Claire Hope Cummings does not mince words when it comes to the state of global food production and sustainability. The award-winning author, journalist and environmental lawyer has been speaking out about the dangers of genetic modification for years, and has traveled the world documenting both the changing climate and the proliferation of genetically modified seeds.
Her book Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, received high praise from Michael Pollan and the New Yorker, and was described by fellow author Vandana Shiva as “a wake-up call about the threats facing our seeds and the freedom of the seed.” Despite her tough critiques of seed and chemical conglomerates like Monsanto, and her warnings about the tenuous future of food and biodiversity, her stories are primarily about connecting people, places and plants, and respecting the wisdom of traditional land-based cultures.
Cummings spoke with Ethical Foods about the consequences of genetic seed modification for both farmers and consumers, her fears concerning the rise in synthetic biology, and how individuals can effect positive change.
You’ve said that whoever controls the future of seed controls the future of food.
“Seeds live at the heart of our food system. Seeded plants provide us with just about everything we need to live, from most of our foods, clothing, shelter, and even the air we breathe! Seeds are living organisms and part of the great web of life. So to have a private company buy up valuable seed collections, own them, and patent the genetic basis for our most vital food crops is a real threat to our food security. Seeds are a gift of creation, and the natural world belongs to all humanity, it is our common wealth. Now, a handful of companies decide what plants are useful to them for profit and discard the rest. This is an ignorant approach to life on earth.
“Very few people know that agro-chemical companies privately own almost of all useful seeds and they do not have the public interest in mind. They decide what seeds are available. In some areas farmers can’t get any seeds other than what Monsanto makes available. And Monsanto, for instance, forbids farmers and researchers to study and improve basic food and fiber plants. This threat is largely invisible but it will become an issue for everyone the next time we need ways to cope with droughts or diseases, because public access to the greatest amount of genetic diversity is the key to both our abundance and survival. When people still had the means to grow food and save seeds locally, that dispersed food system was far more resilient than what we have now. Even if certain crops don’t get grown, we will regret allowing the privatization of our seed supply.”
What threat does genetic engineering pose to human and environmental health?
“This is a huge question because it has become a political issue, with people taking sides, which masks the real threats because we get caught up in the back and forth and forget to pay attention to what the science is telling us is true. I suggest that people rely on public interest peer-reviewed science, which is the gold standard for answering important questions like this, and the science clearly indicates cause for concern regarding human health. Plus, there are many proven threats to the environment from the loss of insect habitat, and the very serious problem of accelerated resistance in pests and diseases.”
How has genetic seed engineering impacted small-scale and subsistence farmers in particular?
“The facts of the impact on small scale farmers are well known, but the millions of dollars spent by the international agro-chemical corporations that says patented technology will feed the world has obscured, and politicized, this information. The question of what is the optimal technology to feed the world is settled by science. The results of a major peer-reviewed international study show that genetic modification is not the answer to feeding the world. If you ask third world farmers what they want, it is not patented seeds. The time has come for us to work with them, not tell them what we want them to do. They need land, water, seeds that can be saved and developed under local conditions, and access to markets, especially the women farmers, who are the ones really feeding the world. No one needs industrial farming and patented techno-seeds, least of all subsistence farmers!
“How is it that GMOs are found in so many foods, yet they’ve not been tested for human health hazards? This is an important question because most Americans think the government ensures safety of foods. The story of how agro-chemical industry took over the regulatory agencies is in my book, but it is not well known or understood. The system the industry rigged up is essentially voluntary and passive. Whatever the government and the public know is only what the GMO industry says. Agencies like the FDA and USDA simply rubber stamp industry information. There is no independent testing and the government does not ensure safety. And yet, the industry adverts say they do. That is called lying.”
Why do you think America in particular has charged headlong into genetic modification while other countries have largely banned or strictly regulated GMO foods?
“Agriculture in the U.S. has been industrialized for a long time. By that I mean not just the use of chemicals and technology, but the decline of knowledge, the constriction of what is grown and how and why. Science and research, which used to be done by public institutions (land grant colleges for instance) in the public interest, is now funded and controlled by private interests that do not act on behalf of the public. They just look for products that can increase profits and only ask if it works. They do not test or check to see what else a product might do, such as poison us.
“The level of control by corporations is astounding. And they also control what the public thinks because of their tremendous spending on advertising and control of the media, which is dependent on oil and food industry ads. Except for the natural and organic farming efforts, American agriculture is now just an industry, like auto manufacturing. The health of people and the land are of no concern to these industrial interests in America especially.
“If the United States had a health care system that had to deal with the health of people and the land, where we understood what we are really paying for in terms of costs and suffering, we would return to regulating food and farming. We would demand that public money be spent on health in food and farming, instead of billions in subsidies to industrial-GMO farms for manufacturing and animal feed, which is what most of our agriculture does now. We would ensure that these chemicals were not poisoning the land, water and ourselves, and they would be tested and subjected to environmental restraints. However, health care in America is also privatized and the same companies like Bayer, Syngenta and Dupont are in health care and agro-chemical.
“Do people understand the level of control they exert on both government and industries like agriculture? Without a public health system, controlled by the public interests, there are no policy incentives to regulate these excesses. In countries with public health systems, there is some incentive to ensure the health of the food system and to protect the environment. It is far more cost-effective to ensure health on the front end, but, unfortunately, money now controls policy, not the public interest. Even China, famous for disregarding health issues in food, labels GM in food.
“All I can say is we are headed in the wrong direction. If people care about healthy food, which can only come from healthy land, they must get political in order to change this.”
What is your take on Synthetic Biology, or synbio, and its agricultural applications? Could synbio have potential benefits as the world population grows, or will it further endanger our food systems?
“Very few people understand what synthetic biology is, and that scares me. Essentially, technology is outpacing our social and ethical responses. We just cannot keep up.
“Synbio is the creation of entirely artificial life forms. Anyone, for any reason, from a terrorist to a well-meaning lab technician can now create life. Could we do some good with this technology? Who knows. The problem is, we have a terrible track record. We as a species have done so little good in this world, and I don’t trust the modern techno-society to figure this out. Our only hope is to use the precautionary principle – better safe than sorry – and not rush head long into changing life on earth. We are simply not capable of anticipating the unintended (or disregarded) consequences.
“Like GM, synbio only does things we tell it to do and most of that can be done already with naturally occurring organisms. So why practice GM or Synbio? Because you can patent the results. Patents are the lifeblood of these technologies, and patents means ownership, market control and profit. That is what’s driving this, not caring for life on earth or the suffering and needs of people.
“What kind of world do you want to live in? The world we were given has enormous natural genius embedded in its systems and if there was some humility, some respect, and sense of wonder involved in our science we might be able to actually work with and alongside nature, not against it, to solve problems. Technology is simply an extension of the human mind and hands and, frankly, we are pretty stupid. Modern humans have only been around for about 50,000 years. That’s nothing and yet we think we are so smart. But look at what we have done even in the last century, and it is obvious that we are blind to our capacity for self-destruction. We are greedy, crave comfort and are willing to cause pollution, extinction and climate chaos to have it. And we have not solved persistent poverty and war. The persistence of the illusion of our superiority is truly astounding.
“One simple change would be to see the interconnectedness of all life on earth and our part in that. A Buddhist perspective perhaps, but one that would return some context to our thinking. Put ourselves into the larger context of life and if we can become a life-affirming species, we might not just survive, but thrive.”
Is there any hope of saving traditional farming methods and biodiversity?
“We may not have any choice. Industrial agriculture may fail under the pressures of widespread social and environmental change. I would prefer we make better choices and head in that direction. There is a lot of good science and data out that says we can feed the growing human population and provide for our energy needs with distributed local systems that are sustainable. The choices we make personally and professionally will determine the course of the future, but the most important choice we need to make now is to get really down and dirty and political. Run for office, change government and get radical about it. That may be distasteful to people but, frankly, now that I am in my 70s I am out of patience with taking the easy way out.
“Wendell Berry, the great poet farmer who has done some of the best writing on all this, once told me that the problem is we now act by ‘proxy.’ He meant that we do things by trying to get others to act on our behalf. He meant that the time has come to act on our own behalf. So many of these issues are complex, especially the ones involving runaway technologies or corporate control of government. It does not seem like we can change that. So we send checks to NGOs and hope they will do what’s needed, and the NGOs like to promise that they can. But it is too late for that now. Things are spinning out of control. I read the science every day and I can say without any hesitation that we are blindly walking a treacherous path. Very few writers and activists want to talk plainly and say, well, we’re screwed. They have to talk about hope.
“I hosted an event with Jane Goodall in Berkeley earlier this year and I too talked about hope in my introduction. I wanted to make an important distinction, which is that hope is not some soft place to rest in false optimism. Hope is the precursor to change. You have to have hope to see the better vision and work up the courage to act. And even if you are desperately depressed about things, with some justification I might add, then you still have to hold out hope for the younger generation. Jane Goodall made that clear, that even if we are discouraged, or feel guilty for what we have done, it is a moral obligation to give hope to the next generation.”
How can backyard farmers and gardening enthusiasts ensure their seeds have not been genetically altered?
“Getting informed is the essential first step. Then, taking action to ensure that organic heritage seed is available to all is the most important thing we can do. There are some fantastic organizations that do this work, like the Organic Seed Association. Supporting them would be a small step in the right direction. Buying seed from companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge is mandatory and of course learning to save seed is both really fun and a part of the solution. One of the best movements to arise recently is local seed libraries. Hundreds of small groups all over the country are figuring out how to save seed, categorize it, exchange it locally, and learn all the botanical and social mechanisms needed.
“Seed saving is perhaps the most fundamental and personally rewarding work we can do. I love going down to my garden in late fall and harvesting seeds. I dry them in boxes and bowls and then sit outside with my grandchildren and show them how to clean, sort and store. We put aside some for planting next year and some to give away as gifts. It’s a time for story telling, or just chatting, as people have done for thousands of years. In other cultures, the women still know the songs to sing and the stories to tell while they plant, harvest and save seeds. Along with the loss of seed saving, we are losing those stories and traditions too.
“Doing this with children is an opportunity to engage them with basic human values. These are what I call ‘the lessons of seeds:’ that life goes on in cycles and we are part of that; that being generous ensures our survival; and that sharing hands on work is the basis of human society. As an older woman, I feel that even when a life is nearing the end of its productive cycle, when it’s dry, bent, and losing its ripeness, it’s at its most magnificent moment – the time when it passes along the best it has to offer to the next generation.
“I like to write and speak about these ‘issues’ and try to provoke people into getting political about them. But really, at the end of the day, what I like best about seeds is being able to share them, especially with children. It makes sense on a level that few things do anymore. Besides, doing the work I do, following these technological threats to life on earth, is challenging intellectually and emotionally. I have learned that to be really effective at our work, we absolutely have to re-engage at the level of doing hands-on shared work with others. Anyone can. You don’t have to have a garden to save seeds. All you need is the willingness to engage with others because seed saving is not something we humans have ever done alone. It is that shared time, shared wisdom, and shared vision for sustaining life that sustains me, and has sustained humanity all along.”
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Different views on synbio
Synthetic biology is an extreme form of genetic engineering, an emerging technology that is developing rapidly and entering the marketplace. Like traditional GMOs, the products of synthetic biology are virtually unregulated, have not been assessed adequately for impacts on our health or environment, and are not required to be labeled. Instead of swapping genes from one species to another (as in traditional genetic engineering), a new basket of engineering techniques, including computer generated DNA, directed evolution, site-specific mutagenesis and more, all cluster around an approach called synthetic biology.
Synthetic biology could have serious impacts on the health of people and ecosystems, on our planet’s biodiversity and for communities on the front lines of corporations’ plans to deploy new technologies and novel organisms for profit.
Like many things we do, synthetic biology comes with risks, especially when it comes to safety and security. But consider this: We fly airplanes, we drive cars, we treat cancer with poison— all of these activities could be dangerous, but they also have benefits that far outweigh the risks. We believe this is true of synthetic biology as well. As Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, once said, “Synthetic biology is like iron: You can make sewing needles and you can make spears. Of course, there is going to be dual use.”