Recently at The Greater Green, we started selling corn PLA water bottles. This sparked a lot of debate over whether these bottles were truly an improvement over PET bottles, with one of the main drawbacks being that, at this time, the PLA water bottles manufactured by New Wave Enviro are sourced from a mixture of GM (Genetically Modified) and non-GM corn. The question is, what exactly does this mean? A friend of mine recently asked me what was so bad about GM agriculture. I'll be honest- I didn't have a quick-and-ready response condemning the rapidly spreading use of GMO plants for our country's agriculture needs, even though I knew there were many problems with it. So I did a little bit of research to be sure I had the facts.
One of the best reads I found that really brings the GMO issue home is the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (one of my favorite authors who also wrote The Bean Trees and Prodigal Summer). Ms. Kingsolver and her family decide to take on the adventure of a lifetime: move to a farm and become virtually self-sufficient, relying only on food that they have actually grown themselves or that is grown locally. Obviously, that means no cantaloupes or avocados in winter, but the implications resonate much further as well. This book provides not only details about growing, cooking, and preserving countless vegetables, but also tackles the increasing popularity of GM hybrids with farmers across the country. I will never again look at the food on my plate the same!
As often happens when we set out on a quest to acquire more knowledge about a particular topic, I have become interested and involved in so many tangential issues related to the spread of genetic modification, but I will try to stay focused on this particular topic. However, if any of this discussion piques your interest, please read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle! I am hardly able to crack the surface of this fascinating book in this post.
According to Ms. Kingsolver, throughout the history of our species, we have had available to us more than 80,000 different species of edible plants, but 75% of our current diet is currently composed of only eight species. Even those eight are being quickly condensed into soy, canola, and corn, and mostly genetically modified versions at that. We have literally eradicated our agricultural history from our cuisine. We are in grave danger of losing the variety of vitamins, minerals, and FLAVOR from our food by standardizing on the mass scale that we are. Food is becoming an endangered species! Even worse, many of the small farmers that are trying to maintain a variety of plants and pass on our agricultural legacy for future generations are situated near huge fields of GM organisms. If and when the wind carries pollen from the GM plants over to the non-GM plants, the resulting seeds will be genetically modified. Little by little, genetically modified species are invading agriculture and spreading like some sort of virus, permanently altering the hereditary future of any plants they come into contact with.
Why should we care? Why should we worry about losing the huge variety of plant species that have existed over the last millenia? There is of course the issue of health. Every species of plant, every variety of a particular fruit, vegetable, or herb, has its own arsenal of healthy vitamins and minerals that vitamin pills simply cannot replace. Plants and humans have evolved over thousands and thousands of years in an intricate sort of dance: our bodies rely on the complex combinations of essential nutrients that plants contain. And those nutrients often complement one another in ways we barely understand. For example, the calcium in spinach aids our bodies in more readily-absorbing the iron it also contains. One without the other provides only a fraction of the benefits this combination provides. Is it a coincidence that these two nutrients occur together in the same vegetable? Absolutely not! And it is no coincidence, either, that they occur in specific quantities that maximize the benefit. Evolution at work!
The spinach example is one that our nutritionists are well aware of. But there are so many intricacies to plants that we haven't even begun to discover, and so cannot replicate in a simple pill. We need fresh fruits and vegetables to maintain optimal health, and we need a large variety to fulfill all of our bodies' needs. By narrowing down the field of available produce, we are also limiting our health. Genetic modification is increasing the elimination of variety at an alarming rate. In 1981, over 4,000 nonhybrid varieties of plants were available in seed catalogs. That number has since dwindled to about 600. Those lost species carried irreplaceable genetic diversity that would provide a variety of defenses in the face of new diseases, new pests, and new climate threats. remember the Irish Potato Famine? The problem was that Irish farmers were all planting the same variety of potato. When a new disease emerged that wiped out that particular variety, the entire country was thrown into starvation. Could this happen again? Absolutely. Would genetic diversity buffer such a disaster? Of course! In fact, it's one of the only things that would. Think we are immune to such a disaster? Think again. We now rely on just a few strains of corn and soybeans for the majority of our calories. In addition to being dangerous genetically, that is also making us the fattest culture on the planet!
Think you're not eating GM produce? Think again! US law does not require GM produce to be labeled as such. GM plants have infiltrated virtually the entire US food chain. Unless you are buying only orgaincally-grown produce, you are most certainly supporting the spread of genetic modification.
Additionally, the corporate giants that have turned nature into something that is patentable have been reaping billions. Monsanto, the GM giant, owns a majority of all GM patents. They have made it illegal to harvest seeds from GM plants, so that farmers have to purchase new seeds each year from.... you guessed it!.... them. They have even gone as far as to prosecute small farmers whose non-GM crop was accidentally (by the wind) cross-bred with GM varieties, and who were trying to save seed from the next year. Can you guess who won those lawsuits? That's right, Monsanto legally barred those unsuspecting small farmers from saving seed for the next year, claiming they owned the patent on it.
Monsanto also produces Round-Up, the insidious herbicide that is the chemical of choice for farmers seeking to eliminate the weeds the easy way. Can you guess what gene Monsanto is embedding into their corn and other GM crops? Yup, they have created crops that are resistant to Round-Up, so that farmers can buy their patented crops and then buy their chemicals, too. And that equals billions of dollars in profits. Meanwhile, our land and water systems are being poisoned by these chemical runoffs. Animals are contaminated, and we are eating those animals, drinking that water. The delicate soil ecosystem, with its billions of beneficial microorganisms, is being destroyed, and soils becoming infertile. In a day and age when organic produce is readily available and becoming increasingly popular, these corporate giants are simultaneously polluting our land with their chemicals at an alarmingly increasing rate. High fructose corn syrup? GM. Corn oil? GM. McDonald's food? GM. Canola oil? GM. Soybeans for animal feed (most of the beef you eat from the store, in restaurants, and fast-food joints)? GM.
There are so many layers to this debate that I cannot even begin to discuss. I highly recommend reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and finding out as much as you can about the food we are eating, where it comes from, and the implications of how it is grown will have on our future. If you are anything like me, it will be an eye-opener!