Along with unlabeled GMOs, we’re ingesting toxic pesticides.
BY TIFFANY HERVEY
Genetically engineered (GE) crops are Hawaii’s new plantation agriculture, and Hawaii is the world’s leading producer of GE seed corn. According to a 2013 study commissioned by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, with funding from the biotech-supported Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, the Hawaii GE seed crop is not only the state’s fastest-growing agricultural commodity, but the largest. Overall, GE agriculture is the largest contributor to increased pesticide use in the U.S.
The adoption of herbicide-resistant GE crop technology has been the primary contributor to a 527-million-pound increase in herbicide use from 1996 to 2011, according to USDA data analyzed by Charles Benbrook, research professor in the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. In the last 20 years, the global agricultural input industry, which produces agrochemicals and GE seeds, has become one of the most consolidated and profitable in the world. Monsanto, Dow, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont–the “Big 6”–now control a majority of the world market.
GE ag falls under the umbrella of industrial monoculture, which relies on heavy inputs of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides to produce one commodity crop. Since the days of sugar cane and pineapple, Hawaii has seen these monocrop practices exploit the land and the people on it.
Understanding GE ag can prove challenging because the science and the rules are always changing. The last few months have been especially abuzz with new development, from a Monsanto “Protection Act” in Congress to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Monsanto’s favor, to new pesticide research that has sparked debate about the safety of our food supply.
GE ag giants make much of their fortune through sales of pesticides and the patented seeds that can tolerate their application. GE ag has contributed to dramatic increases in pesticide use because the crops are designed either to contain an insecticide or to be used with herbicides, says Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). “Just last year, GE crops used 20 percent more pesticides on average than non-GE crops,” Ishii-Eiteman stated in an email interview.
Ishii-Eiteman says that the GE industry’s solution to increased weed resistance to herbicides is to create new seeds, designed to be used with yet more herbicides. “From an industry perspective, herbicide resistance is simply planned obsolescence that provides an opportunity to market new or older pesticides, ad infinitum,” she says. More than five billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. annually, according to PANNA.
The industry argues that GE crops that are pest-resistant or have built-in insecticides are needed to feed the world. “By supplying [GE] seed corn to the world, Hawaii farmers and scientists are helping to build the economic future of our state while contributing to the growing global demand for food,” says Mark Phillipson, lead of corporate affairs for Syngenta Hawaii and president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA). “The parent lines that are used to develop the corn hybrids sold in the U.S. and to international markets, such as the Philippines, are grown in Hawaii. Scientists here employ conventional breeding practices and genetic engineering techniques to develop corn hybrids and seed crops that are drought- and insect-resistant, produce higher yields and are nutritionally enhanced,” Phillipson explains.
“Industrial agriculture, of which GE crops are a big part, is inherently unsustainable and damaging,” counters George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety. “We have to replace our current industrial food paradigm with one that promotes local, sustainable, organic and socially just food systems,” Kimbrell said in a phone interview from his office in Oregon.
Others, like Russell Kokubun, chair of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA), maintain that the GE corn seed industry is sustainable. “It’s globally sustaining,” Kokubun said in a 2012 phone interview with the Weekly. “You have to think of all the things corn is needed for: biofuels, animal feed, food for third-world countries.”
“If like most Americans you’re eating the conventional, non-organic Western diet–which includes anything made from corn, soy, canola, wheat, both cane sugar and sugar beet, cottonseed oil, sunflower, carrots, okra, potatoes, lentils, beans, peas and more–you’re ingesting glyphosate,” said Anthony Samsel, an independent scientist who recently co-authored a report revealing that glyphosate (the compound in Roundup, Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide) is prevalent in the U.S. food supply. Samsel explains that many crops contain glyphosate due to the practice of desiccation prior to harvest. Crops are dried out for threshing and easy processing, which spreads glyphosate residues.
Samsel, who specializes in hazardous environmental chemicals, and co-author Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT, reviewed 287 studies for their glyphosate report, published in Entropy. He says that the finding of glyphosate in the food supply means it’s pervasive in our soil. Glyphosate is “extremely destructive of beneficial soil bacteria, leading to overgrowth of destructive pathogens,” Samsel said, adding, “The same holds true for the bacteria that inhabits us.” The notion that glyphosate has minimal toxicity in humans, widely popularized by Monsanto, has prevented farmers from using caution when applying it to crops, he says.
Samsel learned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was not testing for glyphosate in the food supply. “I wanted to know why, since they test for every other herbicide, pesticide, fungicide and rodenticide,” Samsel recalled. “It seemed odd that they were not testing for the most-used herbicide on the planet.” The USDA response, he says, was that they had budget constraints.
Glyphosate is noticeably absent on the “Distribution of Residues by Pesticide” lists on all foods tested (except for soybeans) in the most recent (2011) report from USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP).
PDP’s residue testing began in 1991. Since passage of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), one of PDP’s priorities has been testing foods likely to be consumed by infants and children. Since its inception, the program has tested 109 commodities including fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, meat and poultry, grains, catfish, rice, specialty food products–and water. PDP doesn’t test for glyphosate because it’s “resource- and financially intensive,” Chris Pappas, sampling manager/chemist for USDA Monitoring Programs Division, wrote in an email. Glyphosate can’t be detected with “the conventional multi-residue methods employed by our testing labs,” he explained.
Samsel says he’s concerned about glyphosate’s impact on beneficial bacteria and CYP 450 enzymes, which are part of the body’s detox system. The chemical’s disruption of this system, he says, may be a contributing factor to many chronic conditions and diseases that are on the rise in Western societies, including autism, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. “The National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and other regulatory agencies should be examining this–not Monsanto or companies having vested interests in their own products,” he said.
Glyphosate is now being found in human blood and urine, Samsel points out. “Are glyphosate residues safe? I don’t think so. Should they be in our food? Absolutely not.”
Another herbicide commonly used on corn crops and by Hawaii’s GE seed industry is atrazine, made by Syngenta. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved atrazine’s continued use in the U.S. in October 2003, the same month the European Union (EU) banned it. “The EU banned atrazine because it was impossible to prevent atrazine from contaminating the water supply at levels below their legal limit,” Ishii-Eiteman explained. “Atrazine acts as an endocrine disruptor and negatively impacts reproductive development. Independent scientists that reviewed it for the EPA have also identified links to various forms of cancers.” Dr. Tyrone Hayes was the first to link atrazine to deformities in amphibians (“The Frog Scientist,” Jan. 6).
Syngenta’s Phillipson maintains that atrazine has been used safely for more than 50 years and is one of the most studied molecules on the planet. “Atrazine is an important part of modern agriculture around the globe, including Hawaii,” he says. “It’s used when needed to prevent weed growth in our seed corn plots.” Corn and soybeans are the primary research crops of Syngenta, which operates on Kauai and Oahu but will move its research station from Kunia to Kauai in June.
Biotech companies provide the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with safety assessments of GE crops to gain market approval. The FDA evaluates GE food safety by consulting with the developer and then having its biotechnology evaluation team assess the data and law compliance. A consultation is complete when the scientists are satisfied with the company’s safety assessment. By December 2012, the FDA had completed 95 consultations, most of them on corn. As of April 1, 2013, there were 30 GE submissions for corn, 15 for cotton, 12 each for canola and soybean, and 24 for all other crops including alfalfa, cantaloupe, flax, papaya, plum, potato, raddichio, squash, sugar beet, tomato and wheat.
In Hawaii ag, there is scant regulation or transparency with regard to GE crops or pesticide use. “Agricultural operations in Hawaii are not required to report pesticide applications,” said Thomas Matsuda, HDOA Pesticides Program Manager. Bills seeking regulatory policies for GE and pesticides were introduced last legislative session: The GE labeling bill was killed. House Bill 673, introduced as a broad pesticide registry measure that would have required ag operations to report what pesticides they use–when, where and in what quantities–was gutted. It requires HDOA to publish public information in restricted-use pesticide records on its website–with an effective date of 2050. A provision for a study on other states’ registries was deleted.
“The GMO industry and their related industrial ag supporters have for years had a lock on the political environment,” comments Kauai Councilmember Gary Hooser. “The GMO companies, the University of Hawaii, the HDOA and the local farm bureaus have all joined forces year after year opposing and squashing any and all attempts to increase local regulation and oversight of both GMOs and pesticide usage.”
By contrast, California’s pesticide reporting program is recognized as the most comprehensive in the world. All ag pesticide use must be reported monthly to county agricultural commissioners, who transmit the data to the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation. California’s broad legal definition of “agricultural use” includes pesticide applications to parks, golf courses, cemeteries, rangeland, pastures, and along roadsides and railroad rights-of-way. In addition, all post-harvest pesticide treatments of agricultural commodities and all pesticide treatments of poultry, fish and livestock must be reported.
In a bill she introduced in May, Hawaii County Councilmember Margaret Wille sought to ban from Hawaii Island any GE crops that aren’t already grown there. Wille’s county, North and South Kohala, successfully passed a ban on GE taro and coffee in 2008.
Enacting protections like pesticide registries or county bans on GE crops is becoming more urgent, due to the recent passage by Congress of an apppropriations bill containing a “farmer assurance program” rider now known as the Monsanto Protection Act. This is “a direct and blatant response to our litigation,” Kimbrell says. “Essentially, Monsanto has tried to change the rules because we have repeatedly won in court in challenging approvals of GE crops. Now, [the act] may allow GE crops that were already found unlawful to still be planted.”
On May 13, Monsanto won the pivotal Bowman v. Monsanto Co. case in the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled unanimously, based on patent law, that farmers cannot use seeds saved from crops of Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready soybeans unless they pay the company a fee. This means they must buy new seeds every year.
A federal GE Food Right-to-Know Act, which would require labeling of GE ingredients in foods, was introduced in the Senate in April. “At Center for Food Safety, we believe in the consumer’s right to know,” Kimbrell relates. “That’s what labeling is about: Transparency and choice helps ensure food safety by allowing people to have an open and free marketplace of goods.” “Labeling will allow people to choose not to put their safety in Monsanto’s hands if they wish,” Kimbrell notes–a precaution with special resonance in light of Samsel’s findings on glyphosate’s presence in our food supply, and research on the toxicity of atrazine. “After all,” he added, “this is the company that brought us Agent Orange.” And after all, how much herbicide can humans safely consume, not having been genetically engineered to tolerate it?
Hawaii’s communities should work with elected officials to create policies that support sustainable agriculture, Ishii-Eitman advises. This should include limitations on the types or volumes of pesticides or GE crops allowed, and requiring protective buffer zones near places where children live and learn, she says. “It won’t be easy to create these changes, since a powerful set of interests will push back. Ultimately, Hawaii’s people have a right to know what’s in their food and how it’s grown, and then to make choices about a food system that works for their children, culture and economy.”