying crops.
More spraying, said Milne, leads to chemical-resistant plants known as “superweeds” which are nearly impossible to get rid of.
“There’s an arms race going on,” says Milne. “Now the chemical people have to come out with their big guns. They’re proposing 2, 4-D, which is Agent Orange from the Vietnam days.”
Dow Chemical Company says that while the government-approved 2, 4-D pesticide is related to Agent Orange, the two chemicals are fundamentally different. And genetic modification and chemical pesticide proponents point to one huge advantage of the technologies: increased crop production. They also say that because GMOs can be bred to resist pests, the need for pesticides actually decreases.
Canary in a Coalmine
For Les Crowder, author and longtime beekeeper, bees are an indicator of ecological health. Crowder said he’s seen strange things happen when bees pollinate genetically modified plants. The seeds are coated with neonicotinoid insectide, said Crowder, low doses of which have been found to damage bee autoimmune systems. Insecticide exposure makes honeybees more susceptible to diseases.
“If you give them a little bit—much less than the legal dose of neonicotinoid—it takes only the very sweetest of foods to interest them.” Soon, said Crowder, they quit foraging, and after a while, behavioral changes emerge.
“Even if they could forage, they forget where they are. They lose track of how to find their way home,” he said. “Bees are becoming so brain damaged by these insecticides at very low doses that they’re dying.”
Crowder said he sees beekeepers as sentinels with the perspective to warn others when something seems wrong.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re a little bit like the lemmings, and we’ve been running towards a cliff. The beekeepers got to that cliff edge first, and we’re saying, Oh no, we’re going the wrong way.”
Isaura Andaluz, founder of nonprofit seed bank Cuatro Puertas, has been battling the genetic modification of New Mexico chile. She said the New Mexico Chile Association is working to create a genetically modified strain of peppers that will fend off disease and be easier to pick mechanically.
Under the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act, any grower who labels their peppers as New Mexican must be registered with the state. The act also gave the Board of Regents at New Mexico State University oversight to issue rules based on close consultation with agribusinesses, along with authority to issue cease-and-desist orders to any grower deemed in violation of the act. (Senate Bill 234, which passed during this year’s legislative session, includes removal of the board’s cease-and-desist authority.)
Andaluz said NMSU officials shouldn’t be trusted with so much power. “Why should we have to register all of our chile?” she asked. “NMSU has taken over 54 varieties of our native chiles, and they’re reusing it for their research. Whose chiles do they take? Whose genes are they going to want to patent?”
It became legal to patent a living organism in the ’80s. When a patented plant species is found growing without the patent owner’s permission, the patent holder can sue the farmer. Small-scale growers say they have little control over cross-pollination from neighboring fields—making them unwitting violators of patent laws.
The Farmer Protection Act, a state bill to protect growers from patent infringement lawsuits due to genetic drift, died in the Legislature in 2009.
According to Monsanto’s website, 11 cases of patent infringement involving GMOs have gone to trial. All were ruled upon in the company’s favor. In an official statement, Monsanto says the main reason for enforcing its patents “is to ensure a level playing field for the vast majority of honest farmers who abide by their agreements, and to discourage using technology to illegally gain an unfair advantage.”
Crops that have grown in certain regions for a long time adapt to the climate on their own, said Andaluz, without pesticides or genetic modification. “If you keep planting the seeds, they keep acclimating.”