Q & A: Friends of the Earth's Lisa Archer on the Future of GMO Technology

Submitted by GMO Inside on May 14, 2014

This week’s GMO Inside exclusive interview features Lisa Archer from Friends of the Earth. 


Lisa Archer is the Food and Technology Program Director at Friends of the Earth. Lisa campaigns to make sure our food, consumer products, and emerging technologies are safe for us and the environment. For over ten years, she has developed and led successful corporate accountability, market, and legislative campaigns emphasizing environmental health and justice. Lisa has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, AP, Time Magazine, CNN, CBS, ABC and NPR.

Q: Friends of the Earth’s new report, Follow the Honey talks about how pesticide companies are spinning the bee crisis to protect profits, very similar to past PR tactics from Big Tobacco. Eventually, Big Tobacco had to come to terms with its misleading PR. Do you see the pesticide companies coming to terms that they are actually killing off the bees any time soon? At what point could this happen?

A: It is our hope that the pesticide companies that are producing bee-killing pesticides and trying to spin this issue to delay action and to create doubt around their contribution to the bee crisis will, like Big Tobacco, have to eventually come to terms with their contribution to the problem. However, it took lots of lawsuits and federal action to finally make Big Tobacco cut down on those tactics and it became so obvious that they were contributing to a huge public health crisis, in the case of tobacco, that they were forced to change. We are hopeful that the pesticide companies will see the light and change their practices and stop spending their money fighting the inevitable. These pollinators are essential to our food supply. But, if history is any guide, it is going to take a lot of really good organizing and it is going to take a lot of people pushing back against these tactics. As well, it is going to take some honesty and integrity in journalism to be able to help the public and policymakers see through this smoke cloud that is being produced by these chemical companies to delay action. I do think it is possible that we will be able to get there in the not too distant future. There’s a lot of really compelling science coming out on these pesticides’ contribution to the problem. But it is going to take organizing on our part and it is going to take a lot of people raising their voices. On the other side of things, it is going to take a lot of us pushing real solutions to this problem.

Ultimately, bees are the canaries in the coal mine telling us that there is something wrong with the way we are currently doing agriculture. They are telling us that our industrial scale monocultures, which are incredibly intensive in terms of the amount of land that is farmed. We also need to move away from our dependency on pesticides and move toward an ecological approach to agriculture, in other words, farming with nature and not against it. That is really the ultimate solution and message that the bees are giving us. We need to move toward truly sustainable and ecologically-just modes of agriculture. Many scientists and real visionaries in this field are telling us, “hey we already have the technology we need and we have the knowledge we need to feed the planet, in the absence of our current industrial agriculture system.” This system is currently failing to feed the plant. It is actually causing a lot of harm to our environment and to human health. So, that is ultimately the message of the bees—that we need to move away from our current modes of agriculture and move toward sustainable, organic and just agriculture.

Researchers from the University of Oxford reviewed farm data going back 30 years and they concluded that there is 34% more biodiversity in organic agriculture and 50% more pollinators that can exist in organic agriculture instead of conventional agriculture. That is telling you, “gosh, we already have a solution to the bee crisis.” It’s not rocket science. My hope is that we can continue pushing back against the pesticide companies’ PR tactics with this real evidence of what is going on and also explain what are real solutions.

Q: What could the average consumer do to help prevent the bee crisis?

A: First is starting in our own backyards. Our report found that over half of the “bee-friendly” plants sold by retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s have neonics in them as they are pre-treated with pesticides. So, gardeners could be thinking they are planting bee-friendly gardens, when in reality, they are poisoning bees and other helpful insects in their own backyards, potentially for months to years because these pesticides are so persistent and they easily spread to neighboring plants. Based on this, I think one of the things that we can all do is plant truly bee-friendly plants that are organic. We actually have some good tips on this at beeaction.org. Make sure to use organic soil and that it is not soil that contains neonics or other pesticides. Unfortunately, lots of soils on the market do contain these kinds of chemicals. You should also avoid the use of pesticides in general. Use organic gardening practices. The Rodale Institute has some good guidelines on how to do organic gardening well. Also, it is best to avoid the use of synthetic pest treatments because these contain neonics. These can contaminate your garden for months or years. They are also in some lawn treatments.

Through all of this, you can create a habitat for pollinators, including monarch butterflies, which are also on decline largely due to our agricultural practices. Most of the monarchs in the Midwest--monarchs’ breeding ground--has been wiped out by the intensification of agriculture. GM crops are produced with massive amounts of Roundup, which happens to kill the only food that monarch butterflies eat, milkweed. A study in the New York Times showed that last year was the lowest record of migrating monarchs counted in North America, and that number dropped by half again so far this year. A new study from the University of Minnesota showed that this drop correlated with the increased use of GMOs that are herbicide-tolerant, including Roundup. Our applications of Roundup have skyrocketing in the last decade or so as more and more GMO crops are being planted. Therefore, the monarch butterflies are another canary in the coal mine, like the bees, telling us that we need to shift away from this industrialized form of agriculture.

We have an action on our website, and we are encouraging people to call Lowe’s or Home Depot because we want these retailers to be leaders and stop selling bee-killing pesticides and sell plants that are safe for bees and all of us. We are also encouraging folks to contact their member in Congress to encourage them to co-sponsor the Saving America’s Pollinators Act. This is a piece of legislation that would restrict the use of neonics until field studies and a review of all the available science shows that they are actually safe, which they are not. This would parallel what is happening in the EU where there is a two-year ban on the most powerful neonics in flowering crops there. This obviously is not a full solution because two years really is not long enough--even to get the pesticides out of the environment because they are so persistent--but it is a good start.

It is about the personal and the community (spread the word. If you are in a gardening club, talk about this and share our report and practice truly bee-friendly gardening). Check out honeybeehaven.org. There are also a few states with neonics and pollinator protection legislation, including Maine, California, Maryland, and Oregon.

Q: Friends of the Earth has a section on GE apples onits website. Are these close to approval? In your opinion, what would be the most significant consequence if GE apples are approved? Would there be a way to differentiate GE apples from regular ones in the grocery store?

A: GE apples would be the first GMO on the market where the whole thing is a GMO. Instead of just being an ingredient in a processed food, like cornstarch, you would have the whole thing that you are eating being a genetically engineered organism. There are potentially greater risks just in that aspect because you are eating the whole GMO for the first time. Secondly, the company who is creating this GE apple is saying, “We are going to label it as the Arctic Apple.” But how many consumers out there would actually know that an arctic apple is a GMO apple? In absence of labeling laws that ensure consumers’ right to know, there’s really no way a consumer would be able to differentiate this apple in a produce aisle except if they cut it and it didn’t brown.

This is one of the most ridiculous uses of GMO technology that we have encountered. How many of us were instructed by our moms to sprinkle a little bit of lemon juice on an apple to keep it from browning? It is not rocket science. This is one of the most unnecessary uses of GMO technology. On top of that, they are using a very new and poorly understood type of genetic engineering called RNAI which basically is gene silencing using double stranded RNA. There are real concerns about the impact of this technology on human health and the environment. Many scientists have concerns because it hasn’t been accessed for safety. It is a fairly new science and could be very problematic.

The other concern we have is that apples already have high pesticide residue levels. Kids eat a lot of apples. It is one of the first foods for every kid. So, already apples carry a large load of potentially harmful pesticides, and kids are more vulnerable to the impacts of these pesticides because their bodies are still developing. This technology would remove the natural browning enzyme of apples, but this enzyme is what many scientists think is one of the natural defense systems that apples have to defend themselves against pests and diseases. Unfortunately, it may be by removing this natural enzyme, apple farmers may even have to use even more pesticides. Also, because the apple won’t brown, it is possible that bruises and decomposition will be hidden when customers think they are getting a fresh apple.

In terms of approval, it is possible that the USDA will approve it any day now. It could happen this year. It could happen this month. Unfortunately, during this process of approval, they are not really asking questions about its impact on human health and the environment.

GE apples have the potential to contaminate nearby organic apple orchards. These organic apple growers, who go through a lot to get certified organic and provide safe and healthy organic produce, could inadvertently get contaminated by their neighbors, and right now, the law says, “too bad for you organic farmer, you should take out some insurance.” Bottom line is that this could harm organic producers as well as conventional farmers who could lose export markets because there are a lot of countries that don’t want GMOs. We have seen this impact in exports of corn in China. As you can see, there are a lot of downsides to the GE apple. A lot of people in the apple industry actually oppose the introduction of the GE apple for all of the reasons I just said. They see it as unnecessary and potentially harmful to their industry and yet this rogue company is pursuing this to make a buck off of this technology despite the potential risks to human health and the fact that consumers don’t want it.

If GE apples are approved, it would set a precedent about this type of technology on the market in absence of really good regulations. It would also set a precedent for whole GMO foods to be on the market, which is where a lot of companies want to go next.

Friends of the Earth sent letters to the biggest baby food company, Gerber, as well as the largest seller of sliced apple products, McDonald’s, and said that consumers don’t want this, and apple growers don’t want this, and you would be taking on a lot of risks as companies to be guinea pigs for this product, so, we are encouraging you to make a commitment to not using GE apples in the absence of better safety testing, labeling, etc. And both of these companies, McDonald’s and Gerber, said that they have no plans to use this product. It isn’t the strongest commitment, but it is a signal, that even though this isn’t even on the market yet, that some of the largest companies in the world don’t see a reason for this and don’t want to take a risk. These places have great exposure to children, whether it is through kids’ meals or applesauce and baby food. They are really listening to consumers saying that we don’t want GMOs and they are not going to be sticking their necks out for this untested technology that no one wants, which is encouraging. This is showing a large market shift, like you are seeing with Cheerios, Chipotle, Whole Foods, etc. that are saying, “Gosh consumers don’t want this. They want transparency and sustainability. So, this is something that we need to support.” Through market rejection, we can show that we don’t what to eat this. I think the market is shifting and that is part of the great work that GMO Inside is doing and all of us in this movement are making happen.

Q: What do you suggest for a more transparent food system?

A: Consumers are demanding more and more information on where their food is produced, what is in it, under what conditions it was produced, what is the carbon footprint of that production, etc. We live in an age with an incredible amount of information and I think transparency is just the direction that things are headed.

I do think we need required labeling and complete transparency around safety assessments that should be done by third parties who have no financial interest or stake in the outcome of the safety assessment. The burden of proof has to be on the producer to show it is safe before it hits our shelves. That is the opposite of what happens right now. Right now, it is pretty much like get out there as soon as possible no matter what. Any safety tests done are usually considered confidential business information.

The products themselves need to be labeled accurately. In a nutshell, we need really good pre-market requirements for safety assessments, the studies need to be transparent, available, replicable, and they need to be done by third parties. Also, there needs to be a really robust public engagement built into the regulatory processes and technologies because we need to democratize our regulatory system. Right now there is public comment, but often times, those are ignored or lumped together. We need to have more transparency in the whole process of approval. Ultimately, we need good labels that are clear and easy for consumers to understand.

Q: In your time working for Friends of the Earth, what is your biggest success story in making a change to our food system?

A: The campaign to get grocery stores not to sell genetically engineered salmon  was my biggest success. We are still working on Walmart and Costco. We have over 60 grocery stores, including some of the largest chains, the number one and two conventional grocery stores (Safeway and Kroger), as well as Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and a whole slew of others, that have made commitments not to sell GMO salmon, and some of them more broadly, GMO seafood should they come to market. This is pretty important in terms of the precedent it sets—the market is rejecting this. The majority of consumers polled do not want to eat GMO salmon. There are concerns about the environmental and health impacts. It is a good case of getting these prominent retailers to listen to what the people want and in absence of a functioning and strong regulatory system; we have managed to block the market entrance of this fish. I think it makes people think twice about the direction of genetically engineering animals. We know that there are about 30 fish in the pipeline, as well as pigs, chickens, and cows that are being genetically engineered to be able to fit better in our factory farming system. Instead of fixing this broken factory farm system, they are trying to remake animals to fit into a broken system. We oppose this for obvious reasons: animal welfare, human health, environment, and transparency. I think this is a real victory. It was a coalition of groups that made this happen, including GMO Inside, Center for Food Safety, etc. It was a multi-year effort to get to this place. We have actually kept this thing from being approved for a very long time. They have been trying to get it to market for about 20 years. I think that if there isn’t really a market for something, it is going to be harder to get it to the market. In absence of trying to get regulators to do the right thing, this is a good attempt.

Along with consumer market initiatives, we also need efforts to get better laws on the books and make sure our elected officials are listening to us. We need to get money out of politics so we actually have a functional democracy because we can’t feed our democracy and our decision-making power to corporations, ultimately.

Start where you live. Start with your purchasing decisions. Support the right companies. But you can’t shop your way out. You also need to put pressure on elected officials and regulators. Raise your voice and spread the word. Educate your fellow citizens to make a ruckus and demand a better system.

We really need to demand good regulations and government oversight because that really is our best defense.

GMO Inside would like to thank you for your time, Lisa Archer! 

More from the Blog