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More than health at stake in GMO debate, speakers say

The statewide battle over labeling of food items containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) is not just about your health but rather, said a “Sacred Seed Panel” of philosophers, it’s about the sacred nature of seeds themselves — that they were created through eons of evolution to be and do what they are and should not be changed to suit the whims of civilization. 

Discussing the contentious ballot measure Monday at Ashland Grange, the four participants made a pitch to see things "from the point of view of the seed" and with consideration for Mother Nature. The ballot measure would require labeling of all GMO food.

“We’re not just talking about plants. All higher organisms, from bacteria to fruit to us, make seeds that can be genetically engineered ... and, since the 1980s, these have become patentable, with the motivation being driven by economic reasons, instead of higher considerations,” said Ray Seidler, a former senior scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency and author of its Biosafety Plan. 

Engineered genes have impacts around morality, ethics, health, aesthetics and the environment, creating a novel entity, Seidler notes, and “science doesn’t know how they will fit into the scheme of things.”

Most genetic alterations allow direct spraying of massive amounts of chemicals, so corporations can make more money, he adds, “but the process is so successful, it has begun to fail, because weeds and insects become resistant. The answer is to get on the pesticide treadmill, producing more chemicals.” 

Looking at GMO through the lens of the Bible, Dr. Jesse Schwartz, president of the Living Tree Community Foods in Berkely, said they qualify as idolatry or “bowing down to a commodity.” 

He adds, “The world we created has set itself against us. We have plummeted to an all-time depth of altering the fundamental forces of creation.” 

Leviticus, Schwartz says, repeatedly emphasizes the phrase that life should produce “after its kind” and that seed represents the life force, which is derived from cosmic forces, is sacred and must be kept alive. Genetic engineering, he adds, damages the genome and opens the way for reproductive dysfunction, digestive ailments, cancer and a host of other major diseases. 

Rod Birney, M.D., of Talent, a biodynamic farmer and director of the Self and Soul Center, said humanity is in a “crisis of consciousness,” practicing “species-ism,” where we think we are the highest species and have the right to “lord it over all” other species. Loving your neighbor, he adds, should include not just people but all life — and changing one thing in nature means we have to take all nature into account.

Rick North, a former educator for the American Cancer Society and founder of Oregon’s Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Campaign for Safe Food, says he used to believe science was thorough and unbiased but learned the FDA hasn’t done independent studies on GMO — but the science comes from the chemical companies and has been used to create the regulations in the field. This, he said, is a conflict of interest. 

Bemoaning the millions poured into Oregon to defeat the ballot measure, he said the main GMO crops — sugar beets, alfalfa, sweet corn and summer squash — can be easily labeled by growers at no cost. 

Foes of the ballot measure have raised $16 million, a record for the state, while backers have raised just less than half that. Polls say the measure is trailing by 6 points.