GMOs: More than a Just a Label

By Aaron Hersum

After a long summer hiatus, I walked into the Boston Area Sustainability Group‘s recent GMO event looking forward to finally getting an answer to my burning GMO question: are they healthy? I left the event knowing that I would write about a topic I have particularly strong feelings towards: lobbying. Over the course of the talks and discussion, much attention was given to the health aspects of GMOs, of spraying herbicides and pesticides, and the environmental and economic impacts of genetically engineering crops. After the presentations, one attendee politely asked a significant question: why is labeling GMO products so important? For me, Gary Hirshberg’s insight shed light on the answer. Gary Hirshberg is the Founder and Chairman of Stonyfield Farms and Founding Partner and Chairman of JustLabelIt!, an organization that advocates for GMO labeling. Gary shared his first experience with lobbying that occurred early in his career, when herbicide-resistant, genetically modified alfalfa was being deregulated, even though only around 7% of farmers were using herbicides on their alfalfa at the time, and in sparing amounts. His reason for the deregulation, as Gary succinctly put it, was that seed patent owners also owned the herbicides, and had strong lobbying power[1]. In short, lobbying created a lack of accountability, which was, and is, the issue.

Others may share my opinion that political spending in the United States has achieved an outrageous status. For example, roughly 70% of recent food deregulation has been for crops that have been genetically modified to resist herbicides and insecticides[2]. And that didn’t come about because of any major benefit to farmers, according to Tim Griffin, Associate Professor at Tuft University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee that recently published its multi-year review of 900 research publications about genetically engineered (GE) foods entitled Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. According to the study, while Bt crops increased yields when insect-pest pressure was high, there was little evidence that the introduction of GE crops resulted in “a more rapid yearly increase in on-farm crop yields in the United States than had been seen prior to the use of GE crops.”[3] It came about because of corporate vertical integration of agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology, meaning a single company owns both seed and chemical[4]. The problem is that spraying alarmingly high amounts of herbicides and pesticides has the effect of creating resistant herbs and pests. Take glyphosate, the active ingredient in Round-up. Over 3.5 billion pounds of glyphosate have been sprayed in the U.S. to date, 2.4 billion from 2004 to 2014[5]. Every state now has glyphosate-resistant weeds. Yet the solution is simply to spray more glyphosate, or worse, more toxic chemicals such as 24D, a component of Agent Orange. This unproductive cycle is fueled by profits, and allowed because of a lack of accountability.

Accountability is my reason for wanting foods that utilize GMOs labeled. As consumers become more aware of what they eat, they can begin to ask questions about the inputs and processes of making their food. These questions can in turn fuel necessary change. GMOs are not a problem themselves, rather, they exemplify a lack of transparency in our food system. Lobbying obscures any attempts at transparency. Lobbying prevents accountability. Although commodity groups with major lobbying budgets hold considerable power in D.C., however, consumers are ultimately the decision-makers. Labeling GMOs is a small step in a larger struggle, but it moves us forward to holding special interests accountable.

[1] Gary Hirshberg, “GMOs: Science, Sustainability and Consumer Transparency.” September 6th, 2016.

[2] Gary Hirshberg, “GMOs: Science, Sustainability and Consumer Transparency.” September 6th, 2016.

[3] The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Prepublication 2016.

[4] Over the course of writing this, Bayer AG purchased Monsanto for $66 billion. Should the purchase be approved, the new company would own roughly 25% of the world’s supply of seeds and pesticides, according to BBC news.

[5] Gary Hirshberg, “GMOs: Science, Sustainability and Consumer Transparency.” September 6th, 2016.

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