My unease about genetically engineered crops and animals dates back to the beginning. I had immediate concerns in the late 1980s and early 90s as I began to learn about the technology and associated marketplace machinations. Over the following decades as more and more facts emerged my concerns deepened.
Then just a couple of weeks ago my misgivings were rudely provoked to the forefront when I read an op-ed column by Nina Federoff, published in The New York Times. Her column amounted to a fact-deficient apologia for the GMO industry, and an exhortation to charge heedlessly forward with genetically engineered food. For me, and for millions of other people, this is a massively deranged and dangerous proposition.
So many factors are coming to a head now. Widespread famine, a global land grab, soaring food prices, a horde of profit-mad speculators, drought on the scale of the Dust Bowl, a host of other wildly wobbling environmental events, and a huge, well-organized, well-funded propaganda push by corporate industrial agriculture to claim that the only sensible way forward is with genetic engineering and its allied cauldron of petrochemical-based herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. But it’s not the only way forward. It is, instead, a profoundly perilous pathway encouraged by what I regard as dangerously deranged ethics.
After the Times published Federoff’s column, well-reasoned rebuttals came swiftly from Anna Lappe writing for Civil Eats, from Tom Philpott in Grist, and from Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, Senior Scientist, Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). Individually and collectively, their articles constitute a convincing, fact-backed refutation of Federoff’s claims for GMO safety and suitability. They effectively assert the case for a global 21st century agrarian vision of human-scale organic sustainable farms and food.
Their responses to the Times column deepened my understanding of why it’s fundamentally important to advance clean natural organic practices and products. They also impelled me to consider again my anxiety about the deranged ethics evidenced in the GMO industry: utter disregard of the baseline Precautionary Principle, repeated roughshod override of human free will, and a radically impudent abnegation of the Seventh Generation teaching.
Seventh Generation Teaching
In the market-driven rush to bring GMO crops into the fields and thence into the people, I see forces and institutions fundamentally averse to the common sense teaching of the Seventh Generation. That precept — native to North America — holds that leaders are responsible for considering the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation yet to come.
Most memorably, I heard the seven generations teaching expounded by Leon Shenandoah, the late elder and chief in service to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Six Nations). I shook hands and spoke with Leon in 1995 in a ring of tipis set up for the annual, ecumenical Prayer Vigil for the Earth at the base of the Washington Monument in our U.S. capital city.
“Look behind you,” Grandfather Leon said. “See your sons and your daughters. They are your future. Look farther and see your sons’ and your daughters’ children and their children’s children even unto the Seventh Generation. That’s the way we were taught. Think about it: you yourself are a Seventh Generation.”
Another Six Nations elder, Oren Lyons, has commented, “As a general injunction to live responsibly and respectfully, and as a practical guide to specific moral decision-making, the seventh generation principle may be without equal.”
I agree. I look around and I see that just one generation has passed since the widespread introduction of GMO crops. Already potentially catastrophic problems have begun to arise by the bushel. These are amply documented in the rebuttals to Federoff’s column.
A second troubling realm of GMO industry ethics and practices involves the ongoing violation of human free will. From the outset, the industry has insisted and aggressively lobbied to make sure there are never any identifying labels on GMO products.
The American public does not, and never has had, any way to actively choose, or actively avoid GMO food. The real nature of the food is hidden, and consumers have no opportunity whatsoever for informed consent about the nature of the food they feed themselves and their children.
Out of respect for the sacrosanct nature of human free will, we should be able to know the truth of the food that is set before us. But we do not know this in 2011, nor can we. There are no identifying labels to let people know they are eating genetically engineered food. Our free will, thus, is continually disregarded and disrespected.
In response to this abuse, many citizens and organizations are actively advocating the labeling of all genetically engineered foods: to restore for consumers a free-will choice in the marketplace. You can begin to learn about the burgeoning movement for labeling GMO foods at the Non-GMO Project, and at the Truth in Labeling project.
The Precautionary Principle is a simple and sensible ethical guideline. It holds that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those promoting the product or action. In other words, you must establish that your action or product will not cause harm before you promulgate it and actually cause irreversible harm to human beings or to the natural world essential to life.
This common-sense principle is a statutory requirement in the law of the European Union, but not in the USA. The USA has, in fact, lobbied actively and secretly — without citizen knowledge or approval — to pressure European governments to ease or overlook legitimate objections to genetically engineered food.
The evidence continues to mount that GMO technologies and practices are causing profound harm. Respected agricultural researchers are repeatedly raising serious concerns.
In mid-August Robert Kremer, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, told a Kansas City audience that repeated use of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup herbicide, adversely impacts plant roots.
He said also that fifteen years of research indicates that the chemical is causing harmful changes in soil, and potentially reducing yields of the genetically modified crops that dominate vast acreage in North America and elsewhere around the world.
Research shows that genetically engineered crops do not, in fact, yield more than conventional crops, he said. Nutrient deficiencies tied to the root disease problems are likely a limiting factor for crop yield, as is the burgeoning plague of poison-resistant Superweeds unleashed by the overuse of chemical herbicides used on GMO crops. Further and alarmingly, news reports revealed this week that researchers are now finding significant levels of the poison widely infesting both the water and the air of farm states.
Meanwhile, Michael McNeill, an agronomist who owns Ag Advisory Ltd. in Algona, Iowa, has pointed out that scientists are seeing new, alarming patterns in plants and animals due to increased use of glyphosate on GMO crops. “When you spray glyphosate on a plant, ” McNeill has said, “it’s like giving it AIDS.”
McNeill reports that he and his colleagues are seeing a higher incidence of infertility and early-term abortion in cattle and hogs that are fed on GM crops. He adds that poultry fed on the suspect crops have been exhibiting reduced fertility rates.
Ominously, the warnings of these scientists echo what Purdue University professor emeritus Don Huber has been saying: “I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen (nurtured in the context of GMO crops and glyphosate) is unique and of a high-risk status…it should be treated as an emergency.”
Huber said he sees the GMO-glyphosate industrial ag complex as having led to an increase in cancers of the liver, thyroid, kidneys, and skin melanomas, as well as sharp increases in allergic reactions in general, and an increase on an epidemic-scale in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Ethos and Mythos
Corporations, universities, and governments are racing blithely forward as if the benefits and safety of GMO technology are above question. But for anyone paying attention now, that is clearly not so. A comprehensive 2011 literature review documents the reality that nothing is settled. The GMO debate is still wide open.
The authors of the literature review reported that most studies claiming that GM foods are as nutritional and as safe as those obtained by conventional breeding, have been performed by biotechnology companies or associates. They conclude: “the controversial debate on GMOs…remains completely open at all levels.” That conclusion should raise ethical red flags for everyone.
The words ethos and ethics derive from the Greek root ethikos, meaning moral, and it’s the root of our modern term for moral competence. While ethics may be individual, ethos is communal and arises out of common experience and insight. It denotes a characteristic spirit—the guiding beliefs and values of a team, a company, a tribe, or a nation.
As we confront radically changing circumstances in our economy, energy supply, and food chain, we have an opportunity to change and reconstitute our ethos and the way we live with the land. The corporate, university, and government institutions that comprise industrial biotech agriculture have embraced an ethos of speed, efficiency, and profit and as a consequence created an environmental behemoth of threatening mien. Yet we have potential to make a deliberate shift to embrace a conservative but enlightened ethos not just out of necessity, but also out of wisdom. Perhaps mythos will be a factor in bringing about this urgently necessary shift.
Forty years ago a small group of citizens — seeing profound harm being inflicted upon the natural world that supports human life, and impelled by their shared ethos — formed the nucleus of Greenpeace.
While the actions of that seed group were mandated by immediate realities, much of their inspiration came from the realm of mythos — specifically, the legend of the rainbow warriors. The myth tells of how in a time of great peril, people of all colors and faiths — in response to ominous degradation and disturbance of the natural world that supports us all — band together peacefully and give birth to a clean world based on principles of respect. That modern myth is so powerful and offers so much hope that as a journalist I’ve been drawn to write about it repeatedly in several nonfiction books: Legend of the Rainbow Warriors, Odyssey of the 8th Fire, and most recently in Tales of the Whirling Rainbow.
Greenpeace long ago embraced a life-preserving ethos including the Precautionary Principle, respect for human free will, and the teaching of the Seventh Generation. The orrganization has called for a ban on all genetically engineered crop field trials in Australia and elsewhere.
A new report from Greenpeace and GM Freeze analyzes almost 200 independent and peer-reviewed scientific studies. Those studies show that the culture of genetically engineered food and its chemical supplements has serious problems, and is linked with upsurges in rates of cancer, birth defects and neurological illnesses including Parkinson’s. This study also echoes resoundingly the sharp warnings of Don M. Huber.
As The Wall Street Journal noted in a recent article about Greenpeace, an emerging consensus among eco-activists is that environmentalism is now a matter of life and death. It is in this alarming context that new executive director Kumi Naidoo and all of Greenpeace are preparing this month to mark their 40anniversary with the launch of Rainbow Warrior III, a successor to the group’s famous flagship sunk by the French government in 1985.
Perhaps the new ship — a visible manifestation of the mythos and a powerful action-oriented expression of a wisdom-based ethos — will help spark and encourage a necessary moral evolution in citizens, governments, universities and corporations.