Have you ever stopped to think about what you are eating? Have you ever believed you are what you eat? One of the hottest debates that may have started with a simple genetically-modified tomato in the 1990s has become a growing controversy linking chemicals to the food we eat and the clothing we wear. In fact, while we may be wearing mutant shirts and eating mutant corn, there isn’t any regulation on this growing crop controversy. These potentially mutant foods, such as corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets, are being grown on millions of acres throughout the United States and sold in our regular grocery store chains. About 75 to 80 percent of conventional processed foods in the U.S. are genetically-modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Associations.
The hot button phrase is GMO – genetically modified or genetically engineered organisms, and by simply mentioning this term you may open the floor to heated debate over food and clothing.
“Just the thought of a Lean Cuisine scares me,” said Clay Nance, an employee at health food market and cafe Bay Naturals in Myrtle Beach. “In fact, anything in the frozen food aisle in a regular mainstream grocery store scares me.”
The issue over GMOs is worldwide and complicated. It involves large corporations, governments, scientists, consumers, and charges of conspiracies. The lion’s share of outrage is directed at one company - Monsanto, an agriculture biotech giant best known for the popular weed killer Roundup, which has a local facility in nearby Hartsville in Darlington County. In addition to Roundup, Monsanto has bioengineered a number of crops that it sells under the “Roundup Ready” name – crops that are not killed by Roundup which allows farmers to spray a field and kill the weeds while not harming the crop.
Hoping to raise awareness about GMOs and put political pressure on the bio-tech behemoth, there’s a global effort slated for Saturday dubbed March Against Monsanto, including an affiliated rally right here in Myrtle Beach at Grand Park on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.
That’s right, grassroots activism at the usually lackadaisical beach.
GMOs are no secret, but they are not promoted much either. In fact more than 58 percent of Americans are unfamiliar with the issue of GMOs in food, according to a 2006 Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology study. The largest debate is over the fact that products are not required to be labeled whether they contain GMOs or not.
“It [GMO] is slowly making its way into the mainstream,” said Matthew Hazelton, committee member for the March Against Monsanto in Myrtle Beach. “I think our biggest problem is people are not aware of what is really going on.”
March Against Monsanto
GMOs grew into a large controversy with one major company in the crosshairs, the aforementioned Monsanto. The company, headquartered in St. Louis, is an agricultural, biotechnology conglomerate that produces and markets seeds and weed control chemicals, including the commonly known herbicide, Roundup. For much of its existence, Monsanto was a diverse pharmaceuticals and chemical company.
The move into agriculture began in the 1970s and 1980s when Monsanto created glyphosate, the active chemical in Roundup and then began producing genetically modified seeds for crops resistant to Roundup. The Fortune 500 company has 404 facilities in 66 countries and more than 21,000 employees and was founded in 1901. The Monsanto location in Hartsville - roughly two hours from Myrtle Beach - is known for corn research, according to a Facebook page. Today, Monsanto bills itself as the sustainable agriculture company making seeds and weed-killing chemicals for farmers.
Monsanto and other leading industry experts have said for years that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is proven safe, and has a less damaging impact on the environment than other commonly used chemicals.
Many people do not agree.
“A lot of people are in the dark about Monsanto and we hope to change that,” said Hazelton. “We hope to bring awareness to the local community about GMOs and Monsanto this is really just a beginning.”
Early this year, HR 933, a short-term spending bill that was signed into law by President Obama has sparked debate about our food supply. The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 requires the USDA to issue temporary permits allowing the continued planting of GMOs by farmers. Section 735 of the bill is being called the “Monsanto Protection Act” by activists.
“It expires in six months but there are definitely plans to sneak it in on another bill or many bills as was done with this one,” said Hazelton. “We would like to bring awareness to this to the general public also.”
On Saturday, the global effort March Against Monsanto will take place on six continents, in 36 countries, totaling more than 250 cities in the U.S., including six events in South Carolina to take place in Beaufort, Anderson, Charleston, Columbia, Greenville and Myrtle Beach.
“I just saw a post today that a senator out of Oregon is looking to repeal the current protection act,” said Hazelton.. “A lot of people have no idea who Monsanto or GMOs are so with the march we hope people will start asking questions and start investigating on their own. We hope to have future events also.”
The March Against Monsanto Facebook page has more than 50,000 likes since it was founded in February and according to a press release it states, “We will not stand for cronyism. We will not stand for poison. That’s why we March Against Monsanto.” And another Facebook page, “Millions Against Monsanto” has more than 253,000 likes.
In Myrtle Beach, activists will join in the March Against Monsanto starting at 1 p.m. Saturday at The Market Common’s Grand Park, organized by Tammy Bennett, a resident of Myrtle Beach. According to the Myrtle Beach Facebook event page, there are more than 300 people pledging to attend.
According to the official March Against Monsanto Web site, “for too long, Monsanto has been the benefactor of corporate subsidies and political favoritism. Organic and small farmers suffer losses while Monsanto continues to forge its monopoly over the world’s food supply.”
“I think Monsanto is political corruption at its worst. They have quite a grip on Washington, in both parties. Justice [Clarence] Thomas worked for them and has ruled against labeling,” said Kristi Falk, founder and executive director of The Wellness Council for South Carolina.
“With this march being worldwide with 36 countries involved I think we are making great strides,” said Hazelton. “We won’t be giving up that’s for sure. We may lose a few battles but we hope to win the war and free our food supply.”
Research studies have shown that Monsanto’s genetically-modified foods can lead to serious health conditions such as the development of cancer tumors, infertility and birth defects. According to the group Occupy Monsanto, the Food and Drug Administration is steered by ex-Monsanto executives, and they feel that’s a questionable conflict of interest and explains the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of genetically modified products.
Genetic engineering as the direct manipulation of DNA by humans has existed since the 1970s and the first GMOs were laboratory-produced bacteria in 1973. Genetically modified food has been sold since 1994 with the Flavr Savr tomato created by a company called Calgene. Calgene sold its GMO tomatoes from 1994 until 1997, and then Calgene was acquired by, guess who? Monsanto.
Genetic engineering enables scientists to create plants, animals and micro-organisms by manipulating genes in a way that does not occur naturally. GMOs are created in a laboratory by introducing a new gene into the organism’s make-up to achieve a desired trait – whether it’s a resistance to herbicide, like “Roundup Ready” crops, to improve the development of the organism or to protect it from a particular type of pest. Although the intentions seem good, many worry about the unknown effects of these GMOs.
“I feel that anything that is natural that becomes tampered with is harmful and we won’t fully feel the effects until later down the road,” said Falk, who first learned about GMOs in 2011.
Studies show that GMOs are linked to causing cancer, increasing herbicide use, damaging native species, polluting the environment, creating superbugs and superweeds, among other things according to a January 2013 post on NaturalNews.com by Johnathan Benson.
According to Greenpeace International, “GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health.” On the Greenpeace Web site, it states that GMOs can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms creating so-called “genetic pollution” and cause a major threat. Greenpeace believes that because of commercial interests, the public is being denied the right to know about genetically-engineered ingredients in the food chain.
“Everything else that we consume is labeled. Medications, supplements, processed foods, even the fuel we use is labeled as to whether or not it contains ethanol, and if so, how much,” said Falk. “Shouldn’t we at least know whether or not what we are eating comes from nature or a laboratory?”
Political Foul play
GMOs are a part of a political corruption, according to Hazelton.
“Basically it is corporate welfare,” he said. “They have had high level officials appointed to the FDA such as Michael Taylor (currently the Deputy Commissioner for Foods and formerly a lawyer that represented Monsanto) and to the USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (formerly a lawyer that represented Monsanto) both by the Obama administration, Clarence Thomas (who worked as Monsanto lawyer) in the Supreme Court by George Bush Sr. who has presided over Monsanto cases and has not removed himself for conflict of interest it is. These crops are approved by the FDA with little-to-no testing. This helps Monsanto pretty much get a monopoly on the food supply. Henry Kissinger said ‘He who controls the food supply controls the people.’”
Posted on April 8, the FDA has received inquiries about the labeling of foods with ingredients derived from genetically engineered plants. The FDA states, “We recognize and appreciate the strong interest that many consumers may have in knowing whether a food was produced using genetic engineering. FDA supports voluntary labeling for food derived from genetic engineering. Currently, food manufacturers may indicate through voluntary labeling whether foods have or have not been developed through genetic engineering provided that such labeling is truthful and not misleading.”
The FDA’s role is to ensure that foods meet applicable safety, labeling and other regulatory requirements and foods derived from genetically engineered plants must meet the same requirements, including safety requirements, as other foods, such as foods derived from traditionally bred plants.
On the FDA Web site under the frequently asked question section about genetically engineered plants, “how is the safety of food from a genetically engineered plant evaluated?” is one of the queries. The answer from the FDA states: “Evaluating the safety of food from a genetically engineered plant is a comprehensive process that includes several steps. Generally, the developer identifies the distinguishing attributes of new genetic traits and assesses whether any new material that a person consumed in food made from the genetically engineered plants could be toxic or allergenic. The developer also compares the levels of nutrients in the new genetically engineered plant to traditionally bred plants. This typically includes such nutrients as fiber, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. The developer includes this information in a safety assessment, which FDA’s Biotechnology Evaluation Team then evaluates for safety and compliance with the law. FDA teams of scientists knowledgeable in genetic engineering, toxicology, chemistry, nutrition, and other scientific areas as needed carefully evaluate the safety assessments taking into account relevant data and information. FDA considers a consultation to be complete only when its team of scientists are satisfied with the developer’s safety assessment and have no further questions regarding safety or regulatory issues.”
However, many people including Myrtle Beach’s Hazelton, do not trust the FDA.
“Have you ever watched a pharmaceutical commercial on TV with the list of side effects? Have you seen how many pills get approved then are pulled from the shelves when they kill people? What about how our nation is hooked on Oxycontin?” he said.
A recent study published in the scientific journal, Entropy, said evidence indicates that residues of glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Roundup weed killer, which is sprayed over millions of acres of crops and lawns, has been found in food. The EPA is conducting a review of glyphosate and has set a deadline of 2015 for determining if glyphosate use should be limited. The study is among many comments submitted to the agency.
Besides Roundup herbicide, Monsanto produces a suite of crops that are genetically altered to withstand being sprayed with Roundup. These biotech crops, including corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets, are planted on millions of acres in the U.S., annually. Farmers like them because they can spray Roundup weed killer directly on the crops to kill weeds in the fields without harming the crops.
In the aftermath of the defeat of Proposition 37 in California, many more Americans are now aware of the existence of genetically modified organisms and their unlabeled presence throughout the food supply. Proposition 37 was a bill that would have required retailers and food companies to label products made with genetically modified ingredients, however California voters voted against it. But with this awareness has come plenty of confusion, as the processed food and biotechnology industries have spent gobs of money and effort spreading propaganda and lies about GMOs.
Social Media, Documentaries and Celebrities Galore
More people are learning about GMOs through social media and documentaries. Googling terms such as non-GMO, GMOs, and Monsanto will produce more than 15 million online results. Hazelton said he got involved in social media in 2008 and followed a page called “Truth Teller” where he learned more about GMOs and Monsanto.
There are several documentaries about the GMO issue, including but not limited to: “Food Inc.” (2008), “Forks Over Knives” (2011), “King Corn” (2007), “Genetic Roulette” (2012), “The World According to Monsanto” (2008), “Seeds of Freedom” (2012), and “GMO OMG” (2013).
“We have a right to know and with labels, there’s awareness and we can then make a decision on what we will buy and what we feed our children,” said Jeremy Seifert, director of the “GMO OMG” documentary in an interview on “The Dr. Oz Show.” While producing his documentary, Seifert learned that giant chemical companies are feeding us and he investigates how the loss of seed diversity and corresponding laboratory-assisted genetic alteration of food affects his children, the health of our planet, and freedom of choice everywhere. The documentary follows one family’s struggle to live and eat without participating in an unhealthy, unjust, and destructive food system.
Celebrities are also jumping on the anti-GMO bandwagon to show their support. Pro surfer Kelly Slater recently did a YouTube video against Monsanto. Dave Matthews, who is also an organizer for Farm Aid, was a part of a video for Prop 37 in California labeling GMOs.
On smart phones, free apps are available to help consumers make conscience choices in their grocery food and product selections. The Fooducate App allows you to scan barcodes on food products and gives you a grade on that food in regard to health and GMOs. Another app, Buycott, lets you scan the barcode on any product and trace its ownership all the way to its top corporate parent company. It is a tool that helps you organize your consumer spending to support causes that you care about.
Living and Shopping Locally with GMOs
Living a GMO-free lifestyle is harder than most think, according to Falk, founder and director of the Wellness Council for South Carolina.
“I would go to farmer’s markets, look for South Carolina-grown in the stores and seek heirloom seeds. The best thing you can do is to start growing your own food, then you know exactly where it comes from, if any chemicals are used and it will be the freshest produce you can get. ” said Falk. “You can even get the whole family involved which creates more bonding as well as some physical fitness activity, fresh air and a healthy dose of Vitamin D.”
According to the Non-GMO Project, the only retailer in our area that supports the organization is the aforementioned Bay Naturals, located on 76th Avenue in Myrtle Beach, owned by Angela Holmes.
“People don’t really know that we are a full grocery store and that we have a cafe open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said Bay Naturals’ Nance. “We serve house-made quinoa, baked goods from scratch and many of the ingredients come from local farms, such as fresh local blueberries from Indigo Farms.”
Bay Naturals is a full grocery store with everything from vitamins and medicines to fresh foods and baked goods from the in-house kitchen. Bay Naturals even has locally-roasted coffee from Cashua Coffee out of Florence and the majority of the products are verified with the Non-GMO Project.
“At this store, people are simply seeking healthy alternatives and we like to help them the best we can,” said Nance.
The Non-GMO Project, headquartered in Bellingham, Wash., is a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices. You can learn about the organization and products online at www.nongmoproject.org
Whole Foods Market currently carries more than 800 products that are verified by the Non-GMO Project, with thousands more to be added. Since the closest Whole Foods locations are in Wilmington, N.C., Charleston and Columbia, most other local grocery store chains, such as Food Lion, Lowes Foods, Kroger, Piggly Wiggly and even Wal-Mart, do at least carry some organic foods.
The Non-GMO Project is governed by a Board of Directors and works with a collaborative network of technical and communications advisers from all backgrounds and sectors. In 2005, The Natural Grocery Company and the Big Carrot Natural Food Market teamed up to form the Non-GMO Project, with a common goal of creating a standardized meaning of non-GMO for the North American food industry.
There are many ways to get involved with the Non-GMO Project, including finding a verified product, making a product verification request, finding retailers that support the Non-GMO Project, and donating to the Non-GMO Project.
And you have the opportunity to learn more and voice your opinion at Saturday’s March Against Monsanto in Myrtle Beach.
"I think the event is very important as it will bring more awareness to the GMO issue to people who would otherwise know nothing about it," said Falk. "The more awareness we have about what we are putting into our bodies, the better we will all be. We all deserve to eat real, healthy foods."