Genetically altered plants are supposedly more resistant to pests and bring higher crop yields. But consumers and farmers are protesting against these plants, and one company, Monsanto, stands in the eye of the storm.
"All we want is a label," call the demonstrators as they march on the White House during a sunny fall day in Washington, D.C.
"Eighty percent of groceries in a normal supermarket are made with genetically altered ingredients," says Megan Westgate, head of "NONGMO Project" and one of the organizers of the demonstrations in the US capital.
GMO means "genetically modified organism." In contrast to Germany, for example, genetically altered food does not have to be labeled as such in the United States.
The march on the White House and the ensuing rally in Lafayette Park, adjacent to it, are the highlights of the "Right2Know" marches. Joseph Wilhelm, the founder of the German organic food chain Rapunzel, has already organized two "Go GMO free" marches in Germany in addition to the "Right2Know" march. Wilhelm has taken his shoes off so his feet can get some air.
"I walked the entire way from New York City to the capital," he says with pride.
Wilhelm actually had a different target in mind for the march: the headquarters of the company Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri. For Wilhelm, Monsanto represents "the symbol for the development of genetically manipulated seeds." But a march to St. Louis would not have gotten much media attention, and in the end that's what it's all about here.
Monsanto was restructured as an agricultural company in 1997, but the company's history goes all the way back to 1901. During the Vietnam War, Monsanto manufactured Agent Orange, the infamous plant-killer deployed by the US military to clear Vietnam's dense foliage, causing serious health complications both for US soldiers and the Vietnamese.
Monsanto distances itself from this history and presents itself today as a company that only develops and sells "seeds and agricultural products." In the 1990s, Monsanto produced corn and cotton seeds that were pest resistant.
Monsanto has a controversial history
"The plants produce the poison themselves," explains Rapunzel-chief Wilhelm. When the plants are, for example, fed to animals they "eat the plants' poison as well," Wilhelm continues. In Germany, products produced from livestock fed with these plants do not require special labels.
Another variant are plants like rapeseed, which are resistant to the commonly used weed-killing spray produced by Monsanto, called "Roundup." The spray destroys all plants in a field except for the specially designed rapeseed. Monsanto says the plants do not cause adverse health effects.
"Biologically modified plants have to undergo more tests and inspections before they are allowed on the market than any other agricultural product [in the US]," wrote Mark Buckingham, spokesman for Monsanto Europe, in an e-mail.
Bill Freese from the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a US-based NGO, however, says that's not the case.
"When I look at the set of regulations governing genetically altered plants, I believe that it's insufficient," Freese said.
When a plant is genetically altered, it can generate mutations.
"Defects can occur," he continued. "Less nutritional value for example, more toxins which are already present in the natural plants in small, non-damaging amounts, or entirely new toxins can arise."
Freese sees allergies as another potential problem. Due to the lack of labeling declaring what the GMOs contain, consumers who experience allergic reactions cannot figure out what may have caused them.
Hans Rudolf Herren, president of Washington's Millennium Institute, warns of health problems related to genetically altered plants and - contrary to the promises from companies like Monsanto - that over the long term an increasing amount of fumigation has to be used.
"It's not enough anymore to spray once, you have to spray twice and with an entire cocktail of herbicides," Herren said.
The weeds become resistance to the herbicides over a certain amount of time, leading to what Herren calls "superweeds."
Weapon against hunger?
The fight against hunger is often cited as an argument in favor of genetically altered seeds. Monsanto spokesman Buckingham wrote that "genetic alterations offer farmers and consumers a wider array of possibilities that cannot be achieved through other means." Buckingham cites India as an example, where the cotton harvest increased from 300 kilograms per hectare in 2002 to 524 kilograms per hectare in 2009.
Shiva argues that GMOs are harming India's farmers
Nobel Prize recipient Vandana Shiva is also part of the demonstrations in Washington. The environmental activist from India has been fighting for years against Monsanto. She cites the report "The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes," which her organization, Navdanya International, released in mid-October.
The report says that Monsanto promised Indian farmers a much higher yield from their seeds than those cited by company spokesman Buckingham. Shiva says that the genetically altered plants have not increased the harvests. "Their claim that you use fewer chemicals is not true," she adds.
Shiva says she concentrates her criticism on Monsanto because "95 percent of the cotton seed is controlled by Monsanto, which has licensing contracts with 60 Indian seed companies."
Monsanto does not provide information about its market share in other parts of the world. In the US, the company creates one-third of the country's corn seed and nine out of 10 fields planted with soy beans use "Roundup Ready Technology" from Monsanto and its licensed companies.
Because Monsanto patents its products, farmers are only allowed to use the seed for one season. They cannot keep a portion of the seed for the next harvest, something which farmers have done for eons. Since they have to buy expensive new seed every year, Shiva argues that many Indian farmers have become highly indebted.
"Two-hundred and fifty thousand farmers in India have killed themselves because of their debts," she said, adding that "Most of these suicides occur in cotton regions."
Some consumers and farmers are concerned about health risks
A 2008 study from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), however, could not find a direct correlation between the planting of genetically altered cotton and suicide in India. According to the study, there was actually an increase in crop yields in many parts of India due to the genetically altered cotton. Harvest shortages, which also occurred, were caused by droughts and other unfavorable conditions.
As a presidential candidate in 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama promised that "we will let people know whether their food has been genetically altered, so that Americans know what they are buying." So far nothing has come of this promise. Responsibility for the inspection and labeling of groceries in the US lies with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more precisely with the chairperson for the division for food security.
In 2010, President Obama appointed a new man for the job, Michael R. Taylor. He previously served as vice president of the lobbying office at Monsanto.
Author: Christina Bergmann, Washington / slk
Editor: Nancy Isenson