Claire Hope Cummings and the Uncertain Peril of genetic engineering

Claire Hope Cummings is author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds. She was an environmental lawyer for 20 years, four of them with the US Department of Agriculture. As a public radio and television reporter, and as a writer, Cummings has been honored for her coverage of food and farming.

What inspired you to write this book?
As an environmental lawyer, I saw how government regulations were being dismantled during the Reagan Administration and watched the rise of toxic industries, including genetic engineering in agriculture. I was shocked and concerned about the public health impacts, the right to know, and the right to have a say about what’s in our food. I wanted to address those issues.

After retiring from law I became a journalist and discovered that many people don’t know what’s in their food. I also worked with indigenous communities and traditional farmers and saw that there were healthy ways to feed ourselves that were being neglected and wiped out. And now, we’re facing such huge threats to the natural world.

The question we need to ask, given the coming “perfect storm” of social and environmental crises we face—loss of biodiversity, water shortages, global warming, peak oil—is: what are the optimal and sustainable technologies we need to grow more food and provide energy, soil fertility and water?

I wanted to answer that question with this book.

Your book focuses on the importance of seed. Why is that?
Seeds represent the regenerative capacity of the earth.

Whoever controls the future of seed controls the future of food. Right now, this control is in the hands of a few agrochemical companies. Are we going to let Monsanto decide what we grow and how we eat?

The industry had to take away the farmer’s right to save seed in order to control seed and that may be the saddest story of 20th century agriculture.

I say let’s return seed saving to farmers, and to the people who work the land. Seed is the common heritage of humanity and the earth, that’s where it belongs.

What do you mean when you say genetic engineering is part of a “matrix of control?”
Genetic engineering was created as a means of control. It was imposed on us, no one asked for it. The long standing farm research and government safety measures were bypassed. This technology is all about seizing what nature has produced and controlling it for private profit. In the meantime, farmers lose their autonomy and consumers lose choices.

It works like this: genetic engineering begins with control at the biological level and then exerts control over the regulatory, legal, and market mechanisms. And then control over the farmer and the consumer. And the avoidance of any accountability for what happens, that is one area where they are not in control.

What do you see as the health and environmental risks of genetic engineering?
Immunological responses are one potentially serious health problem. All living immune systems are under stress these days, but there is very little research focusing on immunological responses to the novel molecules in GMOs. And there are allergic responses, possible recombinant pathogens, and animal studies that show digestive, cell formation, and liver abnormalities.

Contamination is the main environmental risk, but of course it is an economic problem as well. Now there are “superweeds” with triple herbicide resistance and pollution from increased use of chemicals. In the long term, no one knows how these organisms will behave in the environment. Once GM crops are de-regulated there is no post market testing of how they impact human health and the environment.

Personally, and after studying this industry over the last 15 years, I believe GMO contamination has been a purposeful strategy used by the industry as a back door way of getting GMOs into the food supply. They allow contamination and then get USDA approval rather than clean up the mess and they knew all along, as environmentalists did, that this would happen. A few years ago, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association went around to schools promoting biotechnology in classrooms. They gave packets of Bt corn to children to take home and plant, in violation of EPA regulations.

Do you see proponents of biotechnology using the current world food crisis as way to justify developing more GMOs?
Totally. Their fingerprints are all over this so called “crisis.” I’m sure they are fanning the flames because it serves their interest to promote scarcity.

The biotechnology industry has launched a stealth campaign to spread misinformation in Europe about the productivity and safety of GMOs. When I was in England recently, I saw an article in Country Life magazine, which said that GM crops are absolutely necessary to feed the world and they are more productive than conventional crops. I saw the same kind of thing in SEED, and other popular magazines.

I wrote letters to the editor pointing out their unscientific statements because the science indicates that GMOs are not more productive, they create more risks for nature and people, and they are the last thing a hungry person wants. End of story.

What is your sense about public awareness of GM foods in the US?
I live in England part of the year and awareness of GMOs there is much greater. They have labeling of GM foods. Marks & Spencer (a supermarket chain) has large signs on their walls, saying their products contain no GMOs.

In the US, the industry counts on people being unaware of GM foods or lulled into being unconcerned. If people aren’t aware of the risks, they are vulnerable to being duped. My main concern is that new GM products are coming along with even more risky traits like drugs and human genes and that our food is becoming ever more artificial.

What type of agriculture is needed to produce healthy nourishing food to feed a growing population?
We need proven technologies to produce better food and protect soil and water and support our communities. Fortunately, we already have such a technology: it’s called organic farming.

It’s time to return to whole farm-based productivity, which works with the health of everything—soil, environment, human beings, and community. Productivity arises from the sacred relationship between people, plants, and place. Productivity is a consequence of ecological action collaborating with nature; it cannot be sustained by fossil fuel based technologies. It’s about fostering health and building food systems based on restoring both biological and cultural communities.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report October 2008