Week 11: GMO foods and you - What you need to know

'God (Nature, in my view) makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil. He fores one soil to yield the products of another, one tree to bear another's fruit. He confuses and confounds time, place, and natural conditions. He... will have nothing as nature made it, not even himself, who must learn his paces like a saddle-horse, and be shaped to his master's taste like the trees in his garden.'

In his commentary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – an 18th C Swiss philosopher credited with influencing the European Enlightenment, the French Revolution and modern political and educational thought at large – understood the difference between nature’s evolutionary balance and man’s ham-fisted approach to undermining it. His quote preceded Monsanto’s 1901 creation as a chemical company by more than a hundred years. Now the world’s dominant producer of food seeds, herbicides and pesticides, Monsanto’s first product was the unhealthy-but-relatively-benign saccharin, followed quickly with the industrial production of sulfuric acid, PCB’s, polonium-based neutron initiators that trigger nuclear bombs' detonation, DDT and finally Agent Orange – all of them among man’s singularly most destructive creations.

In the 1990’s, Monsanto entered Dr. Frankenstein territory, when it purchased Calgene – the company that created the Flavr Savr tomato, the world’s first genetically modified organism (GMO - or GM), whose genesis was aimed at slowing the ripening process and preventing tomatoes from softening between harvest and kitchen. The Flavr Savr stayed rock hard and without sign of decay an entire month outside of the refrigerator. Monsanto's prime interest, however, was not in the tomato but in the patents that Calgene held for engineering Nature, for which it saw tremendous future value. Since the acquisition, completed in 1997, Monsanto has grown over the past 18 years through a series of acquisitions and mergers into the world’s largest producer and seller of crop seeds, holding 27% of the global market. More than 50% of these are genetically modified (GM), a percentage that is rising. As we reported in Week 7, corn – the US’s largest crop, comprising 30% of all farmland and present in 25% of all supermarket foods – is 88% GM, while GM soybeans – the US's second-largest crop – comprise 93% of all commercial product.

The dwindling number of farmers who opt to avoid GM can scarcely find seeds: Monsanto is doing its level best to make it harder, by buying up traditional seed companies and their patents, in order to remove the competition and modify the seeds that they bought, inserting their own herbicide-resistant gene into the mix (more on that below). While GM is certainly good for big business, it is equally bad for your body. We reported in Week 7 the mind-boggling statistic that non-GM corn contains a between 6 and 438 times the nutrient levels of phosphate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, sulfur, cobalt, iron, zinc and molybendum as that in GM corn (chart here). This is important because the biggest / most obvious GM crops - corn and soy, comprise a whopping 69% and 10% of our carbon molecules, respectively, according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta - meaning on a molecular level, that is exactly what we are eating. We reported that corn is present in more than 25% of all supermarket foods, according to Michael Pollan. We eat it both directly, in packaged foods that are suffused with it in the form of corn starch, corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose and sorbitol (among many more), and indirectly, via land and marine animals who are overwhelmingly raised on it. Even farmed fish are fed a diet of corn. Beyond its nutrient content, GM corn has also been linked to organ failure by the International Journal of Biological Sciences, in a 2010 study linked here.

But the real story with GMO lies not in its nutrient profile, surprisingly. Instead, it's the fact that Monsanto’s GMO empire relies on the foundational efficacy of its flagship herbicide and phosphonate, Roundup, which it began producing in 1974 after its previous flagship product DDT was outlawed by the US Government. DDT, a known carcinogen, was exposed by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, which led to a widespread environmental movement and eventually secured its ban in 1972. DDT had been shown to increase rates of pancreatic and liver cancers, lower semen quality, and increase early miscarriage and congenital hyperthyroidism, among other risks. Monsanto introduced Roundup in response, and in the 1990’s, started building seeds that were genetically resistant to its toxicity, thereby assuring the stable sale of both. Insidiously, EcoWatch reported earlier this year that Monsanto launched an aggressive campaign to get farmers to spray Roundup on GMO and non-GMO crops alike to speed up their harvest. The success of the campaign led to the widespread use of this toxic herbicide, which increased by over a half-billion pounds, even though Monsanto claimed that its GMO crops would reduce herbicide and pesticide use. In fact, Roundup is so pervasive that according to the article, more than 75% of air and rainfall in the Mississippi delta – America’s breadbasket – contains the carcinogen.

Glyphosate - the scientific name for Roundup - has been shown in many scientific studies, detailed here, to increase rates and/or severity of – wait for it – ALL of the following afflictions: ADHD, Alzheimer’s, birth defects, autism, brain cancer, breast cancer, celiac disease, gluten intolerance, chronic kidney disease, depression, diabetes, heart disease, colitis, hyperthyroidism, IBS (leaky gut), liver disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, obesity, reproductive problems, and respiratory illnesses. Glyphosate is a categorical toxin of rare reach.

Monsanto’s GMO empire, it’s worth re-stating, relies on the use – and efficacy – of Roundup. And as the world’s largest seed company, with 27% of the global seed market, this means that half - or 13.5% - of the world’s seed supply is GMO. In fact, according to Cal Poly's Food Digest, an astounding 60% of the US food supply contains GMOs, as well as 80% of packaged (i.e.: engineered) foods

Normally, when a company gets too big or too dominant in the United States, citizens rely on governmental safeguards to protect its citizens: in this case, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), which oversees anti-trust laws aimed at protecting fair competition. Beyond this, we have a Food and Drug Administration, which exists to protect our food (and drug) safety, and the USDA to promote agricultural trade, production, and food quality.

In practice, however, the protection picture is much different. As reported in Week 2, the triumvirate of Monsanto, the US Government and the agencies we've listed above enjoy a ‘revolving door’ policy, in which executives in all three groups routinely move between one another, sometimes more than once. Monsanto executives have occupied the very top position – the directorship – of both the FDA and the USDA, as well as been elected US senators and congressmen, been appointed top advisors to presidents and vice presidents, and occupied countless lesser positions throughout the system. Dr. Mercola has a great article on the subject, entitled ‘Why Monsanto Always Wins’.

So if by this point you’re somewhat uneasy about GM foods and governmental assurances of your food's safety, your apprehension is entirely justified.

In order to maintain its market share, Monsanto has programmed all of its GMO seeds to be ‘suicide’ or ‘terminator' seeds – meaning they can’t reproduce. Thus, unlike 'natural' crops that reproduce through pollination, you must keep buying seeds and Roundup in order to continue farming. This suicide trait safeguards Monsanto's global monopoly, and by extension guarantees the dominance of nutrient-poor foods - like that of GM corn, as we've seen, or soybeans. On the latter, a comparison between GM and non-GM soybeans is linked here. The article also implicates the FDA, which is 1992 insisted the two were equivalent. This lack of adequate nutrient density pushes consumers to buy more product / eat more calories in order to meet your dietary needs and feel satisfied, which in turn ultimately guarantees for Monsanto a continual sale of its seeds as well as the sale of its toxin Roundup, through the farmers that need them to meet an ever-growing demand for 'empty' foods. Perhaps worst of all, we've seen that their herbicide ends up in our air, our water and our bodies, where it promotes the 20-plus hallmark life-threatening illnesses we've already listed above, while at the same time effectively decimating the environment around it.

There could not be a better exemplar of the term vicious cycle. In this case, we've illustrated it as a snake eating its own tail...

Copyright FFFL

Copyright FFFL

Carlton University is just one of many institutions to study the environmental effects of pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides in our water system. So-called 'Dead Zones' are the result of runoff from agricultural heartland, where it discharges into bodies of water in which no living marine creature can be found, due to the water's hypoxia - or lack of oxygen. One such dead zone - where the Mississippi delta discharges into the Gulf of Mexico - is over 6,500 square miles large, equivalent to Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. In addition to causing mass contamination and death to marine life - the oysters, shellfish and fish that we eat - the runoff has a larger impact because the water it contaminates isn't static: it evaporates into the air we breathe, which falls as rain into the groundwater we ultimately drink, as well as into the plants and animals that we eat. In short, chemicals in 'place A' always end up in 'place B' because of the way nature works. It's a closed loop. And 'place B' in our case is our bodies.

Frighteningly, and in spite of great resistance on the part of the recipient nations, Monsanto is poised to make a giant leap into Africa, partly at the behest of President Obama, who has pushed hard for investment in agricultural advancement there, and partly funded by Bill Gates, whose foundation is a key Monsanto investor. Delegates from 18 African countries issued the following statement to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization:

We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.

Think about that for a minute. People want to remain in control of their own food supply, and keep knowledge, self-sufficiency and farming practices alive that have sustained it since man started tilling the Earth. What a concept. On top of this, a March 2012 report by Anthony Gucciardi, co-founder of Natural Society, revealed that over 900 scientists at the UN admitted that traditional farming outperformed GMO crops, following their research.

So what is going on with our food supply?

You have heard us advocate in every post the benefits of buying and eating food that is as close to how nature made and produced it as is feasible. The reasons are clear: organic food minimizes our ingestion of man-made toxins. High-quality (organic, non-GMO) foods far outstrip engineered and industrial foods insofar as nutrient density, affording us greater health in fewer bites, thereby also reducing overeating and health risks caused by obesity. Moreover, artificial, ‘engineered’ foods (GMO or otherwise) that don’t expire are linked with – or the root cause of – every major modern disease, slowly killing millions and infirming countless more, as reported at in our very first post: with 280,000 annual obesity-caused deaths, over 800,000 from cardiovascular disease, and another 200,000 cancer deaths attributed to diet, well in excess of 1 million people die each year because of their diet in the US alone. But equally important, and the focus of this week's post, is the fact - to restate it once more - that Monsanto's GMO empire is a binary one: one part genetic seed, one part Roundup. That means that in order for farmers to realize the upside of the GMO yield and crop control (which is why farmers buy Monsanto's seeds), it needs to use the toxic glyphosate Roundup - the rightful heir to Monsanto's PCB- DDT- and Agent Orange-laden throne. 


So far, we’ve seen that beyond the consideration of nutrient density, GMO foods are substantially more harmful than non-GMO insofar as the toxicity of the herbicide in which medium they must grow; that this herbicide is the cause of countless human illness, from ADHD to liver failure; and that this herbicide damages both humans and non-human Nature (animals, rivers, seas, air, rain, plants) alike. We've also seen that companies like Monsanto are 'beyond the law', because they are the law. 

A perfect illustration of the premise that Monsanto and Law are one and the same – as if this stunning chart listing the US Government executive / policy positions and the Monsanto executives who have held them were somehow not enough – is the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. The Bill, which recently passed 275-150, forbids states from enacting their own laws to require companies to label GMO foods as such. Instead, the federal government wants to create a standard for voluntary labeling that companies can elect to follow, or more likely, ignore. The implications are perplexing on several fronts:

1 - If GMO foods are as safe as - or safer than - non-GMO foods, why fear the label?

2 - If 'freedom' is the number one American export and core to its national identity, isn't this 'gag order' a suppression of said freedom, and as such anti-American? 

3 - If the bill, which was introduced by - and overwhelmingly supported by - Republicans, mandates a (voluntary) federal standard, doesn't that directly contradict the key GOP tenet of 'small government' and 'decentralized power'? Isn't individual states' rights at the heart of the party's dogma?

The proverbial math doesn't add up.

The truth, I'm afraid, is that with regard to food and agriculture, Monsanto (and its ilk) and the government are effectively one, via lobbying, revolving door positions and electoral favors. For an in-depth view, read this insightful 2012 article by blogger Josh Sager (the Progressive Cynic), posted by the Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalization: Monsanto Controls both the White House and the US Congress.

So what, if anything, can an ordinary person do, if they want to know what they are eating, and want that food to be healthy?

The answer is unnecessarily complex, because of the lack of transparency related to both the root source of the foods we eat, from seed to table, and the ownership structure of the people and practices who grow and sell that food to us. That said, we do know a few things about food health...


First, what does the word mean? Throughout most of its history, food was farmed 'organically' - that is, using natural raw materials and farming practices, in sync with Nature's cycles and understanding of the inter-dependencies between flora and fauna. Only in the 20th Century was a large supply of chemicals introduced into the food supply, thereby giving people outsized control over Nature: changing/adding cycles by super-charging the earth with fertilizers; leeching soil nutrients to maximize short-term yield at the expense of long-term soil health; practicing monoculture farming at a mammoth scale - for efficiency - in place of the natural world's intrinsic biodiversity; and controlling 'unwanted' by-products - weeds, insects and non-commodity plants - through the introduction of toxic substances. This last category takes two forms: sprays that are applied to crops to kill unwanted biology (against which genetic manipulation of the 'wanted' crops gives them immunity) - like Roundup; and toxins that are internal to a crop to give it a natural defense against invaders. This second group of toxins is called Bt-toxin, and is worth an in-depth explanation.

Bt-toxin is a synthetic form of a naturally occurring toxin that gives a plant natural resistance to pests. In its natural form, insects that eat a toxic plant learn to leave it alone, the 'easy way' or the 'hard way'. In its GM form, insects who take a bite out of corn with Bt-toxin will be split open and killed, according to food health author and film-maker Jeffrey Smith. And while Bt-toxin exists naturally, in spray form, the GM version that is internal to the plant is 3,000-5,000 times more concentrated, according to Jeffrey, and unlike a spray it does not wash off of the crop when rinsed, thereby leading to widespread adverse reactions in the people who ingest them. These range from allergy-like symptoms among thousands of Indian field workers using Bt-toxin-laden GM cotton to the death of embryonic cells among pregnant women in Canada who have tested positive for Bt-toxin via food intake. 

As reported in Week 3, our food is literally killing us.

But back to organic. The industrialization of our food supply in the first half of the 20th century created in reaction an organic farming counter-movement in the 1940's, which is at the root of what we term 'organic' farming today. In the United States, and generally among industrialized nations, organic food is regulated insofar as it forbids the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, is free of food additives, is free of the neurotoxin Hexane, doesn't contain sewage sludge (AKA human waste contaminated with endochrine disruptors and heavy metals), and does not use growth-promoting antibiotics that contribute to weight gain and the creation of resistive super-bacteria. Organic foods also often avoid chemical ripening, food irradiation, and GMO ingredients, though these are not mandated, per se. To that end, to understand organic as it's practiced today - in the shadow of the industrial food complex, we need to know that organic farming is generally practiced by small-scale farmers with a personal viewpoint about health and/or relationship to the land and to their customers, which is why - as we advocated in Week 7 (and every week) - buying not just organic food, but food from farmer's markets, since food quality is of paramount value to the small farmer's success, which gets passed on to you in the form of non-toxic, nutrient-dense and fresh, seasonal produce. Once again, here is a link to a resource that lists farmer's markets nation-wide. Most, but not all organic farmers operate solo, or at a small scale. Some operate as farm co-ops - a fancy term for organizations that rely on a network of small organic farms to pool their food resources together for resale. This is generally done for exposure and reach, as with Wisconsin's Organic Valley, which sources its milk from a variety of small farms and sells them nationally under a single brand.

Whatever its organizational structure it takes, organic farming is decisively better for you and our planet.

In truth, there remains a great deal of controversy over the nutrient differences between organic and conventionally grown foods, outside of GM corn and soy beans, which we've already seen. The root question is: which is healthier? The inconclusiveness of these studies has to do with complex issues of soil health and management practices, plant varietal differences, and other variables that aren't the sole dominion of organic regulation. Therefore we will not pretend to know the answer, conclusively, as to how much better organic food is for you with regard to nutrient density.

What we can say with confidence is that whether or not there is more Vitamin C in an organic papaya than a conventional one, the organic one will be less toxic to both the Earth and to you, by virtue of GM's use of synthetic pesticides such as Roundup, which as we saw are present wherever GM seeds are sown; and by its genetic manipulation of substances such as Bt-toxin to make plants more pest-resistant, which hurts both the land's natural biodiversity and the food's ultimate terminus: YOU. Thus, we will refrain from listing a series of nutrition data tables here, since one can find both 'pro' and 'con' charts to serve their various agendas. Instead, we will keep our discussion to the disease-promoting characteristics of the toxin-laden GM foods we have been describing already, via their host, the global juggernaut at the center of both food policy and food creation: Monsanto.

The take-away?

Buy organic, which precludes synthetic pesticides by definition.  Buy local, from small farms / farmers at green markets; you can ask them directly about their farming practices while they stand in front of you. They'll tell you, because they want you as a customer. Avoid food products that rely on the biggest / most obvious GM crops - corn and soy, which together comprise roughly 80% (!) of our carbon molecules, according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta. This means avoid packaged foods, preservatives and other industrial products, which you should, anyhow, since these are the emptiest and least healthy foods, and the most likely to contain toxic substances. Easy? Apparently not so, if you look at the numbers. About 90% of the dollars Americans spend on food goes to buying processed food products, according to Eric Schlosser, author of the seminal Fast Food Nation.

If our message is consistent from week to week, it's because everything points to a clear solution for eating healthy: real foods, as fresh as possible, and organically farmed. Our goal at FFFL is simply to supply you with information so that you can build a contextual understanding of the industry, its goals, its practices, and their impact on your well-being, so that you can make informed choices for achieving true food health

Keep reading. We're just getting started.