Seeds of Discontent

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“We went to court seeking justice, and we’re still seeking justice,” maintains Gerritsen. For him, as with most Monsanto critics, the issues run far deeper than this one case. “Ethically and morally, what Monsanto is doing is wrong. For 10,000 years, our farming ancestors were the keepers of seeds and providers of food to sustain life on this planet. Suddenly, in the last 25 years, the power for seed development has been taken from the farmers and given to Monsanto. It’s thievery.”

Big, Bad Reputation

Asked to comment for this article, Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher offered the official statement from David F. Snively, the company’s executive vice president, secretary, and general counsel: “This decision is a win for all farmers as it underscores that agricultural practices such as ag biotechnology, organic, and conventional systems do and will continue to effectively coexist in the agricultural marketplace. This ruling tore down a historic myth which is commonly perpetuated against our business by these plaintiffs and other parties through the Internet, noting that not only were such claims unsubstantiated but, more importantly, they were unjustified.”

Why, then, do consumers still have a nagging suspicion that there is something inherently wrong about Monsanto’s involvement in the farming industry? About a year ago, Forbes magazine characterized the GMO giant as being “so despised by environmentalists that Google’s first suggested search term for the company is ’Monsanto evil.’” (As we go to press, that search term is now a close third, pulling up some 2 million results.) Perhaps the public is concerned about the alarming rate at which GMO crops are taking over, thanks in large part to their cheap, resilient seed. Between the years 2001 and 2005, the planting of genetically engineered crops more than tripled worldwide. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not the Third World, food-starved countries that are leading the charge—75 percent of those GMO plantings were concentrated in industrialized nations, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

The big picture—the future of food diversity—is even more dramatic: While historically, farmers would save their seeds from one season to the next, ensuring that local varieties of any given crop would be preserved and perpetuated, growers can no longer keep up with the super-strains of GMO plants that are built to survive everything from pests to drought. One by one, small farms have abandoned their homegrown seed in favor of Monsanto’s, further shrinking the gene pool for healthy crops. In the past 100 years, the FAO estimates that 75 percent of crop diversity has been lost, which is troubling to farmers because diversity is what guarantees species survival in the face of a new pest or fungus that the GMO seeds have not been tested against.

What disturbs Gerritsen most is the snowball effect. “So far, six major industrial crops have been deregulated for genetic engineering,” he says, meaning Big Ag has the right to tinker with them in a lab and sell the modified seeds on the market. Corn, canola, soy, cotton, sugar beets, and alfalfa make up the big six. “But there are literally 70 other crops—the vegetables you eat at the dinner table every night—that have been submitted for deregulation,” he notes. “If that happens, contamination of organic seeds will skyrocket.”

The Case for the Consumer

As OSGATA regroups to appeal its case, there is a new fight emerging in California and several other states to require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically engineered ingredients. Spearheaded by advocacy groups such as Just Label It, organizers accumulated 1.1 million citizen signatures in March 2012, and have secured the backing of influential members of Congress to take the fight to the Food and Drug Administration. Fifty-five House and Senate members, led by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), issued a letter to the FDA in support of the labeling petition filed by the Center for Food Safety. “Consumers have a right to know what’s in the food they are eating,” says Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, a national advocacy and outreach organization based in Fairfield, Iowa, dedicated to educating policy makers and the public about genetically modified foods. “Companies are afraid these labels will affect sales—which they may, since the majority of Americans say they would avoid GMOs if they knew they were there—but that doesn’t change the fact that people should be made aware of what’s in their food.”

What’s more, the U.S. lags behind other industrialized countries—including South Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom, Brazil, China, Australia, New Zealand, and the entire European Union—when it comes to mandatory labeling policies for genetically engineered foods. So what’s the holdup? The debate within the FDA centers on semantics. In a 1992 policy statement, the FDA allowed genetically engineered foods to be marketed without labeling on the basis that they were not “materially” different from other foods, meaning, the agency said, that there were no significant changes in taste, smell, or other sensory experiences of GMO foods versus non-GMOs. Critics today say that’s like applying 19th-century science to the regulation of 21st-century food technologies, and blame the struggle to make labeling the law on resistance from the deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, Michael Taylor, who also happens to be a former vice president of Monsanto.

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