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Andrew Kimbrell of Center for Food Safety (Part 1)

We’re happy to bring you another wonderful interview with Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Saftey. We first spoke with Andrew in May 2015 about GMOs and labeling. In this episode, we caught up with Andrew again to get an update on these subjects and to hear what other food and farming issues he sees on the horizon, including the “DARK Act” (aka the Pompeo Bill, aka the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” Act), which would prohibit states from making their own labeling laws and create a misleading federal label that actually allows GMOs in some areas of production, such as allowing GMO enzymes in cheesemaking.

Based in Washington, D.C., the Center for Food Safety is a non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy organization working to protect human health and the environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. CFS’s successful legal cases collectively represent a landmark body of case law on food and agricultural issues.

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. Theresa here, interviewing by phone lawyer Andrew Kimbrell, executive director and founder of the Center for Food Safety. Andy was taking a break, preparing an argument in court to stop big ag and biotech from blocking the Vermont labeling law. While more than 90 percent of Americans support labeling GMOs—that is, genetically modified food—Monsanto claims there’s no need to label these foods because, after all, there’s no difference between food with GMOs and food without. Andrew Kimbrell, in his most informed and eloquent way, has much to say about that. I hope you enjoy this.


TM: Andrew, welcome to Rootstock Radio.

ANDREW KIMBRELL: Ah, it’s so great to be with you.

TM: Really we have already done one interview with you and Missy Hughes, and what a terrific interview that is. So I’m excited to further our conversation. I know that right now you are working on the Vermont labeling law. What an exciting event for we GMO activists to see a state actually enacting this. Are they going to be able to do it?

AK: Yeah, well, I think, you know, when Vermont passed the law, we knew that Monsanto and friends were going to sue to try and stop it, right? The last thing they want is labeling and an informed public. So then of course they did, and we’re part of the legal team that’s defending the law. And fortunately, a district court ruled that it was constitutional for Vermont to have labeling and to pass a law requiring labeling of all genetically engineered foods. And of course, they appealed. And so tomorrow we will we be in court in the Second Circuit in New York City for the oral argument on this case, and we’re very, very optimistic the courts will continue to say states have the right to require labeling to protect their local agriculture, to protect their consumers from the deleterious effects of GMO crops. So it’s exciting, you know.

And it’s part of a general trend. You know, we’re seeing more and more counties around the country that are saying no to GMO crops, and they’re banning GMO crops. We just saw Jackson County and Josephine County in Oregon do that; we’ve got the Big Island in Hawaii and Maui that passed. And the Maui bill, I was out at our office in Hawaii, and you know, Monsanto and friends spent about eight million dollars to try and defeat the GMO moratorium in Maui, and they lost. We think they spent about $350 for every vote they got. So money doesn’t always count, and it’s great to see that.

So democracy is breaking out all over. We’re seeing it in fracking, we’re seeing it in GMOs, we’re seeing it in pesticide bans, we’re seeing it in labeling. And it’s really exciting for me, after all these years of working on these issues, to see counties, states, localities, taking matters into their own hands, and democracy is working. Yes, the corporations are going to be pushing back; yes, they’ll sue a fracking ban or a GMO ban or labeling, and they’ll try and threaten people with millions of dollars in legal fees. But we represent people pro bono, and so do some other great groups, so we’re convinced that we’re going to be able to defend democracy in Vermont and throughout the country.

TM: Well, you know, you bring up something that I don’t think a lot of our listeners think about when they think of the GMO fight. They think of trying to figure out how to ban the kind of pesticides that are hurting us so badly and the overuse of them; they think about the owning of seeds. But I don’t think that many of our listeners out there think about the erosion of democracy that’s happening there. Could you speak to that a little bit, about how they’re eroding democracy and why we should care about it?

AK: Well, yeah. I mean, it’s critical that, you know… We know the problem we have nationally with huge amounts of money, you know, from the Koch brothers and others going into elections. And that of course is very important and we need to get some kind of, obviously, campaign finance reform going. But it’s exciting, on the other hand, as I was saying, to see so many localities now saying no to fracking, or no to GMOs, and no to certain pesticides, no to neonicotinoids. Montgomery County, near Washington, D.C., in Maryland, just yesterday said no to any cosmetic use of pesticides. It’s really exciting it’s happening at the grassroots level.

But there is a threat, and the threat is that the big companies, the agribusiness companies, the biotech companies, the energy companies, they want to squash this democracy. And they do it in two different ways. The first way, as I discussed, is that they say, “You know what? If you pass that law, Montgomery County, if you pass that law, Vermont, if you pass that law, Big Island in Hawaii, on a GMO ban, we will sue you.” And they did, and they have. We’re, the Center for Food Safety lawyers, we’re actually the official lawyers for the Big Island, defending that ban, because the county didn’t have enough money and the lawyers to do it. So that’s one way they squash it, by threatening huge legal fees. They hire the biggest lawyers they can find.

The other way they do it is to preempt. And that’s something we’re facing right now in Washington, D.C., which is something we call the DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know Act). And the DARK Act basically was put together by the biotech industries, it passed the House, they’re trying to push it through the Senate. We’re very optimistic we’ll stop them. But that law says that all states and localities are preempted—that they may not pass, and if they have passed they will be rescinded, laws on labeling GMOs. And in one version of the DARK Act it also preempts all states and localities from any GMO bans.

So in one fell swoop they would say no to Vermont and Massachusetts and Connecticut, the folks that have already passed labeling laws; and to the dozen or more counties around the country that have said no to GMOs, it would rescind those as well. So it really is trying to preempt democracy at a fundamental level. And I think most of the Senate, our friends in the Senate have got that now—they realize that this is really nothing but a transparent attempt to crush the democratic will of Americans. And I think we’re going to be able to defeat the DARK Act.

But it’s really important that all your listeners and everyone else contact your senators. Contact any senator and say that you don’t want your right to know destroyed by, and your democratic right to know destroyed by, these corporations. So it’s a very dramatic time, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a very exciting and dramatic time as this grassroots democracy has real major victories in so many areas, and the corporations are doing everything they can to either threaten them with their lawsuits or preempt them at the state and federal level. So it’s a very, very dramatic time for our issues that you and I care about so much, but also that issue that we all care about so much, which is really making sure that we actually have a democracy in this country and not a corporate oligarchy.


TM: Well, unless we do, we certainly can’t keep fighting against the overuse of pesticides. It’s the pesticides on our health, and also who owns the seeds, and all of that stuff. And I’m so glad that you brought up the DARK Act, and I just want to remind our listeners too that not only should you call a senator. You should get it on your Facebooks, all you social media folks out there, and Twitter, and say hey, time to call your senator and fight against the DARK Act, because it clearly represents a terrible erosion of our democracy.

I’m just curious though: what is their… Can you just put it to us on, what is their argument about why we should have the DARK Act or we should not allow any of these local control, county control, state even control, labeling laws?

AK: Yeah, I think—I mean, the legitimate argument they have is that they don’t want the different laws in each state. In other words, they say, “We don’t want to have one labeling law in Vermont, another labeling law in Michigan, another labeling law in California, because it’ll be very—we can’t do that. We have a product that goes around the country.” But the problem with that argument is that my lawyers here at the Center for Food Safety have worked with virtually every state activist in recent years and virtually all the state laws are identical. And so their fear that they’d be having different requirements for labeling in different states, which would be very difficult for them to comply with, that doesn’t really… You know, it’s a good argument theoretically but it’s not true, because virtually all the state laws now are the same.

And of course the real answer to that is to have national labeling. And we currently have a petition before the Food and Drug Administration which 1.5 million people have written in to say yes, asking the FDA to—and thank you to all you listeners who have done that, and to those who haven’t, there’s still time to do it: tell FDA yes, that petition for labeling, we want the FDA to say yes to mandatory labeling of GMOs. And excitingly, in the last six months or so, the FDA has changed its mind and said, “You know what…” Before, they said, “We can’t do that—our law doesn’t permit it.” Now they’ve changed their minds. They say, “You know what? We could label GMOs. We just haven’t decided whether we’re going to or not.” So they haven’t answered the petition. One point five million people have written. The more that write in, the better, because that’s the real answer. The best answer is not to try and fight this state-by-state but to get national mandatory labeling like sixty-four other countries have around the world. So that’s the real answer.

TM: Oh, I’m so glad that you brought up about how the international community certainly does not look at all like American politics. But going back to that DARK Act again, doesn’t part of it call for a GMO label?

AK: No. Part of it, the little sleight-of-hand they do is that they say they support voluntarylabeling—in other words, non-GMO labeling or GMO labeling by folks that, if products contain GMOs they can voluntarily label. Well, that’s ridiculous. We’ve had voluntary labeling for quite a while, as you know, and the non-GMO label is one of the most popular at supermarkets around the country. So they don’t need to tell us, give us a right that people are already doing.

And surprisingly, you know, wonderful to say, not a single company that uses GMOs has ever voluntarily labeled their product as GMO. Interesting, huh? And there’s a reason for that, and this is the real reason why they’re fighting so hard, is that they have failed in almost thirty years to produce a single trait of genetic engineering that actually does any good for consumers. And so basically, what, 94 percent now of all the crops out there are designed to withstand massive doses of herbicides, which is what these companies like Monsanto and Dow and DuPont and Bayer, that’s what they sell—they sell chemicals. So they’re not there to help the consumer.

So what they’re afraid of is the marketplace. They know, if the member of the public goes into a supermarket and there’s a product that says GMO on it and another that doesn’t, same cost, only more risk, no benefit, why would anybody ever buy the GMO product? That’s why they’ve never voluntarily labeled it as GMO, because they have failed to really provide any advantage to the consumer. They want to hide from the market, keep selling huge amounts, hundreds of millions of pounds more of their pesticides, but they don’t want to face a market that would say, “Why would I buy your product? You offer me no benefit, you only offer me risk.” So what they’re really afraid of is the marketplace, and they’re trying to do anything they can to stop us from being an informed public on this.


TM: So you are basically saying no, probably GMOs are not going to feed the world, because, I mean, we hear so many things about all the wonderful things that they’re going to do—they’re going to reduce hunger, reduce pesticides, they’re going to face drought. And that seems to be all lies.

AK: Yeah, it’s mythology. And it was clever mythology for quite a while. [unclear] newspaper writers and media folks kept repeating that mantra. But of course, now, I think, when we’ve seen the huge problem that farmers in America are facing with these super weeds, where 50 percent of American farms now have some super weeds on them—these are these weeds that have become resistant to Roundup and to many other herbicides.

And by the way, we’re at peak herbicide, so this is very similar to the antibiotics question, right? We’ve seen the overuse of antibiotics, and now we’ve seen all of these dangerous bacteria, MRSA and others, that are resistant to these bacteria, and we don’t have any new antibiotics. We don’t have any new ones. We haven’t been able to come up with new ones for years. The same is true of herbicides. Most people aren’t aware of this. We don’t have any new herbicides.

So that’s when these weeds become resistant to Roundup, they’re going back to 2,4-D. And Dow now has, and Monsanto together, have a genetically engineered plant that resist both 2,4-D, which was an element in Agent Orange, of course, in Vietnam days, with Roundup. And now Monsanto is coming up with Dicamba, which is an even more worrisome herbicide because it volatilizes in warm and moist temperatures—it comes back up from the ground after it’s been sprayed and travels in a cloud, and can travel a mile or two and then come down on your farm or your apple orchard and destroy it. So this Dicamba is very dangerous. And these are older pesticides that people didn’t use because they used Roundup instead. But now that Roundup is becoming more and more useless because of the evolutionary ability of these weeds to resist it after all of this massive spraying, they’re going back to 2,4-D and back to Dicamba.

And Dave Mortensen at Penn State, he has done a peer-reviewed study that came out last year that if—we, by the way, we’re fighting all these approvals in court, of course, but if, God forbid, we should lose, they’re looking at a billion more pounds, one billion more pounds of these pesticides being sprayed on our crops because of these genetically engineered crops. And that’s, again, very toxic 2,4-D and Dicamba, and of course the remnant of Roundup.

And by comparison, the organic, the wonderful organic revolution that you’ve done so much and we’ve all fought for so much, that saves us around fifty to seventy million pounds of pesticide use every year. This would increase by a billion pounds. So you can see it would reverse all, by many times, all of the amazing progress we’ve made through the organic movement. So that’s why GMOs are a real threat to the efficacy and the future of organic as well.

TM: It is actually frightening, but you know, we’re also forgetting that we just learned, for those of us who didn’t believe it, we now all have to believe that Roundup-Ready does cause cancer. And Dicamba, 2,4-D, that cocktail is so much worse than Roundup. Are we going to see an increase in cancer? How can we avoid that?

AK: Yeah, the World Health Organization, as some of your listeners, I’m sure, know, recently came down with a finding which we’ve known for many, many years and only has been hidden by the industry and, unfortunately, its friends at the EPA and around the world. But we now know that it is a probable carcinogen, that it’s associated with tumors in animals, with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in farm workers, and numerous other problems including birth defects. And 2,4-D of course has a long history of being associated with, again, these cancers.

And yeah, of course we’re going to see an increase in cancer. And it’s just really tragic, because we often forget that the front line on this are the farm workers and the farmers who are using it, their families. They are the front line. And so sometimes, just to try and protect their bottom line, they’re using these pesticides, these toxic chemicals, but their families, they’re the ones that are the first victims, so we should always remember that. I think the food movement has not done a very good job, and that includes my own organization. We need to do a lot better job in including in our view of food safety the safety of those who work the land. And at a time when we are seeing, for instance, Mexican immigrants being called names and we’re seeing all this racist language being thrown about by many of the Republican candidates, these are some of the most hardworking people I have ever seen. Any of us who spend time in California know that. And we want to make sure that when we talk about food safety we’re talking about food that is safe for them to work with and not this toxic [unclear] cocktail that the chemical companies are giving us. And so you’re definitely, sadly, going to see a lot more illness.


TM: Wow, I really appreciate you pointing out the farm workers, because you are so right: we all need to up our awareness of the social justice issues here. And of course, feeding the world, as it turns out too, isn’t really about the amount of food that we have or growing a large amount of food. It’s another social justice issue that everyone wants to sort of like pretend that it isn’t.

AK: Yeah, I mean, we have starvation here in the United States growing. Since 2008 it has increased remarkably. You know, this is a really tragic fact, but two children die, children from poor families die, for every one from a rich family dies. In other words, our infant mortality up to year one is twice among the poor as it is among the rich—two of those babies die. And the number one reason is lack of nutrition. That is the United States of America. And we obviously are a very net export nation. So it has nothing to do with the availability of food. India is a net export nation. So it has nothing to do with the availability of food. It has to do with people who can’t afford to buy the food.

And of course, even with that, we need to make sure that we all understand, and I’m sure we do, that GMOs do not increase yield. They never have, they’re not designed to increase yield. They’re designed to survive these herbicide and pesticide baths. They’re not designed to increase yield, and they don’t.

And even more alarmingly, most people are not aware, I think, that 53 percent of our farmland right now, of our best farmland—53 percent of all of our farmland, I should say—is devoted to corn and soy, and most of it, the vast majority of it genetically engineered. And the vast majority of corn goes into animal factories, where it’s fed to the animals who are tortured there, and it goes into cars. A tiny percentage is sweet corn, and the rest goes into high-fructose corn syrup and stuff we shouldn’t be eating anyway. The same with soy: a vast majority of soy going into either automobiles or into animal factories or into processed foods, with again only a tiny percentage actually going into real food. So over half of our land use is for these genetically engineered commodity crops that are not food for human beings. They’re not directly feeding any human being.

And what a disastrous model that is, isn’t that? I mean, if the rest of the world were to take up that model, where the majority of their actual land, their farmland, would be devoted to nonfood crops… Yeah, Monsanto and a lot of these folks, commodity folks in agribusiness, are making huge profits from this, but it’s disastrous as far as really producing more and diverse healthy food.

We need to start saying that we’re not going to judge any acre of land, farmland, by yield. We should judge it by nutrition. I mean, most people say, “Oh, look at the amazing yield we’re getting from these acres of corn!” Yeah, but you’re not getting any nutrition, unless maybe you’re feeding your car. We shouldn’t even have these animal factories. No one’s eating this. So from now on we should just have a blanket thing, all of us, when we’re talking about how much you’re getting in acreage, the immediate question should be, how much nutrition is getting out of that acreage.

TM: Well, I’m actually proud to say that there are some of our farmers from CROPP Co-op across the country who actually have been getting awards for the best yield doing organic agriculture in their counties. And certainly not every county, but it’s a demonstration that it definitely can be done.

AK: And we know that. Michigan state, we know from the United Nations study that these big monocultures, they’re only suitable for these commodity crops. If you want the kind of diverse crops that we need for real nutrition, major scientific peer-reviewed studies have always said small to medium farms with limited inputs. That’s been the rule for a long time.

And I think it’s really important, you know, we fight, and we talked a lot about the GMO issue, but I think it’s really important for people to realize that GMO is just one part of this entire industrial food system that is destroying our soil. We don’t have the water for it. Monoculture, [unclear] seeds, the suffering of tens of billions of animals for the system. We’ve lost ten million farmers in my lifetime. Now, as you know, it’s well below 1.5 percent now. And you know, we’re destroying the pollinators. So this industrial system is on its way out, and the Organic and Beyond system, which Organic Valley and others are building, and we’re helping hopefully to defend and create and promote, that really is the future. We are the future. It’s a zombie! It’s a zombie, it’s dead, the industrial system, but it’s unfortunately still walking around and causing a lot of harm.

And yeah, we want to say no to GMOs. But remember, just because something is not GMO, it could still.. Let’s say corn: it still has atrazine, it still has nicotinoids that are killing the bees and very dangerous for us, a neurotoxin; it still has all of the fungicides. So, you know, yes, “no to GMO,” but that’s why organic is so critically important. It really is the floor, and it should be the floor of all American agriculture. Because not only is it a way to feed people, it’s a way to get rid of all these terrible toxic chemicals. Way more than saying no to GMOs, we need to say yes to organic.

TM: And it works.

AL: It works.

TM: It really works.


TM: You know, there’s another angle to the whole GMO debate, and I’m really glad that you brought up that it’s not just all about GMOs. But this angle actually has been disturbing me quite a bit. And it actually started on September 5 with the Eric Lipton article about the emails between Monsanto and the academics. And some of the spinoff articles, the one that bothered me the most was a Jonathan Latham article that was called “The Puppetmasters of Academia,” where, when she claims, well the Times buried the real story. And what bothered me is it looked like that there were seniors in administration in Cornell and other universities, high up, who were colluding with biotech for all kinds of not just media but lots of other things. And I felt, goodness, is this like an erosion of our higher-learning institutions, another part of our erosion of democracy? And I wonder if you have any thoughts on that.

AK: Yes, well, I mean, you know, this is part of a huge problem, and I’m glad you brought it up, which is that starting with the Reagan era, that two things happened with higher learning, universities, colleges. One is that a huge amount of federal funding was cut, and the second was that through a number of technology transfer pieces of congressional legislation now, it forced these universities and colleges to share any discoveries and the patents on those discoveries with private companies. And that’s actually our law, and it remains our law today.

And so that had two results. One is that the universities and colleges, now starved for funding, turned of course to the corporations, who were only too happy to massively fund Cornell and these other universities. And second of all, it created a very close relationship between these universities and colleges and these private companies, because by law they were forced to share their publicly funded discoveries with private companies. So you see kind of a really terrifying corporate takeover of the university because of these two very misguided policies that Ronald Reagan’s administration gave us.

And then the corruption we’ve seen now with Monsanto, and primarily Monsanto but a couple of other companies as well, literally taking supposedly independent academics—and, by the way, from public universities primarily—and paying them to say that GMOs are safe when they know very well the blanket of toxic chemicals that this technology brings with it. It is really corruption—there’s no other way around it, that’s the word. And it’s sad to see, and it’s very subtle too. I mean, if you were to look and—and you know we’ve done this, and Shelley Krimsky at the Council for Responsible Genetics has done this—it’s not just the money they’re giving to individual academics. As Jonathan Latham pointed out, and others, it’s the massive millions they’re giving to their departments. So it’s not just saying, here’s Professor X, who’s getting this money, or here’s Tamar Haspel, who writes these pieces in the Washington Post defending genetic engineering and admits that she’s gotten “loads of money,” is her term, to do so. It’s also the money that they’re giving to…you know, twenty million dollars to the journalism department here, ten million dollars to the biology department here—and that is also a form of bribery.

And by the way, as we all know, the link between funding and findings is very close. Numerous studies have shown that there is a bias, a funding bias. And it’s just human nature. When somebody is giving you ten million dollars or twenty million dollars and says, “Do these two studies,” there’s going to be obviously a bias towards trying to please them and hoping for the next ten or twenty million dollars. So it really is corruption. And I think one of the answers is much more public funding for our universities and colleges to free them from this unfortunate dependency on the corporations.


TM: Hope you learned as much as I did from Andy. Tune in next week for part two: Andrew Kimbrell talking about the DARK Act, also called the Pompeo Bill, that’s in the Senate right now. Have a good week.

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