(My column in Long Island papers this week)
By Karl Grossman
Kathleen Furey has been busy on Long Island, New York City and elsewhere in the state challenging what’s become known as GMO — genetic modification or genetic engineering. The technology is used to create “transgenic species” of plants and animals. Through it, genes from one species are introduced into another.
More than 60 countries have enacted laws banning GMO in producing food or requiring the labeling of food that has used it. But in the U.S., because of pressure by the biotechnology industry, there are no such laws.
Crops using GMO were introduced commercially in the United States in 1996. But “Americans are still dining in the dark,” said Ms. Furey of Hampton Bays, education and media director of GMO Free NY, in a recent presentation in Sag Harbor. Ms. Furey is a graduate of Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Studies Department with a degree in environmental humanities. She started her studies with the sustainability program then at Stony Brook Southampton.
Now in the U.S., said Ms. Furey in Sag Harbor, 88 percent of corn, 90 percent of sugar beets and 94 percent of soybeans are grown using GMO. Some 80 percent of “bottled, boxed or canned foods in the U.S.” contain GMO ingredients. And livestock feed “is comprised mostly of GMO corn and soybeans.” GMOs “dominate the agricultural landscape” of America today, she said.
Ms. Furey and her group are working hard presently for passage of a New York State GMO Labeling Bill. People have “the right to make informed choices about what we eat,” she emphasizes. “We have the right to be protected from food health risks and the right to stop being used as guinea pigs.”
The sponsor of the bill in the State Senate is Suffolk’s Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson who says: “Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, especially concerning products for which health and environmental concerns have been raised. My bill was introduced to give consumers the freedom to choose between GMOs and conventional products. Essentially, if a foodstuff is produced using genetic engineering, this must be indicated on its label.”
The biotechnology industry insists GMO technology doesn’t harm people and is useful. It points to how, with genetic modification, plants resistant to some pests have been developed. But GMO opponents hold it is harmful and various uses have backfired. Moreover, they charge that the federal government, notably the Food and Drug Administration, has been acting as a rubber stamp for the biotechnology industry’s bidding. And it’s not that inside of government there isn’t an awareness of the dangers of GMO. Ms. Furey points to “internal memos from FDA scientists citing the risks of GMO safety and toxicity that were disregarded by their superiors.”
On pest resistance through GMO, Ms. Furey speaks of how “superbugs resistant to pest-resistance GMO crops have evolved and are destroying those crops.” Also, “superweeds resistant to herbicides sprayed on GMO crops have evolved and caused farmers to spray more herbicide per acre and resort to the use of even more-toxic herbicides.”
Ms. Furey and GMO Free NY have major allies.
The Institute for Responsible Technology, based in Iowa, describes genetically modified foods as “not safe.” Its literature stresses a report by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine citing studies finding “serious health risks associated” with GMO food including “infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging…and changes to major organs and the gastrointestinal system.”
Food & Water Watch, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is warning on its website about the FDA now “paving the way for genetically engineered salmon,” which it calls “frankenfish.” This, furthermore, “would open the floodgates” for genetically-modified “cows and pigs which biotech companies are waiting in the wings to finally commercialize after years of research and development.”
The power of the biotechnology industry was demonstrated in California in November when a referendum to require GMO labeling failed after a multi-million dollar advertising blitz led by Monsanto. Just last month, the U.S. Congress passed and President Obama approved what GMO foes call the “Monsanto Protection Act” — a measure to last initially six months stripping federal courts of the authority to halt the planting and sale of genetically modified crops if litigation is brought alleging health risks.
“It is incredibly unconstitutional,” says Ms. Furey.
Overall, the biotechnology industry’s drive for GMO has been incredibly undemocratic and the process is quite likely unhealthy. Labeling is a minimum — so people can at least know what food is GMO-modified and choose what’s still GMO-free.