Part II: Nick Branningan
Nick Brannigan is the author of I’m Eating WHAT?!?: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Food and 10 Real World Solutions to Avoid Them the free eBook available for free at www.imeatingwhat.com
TRANSCRIPTION:Caryn Hartglass: Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food, and this is the second half of our February 8, 2012 show. We’re going to move on to health and environment and talk about genetically modified food, the subject that doesn’t get near enough attention. So we’re gonna give it a little bit today with Nick Brannigan, who’s the author of I’m Eating WHAT?!?: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Food and 10 Real World Solutions to Avoid Them. It’s a free e-book that you can grab at imeatingwhat.com. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Nick Brannigan!
Nick Brannigan: Hi Caryn, how are you?
Caryn Hartglass: Great, how are you doing?
Nick Brannigan: I’m doing excellent, thanks for having me on today.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so how did you get into this passion against genetically modified food?
Nick Brannigan: Well I first heard the term “genetically modified,” “GMO food,” years ago, but I took it as this was something that they wanted to do to the food supply. I didn’t realize it was food that I was eating every day.
Caryn Hartglass: Mmhm.
Nick Brannigan: Maybe two or three years ago, I heard a late-night talk radio show with Jeffrey Smith. He got into the details, the ins and outs of GMO food, and at the time I was still a very unconscious eater—
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Nick Brannigan: —still eating a lot of packaged foods, a lot of animal products. But I started checking the labels, and the major crops—that’s corn, soy, finola, beet sugar, and cotton—was in nearly everything that I was eating. So over time I started—I had a newborn baby at the time—and I started paying more attention to the labels that I was eating, what she was eating, and it really bothered me that really no one knew about this topic, like you said when you opened up, it’s a topic that doesn’t get a lot of attention.
Caryn Hartglass: Yep.
Nick Brannigan: But it’s food that we eat every day. I became more not only into watching what I eat but into advocacy work, and I took speaker training through the Institute of Responsible Technology, which led me to writing this book, I’m Eating WHAT?!?.
Caryn Hartglass: By the way, I’ve had Jeffrey Smith on my show a while ago—I should get him on again—but he also hosts Ecoshock, which airs every Saturday at 2pm on the Progressive Radio Network. We love Jeff Smith and all the work that he’s doing. And I’m glad that you’re joining him to get this information out, because more people need to be talking about it. There are reasons, though, that we don’t hear much about genetically modified food unless you’re really looking for it, and one of the reasons is the companies that have been promoting genetically modified organisms in food have been lobbying against labeling of our food products for a long time. So there’s only clever kind of circuitous ways to know whether GMO are in our food—genetically modified organisms—like… We know that if we buy food that’s organic, the food is not going to be genetically modified, to a large percentage, and I say that because unfortunately, genetically modified foods, as they grow unprotected in fields, have pollen just like other plants and some of that pollen can actually contaminate other fields. So even though we buy organic and want to believe that it’s the highest quality possible, there is a chance that there are some genetically modified organisms in there. It’s a very, very small percentage, but that’s kind of the best we can do.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, that is a big issue with the organic products, is that to use the at-risk products, which are the major crops that I stated—corn, canola, soy, beet sugar, and… What was the other one? Oh excuse me, cotton. Yeah, cottonseed, flew my mind, it’s cottonseed.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh sure, cotton oil.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, that is true with organics. People don’t know about the cross-contamination with pollen drift. That’s why if you use these major ingredients, get them non-GMO verified. It’s a process where they actually test the crops before they go to processing to make sure they haven’t been cross-contaminated with the transgenic DNA, because it is possible. Now, some distributors do test it when it gets from the farms. They’ll test the corn from an organic crop and if it doesn’t contain the GMO DNA they won’t buy it. That’s really hard to know who actually does that, because some companies will take it anyway because they don’t want to lose their profit versus not having real organic foods. And the unfortunate part is the USDA organic process would allow that crop with the GMO DNA to continue to be labeled organic. That’s why it does contain those five major ingredients to make sure that not only they’re organic but non-GMO project verified.
Caryn Hartglass: I know that some companies were actually getting their corn products from Europe to guarantee that the corn they were using did not have genetically modified organisms in it because we have so much contamination in the United States.
Nick Brannigan: That is very true because it’s 90, I think it’s 90% of the soy grown is genetically modified, something around 88-90% of corn has been genetically modified, 95% of beet sugar. The European Union, there’s some GMO crops grown, but they’re few and far-between because the consumers pretty much rejected GMO foods in the late ‘90s based on some press that it got then. And all the major American food companies withdrew GM ingredients from their European lines but they kept them in the American products because Americans are so in the dark about what they eat, especially when it comes to this GMO food.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so what… I’ve heard this a lot: why should we care about eating or not eating genetically modified food?
Nick Brannigan: Well studies have shown that there are major health risks of eating GMO foods. For examples, studies they did in Japan show that it suppresses the body’s ability to get rid of—to digest, degrade, and detoxify—toxic substances from the body. They also did studies showing that it affects the Sertoli cells of the testicles in rats, and the main function of the Sertoli cells is to develop sperm. And there’s a lot of evidence out there showing that GMO foods could lead to sterility in not only animals that the food is fed to, but also in human beings as well. There’s only been one human feeding study done and it didn’t study any of the long-term effects. So we don’t know the long-term implications of genetically modified foods, and that’s one of the main reasons I’d avoid them a hundred percent, because fifty, maybe sixty years ago, someone smoking a cigarette, you could say to them, “You know, that’s very bad what you’re doing to your body right there. Cigarettes are bad for you.” And they would call you a conspiracy theorist back then. And now I don’t think there’s a person on earth that smokes a cigarette that doesn’t know it’s bad for you. Is it going to be the same thing for GMO foods in forty or fifty years?
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, doctors used to promote cigarettes as healthy.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, you could see a lot of advertising saying doctors recommend this brand of cigarette.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. But I’ve read numerous reports that say that they’ve done long-term studies, and those studies are usually like ninety days. They’re not long-term, and they’re not on humans.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, my research, longest study I’ve come across was like a twenty-four month study on rats. Rats have very similar DNA codes to human beings but in just a few years they’re already showing negative side effects in the rats
Caryn Hartglass: So I’m always talking about how it’s important to eat primarily a plant-based diet—organic, locally grown—and you were mentioning that a large percentage of the corn and soy that’s grown in this country is genetically modified, and most of it is to feed animals which ultimately become food for people. But those genetically modified organisms stay intact, and you can get them by eating the animals.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, it’s definitely like a—I believe it’s a percentage, it’s something like 80% is fed to these factory-farm animals. So the number one thing you could do is go vegetarian. Now personally I follow a vegan diet, but I do support the organic dairy companies because if people still want to get dairy products, by buying an organic one, that’s right there you’re withdrawing the support from all that GMO feed that’s fed on these animals. Like for example, you can go to the store—and I don’t eat eggs either—but you can see there’s eggs that are omega-enhanced. How do they enhance those eggs? They feed the chickens flaxseed. So the trace in the flaxseed is transferring over to the final egg that comes out that you’re buying. So they’re feeding these chickens and these animals GMO corn and GMO soy. I think it’s a little obvious that that DNA gets transferred over to their final product as well—the eggs and the dairy and the meat.
Caryn Hartglass: Yep. Well I’m glad to hear you’re not eating dairy and eggs. That’s a good thing. But it is important to acknowledge that other people do, and when it comes to genetically modified, even if we’re not eating genetically modified, if plants are growing around, they can contaminate everything. So we really want to get these things off the planet.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah like, for example the beet sugar has contaminated Swiss chard, I believe, and conventional beets with the transgenic DNA. So you may get a beet that’s not genetically modified, well it actually could be. Fortunately it is not sprayed with the deadly pesticide glyphosate, but we don’t know what the GMO process is doing to us long-term, let alone the heavy chemical spraying that they do.
Caryn Hartglass: Now one of the things that I think would help is proper labeling. There’s been all kinds of studies that have shown the power of some very simple labeling. There was one recently where they studied putting in a hospital on beverages—beverages that were labeled green were healthy, red were not healthy, and yellow were somewhere in-between—and people went more for the green labeled beverages. It increased significantly from what they were doing before when it wasn’t labeled, so there is definitely an impact in labeling, and the companies that make genetically modified foods know that. That’s why they don’t want things labeled although they’ll talk and say that there’s no difference in their food, and so it doesn’t have to be labeled because the food isn’t different.
Nick Brannigan: Well funny to say that, such an idiotic statement, because it’s a contrary to what they call the food: it’s genetically modified. So by definition, it’s different than non-modified food. And there’s no logical argument against labeling; just like you said, they know they’re going to lose all their profits. People are going to stop buying genetically modified food once they can clearly see the label on there. It’s like when you go to—people that drink orange juice. Some orange juice says 100% juice, some orange juice says made from concentrate. Some people don’t care if it’s from concentrate, some people want 100% juice. That’s all it is, people just want to know what they’re eating.
Caryn Hartglass: Yep.
Nick Brannigan: And there’s no logical argument against labeling.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s not going to keep everyone away from genetically modified, but it’s a first step.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, I am kind of on the side that if people want to eat that food, best of luck to you, you should be able to eat it. It’s just going back to the pollen drift that is an issue, to where it is contaminating other crops, and that’s not fair to consumers and to the organic farmers. But if you want to eat GMO foods, go right ahead, it’s up to you. But people should have the right to know and people should have a choice. And there’s no logical argument against that.
Caryn Hartglass: Let’s put the personal health thing aside—although what I’m going to say really is going to affect personal health anyway—but let’s talk about the environment for a minute and how genetically modified foods affect the environment. There’s a number of different ways that growing GMO food has adverse effects on the environment.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah well, for people that don’t know this GMO process, the main crops are designed to get heavily sprayed with a toxic herbicide and not die. The main herbicide is produced by Monsanto called Roundup. Main name is glyphosate. They’ve been doing a lot of studies lately that have been coming to light that the glyphosate actually penetrates the groundwater. It’s been found in the air in a couple of southern states—it’s been found in the rain. So the genetically modified process alone is bad enough through the pollen drift. But these—you spray heavy herbicide on the soy plants, it kills all the weeds around it, but the soy doesn’t die. And they’ve been finding that the weeds have been becoming more immune to the glyphsate spray—they’re calling them super weeds. So the response to that is, “Let’s spray more herbicide on it.” So the herbicide spraying has doubled since the planting of genetically modified soybeans. And you see a lot of spin from the, mostly Monsantos, but all these chemical companies, where they talk about how pesticide spraying has gone down due to the Bt cotton and Bt corn. But what most people don’t know: there’s a difference between pesticide and herbicide.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, I’m so glad that you brought that up.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, the herbicide—only recently, I found this out in my research for this book and so this is news to me. So the herbicide spraying has gone way up, and the pesticide spraying may have gone down, but people are eating concentrated levels of pesticide now.
Caryn Hartglass: So let’s just talk a minute. It’s easy to know the difference: pesticides kill pests, like bugs, herbicides kill weeds, the plants that interfere with the growth of the desired plant that you’re growing for sale. But they’re both toxic.
Nick Brannigan: Precisely.
Caryn Hartglass: And when genetically modified foods were coming out and companies like Monsanto were promoting them, one of the things that they kept saying was that it was going to reduce, like you said, the use of pesticides. And this was supposed to be a great thing for the environment, but ultimately we’re using more toxic chemicals in the form of herbicides.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, even the number I saw was something like a 98% increase in spraying of herbicides, and it just shows you the PR of these companies is they just don’t use that word “herbicides.” So what they’re saying may be true, but it’s like I said, that’s a spin too because you’re—because the plants, the cotton and the corn, produce their own pesticide, we’re eating concentrated levels of it now.
Caryn Hartglass: So let’s talk about that now. So there’s another kind of genetically modified organism that enables the plant to produce what’s normally a natural pesticide in the plant, in their own structure.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, what it’s called is Bt toxin. It’s made from a bacteria that is naturally occurring and was sprayed on organic crops. So what they did is they took this bacteria gene and they inserted it into the genes of corn and cotton, which are the main two Bt crops. So now these corns produce their own pesticide, their own Bt toxin, in concentrated levels. So the spraying has gone down but now if you’re eating a Bt corn, you’re eating a concentrated level of the Bt toxin that you’re not washing off. It’s in the cells of the plant.
Caryn Hartglass: So the Bt toxin also goes can go into the ground from the part of the plant that is harvested. There are bugs and small animals that might nibble on some of them and be affected by it too, and so there’s just more of this Bt around. And they will tell you that it’s not toxic, but the levels are increasing, and certainly when we eat the food, the levels that we consume are a lot more than they were before.
Nick Brannigan: Well this variety of corn too—and this is something really important, if you haven’t heard this it may shock you—that this variety of corn is actually a registered pesticide through the Environmental Protection Agency. So if you’re eating this genetically modified corn, you are eating what EPA considers a pesticide.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Nick Brannigan: Yup. It’s pretty mind-blowing, isn’t it? And there’s another issue with this—what they’re calling super bugs—is that bugs that are eating this Bt corn and Bt cotton, the insecticide splits their stomach open. But there’s a small percentage of these insects that are immune to it. So as all the other insects die off, there’s these insects that are immune to it, and they’re mating and reproducing. So now all the insects in the area are “super bugs,” and that’s all there is. They’re eating the crops and they’re not dying from it.
Caryn Hartglass: Just like there are super weeds, there are super bugs.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, so the so-called benefit of both of these genetically modified crops are showing that eventually it’s no longer gonna benefit anybody.
Caryn Hartglass: I personally think what needs to be done, in addition to not using genetically modified seeds, is our farms need to be smaller. They’re too big, these giant anchor businesses are growing all these monocrops, and it’s such an unhealthy way to grow food. So we need to bring systems back that encourage small farmers, and then they can use organic permaculture techniques that nature provides for us, growing different plants and certain plants around other plants that inhibit pests coming around and eating the plants. A farm that’s small makes it possible for the workers and the farmers to survey the fields to see what’s going on and make manual adjustments in order to protect the crops. And this is all doable on a small scale. We need to bring that back. And it’s happening in small pockets here and there.
Nick Brannigan: This was how food was harvested for thousands of years. This whole pesticide industry has only been around, I believe, sixty or so years.
Caryn Hartglass: Pretty much it’s after World War II.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, yeah, since World War II. So we look at this like it’s the only way to do things. But food’s been around for what, how long, longer than humans, is that safe to say?
Caryn Hartglass: Sure.
Nick Brannigan: So there’s no way that this has been done for thousands and thousands of years. And sixty or so years compared to a millennium, I think you may have a better option than what we’re doing now because that option was used long before this is now.
Caryn Hartglass: Well part of the challenge is that there are more humans on earth than ever before—seven billion—and how do you fed all of those people?
Nick Brannigan: Not through genetic modification. That’s a talking point. People call them GMs, I call them talking points and so they are. They’ve been saying they’re number one, GMOs will feed the world. Well, we’ve been genetically modifying crops for twenty years. There are still starving people around. When are they actually going to feed the world? They’re not, because that’s just something they say and people hear that and they’re like, “Oh, that sounds reasonable, GMOs feed the world, okay that’s fine,” without doing further research on it.
Caryn Hartglass: Well there are some really horrible stories that have happened around the world: India, for example, and some other countries, where farmers have used genetically modified feed and the yields have been terrible. And they’ve had a lot of debt that they weren’t able to pay off and as a result committed suicide. There’s been a lot of that.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, I believe there’s actually a documentary coming out on that issue. It’s something that I haven’t looked into too much because it’s a very hard issue to look into. But there’s a documentary that’s not out already coming out soon that’s regarding the suicides of the Indian farmers.
Caryn Hartglass: I saw one a few years ago that Vandana Shiva was involved with on that subject, and of course I can’t think of the name at this moment, but it was very difficult to watch. The stories were really…just, really frustrating and upsetting, where people really put their heart and soul into what they’re doing, and things that… All they wanted to do was improve their yields and maybe profit a little more to benefit their families, and what happened was things just became so dramatically worse.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, ‘cause what they do is they put a patent on these seeds, the biotech companies, so they actually own the seeds. So if the farmer plants the seed, he’s not allowed to save the seed, and if he does, then he’s going on patent infringement, and Monsanto has sued dozens, or maybe—excuse me—hundreds of farmers over the years for using their patented seeds. And there’s actually a court case right now going on in New York City where these farmers are suing back, saying you shouldn’t be able to patent these seeds, and if you do, you shouldn’t be able to sue farmers for your transgenic DNA getting into our crops.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s good news. I’m glad to hear there’s a suit in New York going on.
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, don’t know the result of it yet. It’s been going on for—I believe it started at the end of last month, so it’s still pretty new. But it’s one major step to go at least in the right direction for the protection of the farmers.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so how do you avoid genetically modified food?
Nick Brannigan: Well the first is to know the ingredients. Not just the corn, finola, cotton, soy and beet sugar, but all the derivatives too. A lot of the stuff in any packaged foods usually come from corn or soy, like MSG, xanath gum, sucrose, fructose. So if you can do a Web search, find out all those ingredients. Also too, know honey that’s not organic, again the animal products that are non-organic should be avoided. You look for the non-GMO verified label and buy organic. Your best bet is making a transition over to mostly whole foods. ‘Cause very few actual whole foods have been genetically modified. So when you start—kind of take the process of cook for yourself—and go through the whole process of getting away from packaged food is the best way to avoid GMOs. I also recommend supporting any local organic or non-GMO cafés in your area. Again, going to the small farms, where I live in Las Vegas, there’s actually a handful of organic farms, and they have a CSA program, which is community-supported agriculture, where they actually bring you vegetables every week. And obviously they don’t do anything genetically modified. Those are just the ways to start. I’ll recommend too, if you live in California, for the labeling campaign going on there right now. They’re gonna start collecting signatures in mid-February to mid-April, and if they get roughly 800,000, they’re going to be on the ballot in November to label GMO foods in California.
Caryn Hartglass: Who’s behind this? Do you know what group is behind this?
Nick Brannigan: Yeah, the website is labelgmos.org. The group is called the California Right to Know Committee. They’ve been supported by some companies, like Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and Nature’s Tavern Organic Cereals. And also, their other website is carighttoknow.org, so if you live in California and you can volunteer for the campaign or if you just want to know where you can sign your name to get GMOs labeled, that’s one of the best things we can do right now, because once the FDA—they have to be labeled in California—these companies are gonna put them on all their packages and they’re probably just gonna remove them from their products because they know the consumers aren’t gonna want to buy something that says “genetically modified” on it.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I’m not exactly sure how that’ll work from a federal versus state level, but I’m glad that it’s happening, and it should prove very interesting. But the best that we can do is support what we believe in with our dollars, and even though some foods may be tempting to buy because they’re less expensive or they look really nice, they could secretly have things in it that you don’t want to put in your body and your family’s bodies, so genetically modified food is not, not, not the way to go.
Nick Brannigan: Yes, not at all. In my book, there’s ten solutions in here. And I would recommend anyone that reads it, take these solutions. It’s kinda incrementally implement them into your life.
Caryn Hartglass: Where can people get it?
Nick Brannigan: It’s imeatingwhat.com.
Caryn Hartglass: Great. Nick, thank you so much and thank you for doing all that you’re doing. It takes individuals to make change, and you’re doing your part.
Nick Brannigan: Thanks Caryn, I appreciate you having me on today.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, thanks for joining me and take care. I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. And join me next week—we’re going to be talking with Molly Phemister the founder of eatcology.com. She’ll be talking a lot about ecology and food. Thanks so much for listening! Take care. Have a delicious week.