Another Environmentalist Apologizes Over GMOs

I need to start by publicly apologizing for not engaging in the debate over genetically engineered crops, technically, genetically modified organisms or GMOs, until two years ago.

When I co-founded the Environmental Working Group in 1993, Mark Lynas was ripping up farmers’ crops. Back then I dismissed people like Lynas, then affiliated with those who criticized GMOs. Their attacks did not seem grounded in science and did not approach our very real food and farming challenges with the same research-based intellectual rigor that we practice at EWG.

Nor did I fight beside smart organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, Consumers Union and the Center for Food Safety to make the scientific case to the federal Food and Drug Administration in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We should have persevered even when FDA decisions left advocates with no way to raise scientific objections, as we do with pesticides.

At the time, it seemed quixotic to campaign against GMOs. The FDA and USDA were blithely rolling on their backs for multinational corporations that were poised to reap billions of dollars in profit from the technology.

Now I see the error of my ways.

Had I paid more attention, I might have foreseen how badly this technology would go awry. Toxic chemicals would be slathered on crops to battle GMO-resistant pests and weeds. According to a recent study by Washington State University professor of agriculture Chuck Benbrook, the use of herbicides has increased by 527 million pounds, or 11 percent, since 1996, as more and more GMO crops have been planted.

I might have been prescient enough — given EWG’s experience with Monsanto – to recognize that the company’s assertions that GMOs were viable were not to be trusted.

And I totally missed the boat by failing to anticipate that GMO technology, as much as misguided government policies, has driven the spread of corn and soybean monoculture across millions of acres of American farmland. In the last four years, farmers have plowed up more than 23 million acres of wetlands and grasslands – an area the size of Indiana – to plant primarily corn and soybeans.

Oddly enough, Lynas did not extend an apology to the farmers whose crops he destroyed. And while he’s apologizing to those farmers, he should apologize to the organic farmers he falsely impugns by suggesting organic food is less safe than food manipulated by scientists in Monsanto lab coats.

Regarding the safety of organics, Benbrook says:

The most significant, proven benefits of organic food and farming are: (1) a reduction in chemical-driven, epigenetic changes during fetal and childhood development, especially from pre-natal exposures to endocrine disrupting pesticides, (2) the markedly more healthy balance of omega-6 and -3 fatty acids in organic dairy products and meat, and (3) the virtual elimination of agriculture’s significant and ongoing contribution to the pool of antibiotic-resistant bacteria currently posing increasing threats to the treatment of human infectious disease.

Lynas drives home a fact that many of us know: to continue to feed the world’s booming population, we must intensify crop production. Yet even the United Nations, in a recent report, notes that “in order to grow, agriculture must learn to save” and highlights that herbicides can be replaced with sustainable practices like integrated weed management. While Lynas claims to have discovered science, he seems to have missed the fact that feeding the world would be a lot easier if more crops were consumed by people rather than by animals or by cars burning environmentally-damaging ethanol.

The truth is, the scientific community has not reached a consensus on GMOs. Experts have grave doubts about the “coordinated framework” the U.S. government employs to review GMO crops. Several smart people, among them journalists Jason Mark and Tom Philpott and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doug Gurian-Sherman, have categorically debunked Lynas’s claims that the science is settled.

What the science does conclusively show is that we don’t need GMO crops to better manage water-polluting chemical fertilizer. So says the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which recently found that a diverse crop rotation reduced nitrogen fertilizer use by 86 percent while maintaining yields. It concluded that diverse rotations “reduce the risk of creating herbicide-resistant weeds.”

It turns out that we need better farmers and a better farm bill, not better seeds.

In short, I shouldn’t have allowed unscientific, hysterical ideologues like Lynas to color my views about a fight clearly worth engaging—and that we’ve belatedly launched — on GMO labeling. At least with labeling, Lynas and I agree that consumers deserve, as he says “a diet of their choosing.”

As this blog and others demonstrate, the debate about GMOs in not over. In fact, it’s just begun. Millions of Americans came out in support of federal and state initiatives to require labeling on food with GMO ingredients in 2012, their momentum helping new initiatives, such as I-522 in Washington, sprout up in the new year.

Luckily, Lynas assures us we are “entitled” to our views. As Americans, we are also entitled to the right to know what we’re buying, eating, and feeding our families. That right, and its surrounding dialogue, have yet to be silenced.

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