Questioning the Present, Preserving the Future

Alternatives to genetically engineered crops discussed.

By Catherine Cluett

For Andrew Kimbrell, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) aren’t just some futuristic scientific enigma that doesn’t really concern him – their existence affects his life every day.

He’s the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a non-profit organization dedicated to public interest and environmental advocacy, established for the purpose of challenging the production of potentially harmful food products and technologies, and instead promoting sustainable alternatives. He’s also an attorney who has won many major law suits against the spread of GMOs, including federal cases banning genetically engineered wheat and alfalfa.

Genetic engineering is the insertion of one organism’s genetic material into the permanent genetic code of another organism. This technology has been used to alter both plants and animals, as well as to incorporate animals’ gene into plant structures. Genetic modification allows for the development of traits many farmers and large-scale growers believe is helpful for production. “Roundup Ready” soybeans, for example, are resistant to the herbicide Roundup. BT corn has been developed to contain its own insecticide by adding a gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis.

Kimbrell, along with CFS Science Policy Analyst Bill Freese, visited Molokai last Sunday. Kimbrell drew on his experience with GMO companies like Monsanto to highlight the work that CFS has done, as well as brought to the table reasons to re-examine the presence of Monsanto in Hawaii. “I don’t think people like the association of Hawaii as the GMO capitol of the world – an experimental lab for unknown new crops and harmful chemicals,” he says.

Many people aren’t even aware of that fact, adds Kimbrell. That was the purpose of their trip to Molokai: education. “We want to raise awareness and suggest alternatives,” they said. Kimbrell and Freese also say they are keenly aware of the important economic role corporations like Monsanto play as employers on Molokai.

“When we talk about Monsanto, we are talking about them as a corporation, not their employees,” Kimbrell emphasized.

Acknowledging the need for an employment alternative to go side by side with their arguments against the work Monsanto, Kimbrell and Freese presented the organic seed and food production industry as a valid option. “Right now, Hawaii is known for tourism and defense,” they point out. They hope the third association with Hawaii will become sustainable agriculture instead of a reputation as leading producer of GMO corn seeds in the world, a title Hawaii already holds.

But even the organic standard is not perfect as it exists now, they argue. The label “organic” says nothing about several factors necessary to the success of sustainable agriculture. “We need to expand ‘organic’ to include ideas like local, humane, social justice, and biodiversity,” says Kimbrell.

For Freese, the world-wide food crisis plays a key role in the decision about whether or not to grow GMOs. “If biotech really offers the last hope to feed humanity, how can we turn our back on it?” he asks.

“But,” he adds, “Biotech crops actually have very little potential to help developing countries with their food crisis, or to become a worldwide solution.”

Freese cited a recent, comprehensive international study conducted by 400 experts from around the world and sponsored by the United Nations (UN). Their task was to explore the best global food solutions and present their findings.

Their result? GMOs are not the answer. Instead, they found the best solution lies in utilizing indigenous knowledge, diverse farming practices, and highlighting local and regional community food production.  

Freese also busted two common myths about GMOs.

“One of the biggest myths is that using GMO crops reduces the use of pesticides,” he says. But in fact, pesticide use increased by 122 million pounds in the U.S. from 1996 to 2004, after the development of GMO crops, he says.  “It makes sense. You engineer a crop to be used with a chemical, and guess what? Farmers use more chemicals,” points out Freese.

The second myth Freese banishes is that using GMOs increases crop yield. This is not the case, he says. “It’s been found that genetically engineered crops often actually produce less.”

A third speaker, Nancy Redfeather, also joined the Molokai audience to relate her experiences as a farmer and activist on the island of Hawaii. Redfeather is also Director of the Hawaii Island School Gardens Network.

After seven years of unsuccessfully trying to get a ban on the genetic engineering of gourmet Kona coffee passed through state legislature, her and her fellow farmers recently saw the bill to protect local farmers passed through county council.

“Our county council members felt that if the Hawaii State Legislature would not stand up for farmers, then it was their job to do it,” says Redfeather. Council members figured out how to pass the bill at the county level by inserting a law into the county codes under the General Welfare section that would prohibit growing, planting testing, and research of both GMO taro and coffee, Redfeather explains. After two eight-hour hearings with many testimonies for either side, the bill passed unanimously.

Redfeather hosts an annual seed exchange at her farm, Kawa Nui, to promote farmer cooperation and interest in sustainable agriculture. She says over 300 people attended this year, participating in “a free exchange of gardeners’ bounties.”

The evening’s gathering at the Mitchell Paoule Center concluded with a video highlighting the personal experiences and testimonies of U.S. farmers whose crops or careers have been devastated by Monsanto. As a patented product, the producers of GMO crops have been known to sue farmers growing conventional crops when GMO pollen contaminates neighboring fields. Farmers are often unable to pay either the royalties for allegedly growing the patented crop or the legal expenses for defense.

“It’s an industry where large subsidized companies are putting small farmers around the world out of business,” says Freese.

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