A QUEST TO FULFILL HUNGER OF THE BODY AND MIND POST-2015:
IS GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD A SOLUTION?
Date: Thursday, August 28, 2014
Venue: Trusteeship Council, United Nations
Sponsored by: The Light Millennium - http://www.lightmillennium.org
Co-sponsored by: Federation of World Peace and Love, Advancing Eco Agriculture and Stirring the Pot Productions
by Julie MARDIN, Moderator, The Light Millennium
For the Detailed Report and Full Presentations, please visit the following link:
NGO Workshop Session Introductory Highlights:
This NGO Workshop was moderated by Julie Mardin, US, artist, independent researcher; panelists included Deborah Carlin, US, Student, Muhlenberg College; H.E. Ambassador Carlos Garcia, El Salvador, former Permanent Representative of El Salvador to the United Nations and Founder/CEO CG Global Consultant ; Dr. Michael K. Hansen, US, Senior Scientist, Consumers Union; John Kempf, US, Founder and CEO, Advancing Eco-Agriculture; Stefanie Sacks, US, MS, CNS, CDN, Culinary Nutritionist, Author, Radio Host, Stirring the Pot Productions; Bircan Unver, Turkish native, US, Founding President of The Light Millennium, Head NGO Representative at the United Nations and TV and Web Producer/Executive Director.
Summary of NGO Workshop Discussion
This NGO Workshop was organised as an interactive discussion, in which the moderator asked all the specialists to present their views on the topic via their personal areas of expertise, and then opened it up to the interventionists and the audience, and finished with concluding statements from each of the panelists.
An overview was provided on the basic nature and some of the most salient problems with genetically engineered foods, starting from environmental concerns, to health risks, to the lack of adequate freedom of information. The topic was covered from the scientist, consumer, chef/nutritionist, media expert, student and the farmer’s point of view. Positive alternatives were also presented, central among which was the eco-agricultural approach that revealed that plants do have an immune system, one that is an analogue to that of humans, and that we do have the tools and information necessary to be able to grow food as medicine.
Dr. MICHAEL K. HANSEN, a senior scientist with Consumers Report, outlined the basic types of genetically engineered crops that are currently being produced and grown worldwide, the two main ones being Herbicide Resistant and Insect Resistant, that are designed either to withstand more liberal herbicide use, or to produce their own insecticide. Contrary to industry claims, neither of these varieties have increased intrinsic yield, and have only delivered minimal gains in operational yield. And most yield gains that did occur can be attributed to traditional breeding practices, for instance corn yield between 1991-1995, before the advent of GE varieties, and afterwards in 2004-2008, both increased at a rate of 28%.
What the technology did increase substantially was pesticide use, again, contrary to the industry’s promises, with the rate of increase itself growing, leading to an epidemic of superweeds across the country. Which in turn leads to even greater use of herbicides.
What did al this increase in pesticide use mean interns of health and safety? Dr. Hansen went on to discuss the inadequacy of the current safety studies for GE foods. Whatever studies are done are normally 90 day long trials which are inadequate to evaluate chronic toxicity. He also quoted an investigation that pointed to the likelihood of industry bias in determining the outcomes of studies, and the results of a 2011 metastudy of all the available animal studies at the time, that uncovered problems specifically in three major organ systems that have to do with detoxification and the immune system, the liver, kidney, and bone marrow, all of which could be signs of the onset of chronic diseases. However current requirements set no minimal length for testing for any of the crops that are now being developed and that are now on the market, which is clearly inadequate in order to ensure consumer health.
Dr. Hansen presented an example of a local alternative model, the Push/Pull system in Kenya, where a certain kind of weed is grown next to corn crops which successfully repels the corn borer, without the need of pesticides or genetic alterations, and compared it to the millions of dollars spent by biotech in order to tackle the same problem. He cited the FAO and World Bank, multi-agency and government sponsored IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report, published in 2009, which upheld that the future of a secure and sustainable agricultural model did not lie in increased technology or chemicals, but in supporting eco-agricultural science and farming models.
The issue of patents was also touched on in this landmark report, as genetically engineered crops are based on patents and intellectual property rights, preventing farmers from being able to save seed, or scientists from conducting their own safety experiments without first getting permission from the patent holders. This could be compared to allowing tobacco companies to dictate all the testing on their own products. Often times the patents are based on plants that are developed on the farmers’ own or indigenous land, and so there are movements to prevent GE food or any life form from being able to be patented, as these patents are enabling the theft of native and collective wealth.
Some of the key statistics on current GM crops in the US were Soybeans- 94%, Sugar beets 95%, Corn 93%, Canola 93%, Cotton 96%, Papaya 80% (Hawaii), and Squash/zucchini 13%.
Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the US:
1996-2004: 122 million lbs. increase ; 2005-2012: 282 million lbs. increase
Acreage of Glyphosate resistant weeds, according to an industry survey: 2010: 32.6% ; 2011: 40.7% ; 2012: 61.2%
Rate of spread: 2011: 25 % ; 2012: 51.2%
“….we have been lab rats in one of the largest human experiments of all time.”
--Stefanie Sacks, Culinary Nutrionist, Author and Host of Stirring the Pot Radio
Ms. STEFANIE SACKS, MS, CNS, CDN, Culinary Nutrionist, Author and Host of Stirring the Pot Radio, offered the tactic of focusing on small decisions in dealing with big problems, suggesting that a few simple food choices as consumers could make a huge difference in our health and in the health of the system itself, and avoid what she called 'analysis paralysis.’ To help us make these decisions she offered concrete information on which foods were likely GMO, and how to navigate a system that does not offer us much transparency. While industry claims there is no evidence for safety concerns on these foods, Ms. Sacks cited the increase she has seen in her line of work with inflammatory diseases, allergies, and children coming in sometimes with ten different food sensitivities. The fact that there is no definitive evidence to connect genetically engineered foods with these health problems, did not discount the fact that for twenty plus years we have been eating these foods without any consent or knowledge, which could mean that we have been lab rats in one of the largest human experiments of all time.
There has been evidence to suggest risks to the health of livestock animals, who are the biggest consumers of these foods. Ms Sacks pointed to the letter from Dr. Don Huber, world renowned plant pathologist, to Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture, in which he warned of a newly discovered pathogen in Roundup Ready corn and soy, that was causing infertility and spontaneous abortions in epidemic proportions in the cattle that was consuming them. If our animals are getting sick, then what about us who are eating the same food? Aside from the uncertainty over personal health issues, there are also the societal value-based reasons of the consolidation of agricultural control, the loss of small farms, biodiversity, and the basic right to know. She mentioned the fact that 64 countries require labeling of GE foods, and outlined some of the recent state labeling initiatives, and deplored the outsized influence that corporate money has been having on these local state initiatives.
"The green revolution meant the concentration of land ownership and the production of transgenic seed means the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a few multinational corporations.”
- H.E. Ambassador Carlos Garcia, former Permanent Representative of El Salvador to the United Nations
H.E. CARLOS GARCIA, Founder and CEO, CG Global Consultant and former Permanent Representative of El Salvador to the UN, gave the perspective of his own country’s experience with the technology and with industrialized agriculture, and corroborated the loss of native biodiversity and control over one’s food supply, and the increased health concerns among the population, including cancer and chronic kidney disease among the farmworkers. In one rural area they have been losing five people a day. H.E. Garcia said that his country did not have a cohesive agriculture policy, and because of this reason it is very vulnerable to outside interests. This was nothing new. He put it in the historical context of a long line of outside interference from the Spanish Conquistadors, who transformed all farmland for export crops, to the introduction of the Green Revolution by the Americans, which concentrated land ownership, and did not have as rosy a picture as others continue to paint it. The indiscriminate use of pesticides still causes suffering through the destruction of the salty forests, pollution of aquifers, and chronic health problems, and made farmers dependent on the foreign companies producing the hybrid seeds and chemicals. In addition, Free Trade Agreements twenty-four years earlier had abolished external tariffs and allowed unrestricted imports from the US and Mexico, causing a country which had at one time been a self sufficient and sustainable food system, mainly through the sharing of indigenous information and seeds, now to turn into an importer of foods, (65% of its fruits and vegetables today). This real food crisis was now being used as an excuse to introduce transgenic seeds, putting that indigenous knowledge and 1000s of years worth of experience and wealth at even greater risk, due to the risks of contamination, whether through cross-pollination, wind, co-mingling, or possible cross transfer of genes. Large tracts of government lands have been given over to GMO field trials, to sugarcane and jatropha production for biofuels, and the first Latin American bioagriculture research center is being planned.
He also provided a window into the political machinations that undid the country’s existing GMO seed restriction and labeling law in 2008, nullifying its adoption of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, showing the corporate influence on the governments and laws of sovereign countries, as the two major El Salvadoran companies that are profiting from this reversal are directly connected with Monsanto. The civil society’s response to this dismantling of their hard won laws has been to establish alternative farmers’ markets that have pooled resources into the Sustainable Production Platform, which will jointly coordinate promotion and marketing efforts, and is connected with larger charitable institutions such as Caritas and Cordes.
"Sustainability is not enough… We need to have a discussion about regenerative agricultural systems.”
—John Kempf, Founder and CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA)
Mr. JOHN KEMPF, Founder and CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA), Amish farmer and eco-agriculture consultant, told of his personal journey from a failing conventional farm, which he was able to turn around using eco-agricultural techniques. He developed a system of crop and soil nutrition, gleaned from a wealth of academic research, books and published studies, that have not made it into general application. He found that these methods increased yield, insect and disease resistance, improved nutritional quality, and the medicinal compounds that that food is producing. He now consults with farmers in the US and around the world to help them to regenerate their farms as well. He was very pleased to be able to corroborate the IAASTD report that Dr. Hansen referred to by his own real time experiences in the field. Like human beings, he stated, plants also have immune systems, and once you nourish and support that plant to bolster its immune system, it can withstand pests and disease without the use of chemical inputs. Nutrition is key, and instead of focusing on increasing yield, when you balance nutrition for health and immunity, yield cannot help following.
From his extensive experience with farmers Mr. Kempf described how the most commonly used chemical in herbicides, glyphosate, in fact contributes to disease susceptibility in all crops, through its biocidal and chelating activities, and can last in the soil for up to two decades, accumulating with each application. The genetic engineering technology which is greatly dependent on the use of this and other such chemicals is not sustainable in the long term. Also, the early promises of genetic engineering of being able to control diseases in plants, animals, and people, are being trumped today by the science of epi-genetics, which studies the effect of environmental factors on how our genes are expressed. The environment in which a plant finds itself, the environment being defined as climate mediated by nutrition, is still going to determine how well that plant does, and the current agricultural model we have adopted degrades the crops' environment, in fact inhibits nutrition. Glyphosate, as stated, is an anti-bacterial agent, and when it degrades it releases yet two more powerful biocides, ampa and formaldehyde, all of which deplete the soil of the microbial activity necessary for the plant to be able to absorb the nutrition that it needs. In addition glyphosate is patented as a chelator, which means it binds and removes the minerals from out of the system. So through all these pathways this ubiquitous chemical is degrading not only the nutrient content of our soils, and our plants, but the mineral and nutrient content that is available in the food that we eat, most surely having an effect on our health at every level. Methods such as these are against the core values of farmers' attachment to life and life processes. Mr. Kempf wonders why we should want to sustain systems of such ill health and productivity, when really we need to be talking about regenerative models. Thankfully through plant nutrition we do have all the tools we need to create regenerative systems, in which the soil health and plant health is constantly improving, and reinforcing each other, and likewise providing us with heartier plants and healthier food.
Ms. DEBORAH CARLIN, student at Muhlenberg College and intern at the Horticultural Society, and our youth representative, thought we should think outside of the box of the GMO question and all its unknowns, and look instead at some of the creative farming approaches that are being successfully undertaken right now in the world’s cities. She outlined the many different forms these urban steads are taking, from rooftop farming, to vertical greenhouses, backyard gardens to hydroponic systems. Most have a very small environmental footprint, as they recycle their water and waste, and avoid using chemical pesticides and herbicides, and follow other organic growing standards, and of course do not involve transportation costs.
She also discussed the planet friendly and healthier choice of focusing on vegetarian eating, the greater efficiency of energy use as we decrease the number of trophic levels and eat lower on the food chain, not to mention the spiritual and ethical dimension of choosing not to devote 80% of our agricultural land to the slaughter of other animals.
Ms. BIRCAN UNVER, The Light Millennium’s Founding President and Head NGO Representative to the United Nations, framed the topic of genetic engineering in the context of Freedom of Information and our basic right to know. She drew many parallels between other risky products, such as the flu vaccine, which had to be withdrawn from the market because of the dangerous side effects, which only came to light ten years later. She pointed to the lack of information pervading the market place, thus requiring citizens to take extra efforts to start informing themselves, so that we can reinstate this basic human right for information, which is the foundation for our right to live. In the case of GMOs she questioned the even greater uncertainty over the risks they posed to permanently alter the environment and our own DNA. Once again, to underline the importance of the right to know she made a direct connection to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and pointed to the irony that even in this fundamental institution that gave birth to the document that contained Article #19, still we were unable to access full information on GE seeds and its consequences.
The moderator then opened up the floor to the intervention section, which began with remarks by Mr. PURNOMO A. CHANDRA, the Minister Counsellor Permanent Mission of the Republic of Indonesia to the UN and Former Chair of FAO’s Committee for Constitutional and Legal Matters, who wanted to include some additional structural problems to the discussion, such as those hindering farmers from proper access to the market, the lack of incentives for young men to stay on their families' farms, and also the influence of the media and food producers’ campaigns that have changed the culture of eating in his country. This has started to move people away from the traditional vegetarian diet, one that often incorporated vegetables grown from out of people’s own backyards, and towards more processed, meat-oriented western fare. He pointed out biotech foods have not had immediate acceptance in his country, in fact one of Monsanto’s warehouses had been burned down by farmers, and there was an area of East Java where Bt cotton had destroyed all the plants. We had to remain cautious about these foods, but that we also had to address trade policies, and how to ensure bio-safety information gets to the public.
Next, the President of the Federation of World Peace and Love Dr. TAO-TZE HONG presented his article on “The Critical Moment of 2014, An Era of Conscience is the Framework for a Sustainable Future.” He quoted from Mencius, Chinese philosopher, who taught that man had an inherent need for goodness, the mass of people throw it away, and some preserve it. And it is those that preserve it who represent those with a conscience. As an example he referred to Germany’s decision to divest itself of nuclear energy, and to reach 80% of its energy from renewable sources. Increased expenditures on energy, reduced corporate margins and higher costs of research and development were envisioned in the short-term. The German Ethics Commission on a Safe Energy Supply concluded that “ethics should be placed above technology and economic development,” thus showing that ethics is very real, and can become the prime factor in all our decisions as a society, can improve the quality of life and can still be good business. Our food chain is at a critical juncture, requiring all of humanity to work together to save it. It is only when more and more people join the movement of Conscience, even just small actions of good will help us to reach a tipping point to solve these problems and achieve a sustainable future.
Ms. IRIS SPELLINGS, Representative of the Global Movement on the Culture of Peace, referred to the document on the UN Declaration and Programme of Action on the Culture of Peace (A/RES/53/243) which was adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in 1999, and used it as a framework for the preceding discussion. She thought of it as one of the most important UN documents, after the Charter and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, for its clear emphasis on respect for life, environmental rights of today’s and future generations, and the free flow of information at all levels, and how all these ideals are so clearly interrelated with the topic of food. She asserted that this was something to be impressed upon our representatives, just how imperative resolving the problems around food is for building the world we want and creating a culture of peace.
During the question-and-answer session, several key points were raised, including:
· a. There were requests for practical information on what we could do as individuals. Lists of different organizations that provide information on the consumer and political action level were provided, some more recently founded, as well as those that have been working for the past 25 years, and slowly growing and combining the efforts of indigenous movements. Dr. Hansen provided a quick history of the movement, from the founding of Consumers International, a global network of 220 member organizations and 115 countries, and the first global meeting in 1987 in Switzerland, to the fight through the Biosafety Protocol, a global treaty on the environmental release of GMOs to help countries protect their biodiversity, to the 19 year fight at Codex Alimentarius to get labeling through, as well as the 8 year process starting in 2000 to get a global consensus that GE is different than conventional breeding, and that it should be required to go through safety testing. This was a difficult fight, as the US does not conduct any of these tests. Their policy is based on the notion of substantial equivalence, and this is why exports are now being able to be rejected by US trade partners, because we haven’t done the appropriate safety assessments.
. b. A question was asked about the reliability of the the USDA Organic and the Non-GMO label. While it is true that Organic is meant to indicate simply that there has not been any GE or synthetic pesticides used in organic farming, it is process based, and there is currently no testing done post harvesting to test against contamination. But Dr. Hansen said that it was easy to test contamination of food products, even oil and sugar, even though there will be no transgenic DNA or protein there. This is what the EU and other countries are doing in order to provide full labeling. While there was some uncertainty as to whether the USDA or the Non-GMO Project can conduct that testing, Dr. Hansen stated that the standard for the Non-GMO Project was 9/10ths of a percent, and he believed that there was some independent testing in progress to gage their accuracy.
· c. Asked whether his expertise was being utilized in agricultural colleges, John Kempf reiterated that all of the ideas he presented was compiled from various sources in the agricultural academic community that are already out there for the public, but that there is not enough cross-transfer of ideas and awareness between the different sub-fields, raising an important issue on how we teach agriculture. For instance there are plenty of books, documents, published studies on plants’ natural immune systems, however most farmers or agronomists in the field are not aware of them at all. Agricultural schools tend to focus too much on training specialists, whereas farmers need to be generalists. And the schools are also focused on single-factor analysis, whereas farming is a systems based science, and our education needs to focus on systems-based analyses.
· d. There was a desire to know how we could spread the information to countries with less freedom of expression and information than we enjoyed in the United States. Ms. Unver acknowledged that this is a crucial aspect to determining the stewardship of the planet, citing a UN statistic that 3 billion people of the world do not know how to read and write, and how were we to expect awareness and change with such complicated topics and terminology which most people have a hard time understanding, unless you are an expert yourself. That is why she thought that the right to education, at least a high school diploma, was crucial, and Freedom of Expression and Information had to be a much more visible component of the SDGs themselves.
. e. There was a need for clarification of industry claims vs. alternative solutions. Many of the speakers referred back to the FAO statistic that Ms. Sacks first cited, that 1/3 of food wasted worldwide (300 million tons) is sufficient to feed the world’s 900,000 hungry. Thus the claim for the need of genetic engineering technology as a solution to world hunger seemed a highly costly, risky solution that was not really addressing the primary problems of distribution and access. Dr. Hansen once again called attention to the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report, which was as big a project as the better known International Panel on Climate Change, involving hundreds of scientists, civil society and peasant movements, yet remained under-reported in the US, as they and all the industry had abandoned the talks once they saw the direction in which they were going. He urged everyone to seek it out and see what were its ultimate policy recommendations, which all focused on strengthening the small farm sector, investing principally in agro-ecological science and farming, ensuring small farmers’ access to land, water, market, seeds, infrastructure, credit and information, revitalizing local food systems, revising laws of ownership
(IPR) and access, and adopting equitable trade rules.
. f. There was discussion about which was more effective in building movements, policy changes, or consumer action? While the power of both was acknowledged, Mr. Kempf brought out the importance of farmer awareness. And one of the main ways to change farmers’ awareness was through economic incentives. And using two crop examples, he illustrated how much cheaper it was to grow using plant nutrition rather than pesticide applications, all while increasing yields, and this could be one of the biggest means and hopes to create change.
”GE golden foods are mostly propaganda”
“We all have a role in making change”
“Farmers can do more to keep people healthy than all the doctors and hospitals combined.”
“How can we save our food from those who have purely profit motives?”
” Every member state and civil society organization could work together on this in a comprehensive framework”
“How can one company hold 60% of humanity’s organic and conventional seeds?
Dr. HANSEN took the opportunity to talk about some of the so-called public relations crops of the industry, such as Golden Rice, which is meant to provide enhanced Vitamin A for those with inadequate nutrition. He outlined how the manufacturer had performed the modification on the Japonica variety of rice, while it is the Indica that is suited for the flooded paddy fields of Asia. When attempting to transfer the genes to the Indica variety, field tests showed that the engineered product had lower yields than the conventional one, and they now have to go back to the drawing board, meaning that they had wasted millions of dollars on a technology that is actually not very useful. Vitamin A bananas will be soon be fed to people in the United States, grown in Uganda, when again it’s unclear whether they’ll work, and there are traditional methods that work very well. These GE golden foods are mostly propaganda, he reminded the audience that 85% of global acreage of GE crops is in herbicide resistant crops, which means they’re designed to be used with pesticides, underlining that genetic engineering is not the answer and the wrong way to go.
Ms. SACKS thanked Dr. Hansen for his expertise, for being everyone’s reference point for the statistics and facts, and thanked everybody on the panel and The Light Millennium, encouraging everyone that we all have a role in making change, and that we should take that seriously.
Next, farmers and food producers have a tremendous responsibility, said Mr. KEMPF. He added that farmers can do more to keep people healthy than all the doctors and hospitals combined. The opposite is also true, that they can do more to make people unhealthy. What was a breakthrough realization for him was that plants have an immune system that is an analogue of our immune system. When they grow in a healthy way they can transfer that function to people. He said it is possible to grow food as medicine. We do have the information that we need to build a much better future.
MS. CARLIN stressed the important factor of greed. She asked, “How can we save our food from those who have purely profit motives?” concluding that if we allowed the agro industry to continue abusing its power then we would be not only no closer to ending world hunger, but jeopardizing the future of humans, plants and all animals on earth.
H.E. GARCIA expressed his concern that our discussion still didn’t quite have a comprehensive framework or vision on how to insert it into the upcoming Post 2015 Agenda, as looking at the 17 fragments that currently existed, it was not readily clear where these issues would fit in, and this was very worrying, as if there is no place for it, the public will not see it, so he urged us all to keep working on a way to integrate it with the larger mission of the UN Agenda, so that every member state and civil society organization could work together on this in a comprehensive framework
Ms. UNVER could not let go of the question, How can one company hold 60% of humanity’s organic and conventional seeds? And how can this be allowed? Should there not be some restriction, perhaps as a part of the climate change agenda, that no company or country have any more than 25% of any natural resources? She described this as leading us into another type of slavery because food is everything to survive. Then she announced the “What is My Action Plan?” project, which was launched by the Light Millennium to help promote. via its website, projects from all around the world working towards the sustainable human development goals in the Post 2015 agenda. She invited all the audience to take part in this project.
As the lack of adequate information about genetically engineered foods has rightly caused suspicion among the general population, we were able to highlight some of the various problems, including their serious environmental impact, and give concrete examples of regenerative eco-agricultural models that hold far better promise for human and environmental health, and on what civil society could do to gain access and to help promote these new models.
As conclusion, we are pleased to report that following the workshop, many attendees approached the organizers, informing them that it was the workshop they learned and benefited from the most. They reflected that they had had some prior knowledge of the topic, but that they never really understood its full scope. We were gratified to learn that the workshop had provided the vital exchange of information that we had been aiming to achieve, and the research and references contained within the presentations could serve as stepping stones from which the workshop attendees could explore further if they would like to.
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PHOTO ALBUM of the EVENT - Photograps provided by FOWPAL
For the detailed Report in two parts and full presentations in Audio or Paper or Power Point,
please click here.
DISCLOSURE: Above Summary is written based on a request by the Workshop Subcommittee of the 65th Annual UN DPI-NGO Conference. It submitted on December 15, 2014.