Backlash growing against GMOs

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More than 500 people spent the better part of a day waving signs and protesting in Kalispell’s Depot Park on May 25.

These demonstrators were part of the March Against Monsanto, which included more than two million people in 52 countries taking part in the protests against genetically modified foods such as those from agriculture bio-tech giant Monsanto.

There appears to be more of a public reaction to GMOs in recent months, according to local march organizers.

Naomi Morrison, one of the Flathead Valley’s most vocal opponents of genetically modified organisms, said she believed the support for the movement is even greater than what showed up at Depot Park.

Morrison, an organizer of the Columbia Falls Community Garden and a non-medical employee in the Flathead Valley’s medical field, has become one of the figureheads for the organic eating movement in Flathead County.

“If it weren’t Memorial Day weekend, we would have had three times the number of people there,” Morrison said. “We had hundreds of people drive by and honk their horns in support.”

Hugh Grant, Monsanto’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, made comments to Bloomberg News in May that those opposed to GMOs are not using data to support their claims, just emotional pleas and a “strange kind of reverse elitism.”

Grant’s company holds patents for seeds that are resistant to pesticides, which Monsanto also produces.

People who oppose GMOs and Monsanto in particular have a few key points about large agri-business.

One, Morrison said, is the unknown effect that GMOs have on people. There have been no peer-reviewed scientific studies on the effect of GMOs in the diet.

On the other hand, studies suggesting a danger from GMOs have been flawed on a fundamental level, said oncologist Melissa Hulvat of Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

“The studies that show that GMOs cause cancer were poorly done,” Hulvat said. “There is no real mechanism in GMOs that could even cause cancer.”

Hulvat, a proponent of healthy, organic eating, said the real danger from GMOs is how easily genetically engineered organisms grow and thus influence our diet choices.

“Because of GMOs, there is a glut of corn on the market,” she said, giving one example. “That means there is high-fructose corn syrup in everything.”

The effects of high-fructose corn syrup are far easier to measure than that of GMOs. Diabetes, heart disease and obesity are just some results of a diet high in corn syrup.

The backlash against Monsanto arose mainly not out of health concerns but of the controversial Farmer Assurance Provision, derisively known as the “Monsanto Protection Act,” signed into law in March.

“I had been aware of GMOs to an extent,” said Ren Robinson, one of the organizers of Kalispell’s March Against Monsanto. “But it was really after the Monsanto Protection Act passed that I got involved. I thought it would work itself out.”

A section in the 600-page Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 has a clause protecting companies modifying and selling foodstuffs — even if legal action is currently ongoing against them. A USDA-approved crop could be overturned for whatever reason by the courts, and the provision would allow for the crop to still be sold while the legal system hashes out the details.

This USDA loophole is the second gripe protesters have with agri-business and has riled up environmentalists and farmers alike, who claim it makes GMO regulation toothless.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has taken the lead in trying to get the clause repealed. His state has recently seen first-hand the potential economic ramifications of growing genetically modified foods.

Japan and South Korea, major importers of Oregon wheat, have put the brakes on GMO imports from the United States until the results are back on how they impact the diet, after a wheat strain yet to be approved by the USDA was found in a field in Eastern Oregon.

“The FDA is not testing these things,” Robinson said. “There hasn’t been enough research done, especially by the government.”

The last major point demonstrators wanted to make is that the world’s largest seed company is also the world’s fifth largest “agrochemical” company. The pesticides Monsanto produces, including Roundup weed killer, are ones their seeds are built to withstand.

Some of the signs at the protest demanded to know why the same company making America’s food was making the chemicals to protect it.

The result of all this in the Flathead Valley is hard to measure.

As a highly agrarian state, Montana has always supported small farms. Farmers markets continue to thrive, but it is nearly impossible to quantify some sort of cause-and-effect regarding GMOs.

Still, there are some changes afoot in the Flathead.

Judy Owsowitz, owner of Terrapin Farm in Whitefish, said the looming threat of large agri-business is constantly in the mind of the local farmer.

“I’d like to see it treated exactly as it is — an experiment,” Owsowitz said of GMOs. “Heavy government oversight. Right now it is all self-monitored and not regulated.”

She said the genetically modified sugar beets and canola grown in large quantities in Montana could easily cross-contaminate some crops she grows in Whitefish. As Monsanto (and other large agriculture companies) literally hold the patents for the modified seeds, any contamination could well turn into a legal battle for small farmers.

“We should be protecting small farms from Monsanto,” Owsowitz said, “not protecting Monsanto from farmers. There is a concentrated effort from farmers and consumers to make sure these things happen.”

Concerned mothers such as Morrison and Robinson make sure to grow their own, harvest locally and be wary of what they pick up in the grocery store.

It can be more expensive and time-consuming, but proponents of the lifestyle say it is worth it.

“We would all be better off if we ate real food,” Hulvat said. “From a health perspective, GMOs are killing us.”

Reporter Ryan Murray may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at rmurray@dailyinterlake.com.

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