The GMO Debate

2 GMO apples, 1 non-GMO apple

As an organic farmer I sometimes forget the GMO debate is still being… well, debated. As far as I’m concerned, there is no debate. We—meaning every American consumer—should know where our food comes from and what’s in it and according to recent polls, 92% of Americans agree. This was really brought home to me recently when a good friend, mentor and fellow organic farmer, Mark Nightengale, mentioned that if he had to say which was more important in America today: the organic label or the non-GMO seal—even though organic has a certification process that is trackable, traceable and accountable and ensures the product is non-GMO—it only represents about 5% of the food sold in the US today. So what about the other 95%? If you are concerned about the possibility of GMOs in your non-organic food, then I suggest you look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. With an estimated 80% or more of the US food supply containing at least a little GMOs, and with no mandatory labeling laws in the US regarding GMOs, it’s consumer beware.

According to Consumer Reports March 2015, “If you want to be certain your food isn’t made with GMOs, look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, or buy organic.” While we have been eating foods that contain GMOs for more than 15 years, supporters maintain there is no credible evidence people have been harmed. But saying there is no evidence of harm is not the same as saying they have been proven safe. While other developed nations use protocols recommended by a joint commission of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, where GMO labeling is mandatory in more than 60 countries, the US is still holding out.

I have to ask, if 92% of American’s believe foods should be properly labeled, then why are we not doing it? There is a lot of money being spent on both sides of the issue, but the amounts spent are nowhere near balanced. Labeling campaigns are routinely outspent by anti-labeling interests by an average of nearly 6 to 1, as was seen in the Prop 37 campaign. With all this excessive money they convince voters the proposals are poorly written or the cost of their food will go up, misstating facts and planting seeds of doubt and confusion in order to discourage would-be voters from supporting GMO labeling. It’s not a big surprise that much of the GMO labeling opposition comes from the GMO seed manufacturers and the food industry, which uses GMOs in their products. One main “selling point” for crops containing GMOs has been that they reduce the use of pesticides. But the truth is that it makes a big difference what kind of pesticides you are talking about. The use of insecticides (bug killers) has declined since these crops were introduced in the mid-90s, but the use of herbicides (weed killers), such as glyphosate—which is mostly sold under the brand name of Roundup®—has soared.

The majority of corn, soy, canola and sugar beets grown in the US are now genetically engineered and they can turn up in some unexpected places. For instance, some spices and seasoning mixes contain GMO corn and soy. And soft-drink ingredients that might be derived from genetically modified corn include not only corn syrup but also glucose, citric acid, colorings and the artificial sweetener aspartame.

From a farmer’s perspective—organic or not—the really scary part of all this is that these chemicals are killing the soil and if we continue this way, our soil may never recover. Yes, I have a vested interest in protecting organic farming, but to me it’s just common sense. My good friend Mark Nightengale’s family had farmed with chemicals and by 1992 their farm in south-central Kansas was all but finished. Mark persuaded his family that organic was the only way to go and the naysayers all predicted they would lose the farm. But as Mark said, “It was already gone, there really was no other choice.” After five years of cleaning the soil and using crop rotations, they now have a thriving organic farm.

I’ve only scratched the surface of GMOs and will continue to post articles on various aspects of the issue. But for now, I encourage you to consider what you know about the food you eat. Food is one of the great pleasures and fundamental necessities of life. It should bring us joy and health. Buy organic, look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, and support both ventures so we can continue to make educated decisions about the foods we enjoy.