Paul Achitoff, Managing Attorney
Mid-Pacific regional office
Paul Achitoff, managing attorney of the Mid-Pacific regional office, discusses how genetically engineered crops harm the environment by increasing pesticide use, creating superweeds and contaminating other crops.
Paul spoke with Associate Editor Jessica Knoblauch in June of 2011.
Jessica Knoblauch: America's supermarkets are filled with genetically modified products. Though the biotech industry often heralds genetic engineering's ability to make crops more nutritious or less water intensive, such crops are not on the market. Instead, most genetically modified crops to date have been created either to resist herbicides or produce their own pesticide. With herbicide-resistant crops, farmers are free to douse their fields with herbicides without having to worry about killing the crop. This convenience has resulted in half a billion additional pounds of toxic herbicide being sprayed on U.S. fields between 1996 and 2011.
My guest today is Earthjustice Managing Attorney Paul Achitoff. Paul has previously sued the USDA for failing to consider the environmental, health and economic impacts of allowing genetically engineered [GE] alfalfa and sugar beets that are modified to withstand large doses of toxic pesticides, as well as crops engineered to produce pharmaceuticals.
Paul, welcome to Down to Earth. So many of these crops are genetically modified to withstand a lot of herbicides. For example, Monsanto's GE crops can be sprayed with an herbicide called Roundup, which has an active ingredient known as glyphosate. What kind of impacts does this herbicide on the environment?
Paul Achitoff: Well, using as an example genetically modified cotton, there have been a number of impacts. With cotton there has been a proliferation of glyphosate-resistant weeds created in the cotton fields as a result of continually applying a single herbicide to the same field over and over again until weeds evolve resistance to that herbicide. That problem has been particularly prevalent in cotton, but it's also seen in soybean fields, which have been designed for the same purpose of being resistant to the same herbicide. We would expect the same thing to occur with any of these crops as long as farmers continue to rely on a single herbicide through several seasons.
While some farmers do rotate their crops so that they're not using glyphosate every season, many of them do not follow those practices. As a result, it is likely that those types of weeds will evolve. What has happened is that a great deal more Roundup has been put into the environment over the past 10 years—millions of pounds of Roundup that otherwise would not likely have been used. So, the amount of herbicide that's going into the environment, into the soil and into the groundwater has increased significantly as a result of these crops.
Essentially, the main problem for the public at large is increased chemicals in the environment …
[And] what you're finding is that Monsanto and a few other companies are, to a very significant extent, controlling what people are eating to a degree that I think many consumers don't realize.
Another development from using GE crops is that because these weeds do develop resistance to this particular herbicide, growers have begun using other older, more toxic chemicals to try and kill the weeds resistant to glyphosate. For example, some have been applying Paraquat or 2-4,D, both of which are quite toxic and have a number of environmental and human health impacts.
Essentially, the main problem for the public at large is increased chemicals in the environment. Then, there's also the problem for growers of non-GE crops who don't want to be growing, buying, selling or eating these crops. Whether they're farmers, merchants or consumers, there is contamination that occurs because you cannot control pollination or seed mixing effectively when you have a crop that's being grown as widely as these crops are grown. So that has economic impacts on farmers who want to be growing conventional or organic crops that get mixed with their GE counterpart. When they all get mixed together and they're not labeled, people's choice to avoid those types of food is taken away.
There are even other issues. For example, there's the fact that you have a small number of large corporations that have patented most of the commodity crops being grown in the United States today. Virtually all of the soybeans being grown, which is a huge crop in the United States and other countries, most of them are patented by Monsanto or other large corporations. The same is true of corn. The same is true of canola. The same is true now of sugar beets. So essentially what you're finding is that Monsanto and a few other companies are, to a very significant extent, controlling what people are eating to a degree that I think many consumers don't realize.
Jessica: Do any laws exist to regulate GE crops?
Paul: There are laws that the government could use to place some controls. For example, the USDA, if it chose to, could require these crops to be grown subject to certain conditions that might reduce the likelihood of contamination and the increase of weed resistance. However, the USDA has not used that authority because it simply is so sympathetic to the interests of Monsanto and the farmers who choose to grow Monsanto's products. They have a very hands-off approach. Their attitude is, whatever happens, happens, and they're just not concerned about impacts to the environment or to consumers.
The USDA has the ability to do things in a much more responsible way, but it chooses not to and we have to ask the courts to get it to follow the law.
USDA views its responsibilities very narrowly as being responsible to serve the interests or the desires of farmers who want to grow Monsanto's crops and to serve Monsanto's business interests. It simply doesn't care about larger interests of consumer choice, conventional and organic farmer choice, the impact on the environment of increased herbicide use, and so forth. The USDA has the ability to do things in a much more responsible way, but it chooses not to and we have to ask the courts to get it to follow the law and act more responsibility.
Jessica: The issue of weeds developing herbicide resistance has been known for some time. What does Monsanto say about their product causing superweeds?
Paul: They, of course, have their spin on everything. There are roughly 15 weed species identified as now resistant to glyphosate, and I don't think there's much controversy about that. Monsanto's spin is that this is not necessarily caused by growing its patented crops, that if farmers adopted various stewardship practices this could largely be prevented. The reality is that farmers do not universally do the things that Monsanto says they could do to prevent some of these things from happening, so whether it's theoretically possible isn't really the point. The point is that as a practical matter, it hasn't happened and there's no reason to think that it will happen unless there is some legal requirement that it happen, which thus far hasn't been the case. Monsanto also doesn't take seriously the possibility that there is any environmental downside to anything that it's doing. And it hires experts who will be happy to swear for a fee that Monsanto's position is scientifically supported. Obviously, we disagree.
Jessica: What do we know about the safety of the Roundup herbicide?
Paul: Well, that's a complex question. There's no question that Roundup can harm various aspects of the environment. For example, it is what's called a broad spectrum herbicide, meaning that unlike some herbicides, which will be effective in killing only certain types of plants, Roundup will kill many different types of plants. That includes beneficial plants and endangered plants, as well as whatever weeds a farmer might like to get rid of. Our view is that neither Monsanto nor the USDA has taken the required look at the impacts of Roundup use on threatened and endangered species.
Also, Roundup is known to be harmful to aquatic species, in particular fish and amphibians. Well, as many people are now coming to realize, amphibians in particular are undergoing a drastic decline worldwide for a variety of reasons—pesticides is only one of them. When you're spraying this chemical on millions of acres around the country, you are going to affect many kinds of species, including plants, fish, amphibians and birds. Despite that fact, there has been no consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts of killing these species, which is quite remarkable given how widespread this activity is going to be. Whether the impacts can somehow be reduced through various requirements is legally required to be worked out through consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, but that's a step that Monsanto and the USDA have side-stepped in trying to get their products on the market.
Jessica: Given all of the potential environmental and health effects of these crops, how can consumers avoid buying them in the supermarket?
Paul: The short answer is that the best and one of the only ways that a consumer can avoid GE foods today is by buying certified organic products and also by eating less processed food and more fresh food. If you go to the fresh fruit and vegetable aisles of supermarkets, most of what you see there is not genetically modified. The corn may be, but for the most part if you buy a watermelon or a butternut squash it's not going to be genetically modified because no one has genetically modified it yet. And, if you buy a packaged good that says it's certified organic, then that also is not going to contain genetically modified ingredients because GMOs are not allowed in certified organic foods.
I think that it's extremely unfair to people to be forced to eat things simply because there are no requirements for labeling them.
But if you simply buy a box of breakfast cereal or energy bars or ice cream, chances are very, very good that it does contain one or more GE ingredients. For example, if it contains high fructose corn syrup, which so many foods do, there's a very good chance that it comes from GE corn.
It's been estimated that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of all of the packaged foods in the supermarket contain one or more GE ingredients. So, people are eating them every day without knowing it. And, because there is no requirement that GE ingredients be labeled as such, people have no way to know what they're eating unless they buy organic foods.
Polls have very consistently shown that a very large majority of people don't want to be purchasing GE products and would prefer that they be labeled. The reason that they are not labeled is simply because companies like Monsanto know that if people look at a package and it says that it contains GE soy, for example, that many people simply won't buy it. So part of the whole business strategy of the industry is to deprive consumers of the information that they would need in order to make informed choices about what they buy and what they eat.
Jessica: So they're keeping people from making an informed decision?
Paul: I look at it that way. I think that it's extremely unfair to people to be forced to eat things simply because there are no requirements for labeling them. Anyone who is listening to this or reading this can't know whether they are eating GE products unless they eat only organic food or fresh produce, which few people do. I would hope that people would be indignant about that because I think that nobody really wants Monsanto controlling their diet, but that is in fact what's happening.
Jessica: Paul, thank you so much for your time.
If you would like to learn more about Earthjustice's work to challenge the approval of genetically engineered crops, please visit earthjustice.org/gmo.
And if you would like to hear more interviews with environmental experts, check out earthjustice.org/DowntoEarth.