Claire Hope Cummings is making bold statements. She says there is a technology that is violating the laws of nature and evolution. She says it is causing farmers in India to commit suicide, and claims this technology has been developed purposefully as a tool for social control. She says it is also being used by the largest employer on Molokai.
What is this technology? Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs for short.
Genetic modification allows for the development of traits many farmers and large-scale growers believe is helpful for production. "Roundup Ready" soybeans, for example, have been altered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup. BT corn has been developed to contain its own insecticide by adding a gene coming from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis.
Cummings is a journalist, activist, and former environmental lawyer of 20 years. She is also author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, a book that has been compared to Rachel Caron's Silent Spring.
Last Wednesday, Cummings visited Molokai to talk to community members about the technology and impacts of GMOs. Soybeans and corn are the two major crops affected by genetic modification, she says. GMOs are grown on Molokai, as well as communities around the world.
The process of creating a GMO, says Cummings, involves cutting the DNA of an organism, plant or animal, and forcing molecules upon it which will alter its make-up, severing the evolutionary development of the organism. "They talk about a product; I talk about a process," says Cummings. She describes the process as the "matrix of control": control of nature's processes, control of the political climate, and thus, control of economics.
The problem many people have with GMOs goes far beyond any moral or scientific dilemmas.
Cummings points out that because it is a patented technology and ownership is a key player in the GMO field, violations are bound to occur. Many of these violations are unintentional, over which violators have no control. Contamination of non-GMO crops through pollen being blown by the wind is common. Violators found to have the GMO gene in their crop are often sued by the company owning the patent to the technology, says Cummings.
California is the only state to have bans on GMOs in some counties, and has recently passed a law protecting farmers from being sued if their crops are contaminated, Cummings adds. Farmers in India have been known to commit suicide because they could not pay the royalties owed to patent owners after the farmers were sued for contamination.
After the meeting, the audience was encouraged to spread information about GMOs by word of mouth. Resident Carla Hanchett reminded the community, however, that Monsanto is Molokai's biggest employer and is a sensitive subject for many people to discuss, even with friends.
The company has had a positive impact on the lives of many Molokai residents, and has no documented safety or environmental violations on the island. "Monsanto provides our local non-profits with thousands of dollars in grants and have generally been a good neighbor," says Dispatch Editor Todd Yamashita.
Cummings has five main reasons she believes using the technology of genetic modification is detrimental to a sustainable and healthy world.
First, Cummings calls the use of GMOs "bad farming." "Think chemicals when you see GMOs," she says. The process, Cummings adds, destroys nature and the integrity of plants and plant systems. In addition, plants modified by genetic engineering do not give back as much to farmers and consumers as non-GMO species. "GMO plants are 10-15% less productive than non-GMOs, and the food they produce is less nutritious," says Cummings.
Bad economics is the second reason Cummings gives against the use of GMOs. "This technology grows on chemicals and green manure," says Cummings. She adds that more than $26 billion annually goes to fund the business of genetic modification. "It causes the economics of scarcity," Cummings says. GMOs place the abundance of nature up against the economics of owning and selling that is a key aspect of the GMO industry.
"We've taken the culture out of agriculture," Cummings says. "Now all we have left is agri-business."
"It's also bad social policy," she explains. "Patents are the life blood of this technology of ownership." The judge that legalized plant patenting, Clarence Thomas, was a former corporate lawyer for Monsanto. Under Reagan's presidency, the use of GMOs became unregulated, says Cummings.
Bad biology is another reason Cummings argues against GMOs. "Altering living, growing systems is just messing with us and the natural world," she says. The contamination rate is also very high, she notes: conventional corn is 80% contaminated by neighboring GMO crops. "The sugar cane that used to be on this island had human genes," Cummings told the audience.
Bad science is the fifth point Cummings brought to the table. Back when GMOs were being developed, science was "primitive," she says. "Now they know DNA is not the secret of life. It's more like RNA."
"It's a technology solely controlled by corporations." Cummings says. "Just because they get it to work, doesn't mean it's good."
"The story of seeds is our story," she adds. "What we do to seeds is what we do to ourselves, and the future of seeds is in our hands."