No GMO Conference Hits San Francisco

I attended the first Justice Begins With Seeds Conference to deepen my understanding of sustainable agriculture and genetically modified organisms. This feature highlights some of the activists I spoke with, and their concerns.

I’m still unclear on what the impacts of GMOs are, especially on human health, but I wanted to give voice to the critics, who I think are often overlooked in the general media stories.

For more information about the conference see San Francisco Justice Conference Plants A Seed.


The Justice Begins With Seeds Conference took place earlier this month in the Women’s Building in San Francisco’s Mission district.

Scientists, farmers, and activists gathered to talk about seed and food justice.

The conference focused on genetically modified food as the “symbol of the corporate food regime”.

Karen Swift is with California Biosafety Alliance, and a conference organizer.

SWIFT: I see GMOs as kind of a trigger point – the biotech industry is promoting this industrial mono-cropping agriculture, taking control of the commons, pushing people off the land, destroying topsoil which is then polluting water, causing water runoff and erosion as well, and contributing to climate change, and it’s really the kind of basis we need to start with to deal with all these other issues before us. So that’s why – It really comes down to seed, it comes down to soil.

That laundry list of social and eco justice issues dominated the weekend, along with discussions about health and environmental impacts of GMOs.

Genetically Modified Organisms – also known as genetically engineered, biotech or transgenic seeds – contain genes from other organisms.

Desired traits are inserted using a technique called “recombinant DNA technology”.

Most GE crops on today’s market are engineered to be herbicide or pest resistant, and some seeds are “stacked” to contain both traits.

Many conference attendees are worried about these crops.

Rafael, I’m from Sacramento, and I’m interested in honoring the seeds because like Vandana Shiva said the other day, we’re trying to push back against genetic pollution and pollution of life by foreign types of organisms created by death giving processes not life giving processes. Seeds are life and we’re trying to keep life pure.

More than 40 countries, including the European Union, have GMO labeling laws, restrictions or even bans.

But GMOs have never been labeled in the United States.

Pamm Larry wants to change that.

She spoke at the conference, and calls herself the “original instigator of the genetically engineered labeling act” in California.

She says after studying GMOs for a number of years,

LARRY: I was getting actually kind of depressed about the situation, almost catatonic – I’m a grandma and a mom and wondering what kind of a world we were leaving our children. And concerned about the things that we don’t know about genetically engineered foods and particularly with potential health risks.

Larry’s group, Label GMOs, is campaigning for a “Right to Know” labeling initiative on California’s 2012 ballot.

LARRY: One of the things that was kind of disconcerting to me was the lack of independent research. Just the incomplete independently run science. There’s a plethora of industry-run science. But again when someone has a fiscal incentive for a certain outcome I don’t tend to trust the information.

Larry says she’s never done anything like this before.

She was in a hotel room in San Francisco when inspiration struck.

LARRY: The GMO thing came into the brain and then all o the sudden it was like boom – do an initiative. There wasn’t a voice, but it was just like this knowing that this is what I wanted to do. And it was about getting the foods labeled but also about us remembering our power and how powerful we are and how in control of our food we actually are when we decide to take steps.

Now Larry’s touring the state, rallying volunteers to collect signature collection to get on the 2012 ballot.

She says the initiative is about consumer choice.

LARRY: The farmer’s right to grow, our right to know. We have a right to know.

Larry says if labeling is going to pass, it needs to happen now.

LARRY: The majority of our foods are not genetically engineered so my thing is, we need to do this now so that we’re not in 10 years talking about 20 other foods that are endemic and that we can’t control.

The main GMOs on the market are corn, soy, cotton and canola, along with some potatoes and squash.

GE sugar beets and alfalfa are making their way through the courts now,

while salmon is slowly swimming upstream to be the first engineered animal.

Monsanto just announced plans for GE broccoli and sweet corn.

The FDA doesn’t require GMO labeling, because they say GE products are “substantially equivalent” to conventional seeds.

Andy Kimbrell, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety, isn’t convinced.

KIMBRELL: Substantial equivalence is out the window – no one believes that they’re substantially equivalent, GMOs to anything else. I mean, that argument was silly to begin with – you’ve got novel genetic material from a different species, from a bacteria in the plant, viruses people have never seen, you’ve got antibiotic marker genes that resist catamiacin and ambecillin. They’re all patented as being completely novel, how could this be substantially equivalent? Ludicrous, ludicrous.

Kimbrell’s Center for Food Safety has 5 lawsuits right now – to restrict planting of GE alfalfa, sugar beets and eucalyptus trees, to block planting GMOs in nature preserves, and to stop GE salmon.

KIMBRELL: We don’t get passive aggressive, we just sue you at CFS.


But biotech supporters say the crops are safe for humans, and necessary to feed a growing population with limited resources.

I decided it was time to see what Monsanto had to say for themselves, so I checked out their website.

MONSANTO: We’re Monsanto, and we’re working with farmers and partners worldwide to realize a vision for sustainable agriculture. It’s a vision that strives to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, to protect and preserve this planet we all call home, and to help improve lives everywhere.

Kimbrell isn’t buying it.

KIMBRELL: The fact of the matter is, not a single human being gets up in the morning wanting to buy a GMO food. 30 years, 100 billion dollars later, they have been unsuccessful at supplying even one advantage to any consumer on earth. No better flavor, no better taste, no more vitamins. No less caffeine in your coffee, no less nicotine in your cigarette – I mean, if you have a GMO product and a non-GMO product it offers you no benefits, only risk. We can debate the risk – a lot of people say it’s high, low – regardless, it’s not zero. So why would any rational consumer say, oh I’m going to pick the GMO product?

MONSANTO: We’re working with farmers to increase what they can grow on an acre of land, and we’re making great progress. We’re working to reduce the amount of land, water and energy you’ll need to grow those crops. And we’re working to improve lives in the process, by harnessing innovative technologies, to give growers better tools, so they can provide for their families, their communities, and people around the world.

But Kimbrell can’t be swayed from his skeptical stance.

KIMBRELL: It’s the dirty secret of biotech, it’s why they get on NPR and say we’re gonna squeeze each drop of water, global warming, the blind shall see in Africa, the lame shall walk – all this B.S. because they know they haven’t done a damn thing for the consumer in America – so they’ve got to sell it on false altruism.

MONSANTO: Stand in the Amazon or the Arctic and you’ll see ancient rainforest and majestic shelves of ice disappearing. Stand in one of the many isolated villages around the world and you’ll see farmers without access to technology or markets to pull themselves out of poverty.

This is where Jeff Conant chimes in.

Conant, a writer, journalist and communications director for the Global Justice Economy Project, says the Monsanto narrative is false.

CONANT: Getting into the facts of it world crop production has tripled since the 1950s and more people go hungry now than 20 years ago. We the imperial seed corporations we can feed the world but we don’t / won’t because it’s not good for business.

Kimbrell says business is exactly what’s driving these biotech developments.

KIMBRELL: Bottom line – GMOs are about chemical companies selling more chemicals. And for those of us who fought for organic, and I fought for organic for 25 years, that is the opposite of organic. We have spent our lives trying to get rid of pesticides, get rid of herbicides, get rid of fertilizers. And here a technology comes along whose sole purpose now is to increase the amount of toxins, herbicides in our foods.

He says that last year alone, 150 million pounds of additional herbicides were sprayed because of GE crops.

KIMBRELL: What happens to the roundup? What happens to the weeds? Old Darwin comes in, old Charles Darwin – super weeds! That’s right! What a well-informed audience, that’s right – so they develop resistance to the weeds!

KIMBRELL: They are going up the toxic spiral – now they know it’s planned obsolescence – what happens at the end of the day folks? The weeds will be resistant to everything, but by then they’ll have their billions. They’ll own most of the seeds of the world.

Kimbrell says Monsanto, DuPont and Sangenta produce half of the world’s commercial seeds between them.

KIMBRELL: We will not be successful simply by defeating GMOs… As Vandana Shiva told me one day, it would be a tragedy if we beat GMOs – and we will be GMOs, we will – it would be a tragedy if we did that and then only for them to cry all the way to the seed bank. That would be a tragedy.

So for him it’s not just about getting rid of GMOs, or getting farmers to switch to organic.

KIMBRELL: On top of organic we need to fight for local, appropriate scale, humane – very important to me with those 10 billion animals that are slaughtered this year – socially just and bio-diverse. None of that is sufficiently in organic. So we talk about organic and beyond – organic should be the floor.

This is a battle happening around the world every day, and many speakers at the conference have been working the issue since before I was born.

I went to this conference expecting to hear why GMOs are bad – and I wasn’t disappointed.

Monsanto’s website has slick answers to all the FAQs, and dozens of studies showing their products are safe and effective.

I don’t understand the science behind a lot of the research, and I can’t tell who’s telling the truth.

For me, the superweeds and superinsects alone are enough of a reason to ease off this arms race against nature.

Add the ecosystem destruction this kind of industrial agriculture creates, and the possible health risks, and I think I’ll stick with the precautionary principle on this one.

If the GMO Labeling initiative passes, it will be a lot easier for consumers to avoid GMOs, if they want to.

Larry is hopeful.

LARRY: I don’t think we’re going to have a problem getting it on the ballot at all. I think once we get it on the ballot do we’re going to have a challenge, because we’re going to have a very loud bullhorn on the other end.

There’s a saying by one of the people who worked for one of the companies that if you put a label on a genetically modified food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it. So they’re frightened, they’re frightened.

For MIIS Radio, I’m Jessy Bradish.

Fade out – Sanskrit prayer from the Seed Exchange – hear a mix from the event here.


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