OMG, GMOs: Food Safety Attorney George Kimbrell

This is the final part in a series of Q & A's on genetically engineered food, which harm the environment by increasing pesticide use, creating pesticide resistant superweeds and contaminating conventional and organic crops.

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Intro: This is the final part in a series of Q & A’s on genetically engineered food, which harm the environment by increasing pesticide use, creating pesticide resistant superweeds and contaminating conventional and organic crops. Earthjustice is challenging the USDA’s decision to allow genetically engineered sugar beets and alfalfa onto the market. To learn more, check out our GMO web feature.

EJ: Are GE foods safe?  

GK: In regards to health, this is a novel technology that is an ongoing experiment on the human population. You’re taking a gene from a species that could never cross in nature and you’re crossing it with a very foreign species. For example, you’re taking a gene from say, a flounder, and you’re inserting it into a tomato to make it more cold resistant. A flounder and a tomato are never going to get together in the natural world. It’s very different than conventional breeding where you’re breeding two types of corn to try to improve the different traits in your corn crop. And because we don’t require labeling of GE foods, we really can’t identify any potential toxicity or health concerns that might arise. Basically we have a lot more unknowns than knowns with regards to the potential human health impacts of GE food.

There are also environmental impacts. Eighty-five percent of these crops are pesticide-promoting crops. The companies that make them, chemical companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont and Dow, sell more of their flagship products, pesticides, by making these crops. These crops don’t help us feed the world, they don’t help us fight climate change, and they don’t help us better the environment. They just increase pesticides. That’s what they do. This technology is a one-trick pony.

EJ: So many GE crops already exist. Why did the Center decide to challenge the USDA’s decision to approve GE alfalfa in 2006?

GK: Alfalfa was a significant new threat to the environment and to the food system in that the crops engineered today are annual crops like corn, soy, canola and cotton. Alfalfa’s different. It’s a perennial crop that grows three to eight years, as opposed to an annual crop that only grows one year. It can survive in nature by itself wild or feral. If you go anywhere in the Pacific Northwest and drive around you’ll see alfalfa growing wild in roadside ditches, in fallow fields, on roadsides, by phone poles, etc. It’s also a bee-pollinated crop. And since bees don’t read signs, they can cross-pollinate between fields many miles away from one another. So you have this threat of contamination, not just of farmers’ fields, but also contamination of wild sources.

Alfalfa is also the key forage feed for many of our livestock industries, but in particular the organic dairy industry, so you have a real issue if alfalfa is contaminated by GMOs. It’s a real threat to both the organic and conventional dairy industry.

Finally, alfalfa is generally a pesticide-free crop and it also happens to be the fourth most widely grown crop in the country. So the approval and potential replacement of non-GE alfalfa with a pesticide-promoting crop would be a dramatic accumulative increase in pesticide exposure to the environment.

EJ: Has the USDA placed any restrictions on planting GE alfalfa?

GK: Unfortunately, no. In its analysis, the USDA considered three alternatives. One prohibited GE alfalfa from being commercially planted and sold. The second option allowed it to be commercially planted and sold without any restrictions. The third allowed it to be commercially planted and sold but with significant restrictions, such as isolation distances from organic and conventional crops. The USDA chose the second option without any restrictions. The Center for Food Safety was obviously very disappointed and believes that decision was unlawful on a number of grounds. It was a complete capitulation to the pressure of the biotech industry and the pressure they put on the USDA to come to that decision. The decision was a political one, not based on science and not based on law.

EJ: How can people avoid GE foods?

GK: Anyone who cares about this issue needs to help increase public awareness and pressure their policy makers to get us labeling standards for GE foods. The public has a fundamental right to choose what they feed themselves and their family. We should have labeling and it’s wrong that we don’t. Like the USDA’s decision to allow GE alfalfa, the decision to not label is a political one. It’s one that the Obama administration, if the political will were there, could change. People should get involved and get active because labeling is a vital necessity.

Listen to the entire interview:

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.