Andrew Kimbrell of Center for Food Safety (Part 2)
Here is part two of our latest conversation with Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. If you haven’t listened to part 1 yet, then pause right here and pop over there. We’ll wait.
Ok, welcome back. In this episode, Theresa and Andrew continue their conversation about GMOs, GMO labeling and new legislation moving through Congress right now called the DARK Act, which was passed by the House in July 2015. As of the date of this interview, the legislation has not found a sponsor in the Senate, so it could be some time before it is addressed again in Congress. However, if the act gets made into law, it would have serious consequences for the states that have already passed GMO labeling laws, and for eaters who want to know if GMOs are in their food.
Thank you to Andrew Kimbrell for speaking with us for the second time this year.
Interview with Andrew Kimbrell – part two
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. Today we’ll listen to part two, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, speaking about GMOs. Andrew is a tireless lawyer, a warrior, and has been fighting for a sustainable food system for decades. Andrew is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable experts on biotech, Monsanto, and the country’s efforts to achieve mandatory labeling of GMOs. Andrew, besides being a great strategist, is a gifted speaker. Enjoy.
TM: Well, you know, I think that the public in general has an enormous confidence in these higher-learning academics. If Stanford University comes out and says, “Organic is no different, blah blah blah,” you know, everyone just says, “See? I told you.” And I’m just wondering—
ANDREW KIMBRELL: And that’s a very good example of a department at that university that is funded by the chemical companies, not the individual… So if you look at the individual researchers, they’ll say, “Well, I don’t see any conflict of interest here.” But what they don’t report is the conflict of interest that their university and that that department within the university, the money that they’re getting. So that’s that next level of scrutiny that we always need to show.
And I think the New York Times story was, frankly, pretty lame. I’m glad it was there; it certainly opened the Pandora’s Box of all of us looking at that. We’re doing a lot more Freedom of Information Act because of the good work of the folks that did that, and we’re going to find more and more of this, and we’re going to expose it, and that’s important. And really important here in Washington, D.C., because so many times you will see them bring these academics up in front of Congress who are pretending to be independent but who have been bought out, and Congress believes them. They say, “Well, listen, Andy, I just heard from this great professor at Cornell and this wonderful professor at Princeton, and they said everything’s fine.” I mean, you know, these are major scientists. And without these connections being known, they have the veneer of respectability and academic integrity, when in fact they’ve been bought out.
TM: I think that I’m… Okay, I’m going to confess: I’m a ’60s kid, and we had, you know, we protested Vietnam and we also, when we went to college, when we saw that there was no transparency in what the military was giving to the colleges, we hit the, you might say, the college squares and protested. We’re not seeing anything like that in the colleges. I should be careful about what I’m talking about here, because I’m at the American University. But I’m just surprised that we’re not seeing more students say, “Hey, we’re here for higher learning and we’re not getting this transparency.” And you know, what kind of confidence can they have in their professors?
AK: Yeah, I think that’s really important. And I think that’s a really great suggestion, because that’s something we need to be doing. We need to be taking these findings and really working with student groups at the campus level to help expose what’s really going on on their campus. And that would actually be a really good project. We could start it with food but I’m sure it would extend to many other issues. But starting with food and with the information that we have, and really forcing people in these departments to expose and to reveal their funding sources, and that would really be great.
And we’ve seen that, you know, when our good friend Ignacio Chapela at Berkeley, when he was denied tenure because of his article showing the contamination of heritage corn seed in Mexico with GMO varieties, there were mass demonstrations there at the university. And ultimately, along with legal action, Ignacio got his tenure. So we have seen it on occasion. But now that more and more is coming out, I think it’d be a great handle for the new campus activism.
TM: Okay, students out there, time to get activated.
AK: Yeah, I’m writing it down. This is good stuff. I can see [unclear] help with this as well. I think this is a really exciting idea.
TM: I think that there’s another thought that I’ve had that I really want to ask you about, and that is that, you just hear it over and over again, that the reason why the USDA and the FDA, et cetera, don’t want to regulate is because there’s no difference between food produced in GMO systems and all other systems. There’s no difference. And yet we had a ruling—and I can’t remember the year, but it was when we were looking at, is rBGH, which is of course a GMO, different than milk with no rBGH? And the circuit, federal judge found that in fact there was a difference. And yet we still hear it all the time, “There’s no difference.” Is there a difference or isn’t there a difference?
AK: Of course there’s a difference. I mean, you know, in every cell of every genetically engineered crop, and certainly when we’re talking about corn and soy are the traditionally genetically engineered crops, because there are some new techniques we could talk about. But the technique that the vast majority of the crops is done, every one of them has an agrobacterium vector. That is a tumefaciens bacterium. Sorry for all the big language there. It’s a bacteria that causes tumors in plants. And that’s how they get that novel DNA inside the nucleus of those plant cells, right?
So then they’ll attach then the novel pesticide gene, or a flounder gene into a tomato, and then not only do you have that bacterium DNA that’s now invaded the cell and the nucleus, and the novel DNA from an entirely different species or different kingdom, you name it, you then have promoter viruses. They take viral DNA and they put it into those cells. And then they often even take an antibiotic marker that would resist kanamycin or ampicillin and put it in there.
So in every cell, every cell of this genetically engineered crop you have this cassette of the vector, of that which is invading the cell, almost always in the case of plants, a bacterium DNA; in animals it’s usually a viral DNA. Then the novel DNA that’s never been in that plant before; then the novel promoter viruses—sometimes it’s cauliflower mosaic virus—that’s in that cassette; and then this thing that resists kanamycin and ampicillin, because that’s how they test the plant tissue afterwards. So none of those have ever been in the nucleus of plants before. They’re in every cell of every genetically engineered plant.
So to say that there’s nothing new here is ridiculous. I mean, I say, you know, they’ve put flounder genes in tomatoes. I know of no natural mating between flounders and tomatoes. They’ve put human genes into mice. I know of no natural mating between humans and mice. So to say there’s nothing new here is so unscientific and so laughable, that I’m always surprised… Well, they don’t bring it up when they’re debating me, but I’m always surprised when I hear them debating it, and they do. Obviously it’s completely different. It bring… Every one of these, by the way—the bacterium I just mentioned, the novel DNA, the promoter viruses, and the marker systems are all patented. Many, many dozens of patents on them, and you can only patent something if it’s novel, if it’s new. So, you know, you have this sort of—
TM: A little bit of a contradiction here!
AK: Well, schizophrenia, right? I mean here you have the patent office telling Monsanto, “Yep, that’s never been in plants before,” and the FDA going, “Hey, there’s nothing new here, none.” So obviously, I’ve always said to Monsanto, “Well then give up all your patents. If there’s really nothing new, then you should give up all your patents because they’re all illegal.” They haven’t done that yet.
TM: And somehow they haven’t—the USDA and the FDA—keep saying, “Well, there’s no difference.” I just have to look at—and then of course after reading the Latham article about how many academics bombarded the USDA, when Dicamba going through, to say just how wonderfully safe it was, and of course they ended up rubberstamping it. You have to wonder. A friend of mine just said that, when we were talking about it—and I said, “Well, the science.” And he said, “Science, schmience.” And I think that that’s the way the public must feel right now. What can we believe about science?
AK: You know, well, I mean, there’s even a bigger science issue, which is kind of interesting, and actually most people are not aware of it.
You know, most people might remember that we had the Human Genome project, which looked at all of our DNA, our three billion base pairs of DNA. And what they found was, after looking at it, they found that we didn’t have the hundred thousand of genes they thought we would need to explain all of our complex traits and our trillions of synapses and neurons. Rather we only had about a little under twenty thousand. And then when they looked at other creatures, they found that, you know, for example, mice have twenty-three thousand. Corn has almost forty thousand. Grapes have about forty thousand. And wheat has about a hundred thousand genes. So in other words, wheat has the equivalent of five Nobel Prize winners’ genes. So, Houston, we have a problem.
And it turned out this simplistic idea that was very popular in the 1980s, when this technology was developed, that there’s something called the gene that controls, let’s say, nitrogen fixation in the plant, or the way a plant takes in water, or the temperature at which photosynthesis can take place—that’s all nonsense. There is no such thing. There are no, not one little thing inside the nucleus or others that control all of this stuff. So it turns out to be a very, very, unbelievably, complex system that involves DNA, but also RNA and all these other elements of the cell, and all the microbiome and the other creatures on the roots of a plant. I mean this is a very dynamic, very complex system. So the idea that you can go in and switch a couple of genes around and change fundamental traits of a plant, like fixing nitrogen in the roots or taking in water or yield or nutrition, is just wrong. It’s not how it happens.
So they had a very primitive, Neanderthal biology that they were working with in the 1980s. And that’s why we still have just these little tricks they’ve been able to do with this bacterial DNA, meaning herbicide tolerance and Bt. This is 98, 99 percent of all GMOs out there still have the same two traits that they had in the 1980s. And that’s because the rest of it just doesn’t work. That’s not how biology works.
I think when they started this, they said, “Oh, nature and the nature of plants, they’re going to be no match for our technology.” And it turned out that their technology was actually no match for the complexity of plants, to do anything serious as far as really changing the traits of plants. So it’s been promises, promises, promises. But it turned out, fundamentally, their science was wrong. And it is wrong. And that’s why this will be a failure. You know, I predict this confidently. Not just because we have all these great activists and the growth of the organic movement, but the science is wrong. Genetic engineering is a very reductionist view that does not work.
Now you’ll notice they’re working on RNA interference now with this Arctic apple and the non-bruising potato. They’re moving away from DNA because they realize that’s not working, so they’re trying other techniques that actually have many dangerous—and that’s the real problem here: through genetic engineering, I think we now know, because of our much more sophisticated knowledge of heredity and development, in organisms, we now know that they’re engineering in ignorance. They’re taking one tiny piece of a very complex puzzle that interacts, and they’re playing with it, and they really have no idea what else they’re doing inside that plant, inside that animal, inside that organism.
So that’s what makes it dangerous. Not that they’re going to be successful at having drought resistant plants—they’ve already failed—or nitrogen fixation. They’ve already failed at it all. Or more yield, more nutrition—they’ve already failed. My fear is what they’re going to be doing with enzymes, what they’re doing with algae, what they’re doing with plants. If it escapes the laboratory… They really are working in ignorance, and with the profit motive being their primary incentive, which means they’re trying to get stuff out quickly rather than really understand what they’re doing. So that, to me, is the real problem. This will fail, but the damage that it’ll do, or could do, by playing at this level with the fundamental aspects of an organism are concerning, very concerning.
TM: Boy, I have to tell you, while you’re talking, one, I thought to myself, “Yeah, and we get to be the guinea pigs.” And two, I feel like I’m in a science fiction movie. So, it’s unreal.
AK: Yeah, I was with a [unclear] just a few years ago, and I said, you know, “Why do you guys think you can play God?” And he said, “I’m not playing.” So this gives you their mindset. And James Watson famously said, you know, “If we don’t play God, who will?” So this is a very hubristic, very dangerous mindset. When confronted with the, not only tremendous beauty and amazing, awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world, and the inexplicable seed—I mean, how does something grow from such a tiny thing? The development is still such a mystery with so many explanatory gaps between a seed and an elm tree, or a seed and a corn plant or wheat plant. We don’t understand any of that. And to approach that with that kind of arrogance, and then to try and manipulate it, is very, very troubling.
TM: Well, I’m so glad you brought all that up about just what a wonder the world really is and what we’re doing. You know, one of the things I want to make sure, a couple of more topics before our time runs out. We haven’t said much about greenhouse gases and climate change. And I have a feeling that this whole pesticide-intensive agriculture that we’re looking at through GMOs isn’t so good for the climate.
AK: Yeah, well, you know…
TM: They claim it is, though, because of the yield, et cetera.
AK: Yeah, well, it’s first of all, you know, they did—Monsanto, for quite a while, was making large media statements about its so-called drought-resistant corn and stuff. Well it turns out, when it came out, it was less drought-resistant than most conventional varieties. So it went nowhere. They can’t control some of that, as I was just mentioning. They can’t change that in a plant with their very primitive technology.
But industrial agriculture—and this is a real scandal, you know. Of all the meetings we’ve had, industrial agriculture’s been left out almost completely from discussions about climate. Which is ridiculous, because depending on how you define it, between 35 and 50 percent of all greenhouse gases are caused by industrial agriculture, if you include deforestation. And so it’s just unbelievable that we have not included it. And I’m very delighted to say that our climate change program at CFS, and many other food groups now are doing climate programs. We will be in Paris in December for the very first time, making an official presentation on the relationship of industrial agriculture to climate.
And I think what’s really important here—and you pointed out—is we tend to only speak in terms of carbon, as carbon dioxide, and that’s terribly important and it’s obviously an important climate change gas. But we don’t talk about methane, and a large part of our methane problem comes from industrial agriculture, including animal factories with these huge lagoons of animal waste that used to be something that was very, very good for the soil, good for small farmers, but now, because of the huge scale of these animal factories, has become just nothing but just methane leakers. And methane has many, many times over the climate change impact of carbon. And the same with nitrous oxide, which is created through pesticide production. That has several hundred times the potency as far as climate change impact.
So we need to begin to really understand that industrial agriculture is a key player in this. And the beauty is that agriculture is, yes, a huge part of the climate change problem, but it’s also an important part of the solution. Because if we massively increase, through bioremediation of our soil, soil actually sequesters carbon—
TM: And holds water!
AK: And it holds water infinitely better. And so by restoring our soils through the organic agriculture and soil restoration programs, we’re actually addressing climate. If we were to double our forest canopy and double our bioremediation of soils, and continue on the track we’re doing with cutting down on the energy and other sources of climate change gases, we would actually be infinitely closer to our solution. So I’m really excited that for the first in the big international meeting in Paris, in December, that climate and agriculture are going to be linked for the first time.
And we just need to make sure not to fall for Monsanto—some of these corporations are calling themselves “climate smart.” They’re not climate smart. They’ve been climate stupid for a very, very long time. And they doing nothing for our soils, they do nothing but increase pesticide use, and so they’re actually partially responsible for our climate problems. So when they call themselves “climate smart,” don’t buy it.
The industrial agriculture sector—and please, for folks who are interested, we just issued a large report on agriculture, industrial agriculture and climate, at the Center of Food Safety. You can get on our website and download that for free. And we also have some videos on that. And there’s some wonderful… Kiss the Ground is a wonderful group out of L.A. that’s doing great work on how soil can actually address climate; they have a wonderful movie out. So it’s just, to me, sometimes when we talk about climate, you can get almost a hopeless feeling, you know what I’m saying? It seems such a vast problem. But when we think of these miracle technologies, so to speak, of soil and inter-related soil and forest, that they’re the solution, and what a wonderful way to solve this problem.
TM: Thank you so much for putting that out to our listeners, because this is International Year of Soils, so it is a great time for all of us to understand just how important the soil is. I think it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who said something like, “The health of your nation depends on the health of your soil”—among other things. And I want to make sure our listeners know that they can learn more about the Center for Food Safety at www.centerforfoodsafety.org. And also, Andy has his own Twitter at www.twitter.com/truefoodnow.
AK: Right. Well, to be fair now, I’m sort of a ’60s guy myself, as you know, because we’ve hung out together. So that tweet is really from my staff. I don’t actually personally tweet. I’m not sure I know how.
TM: But they can do it for you.
AK: They do it for me, and so any questions you have, feel free to use that. We also have a Facebook page and do a lot of communication through that. I have great young people here who know how to do all that stuff and do it extremely well and get the message out.
And on our website, and I’m sure folks have others as well—you can also, by using our website, we allow you to comment directly to the federal agencies and directly to your senators. So you can do that literally through our website so you don’t have to try and do it on your own. If you want to email a senator or you want to email an agency, you just do that directly through our website. Whether it be on the DARK Act or to the FDA to support labeling, you can do that right through the website. So we enable you to do that, because I know it’s hard sometimes to try and get numbers and email addresses, but we allow you to do that right through.
TM: Well, you know, the Center for Food Safety, listeners, is a huge resource for all of us, so I’m very grateful that you exist. And as we are winding down on our time here though, I must ask this. I have so many other questions that I wasn’t able to get to, but I have to ask this one: Wall Street and Monsanto, and it’s not looking so good for them. Am I correct that they’re like 30 percent down?
AK: Yeah, 25 percent down, that’s right. Well, it’s not surprising, because with these super weeds, and their number one product is, of course, Roundup. And as Roundup becomes less effective, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out, whoa, this company is dependent on this one technology and Roundup, and as it becomes less and less effective and competitors come in, what’s going to happen to this company? And Monsanto sees the writing on the wall, of course, because they’ve been trying to, as people probably know, buy up Syngenta and move to London and change their name. They’ve made four offers to try and buy up Syngenta. And if they were to do that, they would become the largest pesticide company in the world.
So I think what they’re looking to do is move out of GMOs, because they see the writing on the wall, that this is a failed technology based on bad science. And they just want to move straight into the chemical business. And they know that wouldn’t be a great… You know, that’s not… To be called the largest pesticide company in the world is not a very complimentary kind of handle to have. So that’s why I think they’ll probably change their name to like Local Green or something like that—and move to London, of course, to escape taxation, because they’ve always been such a good citizen of America. So that’s their plan that they’ve announced. I’m not releasing hidden information; this is what they’re trying to do because I think that they see the writing on the wall.
TM: And so what would be the impact then of this Wall Street plummet of their stock? Is it going to hurt them in other ways? And they didn’t get Syngenta. Do you think they’re going to get it eventually?
AK: It’s hard to say. I thought that they would eventually, but it certainly has taken a long time, and there’s some, obviously, antitrust problems with those two companies coming together. But yeah, I think that eventually what’s going to happen is that people are going to realize that this technology is nothing but some companies finding clever ways to sell more chemicals.
And so despite the desperation—and if you read those emails that you and I were talking about, the basis of Lipton’s story in the Times and Latham’s and others’ stories, and I hope people do get a chance to read a lot of those emails online—this is a company that’s pretty desperate. I mean, they really are trying to buy academics; they really are desperate to keep their image up, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to stop labeling and to stop GMO bans. They really are back on their heels. So it’s a really good time for us to continue to charge, not only for organic, but to get rid of these GMOs and these harmful pesticides.
Because, you know, we are pretty well known at the Center for Food Safety for being a plaintiff, and I have a dozen lawyers who are great. Mostly we’ve been suing the government when they don’t act well, or Monsanto. Most of the work we’re doing now is defense work. We’re defending the law in Vermont, we’re defending the ban in Jackson. Defending the pesticide law in Kauai, defending the Big Island’s ban. We have several cases where we’re defending this. And it’s so encouraging, because this means instead of having to attack, we’ve been succeeding, and now they’re trying to counterattack on all of the advances that we’ve made against pesticides, against neonicotinoids, against GMOs, and all this great local democracy that’s been winning. So it just is an indication of the movement is out there and that we’re winning and that…
I think all of us who have worked so long, we’ve really worked for twenty-five, thirty years in the organic movement and the Organic and Beyond movement, to say to people, “Hey, you’re not a mere consumer. You’re a creator. With every decision you make about the food you feed your family and the food you grow, you’re changing the future of food either for the better or for the worse. So don’t be a consumer, be a creator.” And we’re seeing so many people viewing their food choices and what they grow, in that way, and saying “I want to go towards this Organic and Beyond future and finally get rid of this industrial agriculture zombie that’s been so destructive.”
TM: Well, I think you and I are both wanting to look at this idea of consuming differently. And I like to use the word “citizen eater,” and like to think all of us are going to be democratic citizens in a democratic country and still try to figure out how we have a voice and what we want to say. And I think a lot of the things that we hear about biotech are things that have been crafted in the media and PR firm. And I’m beginning to think that you can have almost any halo if you have a good media firm.
AK: Yeah, well they’ve been doing the PR for a long time. But you know, it always breaks down. The lies break down, and suddenly we have super weeds, and suddenly people are [saying], “Oh my goodness, that Roundup is a carcinogen, a probable carcinogen.” The truth will out, and we just have to be here to be truth tellers. And, of course, always tell truth to power because that’s the only way that we make change.
TM: Well, Andy, I love your hopefulness and all the great activism that you just stimulate and model for all of us. So, as always, I’m thanking you for all the great work you do and love the inspiration.
AK: Well, thank you and your team there, and my best to everyone there.
TM: You bet, Andy. Good luck! And just a reminder to everyone, remember that DARK Act. Contact your senator!
AK: Yeah, contact your senator and the senator you want, and let’s say, “Hey, we want our right to know.”
TM: And tell your friends. Thanks so much, Andy.
AK: Thank you.
TM: Thanks for joining us. Huge thanks to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. You can listen to this and two other interviews with Andrew Kimbrell, plus other shows, on www.rootstock.coop.
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