Route 80 travels through the farming heartland of Iowa, where row after row of seemingly perfect stalks of corn greet passersby. This uniform landscape gives a sense of consistent calm along this long stretch of road. “But after miles and miles, a different feeling takes over,” explains Mark Schapiro, editorial director for the Center of Investigative Reporting and author of Exposed, a study of U.S. environmental and safety regulations. “It is like passing a million identical concrete posts, but each one is an indistinguishable crop—one after another in the millions—past the same fields of corn, all of the same height with the same yellow color and the same everything. Then you just begin to imagine what created this long thoroughfare of uniformity, and it becomes haunting.”
This surreal scene—which can be found in nearly 300 million acres of land in 23 countries—has been molded by the effects of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), in which the gene of one species is implanted into the DNA of another. Initially approved for use in the early 1990s at a time when there was very little understanding of its safety, the use of GMO seeds in agriculture has grown rapidly. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2007, 91 percent of soy, 87 percent of cotton and 73 percent of corn planted in the U.S. were grown from genetically modified seeds. The Institute for Responsible Technology estimates that 70 percent of food products found in the average American grocery story are genetically modified.
The hand that feeds us:
Percy Schmeiser, a farmer for almost 60 years in Saskatchewan, Canada, has come to know a lot about GMOs and their repercussions. When his non-GMO canola crops were contaminated with genetically modified seeds from Roundup Ready® canola developed by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, they demanded that he pay an annual fee of $15 an acre for use of their engineered crops. These seeds contain a built-in tolerance to Monsanto’s own herbicide, Roundup®, allowing farmers to spray their land with the chemical to kill the weeds without harming the crop itself. It was impossible to know how the Monsanto seeds had made their way on to his land—possibly carried by the wind from a neighbor’s farm, a passing truck or by birds, bees and insects pollinating plants on his farm and others. And this, notes Schmeiser, is the problem. “Seed companies have control of life,” he says. “It is not known if GMO seeds can ever be recalled, which means we’ll forever have lost biodiversity in our entire ecosystem and control over our land, crops and food.”
While GMOs are positioned as a solution to world hunger and food shortage concerns, the USDA—the organization originally responsible for their approval—now reports a decline in crop yields due to GMO use. While initial growth rates may be high, they steadily decrease as pests adapt to the chemical threats. “When a crop is bred like a thoroughbred race horse, it becomes vulnerable and weakened,” explains Schapiro. “When any new condition or contaminate comes in contact with the plant, it cannot fight back, resulting in illness and reduced yields in the long term.” Human health risks are also linked to GMOs and the associated, widespread use of agricultural chemicals. Long-term risks, while widely unknown, include resistance to antibiotics and allergic reactions to food, resulting when an allergen enters another plant and is unknowingly consumed.
Schmeiser has directly witnessed the effects of manmade chemicals—spurred, he believes, by those companies developing GMO seeds. “Their goal, in the end, is to sell more chemicals that poison us and our environment,” he says. “Since 1947 when I began farming, I have seen what chemicals have done to our land, our wildlife, our birds. I now see that what we are doing is wrong. It is wrong for the environment, for animals and for humans. Insects, fish and other animals cannot protect themselves. It is our job.”
Choosing our food, saving our future:
In contrast to the biologically morphed make-up of GMO crops, organic and Biodynamic® agriculture strive to cultivate diversity and support nature’s instincts. Manipulated organisms—prohibited in organic farming practices—are, however, as with Schmeiser’s crops, threatening contamination from nearby fields. Gunther Hauk, a Biodynamic® farmer who has cultivated his fledging farm in Illinois into a diverse ecosystem, plants forage fields for his bees in hope that they will not have to fly to the neighboring fields of genetically modified corn and soy.
“The challenging thing about GM agriculture is that because pollen travels on the wind, it’s impossible to know about and then prevent contamination without doing testing,” explains Megan Thompson, executive director of the Non-GMO Project. “Traceability and segregation [between GMO and non-GMO crops] are important. Rigorous GMO controls are essential to ensuring a strong future for organic and Biodynamic® agriculture. This is especially true at the seed level. We need to make sure that a truly non-GMO seed supply is maintained.” This is a priority that the non-GMO project, an initiative of the U.S. organic and natural products industry, has taken on while also working to define and label products free of GMOs. “A majority of Americans [54 percent, according to a recent New York Times poll] say they ‘won’t eat’ GMO foods. Unfortunately, GMOs are so prevalent now. Most people are eating them every day, but they don’t even know it.” In Europe, on the other hand, “any food product with more than 0.9 percent GMO contamination has to be labeled as such, and consumers largely reject it,” says Thompson.
Schmeiser believes in putting the power back in the hands of people. “We, the consumer, can still stop GMOs with the food we eat,” he says. “We make a decision every time we choose a safer alternative.”
Within the endless expanse of GMO corn along Iowa’s Route 80, small yet standout plots of organic corn, varying in size and shade of yellow, tell a hopeful story for the future of farming and food. “The variety is in your face on these organic farms—you can’t miss it,” Schapiro recalls. “Leaves, colors, the buzz of insects and animals are so much more tangible.”
Weleda supports GMO-free agriculture. All raw materials used in Weleda products are free of GMOs, and the majority of ingredients are from organic or Biodynamic® farms.