Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “The Real Hazards Behind Genetic Tampering with Our Food” was written by Joe Hart for the Spring 2012 edition of Rootstock.

The food we eat contains a smorgasbord of emotional and cultural associations—think of all the holidays you’ve spent with your family at a table overflowing with lovingly made, traditional meals. But beneath these complex perceptions lies a very simple desire: to provide our families with food that is delicious, safe, nutritious and healthy.

That’s why so many people choose organic foods, which are produced without toxic pesticides and chemicals and are loaded with organic, healthful goodness. It’s also why so many consumers are increasingly concerned about genetically engineered (GE) crops.


Genetic engineering takes place in the laboratory when scientists combine the genetic codes of two different species. For example, GE salmon, which may soon be on the market, inserts the growth hormone–producing genes of eels into the DNA of salmon, resulting in a fish that grows at twice the rate as untreated fish.

The health effects of GE foods are still under investigation (though a growing body of research calls them into question). But when it comes to the use of pesticides and herbicides, the evidence is overwhelming: GE crops require far more chemicals than natural/conventional crops.

“Right now, the only GE crops that are commercially successful are those that result in the application of more herbicides,” says Melissa Hughes, Cooperative Counsel at Organic Valley. Hughes has been spearheading the farmer co-op’s efforts against genetically modified farming.

The most prevalent GE crops—corn, soybeans and rice—have been genetically modified to be resistant to common pesticides and herbicides. As a result, U.S. farmers have applied about 383 million pounds more herbicide in the 13 years since GE crops were introduced.

Weeds, however, have been quick to catch up and have rapidly developed resistance to traditional herbicides. “GE farmers are driving their own herbicides into obsolescence,” explains Hughes. These new “superweeds” require more and more deadly herbicides, including 2, 4-D, an ingredient in the defoliant Agent Orange. “These super-powerful herbicides make traditional weed killers look like vinegar,” says Hughes. Worst of all, a number of studies have discovered growing concentrations of these chemicals in humans.

So as consumers, what can we do to protect our families? For now, the only way to avoid genetically modified organisms is to purchase certified organic foods, because federal rules prohibit the use of GE crops in the production of all food labeled USDA Organic.

Hughes and other leaders in the organic movement want to go even further. Organic Valley farmers have committed more than a quarter-million dollars to efforts to combat GE foods. The primary thrust of this activism has been to lobby for labeling laws so consumers can choose whether to buy items containing GE ingredients.

It’s an uphill battle; the corporations with a financial stake in GE crops are large and powerful. But Hughes is hopeful. Surveys show that a huge majority of Americans—more than 90 percent—support food labeling laws.

“It’s just common sense,” says Hughes. “People want to make healthy food choices for their families.”