Building Community At America's Table

GMO/GE

What our fields actually need is a heavy application of honesty

– written by Ellen

Though I had certainly heard much of her, my first true exposure to Vandana Shiva was the night I returned home from Monsanto, climbed into bed with my laptop, and started Googling.

I Googled Indian mustard seed but was a bit stymied that I couldn’t find any mainstream or scientific sources. (Please send them if you have them!)

I typed ‘Indian farmer suicide’ into my browser, because I was told Ms. Shiva claimed hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers had committed suicide because of Monsanto. It is a terrifically sad fact when anyone commits suicide, but these farmers didn’t commit suicide because of Monsanto. They committed suicide because of drought, bad government support and the rapid transformation of a society.

(It was odd, after the fact, to read Shiva’s “mainstream” article on the farmer suicides. It appeared far more “fact-based” than what I had earlier read and heard. But it is rather cleverly written, and I will get to that in a moment.)

In sum, I got home from Monsanto and started learning that “our side” is biased, largely uninformed and often just out and out scaryass wrong. (The science supports that.) And a good deal of this misinformation is coming from sources we trust. This is a really, really bad state of affairs and, along with fueling some weirdly crazy hate, is actually contributing to the problems of our food supply more than it is helping us find a way to fix it, even in a small way.

Here’s the thing: The work Vandana Shiva does with Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seed, the promotion of organic farming and fair trade, is important. Native seeds, organic farming and fair trade are all vitally important.

But, there’s a right way and a wrong way. And while Navdanya may be a right way, what I saw at the Bioneers conference where Shiva spoke in Chicago recently, was most definitely the wrong way.

And I’ll address what is wrong in an open letter.

Dear Vandana Shiva:

Heros don’t lie. At your Bioneers talk in Chicago, in your keynote address you told the audience that “they” are spraying Agent Orange on the fields. This is not true; and I am certain you know it is not true.

Likely, you were referring to 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, which is one of the components of Agent Orange. Today, 2,4-D is used on farms and on many home gardens. And while I will absolutely agree it is not awesome, it is also not Agent Orange. You wouldn’t call it Agent Orange unless you were specifically looking to instill fear and anger because for any American with any kind of conscience, Agent Orange is a hot button. That said, even if that was your goal, it is a lie.

The real sad fact is that the Bioneers audience was comprised of precisely the type of people who don’t want to use one of the ingredients in Agent Orange  in their home gardens. So, sharing with them the fact that 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, is the third most widely used herbicide in America and available at any garden center, would allow you to use the words Agent Orange but in an honest and actionable way. It would still be throwing gas on a fire, but at the very least it would have meant that you at least armed them with useful information.

Unfortunately, I could only conclude, in listening to your speech, that arming them with useful information didn’t seem your goal. Scaring them, inciting them — that seemed to be your goal.

Why?

Why did a great deal of your talk seem to incite rather than educate — and to no end other than spreading hate and anger?

It would have been helpful, maybe, to share with the group what they need to do to create these living cities of which you were scheduled to speak about. That, at the very beginning of the journey out of the morass of our food supply, we need to do research, think about our actions and be educated consumers —  that change starts there. But throughout the talk, it seemed obvious that your point wasn’t to educate these people on steps they could take to achieve the assumed goals of your initiatives — in fact, educating folks on truths and what we should all do to be the change we want to see was the one thing left out of your talk. (Oh, wait, you said you wanted to see more gardens in Chicago. Yes, you did say that. It seemed a toss-in at the end of the speech. That was your take away. That was it.)

Of point in fact, it was my impression that your entire speech barely rose above the level of outright lie. It was brimming with clever turns of phrase meant to elicit a reaction (GMO — God, Move Over), scarily reductionist pronouncements (all the GMO folks have achieved in all these years is two things: shooting “poison” into seeds and adding herbicides to seeds — p.s. work on the wording for the herbicide bit, it wasn’t nearly scary-sounding enough) and specifically crafted sentences meant to drum up emotion (It’s extremely easy to take life to make money). But what it was missing was honestly educating the audience on usable and actionable facts.

This is worrisome to me today of all days.

Ms. Shiva, today is the day Californians are voting on Prop37, the GMO labeling law. One of the biggest problems with the law is that it incites Americans with fear without educating them on the facts. So, at the end of the day, the vast majority of Californians are not actually voting because they understand what they are voting for — they are voting because they’ve been scared by people like you who deliver half-truths, manipulated facts and, it seems, lies.

And here’s why that is really damning: these Americans are being denied choice.

Here’s why: they are turning to people like you who proclaim to be a leader in the anti-GMO fight and they hear things like “they are spraying Agent Orange on the fields.” And they believe it. Because, well, you’re held up as this model of purity and right.

So, in reality, these Californians are being coerced and cajoled into making a certain choice. They are being coerced to vote for something they don’t even know about.

This isn’t a good thing, even if the end goal is to stop the spread of GMOs.

This isn’t what America stands for.

Voting — it’s sacred in America. You really shouldn’t mess with that just to get to your end goal.

When you spoke about Prop37, you said that it is, “asking for something very simple.” I ask something very simple of you: stick to honest, verifiable facts. In your position, you have a responsibility to tell the truth. You have a responsibility to educate people honestly. You have a responsibility to not do the very thing that you criticize others for.

If you are so confident in your belief that GMOs are bad, honest verifiable facts, delivered with integrity, will prove that to be true. Are you brave enough to stand up to that challenge? I certainly hope so.

Until then, please stay out of American politics. We have enough trouble seeing eye-to-eye on our own.

Sincerely,

Ellen Malloy

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GMO Labeling Is More Than The Label

– written by Grant

The debate rages in this country about whether we should have mandatory GMO labeling or not. It comes up for a public vote in California this fall and much attention is focused on that outcome. In fact, here is an indicator of the attention Big Food is focusing on labeling:

“In a recent speech to the American Soybean Association (most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified), Grocery Manufacturers Association President Pamela Bailey said that defeating the initiative ‘is the single-highest priority for GMA this year.'”  [from Huffington Post article]

I’ve been challenged by folks like geneticmaize and noteasy2begreen to explain the reasoning for labeling and oddly, it’s been difficult. In my gut, labeling seemed right. Then when I think about it, I realize it would be very expensive to implement and monitor in a way that would be trustworthy. Another common argument against labeling is that a consumer who wants to avoid GMOs simply has to do a quick Google search on it and take two minutes to learn – you can avoid GMOs by avoiding a short list of foods, especially most packaged and processed foods and be sure to choose things labeled Certified Organic as they do NOT contain GMOs.

These arguments have been hard for me to debate. I found myself relying mostly on emotion and saying things like, “It doesn’t matter whether labeling is a good idea or not, consumers want it.”

I’m surprised to find the answer in a book about slaughter.

I just finished reading Timothy Pachirat’s book, Every Twelve Seconds – Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Pachirat is a political scientist who surreptitiously took a job in a slaughter house in order to research and write a book about conditions there. This was in a time when there was no “ag gag” law against such things. His was a risky move to be sure, but not an illegal one, as it is now in many states.

He describes systemic food safety infractions and animal abuse, yes, but the real thrust of his book is his explanation of the ‘politics of sight’, and it now helps me understand GMO labeling.

We want to “know” our food. Ag gag laws, pink slime, meat glue, animal cages, e. coli on spinach, rBST etc are hidden from us, both literally and figuratively. As Pachirat describes, “hiddenness” and lack of clear “sight” and knowing is power. It is power held over us by the person, the company, the industry that is doing the hiding. The call for labeling is the populace in our country seeking transparency. We seek transparency because not having it, as we feel is the case now, means we are powerless.

The suggestion that we should simply buy organically labeled foods to avoid GMOs does not satisfy. It does not address this power struggle. In fact, it is a concession to it because we are then offered only a very limited choice of foods and most importantly, we are being offered those because all the others are hidden from us. Organically labeled foods are fine, but the problem we have is with the power held in the other mysterious foods. We seek transparency of those foods too.

We look around at our populace’s health issues, our environment’s health issues, our farm workers’ health issues and focus our anger on Big Food. Labeling is the line in the sand we can draw that says we want food manufacturers to tell us “What’s in there?” “What are you feeding us?” Stop hiding.

This was interesting to hear on NPR – Jeff Leitner and Howell J. Malhalm Jr. of Insight Labs were talking not about food but about voting and democracy. They made the point that the newer generations have different viewpoints and different paradigms than generations past:

“Personal agency is paramount in a democracy simply because people want the feeling that they have control over their own destinies. Voting was the ultimate symbol of agency in the United States for many years, but now that the very nature of agency is changing in light of technological advances that give us an unprecedentedly high degree of personalization and freedom over our own lives, voting seems quite antiquated. Why would the younger generation buy into designating leaders by proxy when their lives are ruled by themselves?”

Younger generations want “agency” or control and power in their own lives in a very different way than generations past. And the internet and social media tools empower them. Upset? Launch an online petition. Want to be a filmmaker? Shoot a video with your phone and put it on youtube. Although I have a great deal of respect for farmers and their knowledge base, they often fall into the trap of insisting that the ill-informed public should stay out of farming decisions. Take gestation crates as one example – the backbone of most arguments in favor of crates often seems to hinge on the ranchers saying they “know what’s best” for their animals and we outsiders can’t know and shouldn’t be meddling.

This stance won’t fly with a generation who wants, no, who is taking agency and power.

It is a bigger question than GMOs – we want more transparency in our food system. We want to feel like we are part of our food system. That we have some power and control over our food system. Being on the receiving end is not enough; purchasing power is not enough – we want to have joint control of the food system.

Small farms and small local food producers offer transparency. They are simple, open and have short ingredient lists. They share power.

Big Food needs to learn from that. Be transparent. Cede some power.

We will still need to eat – done right, ceding power will not mean ceding profit.