Nestled on page 20–21 of your July Reader was an article entitled “GMOs and Willy Street Co-op.” (You can also find it here: tinyurl.com/lp5wxnq.) It gave an overview of the Co-op’s position—as an entity—on genetically modified foods. I wrote it with the hope that readers would weigh in on this and other issues, highlighting the complexity of taking a political stance as a consumer cooperative. Many folks contacted me in response to the article, the majority of whom were grateful and encouraged by the Co-op’s stated position. Some encouraged us to do more, such as educate about GMOs, and advocate with our institutional weight. At least one Owner (who requested anonymity) responded to the article with multiple questions and concerns about this stance. As she asked many critical questions, I want to quote at length now from her email:
“What specifically about GMOs ‘has grown into an overwhelming threat to many of the things that [the co-op] holds dear’? Is it the potential health effects or environmental safety issues of GM foods? The fact that GM technology is used largely by agribusiness and companies such as Monsanto? Why specifically did the co-op support an amendment to the farm bill regarding state-mandated labeling of GM products? Does the co-op believe labeling should be required for all GMOs, regardless whether there have been scientifically-established health or environmental effects from the particular product? Does the co-op take the position that all GM foods are the same? Most of our food crops have been developed over the centuries using genetic modification techniques, such as traditional plant breeding, and I’m skeptical of the position that using newer DNA techniques to develop positive traits should be dismissed automatically as negative or dangerous, particularly without a sound scientific basis for doing so. It is true that many of the large companies promoting GMOs may have used them irresponsibly, but vilifying GM foods as a whole does not seem to be the proper response. And, why label them if not to imply that there is something inherently dangerous about them? Some GM crops have caused problems with herbicide-resistant weeds, but so have conventional growing methods. . . It seems to me that GM crops have the potential to be an important tool in addressing global agricultural issues—a rot-resistant potato that can be grown organically? Why not? Foods with higher nutritional value? For people lacking access to vital nutrients, this seems like a great idea. And no, I’m not in the biotech industry and I don’t work for Monsanto. I am simply a consumer who wants honest and straightforward information to justify positions taken by entities of which I am a member. I don’t expect answers to these questions—they are just issues to think about before jumping into a debate that seems to be driven in large by ideological or political perspectives and not necessary scientific reality.”
This email has provided an excellent opportunity to articulate specifics of the Co-op’s position, which continues to remain, at its core, a dialogue. Although this current article seeks to address some of the questions this particular Owner raised, so much of this topic remains unexplored. Please keep asking critical questions, sharing your knowledge, and telling us what you think!
“The debates around GMOs show that there is never just one scientific position. Ecologists portray the environment as a fragile ‘ecological balance,’ vulnerable to ‘imbalance’ by GMOs; laboratory scientists portray the environment as more resilient, capable of stabilizing itself.” -Birgit Muller, “Introduction: GMOs—Global Objects of Contention”
The concept of genetically modified food brings with it a slew of questions dealing with various life sciences. From vague notions like “broad environmental impact” to specific effects on the health of humans and other animals, the repercussions of this technology remain somewhat mysterious to most—if not all—people.
For starters, the GMO technology is incredibly young, not centuries-old. The first genetic modification of a plant cell was done by Monsanto in 1983.
Birgit Muller elaborates: “The current use of the term GMO covers a wide range of objects: unicellular organisms engineered to synthesize substances mostly for medical use, such as vaccines or hormones; genetically engineered plants or animals destined for research, such as the ‘Oncomouse,’ a mouse genetically engineered to develop cancer; genetically engineered plants that produce their own insecticide or are resistant to herbicides; pharmaplants that produce vaccines or vitamins; and industrial GMOs, such as trees genetically engineered to improve their potential for paper production…Although engineered to serve human purposes, from the moment GMOs are released into the environment, they escape human control and develop their own agency.” I would argue that the suspicion, fear, and anger surrounding this issue focuses heavily on the release of GMOs into the environment without broad popular support/consent, alongside the sense of secrecy about their introduction into food systems and ecosystems. Most consumers in the U.S.—myself included—have no idea how much genetically modified food we are actually consuming.
So... does the Co-op (as an entity) promote the idea that GM food is harmful? In short—no, not necessarily. Imagery and messaging by GM-seed companies tends to highlight product safety and idyllic environmental scenarios. The New York Times reported in 1996 that New York’s Attorney General ordered Monsanto to “pull ads that said Roundup was ‘safer than table salt’ and ‘practically nontoxic’ to mammals, birds and fish. The company withdrew the spots, but also said that the phrase in question was permissible under EPA guidelines.” Counter-arguments from anti-GM activists often focus on a certain unavoidable danger; in this view, superweeds and frankenfoods are the inevitable future. However, the weight seems to rest mostly within what Chaia Heller calls “a climate of uncertainty,” one that can “baffle and divide scientists who can neither fully predict nor control [GMO] behavior.” While very little research has been published which suggests GM foods are harmful for human consumption, there remains a skepticism about such technology. Will there be unpredictable consequences?
LABELS JUMPSTART DIALOGUE
“In the mid-1990s, most EU member states argued that no labeling could be required for safe products under European Union law. As an implicit motive for this stance, governments sought to avoid any symbolic association between GM products and uncertainty about risk. . . In the late-1990s, protest against GM food disrupted the UK market for processed food. The food industry came under pressure to apply a GM label or to exclude GM ingredients. Similar difficulties arose in other European countries. National variations and market instabilities eventually led European governments to support demands for mandatory GM labeling.” -Les Levidow and Susan Carr, GM Food on Trial: Testing European Democracy
At this point in time, the Co-op has taken a position to support GMO labeling, which is not a position that asserts the safety or danger of genetically modified foods specifically. The above-quoted Owner asked rhetorically, “Why label them if not to imply that there is something inherently dangerous about them?” Using this logic, we could effectively dismiss diet-specific labels like ‘gluten-free,’ ‘vegan,’ and ‘kosher’, alongside pesticide-free labels like ‘organic.’ Labels are tricky business! I encourage a skepticism about them, as many (like ‘natural’ or ‘made with whole grains’) aren’t what they seem. Labels on food products do not simply tell a quick story of ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous.’ In the U.S., for better and for worse, consumers generally rely on the FDA to determine what foods are safe for human consumption, and which are not. These are not universal, worldwide standards. There are also labels like ‘fair trade’ that are not necessarily related to the nutritional value of the food itemd they are attached to. In fact, fair trade is a great parallel example to GMO labeling, as that label has a deeply political history rooted in social justice, cooperatives, and international trade movements.
Since at least 2001, various polls (conducted by ABC News, New York Times, Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University, etc) have reported that 93-95% of people in the U.S. want label requirements on GM foods. Repeatedly, at least half of those surveyed claimed they they did not believe GM foods were safe, and/or reported that they would not eat them, if they were aware or given a clear choice.
Currently, without government-mandated GM food labels, consumers can utilize the labels of ‘non-GMO’ (regulated by the Non-GMO Project) and ‘100% organic’ (regulated by the FDA) to locate products that are free of genetic modification. Unfortunately, the genetically modified “rot-resistant potato that can be grown organically” mentioned in the opening comment remains an impossibility, as organic standards strictly forbid the use of GM seeds.
Beyond their (uncertain) scientific application and disputed safety/harm, there are many other arguments in favor of labeling GM foods. Must one be a scientist—or, more precisely, a geneticist or biotechnology “expert”—to participate meaningfully in the debate about GMOs?
“Democratic engagement with biotechnology was shaped and constrained by national approaches to representation, participation, and deliberation that selectively delimited who spoke for people and issues, how those issues were framed, and how far they were actively reflected upon in official processes of policy-making.” -Sheila Jasanoff, Designs on Nature
The idea of “scientific truth” obligates a certain framework for participants to engage, discuss, and argue the topic of GMOs. While it is clearly important to maintain an eye on the exact science of biotechnology, as new seeds continue to be patented and introduced to the environment, I would argue that the topic of GMOs surpasses “scientific validity” and deserves larger recognition. A multitude of questions arise.
What language do we use when talking about GMOs? How is it relevant to our daily lives? Can we make discussion accessible and participatory? Who controls and directs the conversation? Is the lack of transparency in democratic institutions a large part of the GMO controversies? If “everyone” is affected by GMOs, are there some who have more at stake? Those who experience hunger, or are displaced by growing farming monocultures, for example? What about politicians and those in the GM seed business? As biotechnology has a strong base within the U.S., are voices of people outside the U.S. appropriately amplified?
In “Maize as Sovereignty,” Liz Fitting describes activists in Latin America who “see transgenic maize as an embodiment of contemporary imperialism or neoliberal globalization—a foreign threat to ‘sovereignty’ in different senses (and scales like community, region and nation) including self-governance, economic independence, cultural autonomy, and access to and control of native varieties and genetic resources.” The presence of genetically modified seeds redirects the conversation and reshapes the context around seeds themselves.
Many people experience the introduction of GMOs “as an imposition and violation of their physical integrity,” writes Birgit Muller. “They resent the presence of GMOs on supermarket shelves, in their fields, and in their food. . . They resented GMOs as a risk that was imposed. They demanded to have proper debate about whether the human purposes were sufficiently important to justify taking on such unpredictable possible effects, and about whether the forms of innovation, promotion, and regulation were sufficiently trustworthy to defend the public interest.” Free market speculation, ‘terminator’ technology, genetic ownership and intellectual property rights of corporations become mixed, muddled, and contrasted with land-based cultural, historical, and economic sufficiency of human beings throughout the world.
“The model that U.S. agencies are trying to globalize presumes a system of commercialized agriculture in which varieties are uniform, seed is a commodity sold for planting, and harvested grain is a different commodity sold for consumption. But in partially self-provisioning peasant economies in many regions of Latin America, agricultural production and consumption are phases of a cycle that is both more local and more closed. The same seed may be the source of life in at least two senses: it is the next day’s meal and the next season’s planting material.” -Kathy McAfee, “Exporting Crop Biotechnology: The Myth of Molecular Miracles”
A critical question emerges: what are some of the things that Willy Street Co-op “holds dear” (as I phrased it in my first article) and how is genetic engineering of food a “threat” to those things?
Our Ends Policy A3 states that “Willy Street Grocery Cooperative is a cornerstone of a vibrant economically and environmentally sound community” where “local farmers, manufacturers and distributors work in partnership with WSGC” (A3.1) while we “foster local production of goods, including food” (A3.1.1). One example of how this policy is structurally incorporated involves the significant effort and resources utilized to seek out and work with local vendors and farmers. Minimally, we provide retail grocery space for local growers and producers to sell their products to local consumers. According to our bylaws, we shall strive to “support local businesses and suppliers in order to create a stronger economic base in the community and to promote regional self-sufficiency.” (2.2.9) When we encourage these close linkages, this gives us—as eaters and growers—greater control over our food.
Unfortunately, supporting a local food system often looks a lot like defending against efforts to undermine it at every turn. Local resistance to genetically modified seeds looks similar to the resistance of small-scale organic and subsistence farmers worldwide. Even large scale conventional farmers are on the defense: “The National Farmers Union strongly recommends that Canadian legislators enshrine farmers’ rights to save, re-use, exchange, and sell seed.” This simple statement summarized a 22-page report to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which was a response to the introduction of a “Plant Breeders Rights Act” that catered to patent-holders of GMO technology. Farmers in multiple countries throughout the world continue to appeal to governments, repeatedly articulating that genetically modified seed is a threat to their livelihoods.
MAYBE THE SEEDS OWN US
“On one hand, we have registers of valuation that depend on tangible material production—the amount of product manufactured, distributed, or sold by a company, for instance, or its profit margins and revenue flows. On the other hand. . . we have forms of valuation having not to do with tangible material indicators of successful productivity, but with intangible abstractions, such as the felt possibility of future productivity or profit. . . Layered on these different registers of valuation is the fact that ‘value’ itself, like conversion, is a double-jointed word that not only implies material valuation by the market, but also suggests a concern with meanings and practices of ethics. This is particularly salient for industries such as biotech and pharmaceuticals, which generate significant symbolic capital from being, as they are never averse to pointing out, in the business of saving lives. Just as commodity objects and exchange processes are animated by a certain theological mystique, so too are systems of valuation.” -Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life
With the presence of intellectual property rights (in the form of patents) for genetically modified seeds, concerns relating to commodification of nature (plants, animals, humans) are hotly contested. In “Property Limits: Debates on the Body, Nature and Culture,” Stuart Kirsch approaches the subject of cultural versus intellectual property. “Claims to cultural property are shaped by Euro-American conceptions of culture,” he acknowledges, while language around property is “framed in oppositional terms, following generalisations about the differences between Euro-Americans and societies identified as indigenous, including private versus collective forms of ownership, interest in commodification versus relations organised through reciprocity, and individual creativity versus inherited traditions. These binary oppositions beg the question of cultural difference among communities identified as indigenous. Their interpretation of tradition also perpetuates stereotypes about their cultural conservatism, ignoring their capacity for innovation and invention.” The notion of seeds as commodities, as property—whether cultural or intellectual—is worthy of exploring at length.
Another topic that deserves extensive analysis is: what makes an agricultural system ‘sustainable’? With the progression of industrial agriculture, usage of hybrid seed has become widespread. As most seed saved from hybrids will not grow the same replicated plants, growers have become increasingly more dependent on seed companies and the government for their hybrid seed-sourcing. In contrast, open-pollinated heirloom seeds are cultivated, saved, and passed from person to person and generation to generation.
Cross-pollination with GM seed threatens the possibility of maintaining biodiversity among wild and cultivated plants. Birgit Muller outlines the movement of GMOs from laboratory to ecosystem: “Technological know-how is relatively simplistic compared to the complexity of biological systems. It is comparatively straightforward to insert a gene from a different specie into the genome of a plant, but it is almost impossible to appreciate how the billions of pollen it produces will affect the different environments where it proliferates.” Kaushik Sunder Rajan states that “genomics, and indeed all biotechnology, is a game that is constantly played in the future in order to generate the present that enables that future.” The patenting of genetic plant material opens up other conversations regarding the patenting of animal and human genes as well. It seems apparent that genetic engineering poses some uncertain risks regarding our collective futures. Can those risks even be assessed? By what (or whose) standards?
“Risks are apprehended not as indices of potential economic loss but as traces of a prospective danger to the integrity of the human body or of the environmental networks in which bodies are (still) immersed. The body is again mobilized as a biopolitical device. And regulatory attention to GMOs is motivated by concerns about just this sort of corporeal risk: To what extent might transgenes be incorporated into wild species by means of genetic drift, and what might be the ecological impact of genetic drift? To what extent does the intensive use of antibiotic agents in plant modification put consumers’ health at risk? To what extent might metabolites formed from transgenic organisms be passed up the food chain, and with what toxicological risks?” -Alain Pottage, “The Socio-Legal Implications of the New Biotechnologies”
Once introduced into the environment, how are GMOs measured, monitored, profited from, and controlled? Stuart Kirsch highlights the contradictions involved in owning this technology by looking at the “creation of positive value in the form of natural resources and negative value through pollution. The use of property rights to manage both production and destruction is challenged by many communities in arguments about the value of place, including ideas about kinship and belonging that may invoke the duty of care. However, even these objections may render ‘nature’ the legitimate object of human management.” To put it another way, once they are incorporated into ‘nature,’ who owns these human-made organisms? Their profits, their pollution?
The assumption that GMO risk assessment is best trusted to capitalist markets should give this issue a larger framework for people to focus in and dialogue about. Many people posit ethical arguments against the manipulation of genetic heritage that serves to increase profits solely for multinational corporations. Many also vehemently protest being “used” as test subjects who unwittingly consume GM foods. There is widespread skepticism regarding the authority of those who determine the introductions of GMOs into the marketplace/environment; even a quick glance shows government regulators, politicians, and biotech business folks to be quite a tangled bunch.
GMOs remain “objects of contention,” according to Birgit Muller, and as such, they are prompting numerous philosophical inquiries alongside social, political, and scientific controversies. She articulates some of them as follows: “exclusive intellectual property rights over plants and animals as new institutions of power that are now given global validity in international trade agreements; the controversies about the nature of life itself, as a complex organic process or as a simple mechanic whose ‘building blocks of life’ can be engineered and controlled; the struggle about whose definitions and meanings prevail and whose are marginalized and silenced; and the effectiveness of democratic institutions for regulating conflicts of interest between citizens and corporations.” It is no wonder that the topic of GMOs can feel overwhelming. Taken alone, these are deep and complicated subjects, each worthy of extensive analysis and subsequent political action. My interest in this topic continues to grow, and I look forward to the many formats in which this dialogue can take place. As the Co-op continues to seek out creative strategies for educating and taking action, your input, concerns, and ideas remain valuable components of this process.
*Note: I had hoped to have a chance to address the argument that GMOs will solve world hunger. However, this mandates a more lengthy look at government subsidies, subsistence farming, and distribution of resources, which I did not have space to elaborate at this time.
MANY THANKS TO:
- Birgit Muller, “Introduction: GMOs—Global Objects of Contention”
- Les Levidow and Susan Carr, GM Food on Trial: Testing European Democracy
- Sheila Jasanoff, Designs on Nature
- Liz Fitting, “Maize as Sovereignty”
- Kathy McAfee, “Exporting Crop Biotechnology: The Myth of Molecular Miracles”
- Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life
- Stuart Kirsch, “Property Limits: Debates on the Body, Nature and Culture”
- Alain Pottage, “The Socio-Legal Implications of the New Biotechnologies”
- Joey Bee for research assistance