Strawberries grown from seeds injected with DNA from arctic flounder fish to make them frost resistant. Seeds pumped with suicide genes that yield an infertile harvest so corporations can profit from a patent placed on the plant’s genetic code. Rice injected with traits that make it more nutritious so those in parts of the world where vitamin deficiencies are often fatal have a dependable source of vitamins. Wheat injected with bacteria that renders its grain resistant to pesticides and insecticides. Cows injected with artificial sex hormones so they produce more milk.
It’s the existence of these genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—some on the market, some not—that make Sarah Rogan, mother of three, visibly shaken and uneasy at the mere thought of her children eating fast food or school lunch, whether it’s green beans or pizza.
“Never, absolutely never,” she says, clenching the handle of her shopping cart.
But many of us eat them every day, whether we know it or not. From breakfast cereals to soft drinks, hamburgers to soy milk, GMOs have worked their way into 60 to 70 percent of our food supply, and here on a Saturday morning in Aisle 7 of the Waldbaum’s in Jericho, Sarah is the only one out of the last 10 people to walk by who knows exactly what they are.
“GMO? No idea,” says Ted Cinelli, father of two. “Everything is going to kill you someday. If we listened to every last warning or what have you, we’d all starve to death.”
But Sarah and Ted have something in common. Their children were born in the ’90s, when GMO ingredients entered the commercial food supply. Sarah and Ted are raising the first generation of genetically modified kids, and what their future holds is a mystery, a tragedy or nothing to worry about—depending on whom you ask.
A slew of books and documentaries have been released over the past decade focusing on farmers in the Corn Belt being bullied by big business while government agencies like the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) let it happen, or children entering puberty at extremely early ages due to hormones in dairy products. Everyone has an opinion on GMOs, from the Vatican to the local farmer. But how the issue of GMOs affects Long Island is relatively unknown to the public and something many are still trying to figure out.
GMOs have been on the market since 1996. The FDA has approved them because they originate from conventional foods and conventional foods are deemed safe, therefore, GMOs are considered safe too, because they are “substantially equivalent.” Out of a handful of studies that either suggest GMOs are safe or dangerous, there is not one that isn’t considered by someone to be flawed, not up to scientific standards or biased. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine states, “Several animal studies indicate serious risks associated with GM food…There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects, there is causation. GMOs have been suspected of being responsible for everything from autism and cancer to diabetes and allergies.”
And since New York State doesn’t require foods containing GMO ingredients to be labeled (although there is legislation pending), GMOs remain silent ingredients.
“Going to the store, most people are going to buy milk—most milk or butter is coming from cows that have been administered hormones,” says Rob Endelman, a Wall Street trader from Roslyn turned professional organic chef who relies heavily on Long Island produce. “Most people are going to be buying bread or other items that contain corn or soy or wheat that are from genetically modified crops.”
The U.S. is the largest producer of genetically modified crops. Although genetically modified (GM) ingredients are in the majority of the food supply, only 52 percent of people realize that these foods are sold in grocery stores and only 26 percent of people believed they had eaten a GM food, according to researchers from the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers’ Cook College.
“I teach organics and when I’m presented with a class, generally speaking 90 percent don’t know what GMOs are,” says Ian Steiber, a Long Island organic consultant.
Why are so many people in the dark when it comes to GMOs? Well, since the FDA’s stance is GMOs do not differ “in a meaningful or uniform way” from non–GMO derived crops, the government considers this information a non-issue.
And so far on Long Island, it is a non-issue, at least as far as our exposure to them goes. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, exposure to GMOs comes primarily from fast foods and processed foods, not fresh fruits and vegetables.
The “sweet local corn” signs that line the roads out to the Hamptons mean just that—conventionally grown local corn that has been crossbred for hundreds of years to become the corn we know today.
But in the Midwest, where millions of acres of field corn are grown, farmers aren’t so lucky. Field corn is different from sweet corn in that it is cultivated for animal feed, corn syrup and additives that are used in processed foods. This type of corn is subsidized by the government and is mostly made up of GMO varieties bred to withstand pesticides. The most well-known and prevalent is Roundup Ready Corn, manufactured by the agricultural biotech company Monsanto, the biggest and most controversial player in the industry. The GMO seeds are meant to be used along with Roundup, a pesticide Monsanto also owns.
“Corporations suck them into the credit line to buy the seeds, the sprays, the equipment and they keep them on a treadmill that way,” says farmer Steve Storch, who runs Natural Science Organics at Larry Halsey’s Green Thumb organic farm in Water Mill. “The land isn’t worth anything so what is their equity? The farmers here have too much money for that.”
The seeds are available to Long Island for those who want them, but since corn, soy, cottonseed, wheat and sugar beets— the five main GMO crops—aren’t widely produced on Long Island, GMOs are rarely found on local farms. However, technology is moving along and options are growing. Currently in the works are patents for AquaBounty’s GMO salmon that would grow at twice the normal rate and Monsanto’s GMO pigs. But for all the promises technology offers, GMOs pose even more doubts.
Seeds Of Change
GMOs don’t only apply to food. Poplar trees have been genetically modified to clean up pollution from contaminated soil. Modified genes are being studied in the medical world as possible therapies. As for food, GMO’s offer year-round fresh produce. The first GMO to hit Long Island was the Flavr Savr tomato.
During the winter, tomatoes grown in southern states are picked while green and shipped up north to snow-covered areas like Long Island. The tomatoes are ripened in containers filled with ethylene gas.
“They gas them to make them turn red,” says Melville farm-owner Bob Schmitt, whose family has been in the Long Island farm industry for more than five generations. “They look like a tomato in the wintertime, but they are really just a piece of cardboard.”
This is where GMO technology comes in. By isolating a trait to keep the tomatoes firm, the fruit can be crafted to ripen but not soften as quickly as regular tomatoes—and not taste like cardboard.
There are also environmental benefits with certain GMOs, Schmitt says. Atrazine, a popular herbicide widely used across the country for decades, was found to build up in the environment and pollute groundwater. Atrazine has been phased out as it has been replaced with less environmentally toxic herbicides the GM plant has been engineered to tolerate, like Roundup.
“It’s not something that gets into the water, it’s not something that gets into the air,” says Schmitt. “People spray it on their sidewalks, on their driveways; kids walk over it. You don’t have to keep your kids in the house for four or five days.”
Those against GMO crops say this only makes it easier for farmers to use extra chemicals, knowing it won’t damage their plants.
But while Schmitt does not use GMO crops, he isn’t against the technology altogether and says there is a bigger picture people often miss.
“There is so much that GMO technology can do for mankind,” he says. He cites Golden Rice, a GMO crop created by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 2000 that was introduced as a possible solution in combating Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). At the beginning of the 21st century, an estimated 124 million people in Africa and South East Asia were affected by VAD, which resulted in up to 2 million deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases of irreversible blindness, according to the World Health Organization.
“I’m not promoting it or talking [GMOs] down,” continues Schmitt. “It’s just that people don’t understand it.
“We have plenty of food here, so we can very easily sit in this country and talk with our mouths full. But not everyone around the world has that luxury, and when you have starving people around the world, that’s where the biggest future for GMOs is—and I don’t mean next year, but 10, 20, 50 years along the road—for parts of the world that have to depend on other countries for their food supply to be able to feed themselves.”
Although GMO crops have their negatives and positives, another kind of GMO doesn’t have a silver lining. It’s also possible to modify animals. In fact, all milk and dairy products in the U.S. have artificial hormones—rBGH or recombinant bovine growth hormone—unless the label states otherwise.
“We’re here to announce today that we are suing both the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois over our right to give you truthful information about what’s not in our ice cream and frozen yogurt and about your right to know,” Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who both grew up in Merrick, announced at a news conference at the Lincoln Park Whole Foods Market in Chicago on the morning of May 7, 1996.
At that time, the government began requiring that in order for dairy products to be labeled hormone- or rBGH-free, this statement had to be added to the label:
“According to the FDA no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH-treated and non-treated cows.”
The decision to add this sentence was decided by the FDA’s deputy commissioner of policy, Michael Taylor, previously Monsanto’s attorney who, after his FDA gig returned to Monsanto as vice president. Taylor is the same government official who declared, on behalf of the FDA, that GMOs were safe and required no further testing.
Monsanto is the sole manufacturer of rBGH, marketed under the name Posilac. When injected into cows, Posilac forces each animal to produce 10 percent more milk per day.
Taylor’s appointment to the FDA is part of what Storch and many others call a revolving door between Monsanto and government agencies, whereby many Monsanto higher-ups have moved on to government positions, and vice versa.
“If [Monsanto’s] product was on the up-and-up, then why did they go through such a backhanded approach?” adds Steiber.
But back in 1996, Ben and Jerry refused to give in to either party. Since each state in the U.S. has jurisdiction as to whether a hormone- or rBGH-free label is allowed on a product at all—and Illinois was one of four states that decided it wasn’t—it meant that despite the FDA approval, Ben & Jerry’s could not include the label on any of their products, as it was not possible for them to produce a different package for a portion of their consumer base.
In a settlement later that year the parties agreed to specific labeling.
Why all the fuss?
Many believe there is a link between rBGH, cancer and early puberty, most notably Dr. Sam Epstein, chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and author.
“Monsanto and the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] insist that rBGH milk is indistinguishable from natural milk, and that it is safe for children and other consumers,” he said in a statement. “This is scientifically and medically untrue…Of major concern is a wealth of long-standing scientific evidence incriminating [excess levels of hormones] as delayed causes of breast, colon and prostate cancers.”
A new study released this month in the medical journal Pediatrics found that girls are more likely today than 10 to 30 years ago to start developing breasts by age 7 or 8—which could be a sign of hormone exposure. But there is no definitive proof published in scientific literature that links cancer or early puberty to the intake of dairy products.
That’s Not My Job
“The reason we are here today is because the 1992 White House chose to fast-track genetically modified foods and crops at the expense of science,” said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of The Institute for Responsible Technology, in testimony before the Environmental Protection Agency on May 22, 2007.
“Not wanting Congress to intervene and pass new laws that might slow down approvals through extensive testing and evaluation, they cobbled together a regulatory framework based on existing laws that were ill-equipped to handle the harmful and unique risks of this new technology,” said Smith. “The strange malady of passing on the responsibility to others has befallen too many regulatory agencies in regards to GMOs, and when it is traced back to see who is ultimately providing assurances, it often turns out to be the biotech companies offering assumptions that promote profits.”
Monsanto denied Smith’s allegations and all of the other criticism it has received, and hires their own scientists to review any negative studies, which, so far, have all been deemed “flawed” by the company.
One such test conducted in 2008 by Dr. Jurgen Zentek, professor for veterinary medicine at the University of Vienna, found preliminary negative effects of GMO corn on the organs of mice. Monsanto quickly had their own people review the data.
“These products have been proven to be safe,” said Jerry Hjelle, Ph.D., vice president of Monsanto’s regulatory group in a statement. “This report does not provide any basis to conclude otherwise. Activist groups for years have attempted to call into question the safety of biotech crops. They have made multiple allegations based on data taken out of context and lacking rigorous scientific review. These have ultimately failed to be substantiated.”
“If you say anything about Monsanto, they come down on you pretty heavy,” says organic farmer Steiber.
Down To Business
It’s not so much the direct health effects that worry Long Island Seed Project Director and Suffolk Community College Professor Ken Ettinger. It’s the fact that the food supply is being taken over by corporations—specifically the largest, Monsanto—and their increasing domination of it.
Take the Terminator Gene, or suicide gene, for instance, that renders future generations of plants infertile.
“Oh gosh, that’s like a nightmare,” says Ettinger. “Usually I’m so impressed with technology but I’m also very apprehensive. What’s really amazing is part of the patent that is held by the Terminator Gene is by our own U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
Monsanto has publicly declared that it wouldn’t release the gene, but the technology exists and the consequences of it getting into the environment are a mystery.
“Many farmers save the seed from one generation to the next and the Terminator Gene is a terrible ploy that doesn’t allow you to do that,” says Ettinger. “You’re basically at the mercy of the corporate entity, whoever is marketing the seed, and you have to go back to the company for the seeds. And often for the herbicides and the fertilizers and whatever other chemical controls the company wants to sell you—it’s purely for profit.”
For now the Terminator Gene is a dead issue, but GMOs still worry Ettinger.
“It’s very difficult to imagine the problems that might come from that technology,” he says. “There is just no history in the world of having that kind of manipulation. When you’re inserting the genes from other organisms—you know, a flounder into a strawberry or bacteria into corn—there’s just nothing in the agricultural record like that for the thousands and thousands of years that we’ve had agriculture.”
Then there is the issue of ownership and cross-contamination.
“The cross-contamination of GMOs to heirlooms, that’s a concern to organic farmers,” says Steiber. “I had heard a story about a window washer in NYC. Pollen was showing up on skyscrapers from the Midwest.”
Since 1997, Monsanto has sued 144 farmers over patent infringements. They have won every case.
One of the most famous cases involved Canadian Canola Farmer Percy Schmeiser whom Monsanto successfully sued after unlicensed Roundup Ready Canola was found growing on a large portion of his farm. Schmeiser claimed it was due to cross contamination by wind-blown pollen and has been heavily involved in the anti-GMO movement ever since.
“The truth is, Percy Schmeiser is not a hero,” Monsanto said in a statement. “He’s simply a patent infringer who knows how to sell a good story.”
But regardless of the outcome, regardless of the potential positives and negatives related to GMOs, regardless of the supporters and the dissenters, the fact that a corporation has so much power over the food supply leaves Ettinger, and many others, uneasy.
“They are just so profit-oriented and they’ll do litigation just to make sure nobody is benefiting from their technology,” he says. “It just doesn’t seem like seeds to feed the world ought to be the property of a corporation. That bothers me—a whole lot.”
In The Schools
Despite the uncertainty and varying opinions over GMOs, more and more schools on the Island are trying to go back to basics, which allows them to bypass the issue altogether and eliminate the processed foods that are the biggest sources of GMOs.
“We are very interested in getting GM foods out of schools,” says Luisa Giugliano of the Sea Cliff School Nutrition Committee. “It’s a really hard road. I think schools for so many years have gotten used to receiving these big, nearly free commodity foods, and it’s hard not to be dependent on them.”
The Commack School District has eliminated GMO foods, including sodas, from all their schools.
“It’s a district-wide effort,” says Brenda Lentsch, Commack School District spokeswoman. “It’s a really intensive policy to encourage a healthy lifestyle, healthy habits.”
But it’s not an easy transition to make, especially for financially strapped districts.
“They’re really limited,” says Wendy Mikkelsen of Huntington, founder of MyHealthyThing, a healthy and GMO-free snack-vending-machine company. She supplies refrigerated vending machines to schools across the Island that offer organic Pop-Tart alternatives and fresh fruits and vegetables. “Everybody wants healthier foods for the kids but it’s costly, and I think they’re really challenged to juggle getting healthier foods without raising the prices. I mean, could you really get a healthy lunch for $2 out in the world?”
The Waldorf School of Garden City has perhaps the most intensive program of all, but it didn’t require a conversion from a traditional school menu to something entirely new. Students have grown their own vegetables, used in school meals, since the school’s beginnings. They also get food delivered from their extension campus, a farm in New Hampshire.
“It’s something that is so vital in their lives,” says Robert Ingenito, Director of Communications for The Waldorf School of Garden City. “They see where the food comes from. It’s not just the grocery store, it’s food that comes from a natural farm, and they get to be a part of that process.”
But Mikkelsen says oftentimes the opposite is true in public schools. She says at one district meeting she asked if a certain label met the criteria.
“They said no, that it had too much sugar.”
It was a banana.
“So a banana doesn’t meet some of the criteria at some of the school districts. It’s crazy.”
But Mikkelsen says the ground is ripe for change and people are starting to investigate things for themselves and rely less on assumptions about the food they are eating.
“We think, ‘Oh, it has a friendly face,’ but it’s really up to us to do the research because the big companies aren’t going to do it for us,” she says. “There doesn’t seem to be a general consensus on what healthy means. Everyone has a different take on it. But there’s got to be a reason why all of a sudden there is this epidemic of ADHD or autism and diabetes, and the more you read, the more you question our food supply and what it is the government is doing to our food supply, to help the regulations fit what somebody is making money on. There needs to be more information about what all of this is and also on those who are giving out that information.”
And with so many opinions and little accepted data, it’s even harder for the public to make informed decisions about GMOs when there is so much contradictory information on its safety. Opinions aside, we are eating GMOs every day and what the consequences—or benefits—are, only time will tell.
“It’s a science that is here, and many people fear it,” says Melville farm owner Schmitt. “We all fear the unknown. There’s such a high percentage of food in this country that has some GMO technology. You can hinder it, but it’s there. Whether I like it, it doesn’t matter—the train has already left the station.”