Behind the Seeds


GMO farmerThe truth behind genetically modified organisms (gmo) in your food.
Written by Jan Walsh 
Photography by Beau Gustafson 

It is not often that the American people agree. But polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans want to know what is in their food and agree that the federal government should require labels for genetically modified/bio-engineered (GMO) foods.  And more than 70 percent of Americans say they don’t want genetically modified organisms in their food, according to Consumer Reports National Research Center. 

So, what are GMOs? Genetically modified organisms are organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered by genetic engineering. Genetic modification involves the mutation, insertion, or deletion of genes. Inserted genes usually come from a different species. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. GMOs are the source of genetically modified plant- and animal-based foods, as well as other non-food related products, which entered the U.S. food supply without independent, pre-market safety testing. The most common and highest percentages (88–95 percent) of U.S. GMO crops are corn, soy, canola (rapeseed), cotton, and sugar beets, along with the GMO derivatives of these crops, which are too numerous to list here. These crops’ GMO seeds were engineered to include pesticides so that the plant and its fruit produce its own pesticide in every cell of its DNA. GMOs are also found in the feed of animals that produce meat, eggs, and dairy. And beyond food, American GMO cotton is also in clothes, bed linens, towels, mattresses, carpets, paper towels, napkins, tissue, feminine hygiene products, and much more.

Some countries ban or outlaw GMO planting or food imports. Many others require labeling of GMOs. Internationally, more than 60 countries, including China, Japan, and the European Union, require GMO labeling. This means that U.S. food companies must label their GMOs for these countries, but not in the U.S. Here, GMOs are found in 70 percent of processed and frozen foods, and the FDA has no plans to begin labeling them.

Given the lack of independent testing, many U.S. consumers are choosing to avoid GMO foods. With no GMO food labeling, this is challenging, but it is doable. There are three non-GMO food sources that can be of great aid: USDA Certified Organic, non-GMO Certified, and trusted, local farmers. The USDA Certified Organic seal promises that no GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, or prohibited pesticides were used on crops. It also assures that no antibiotics or growth hormones are used on these 100-percent-organic-feed-fed animals with outdoor access, and that 95 percent of the ingredients in multi food products are organic. Non-GMO foods have no genetic modification in their original seed source. The Non-GMO Project is a third party organization that certifies products that claim to be Non-GMO with an orange butterfly on the labels. Products without these two certifications/labels and labeled instead by the manufacturer as “natural,” “Non-GMO,” or “No GMOs” are also being avoided.

While many of us envision the family farm when we use the word farmer, most food in America comes from factory farms, not family farms. But some family farms remain: Though surrounded with neighboring GMO corn fields, fourth-generation Alabama farmer Michael White still plants conventional seeds (non-GMO) for his corn and soybean crops. His riveting story—destined to be a major motion film—unfolds in the book Seeds of Reprisal by J. Somerville Park, along with much information on GMO and their history. Indeed truth is stranger than fiction. If this were not White’s story, one might never believe this tragedy could have happened in America to an Alabama farmer and his family. Seeds of Reprisal is a must-read and is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Hot and Hot Fish Club, and Wal-Mart. Other non-GMO and organic Alabama farmers sell their products at local farmers’ markets and directly to farm-to-table driven local restaurants. Some of these farmers are also raising awareness at farmers markets.

GMO farmer 2It was Idie Hastings, partner with her husband Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club, who first brought my attention to White’s story and the book on social media. “Before the book I had been giving thought to my children and the future of their access to quality food,” Idie says. “Wanting to leave my children and grandchildren something very special—something they could touch, nurture, grow, and eat, like an old family recipe passed down for generations—I decided seeds would be my gift to pass down.”  After reading the book, she was convinced of that decision and did extensive research on seeds. “With Michael’s help, I’m now moving forward with my idea,” she says.

She’s not the only mom concerned with the impact of GMOs on her family. With GMOs in baby formulas, baby foods, diapers, and children’s clothes, it has been a focus for BirminghamMom.com for quite some time. “We, as a country and a world, need to fully understand and test the toxicity of our products and recognize that we must do better. It is expensive and difficult to prove causation. So why do consumers have to fund the testing and litigation to prove the linkage to debilitating illnesses rather than make companies prove a product’s safety first?” asks Brooke Battle, partner of BirminghamMom.com.

White’s story has also broadened GMO awareness of two nationally acclaimed, award-winning local chefs—Chris Hastings and Frank Stitt—and has impacted future products used by their restaurants, which were already primarily GMO-free. Both agree that there needs to be extensive independent scientific research on all GMO products for years to come and mandatory labeling of all GMOs. “We are giving Seeds of Reprisal as gifts to friends and family and selling the book in the restaurant. This is the first time we have considered selling someone else’s item in our restaurant,” Chris says. “Because we make everything in our restaurant from scratch, and use sugar cane, not sugar beets, we were largely GMO-free before reading the book. But we were challenged to find non-GMO flours and oils. Now we have resolved that with King Arthur Flour and non-GMO sunflower oil.” They also don’t buy any farm-raised fish. “Farmed fish is terrible for the environment, and they use a lot of unsafe chemicals,” Chris explains. The Hastings buy 100 percent wild-caught fish and make every attempt to buy heritage breed non-GMO animals.

Stitt also sources his restaurants—Bottega Café, Bottega Restaurant, Chez Fonfon, and Highlands Bar and Grill—with local organic products, including from his own farm, Paradise Farm, which is farmed organically with non-GMO seeds. He also serves fresh Gulf seafood and sustainably raised poultry, beef, veal, lamb, and game. “I have spoken with friends and guests about this book’s impact and shared it on social media,” Stitt says.

Many states have given up on any forthcoming national labeling of GMOs and taken labeling on as a state initiative. During 2013 and 2014, more than 70 bills and ballot initiatives were introduced in 30 states, while big chemical agriculture companies and big food companies funded multimillion-dollar campaigns against state labeling. Connecticut and Maine legislatures passed labeling laws, but they won’t go into effect unless neighboring states also do so. Vermont passed a labeling law to go into effect in 2016. And on Nov. 4, 2014, Hawaii’s Maui County passed one of the strongest anti-GMO measures ever, despite the opposition outspending supporters by a ratio of 87 to 1. The Maui GMO moratorium calls for a complete suspension of the cultivation of GMO crops until studies conclusively prove they are safe. And California banned GMO salmon in 2014.

GMO AlabamaBut Alabama is lacking in this department. With no GMO labeling laws, we have no means of knowing if produce, fish, animal, or processed food is genetically engineered or if our dairy or meat comes from an animal that was fed GMO feed. But a Facebook group of Alabamians—Alabamians for GMO Labeling—wants to change this, is growing awareness, and is planning to get labeling on the ballot in Alabama. Hot and Hot Fish Club was the first Birmingham restaurant to further the group’s message by putting their logo on its menus and front door. To join or get updates from this group, visit Facebook.com/AlabamaGMO.

White believes that GMOs can be eradicated from our food supply, but not overnight. “It has to happen in stages of replacing GMO foods with organic foods by five or more percent each year, just as GMOs were phased into our food supply,” White explains. “Due diligence has to be done to prepare a plan for the future.”  For example, Whole Foods plans that all products sold in its stores will disclose any GMOs by 2018.

This food movement for organic and non-GMO foods is already making its way back up the food chain to benefit non-GMO farmers, such as White. Due to the increasing demand for non-GMO soy and corn, his phone is ringing with calls from companies interested in buying his entire fall harvest and at much higher prices than GMO corn and soybean crops yield.

White is also a newfound hero to a new generation. The GAC/Youth Leadership Development Program in Birmingham recently honored him with the Col. Leo Thorsness Courage Award. All the students in this year’s group are reading Seeds of Reprisal as a part of this year’s curriculum and theme of courage. Every generation has to fight for something. Food safety may be this generation’s battlefield.

GMO Brochure

 

 

GMO brochure 2

4 Responses to “Behind the Seeds”

  1. Lisa says:

    Props to you guys for writing this article. Most people have no idea what’s going on, and it’s sad. What these companies like Monsanto are doing, trying to own nature and poisoning people, is wrong. The fact that no one knows that this is even happening is extremely frightening. Good for you guys for spreading the word.

  2. Michelle Wade says:

    We are friends with Michael and grow a lot of non Gmo produce.Can u contact us?

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