Our annual GMO Awareness Week is upon us, and in this interview, Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) details the current state of the opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
We first met about six years ago, when we collaborated to create the direct ballot initiative to label GMOs in California.
A lot has happened since then, including the passing of what’s colloquially known as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, ironically misnamed “The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” — this despite a full 90 percent of consumers supporting mandatory labeling.
The Trump administration has also selected or appointed notorious cheerleaders for GMOs and factory farms to his cabinet — Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA, Sonny Perdue as USDA Secretary, and Rick Perry as Energy Secretary.
Meanwhile, his Tea Party allies in Congress have called for the abolition of the entire National Organic Program!1
On the upside, in 2016 we saw, for the first time in nearly 20 years, a decrease in the amount of genetically engineered (GE) crops grown around the world, in terms of acreage.
As noted by Cummins, “This represents the fact that this technology is failing, in the sense of superweeds and superpests are popping up all over the world.” In the U.S., three-quarters of farmers growing GE crops like soybeans, corn or canola are having problems with these herbicide- and pesticide-resistant pests.
Market Rejection of GMOs Has Grown
Even more importantly, consumers around the world have become aware of the many problems associated with GE crops and the toxic herbicides and pesticides used on them, and do not want any of it on their plates.
In other words, the market has started rejecting GMOs, and that’s what we’ve been fighting for all along. Nothing can or will change unless consumers apply pressure in the form of refusing to buy GMOs.
In the European Union (EU), which is the biggest agriculture market in the world, few if any GMOs are found on supermarket shelves.
In the U.S. — despite industry spending hundreds of millions of dollars to manipulate market preference — about 40 percent of Americans still believe GE foods and GE ingredients are dangerous. Another 20 percent are unsure whether GMOs are dangerous or not.
“This combination of consumer rejection and, basically, Mother Nature’s resistance, has caused a drop-off,” Cummins says. “I think this is the beginning of the end of at least this generation, the first generation, of GMO crops.
Now, industry is saying, ‘Don’t worry about the fact that we’re using more and more toxic pesticides and herbicides … Don’t worry about these pests spreading across the fields. We’ve got a new generation of GMO crops where we can just do gene editing.
We don’t have to pull some DNA from a foreign species and haphazardly splice it into a corn or a soybean crop.’
But the bottom line is that this gene-splicing and this so-called new gene editing are unnatural processes that disrupt the genetic structure, the natural workings of living organisms. These aren’t going to work either.”
Organics and Grass Fed Are Increasing in Popularity
Worldwide, we’re also seeing strong growth in organics and grass fed farming and ranching. In the U.S., the organic sector grew 11.5 percent in 2016. Grass fed grew about 50 percent. In France, organics grew by 20 percent.
“This is because people understand this public health crisis has now spread worldwide, and this environmental crisis and its relationship to the climate crisis are all due to an out-of-control, industrial, chemical-intensive GMO agriculture. People are turning away,” Cummins says.
In the U.S., we now also have a brand new grass fed certification by the American Grassfed Association (AGA), which is the highest certification you can get for dairy, beef and poultry, including chickens, sheep and goats.
In short, we’re seeing a massive demand for healthier foods. A lot more people now know about the drawbacks of factory farmed beef and dairy, for example, and are aware that when herbivores are grazed naturally, without hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, you end up with a far healthier product.
“What’s been driving the growth of the grass fed beef and dairy industry are health concerns,” Cummins says. “But also, people have become aware over the years that the factory farm system … is not right. You don’t have to be an ethical vegan to have feeling for animals.
Animals are sentient beings … Industry says if you want cheap food, you’ve got to go with factory farms. But I think more and more consumers are saying, ‘I don’t want cheap food if it means it’s going to harm my health and the environment, and if you have to be that cruel to animals.’
I think we’re seeing the beginning of the end of the factory farm model, which actually has only existed [for] 40 years or so. Most animals used to be raised naturally …
It’s this wonderful coming together in the United States of the American Grassfed Association, merging in the dairy sector with dairy farmers who are already organic, to produce a higher quality 100 percent grass fed dairy.
In the beef industry, there has been a tremendous growth in the demand for 100 percent grass fed, grass finished beef. Unfortunately, most other grass fed beef in the United States is still coming from overseas, from countries like Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil …
We still don’t have the infrastructure in the United States that we had 50 years ago with processing plants in every region of the country and so on, but we’re catching up.”
Challenges Involved in Organic Grass fed Beef Production
Indeed, the lack of processing plants is really slowing down the reversal of the system. While American farmers have the capacity to provide an ample supply of grass fed cattle, the problem is there aren’t enough processing plants to accommodate a massive increase.
In all, the U.S. has about 500,000 ranchers raising livestock, but there are only three or four major buyers. Ranchers may raise the animals on pasture and treat them well, but after a year and a half or so, they must be sold.
The cattle are sold at auction, and the buyers, such as JBS (a Brazilian firm that has bought out a large part of the beef industry in the U.S.), Cargill and Tyson Foods, will offer you the lowest possible price, regardless of how much you spent on the cattle’s health and wellbeing.
This cartel-like system effectively prevents farmers from recouping what they’ve invested, and slows down the pace at which a farmer can possibly make positive changes that require greater expenses.
Once sold, the animals are transported to gigantic feedlots — basically animal factories — where they’re placed in tiny pens. GMO grains and drugs are routinely used to fatten the animals up as quickly as possible. However, in doing so, the animals’ health and wellbeing suffer. For example, E. coli 0157H, a virulent pathogen, can thrive in the animals’ intestines under these conditions.
“The reason why it’s illegal for journalists or concerned citizens to go in and film in these giant feedlots is because the industry … don’t want you to see the filth and the cruelty involved,” Cummins says.
Factory Farmed Meat Is No Bargain
Next, the animals are sent off to mega slaughterhouses, of which there are only a few dozen in the entire country. As in the feedlots, these are hellish places where photographs and video taping is often illegal. As noted by Cummins:
“The workers are immigrant workers typically, who don’t have citizenship papers. Why is this? Because U.S. citizens will not take this kind of job. They would not work under these conditions … They have terrible health problems, terrible psychological problems. They’re underpaid and overworked.
What comes out on the other end is meat that might appear to be cheap … but it’s not cheap in terms of what it does to your health … It clogs up your veins. You’re ingesting pesticide and hormone residues. You end up supersizing yourself … Yeah, you’ve got your cheap burger. You’ve got your cheap steak. But you have damaged your health. That’s going to be very costly over time.
You also contributed to massive supply chain damage to the environment. The GMO corn and soybeans that make up the bulk of the feed in the feedlots, they have been sprayed with a horrendous amount of chemicals. These factory farms are the No. 1 contributors to water pollution … You’re part of a long chain of animal cruelty, exploitation of workers, destruction of the environment …
This paradigm is going to end. But we need more awareness [among] consumers, and we need more ranchers to be able to directly come into contact with consumers who want to buy their products so they can cut out the cartel middlemen …”
Via Organica Paves Way for Organic Chicken and Egg Production
Mercola.com and OCA are both founding members of an international network called Regeneration International, which is seeking to replace, among other things, the outdated factory farm system with a natural humane system, whereby herbivores are raised on perennial grasses under a system of holistic management.
The same problems exist in poultry and pig farming, yet innovative farmers like Cummins and many others have proven there are far better ways of raising chickens and pigs on a larger scale as well.
Cummins’ farm, Via Organica, located in the high desert of Central Mexico, uses a system based on the traditional raising of poultry. In the first phase of the project, they installed a couple of thousand laying hens, which live outside all day in a 2.5-acre paddock filled with 400 olive trees and other crops. While the trees offer protection against predators from above, chicken poop acts as a natural fertilizer for the trees, making additional fertilizer use unnecessary.
By eating the insects, they also eliminate pests that might otherwise pose a threat to the trees and other crops. “If you’re a small farmer, it’s very difficult to make a living off just your eggs. But if you’ve got another cash crop in the paddock where the chickens roam, you’re going to be bringing in twice as much money over time,” Cummins says.
The chickens roam free all day, pecking in the dirt for worms, insects and other foraged foods. At sunset, they come into the chicken house, which is where they roost and lay their eggs. The feed provided in the chicken coop, given as a supplement to their foraged diet, is grown by local farmers using traditional, non-GMO seeds and regenerative methods.
“We have a special plow developed in Australia that’s now spreading all across the world,” Cummins explains. “It’s called a Keyline plow. It doesn’t disturb the earth the way that traditional plows do. It creates an environment in your field to where when it rains, there’s a built-in filtration of the rain into the soil. It turns the soil into a sponge …
There are no chemical fertilizers. We work with the farmers to be able to have natural compost … [I]f you look at our eggs, one thing you notice is the yolk is bright orange. They taste really good. If you do a nutritional analysis of these eggs and compare them to the factory farmed eggs in the grocery store, there’s a world of difference. If animals can live outside or live in a natural environment and exercise their natural behaviors, it ends up being a superior product.”
Why Vegetarianism May Not Be the Most Environmentally Conscious Choice
Quite a few people have embraced veganism or vegetarianism as a way of bowing out of the factory farm system that abuses animals for per-pound profit. Cummins was a vegetarian for 40 years for this reason.
“I was a vegetarian between 1970 and 2010 … until I had some ranchers in New Mexico explain to me this whole system of holistic management and rotational grazing, 100 percent grass fed … [T]hey said, ‘Hey, you’re an environmentalist, right? You’re an animal welfare proponent, right? … You’re not any of those things. You’re a hypocrite, Ronnie.’
Because conscious consuming of a moderate level of meat and animal products — where the animals have been raised humanely, where they’ve been raised naturally, where the end product, the food, is good for your health — is [also] good for the environment. Yes, that last instant of their life, when they’re sacrificed for our food, that’s not a good moment [for these animals]. But we’re all going to have a bad moment at the end of our lives. We’re going to physically die.
When we’re in the ground, guess what’s going to happen? The little animals eventually are going to eat us. It’s all part of this great chain of being. It’s natural. There are vegans starting to understand, like David Bronner [CEO of Dr. Bronner’s] … David’s been a vegan for many years, but he’s coined this term — instead of vegetarian — “regenetarian.”
Why Become a Regenetarian?
A regenetarian is a person who never, ever eats factory farmed meat or dairy products, just like a vegan. A regenetarian will however consume grass fed beef, grass fed dairy and other grass fed animal products.
“We’re talking about fish here, too. Most of the fish in the world are now coming from these factory farm fish operations — horrible industrial trawlers in the oceans that are ripping up everything and killing everything in sight … A conscious consumer who wants to preserve their health, but also knows that we want to preserve the health of the planet — we want regular rainfall. We want climate to be normal again — we have to become regenetarians,” Cummins says.
“I never eat meat or animal products in a restaurant unless that restaurant has on the menu, and has a convincing story, that this is grass fed or genuinely pastured. As soon as enough people start doing that, this system is going to change.”
The average American spends a mere 10 percent of their income on food, which is ridiculously low when you consider what the highest quality, most nutritious food would cost. You cannot expect to get the highest quality at this rock-bottom price. At that level, all you’re getting is cheap corn-based meals. As Cummins says, it would be reasonable to spend twice as much on food.
To pay for it, you may have to consider cutting down on other wasteful spending, such as the trend of treating clothing as single-use, disposable items. Organic foods cost more, and must cost more, because doing it right and not cutting corners costs money. It’s the cost-saving measures that have resulted in hormone-laced milk and pesticide-ridden produce. It’s cost-saving measures that have turned beef into a metabolic wrecker. Cheap food is cheap for a reason.
Current State of GMO Movement in the US
Last August, the so-called “DARK Act” was passed. And while many have placed their hopes on President Trump making sweeping changes, we’re not likely to see any difference under Trump when it comes to GMO labeling. As before, the U.S. Congress doesn’t seem to care that 90 percent of Americans want to know whether their food has been genetically engineered or not, or contains GMO ingredients.
To summarize last year’s events, on July 1, 2016, Vermont’s state law for mandatory GMO labeling took effect, forcing major food companies to start labeling their wares. Alas, the food industry basically bought Congress, sweeping a 100-year tradition of states’ rights to implement food safety rules at the state level under the carpet. That’s what the DARK Act did. It revoked states’ right to impose mandatory labeling of GMOs, and with that, the Vermont law was made null and void.
In its place, the federal law replaced clear GMO labeling with quick response (QR) codes which, when scanned with your smartphone will bring you to the company’s website, where you may or may not find information about the presence of GE ingredients.
“The only difference under Trump, looks like that we’re not even going to have these QR codes, which were ridiculous anyway,” Cummins says. Where does this leave us as consumers? I think there’s a growing recognition among conscious consumers in this country that right now, we can’t count on Congress.
We can’t count on regulatory agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or the United States Environmental Protection Agency, or the Federal Trade Commission.
These people are in the pockets of the 1 percent. They do what their financial backers tell them to do. We’re left with our power in the marketplace. That is, they can’t pass a law that tells you what to do when you pull out your wallet. We still have free choice to choose organic or grass fed foods or non-GMO foods in the marketplace …
At the rate we’re going now, most food in the United States will be organic within three decades. It’s taken us three decades to get to the 5 to 10 percent range. Most of the food will be organic and grass fed within 30 years. However, when you look at our public health crisis and our climate crisis and all these other things that the economic crisis in rural areas, we can’t wait 30 years.”
New Goal: Double Organic Sales in Four Years
The consumer revolution platform now is an ambitious one — double organic sales in the next four years. At current rates of growth, we could expect it to increase by about 50 percent. Instead, we need to quadruple sales of organic and grass fed. As noted by Cummins, by speeding up the rate at which we reach the tipping point where 15 percent of our food supply is organic or grass fed, the acceleration will multiply exponentially thereafter.
“That’s our answer to the gridlock in Washington, to the failure of federal government,” he says. “Let’s get active in the local and state level where we have more power, [and] intensify our impact in the marketplace where no one can tell us what to do. We’re going to bring about our revolution in health and nutrition in the marketplace if they won’t let us do it with public policy.”
It’s time to launch a #ConsumerRevolution boycott that is larger and more powerful than ever. And at the same time, we apparently have no choice but to launch a #PoliticalRevolution, especially at the local and state level, that will “throw the bums out” from Main Street to Washington D.C. — those politicians and the army of lobbyists and PR gunslingers who continue to represent the corporate and financial elite, the “1 percent,” instead of the rest of us.
In order to carry out this “Resist and Regenerate” strategy, the OCA and its closest allies have come up with an Action platform called Consumer Revolution/Political Revolution 2017-2020, which includes the following.
#Consumer Revolution 2017-2020
Overarching goal: Force corporations that sell consumer products, including food, clothing, drugs and personal care products, to respond to consumer demand for truthfully labeled products that have a positive impact on human health and are produced using regenerative processes and practices that not only prevent harm to human health and the environment, but also measurably improve soils and combat global warming.
1.Move toward making organic, 100 percent grass fed and regenerative food and farming the norm, not just the 5 percent alternative in the marketplace, by doubling sales of organic to $80 billion by 2020, and by increasing sales of U.S. grass fed meat and dairy, and organic and pastured poultry and pork by at least 400 percent by 2020.
Achieve a 50 percent reduction in sales of GMO food and animal feed by 2020, with the aim of driving GMO animal feed off the market.
2.Force major food brands and companies that fraudulently label their products as “natural,” “organic” or “GMO-free” to remove misleading labels and/or transition their products and production methods to organic and/or regenerative practices.
3.Increase market share for clothing made from organic cotton, wool and other natural fibers through a high-profile “Care What You Wear” campaign that encourages consumers to boycott GMO cotton and synthetic fibers.
Many Legislative Changes Are Needed
We also need to continue fighting for legislative changes that help and support organic farmers. The reason France was able to grow the organic sector by 20 percent last year, compared to 11.5 percent in the U.S. was because the French government started paying farmers who quit using pesticides and use compost instead of chemical fertilizers.
In a nutshell, France decided to pay farmers to do the right thing, whereas the U.S. rewards farmers who agree to do the wrong thing. France also passed a law that at least 40 percent of food for schools must be organic and purchased from local farmers.
“I mean what kind of rules do we have regarding [this]? We have the worst school lunch programs in the entire industrialized world. Our food stamp program for poor people is basically junk food that the companies would have disposed of, but they get a tax break for giving us their factory-farmed cheese and milk, and so on.
We do need to change policies as well as the marketplace. But looking at the federal government, our best way to influence public policy is to get involved at the local level — city council, county board, state legislature, our school boards. We have some power there.”
Take Control of Your Health by Making Wiser Choices
For the first time in two decades, the average lifespan in the U.S. has decreased, and the U.S. is the only country in the developed world where this is happening. I for one am convinced our emphasis on factory farmed foods play a major role in this decline. Moreover, if we persist with this industrial farming model, we will eventually run out of topsoil and potable water, and that day is approaching at a rapid clip. Some estimates suggest we have less than 60 years of topsoil left if we keep going as we have been.3
We’re causing potentially irreparable environmental damage. If we destroy this infrastructure for future generations, how can they possibly grow food? This is a serious issue and I’m glad so many of you are beginning to appreciate the enormity of the problem — and are embracing the solutions. As Cummins says, your greatest power lies in your choice of spending.
By avoiding food not grown in accordance with regenerative measures, non-organic cotton clothing, and ethanol-infused fuel, you help cut off the lifeblood of corporations that are destroying your children and grandchildren’s chance of a healthy future. When it comes to food, choose organic produce, ideally biodynamic certified organics, and look for the AGA’s grass fed certification for animal products.
The goal of the AGA is to promote the grass fed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education. Their website also allows you to search for AGA approved producers certified according to strict standards that include being raised on a diet of 100 percent forage; raised on pasture and never confined to a feedlot; never treated with antibiotics or hormones; born and raised on American family farms.
Also, seriously consider making a generous donation to the OCA. Your previous support has been instrumental in catalyzing major changes in the organic and health world. And, please remember that I will match your contributions dollar for dollar.