Protesters march against Monsanto in Eastpointe

State, company say no dangers with genetically engineered crops

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published October 23, 2013

 Protesters with signs, megaphones and flags express their displeasure with agricultural corporation Monsanto, which produces and sells genetically engineered seeds for farmers.

Protesters with signs, megaphones and flags express their displeasure with agricultural corporation Monsanto, which produces and sells genetically engineered seeds for farmers.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

EASTPOINTE — A small group of protesters concerned about genetically engineered foods staged a march against agricultural company Monsanto Oct. 12 on Gratiot Avenue and Stephens Road.

The March Against Monsanto in Eastpointe was just one of several protests staged across the country opposing the seed giant, which has a research division working on making crops that are more resistant to pests and more nutritious.

Monsanto does this at times with traditional crossbreeding methods, where crops are bred over repeated generations to produce specific traits. It has also been involved in modern genetic engineering methods to add new traits to these plants.

It is the genetic engineering side of the business that concerns Josette Sampson, who organized the Eastpointe march. She said she put the march together after attending a similar one in Mount Pleasant last May, realizing there was no march in this part of the state.

Sampson is concerned about the long-term impact of genetically modified crops (GMOs) on both the environment and people, and said she does not believe that enough research has been done on them to certify the practice as truly safe.

“There really isn’t enough research that has been done on GMOs to ensure that they are safe for consumption or the environment,” she said. “It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that if you start messing with the ecology and the food chain, there is going to be some long-term impact.”

Sampson used an example of a study that suggested that rats fed genetically modified Roundup Ready corn over the course of two years were more likely to die of tumors.

The study’s methodology and statistical methods have come under scrutiny from other scientists, as reported by the magazine Forbes in September of 2012, as it reportedly used a breed of rat bred to create tumors and had too small of a control group.

A systemic review of GMO research by a group of Italian scientists, led by biologist Alessandro Nicolia and published in the journal Critical Review of Biotechnology, found that roughly 1,700 studies performed in a 10-year period, GMOs are not harmful to the environment.

The scientists also found that GMO crops have not had a detrimental impact on human and animal health, reporting that there is no credible evidence that GMO crops’ DNA can impact humans. While genetically engineered plants can crossbreed with non-GMO plants, the review said that crossbreeding can happen naturally with wild plants, too.

Monsanto representatives said their primary goal, whether done with GMO or crossbred crops, is to improve farm yields and reduce the need for pesticides and weed killers.

“Monsanto is primarily a seed company,” said Monsanto Director of Corporate Affairs Tom Helscher. “We sell seeds to farmers.  The 21,000 people at Monsanto are proud of our efforts to help improve farm productivity and food quality.”

Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development Director Jamie Clover Adams said that, functionally, the primary difference between conventional breeding for traits and genetically engineering crops is the speed in which specific traits can be reached.

She said conventional breeding can take around eight years to come up with a desirable trait, while modern technology can speed that up tremendously. Furthermore, genetic engineering can produce crops resistant to pests and weeds, requiring fewer pesticides to guarantee a strong harvest.

“When you’re doing conventional breeding, you’re breeding for things like trying to get hardier varieties, ones that can last in droughts, so that’s the same sort of thing you see in genetically engineered crops,” Clover Adams said. “Drought tolerance, greater pest tolerance — what (genetically modified crops) do is use science and technology to make things more efficient.”

An article published in the Boston Review in September said herbicide-resistant crops allow farmers to use fewer toxic herbicides and till the soil less frequently, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion. The author, University of California researcher Pamela Ronald, also writes that nonsubsistence farmers usually purchase seeds each season and use them all to grow fresh crops, rather than save some or try to crossbreed.

Additionally, Clover Adams said it is possible to make a crop more nutritious, which would likely be impossible using traditional breeding methods. She used the example of rice being genetically engineered to have more vitamin A in it, which she said would be a boon to rice-reliant people around the world.

Genetically engineered crops are also highly regulated for safety, and the research done by scientists — funded both by public and private money — have found them to be safe for human consumption, Clover Adams said.

Sampson said she is not so willing to trust regulators, believing there is political favoritism. She also pointed out that GMOs are banned in other parts of the world.

“It’s something that’s banned in over 30 countries worldwide,” Sampson said. “It makes you think, ‘Why wouldn’t it be here?’ We’re not stupid, so it’s got to be something else to it.”

Clover Adams said that regardless of if a person believes climate change is caused by humans or not, it seems to be happening, and that crops must be able to withstand those weather conditions.

“I find it kind of interesting that people who bring up these issues are people who (usually) believe in climate change,” she said. “So they believe the experts when it comes to climate change but won’t believe them when it comes to transgenic plant material.”

“I think that when we look at our world, and by 2050 we will have 30 percent more people to feed on the same amount of land, so we have to increase production by 100 percent just to feed people,” Clover Adams said, “I find it hard to believe we can accept science and technology in all other parts in our lives, from medicine to advances in pharmaceuticals, but we won’t accept them in food production. And if we have to use tools that are 100 years old, we’ll never be able to meet those demands, so I say we have an obligation to society to provide food.”

Clover Adams said that Michigan farmers can still grow traditionally bred crops and sell them,  and she believes there is room on the market for both kinds.

That may not be enough for the March Against Monsanto groups. Sampson said labeling genetically engineered foods so people are more aware when making food choices is a start, but their ultimate goal is to see the plants banned for sale in the U.S. entirely.

“Really, labeling is just giving them permission to continue what they’re doing, and we want them banned altogether,” Sampson said.

Another worldwide march currently is planned for May 24, 2014, and Sampson is hoping to get another one organized in the area.