Bob Burns is concerned about the future of food as we know it. The member of Ledyard (Conn.) Congregational Church United Church of Christ and owner of Ledyard's Aiki Farms is one of the area's most active voices against the production and unlabeled use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, that ultimately find their way into the food supply without public knowledge or consent. For the most part, opponents like Burns are not being heard by GMO producers. But with support from the UCC's Connecticut Conference and its 97,000 members, Burns is hoping his voice may now be a little louder.
"The issue is that we have huge corporations that alter the structure of seeds through genetic modification, patent that difference, and then turn around and tell you and I that there is no difference between genetically modified foods and non-genetically modified foods," Burns explains. "The least these organizations can do is take responsibility and label their food so we can make a choice."
A GMO is the result of a laboratory process of taking genes from one species and inserting them into another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic. GMOs are the source of genetically modified foods, and scientists have used genetic modification to create plants, animals and bacteria with biological characteristics that would never occur in the natural world – such as rice that can provide malaria resistance or salmon that grows twice as large as wild varieties.
The "Big 6" GMO producers are Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont and Syngenta. According to the Huffington Post, companies like Monsanto are investing millions of dollars to keep GMO production behind closed doors and fight legislation like California's Proposition 37, which would have required mandatory labeling of products made with GMOs. That issue was defeated in the November election. Like Burns, many GMO opponents feel that consumers have the right to know what is in their food, and that mandatory labeling would allow consumers to make informed decisions about what they eat.
The Rev. Patricia Bjorling, Connecticut Conference associate minister for generosity ministries and member of the Environmental Ministry Team, said the passage of Prop 37 would have changed the landscape of GMO labeling on a national level, and that its defeat was a disappointment. Connecticut also had a bill on the same issue fail earlier this year, when legislators backed down after lawsuit threats from food producers. But to Bjorling, these failures don't mean that the public is against GMO labeling. She believes people are not fully educated about the issue. With the help of Burns and the Environmental Ministry Team, the conference passed a resolution at its October annual meeting calling for GMO education in congregations and communities throughout Connecticut.
"We realized that there needed to be more education about labeling and about what a GMO is so that people in Connecticut and in our churches would be better informed and better able to talk about what their views are so that legislation like this has a better chance of seeing the light of day," Bjorling said. "A lot of money was put into opposition of labeling by big companies and it didn't pass."
Churches within the Connecticut Conference will show films, sponsor speakers, distribute printed materials, develop a website, participate in local events and even hold a press conference with local clergy to bring the topic of GMOs to the forefront. For unfamiliar, or "hotbed" issues, the Connecticut Conference mandates a two-step resolution process – education followed by action – and the conference will need to decide by May if it will propose step two at its next annual meeting. With more education, Bjorling believes the church can position itself as a meaningful voice in support of GMO labeling, equipped with the necessary information to ask the right questions and make the right decisions.
"The church has the moral, ethical lens, where the rest of the world often has an economic lens," Bjorling said. "The church has a lens that says, ‘Is it right? Is it just?' And I don't always hear those questions being asked when decisions are being made about things out there in the world."
One of the conference's main concerns is the ethical aspects of mixing the genes of difference species, which Burns says violates scripture. But the other concerns center around the unknown. What does this do to our health, to existing crops, and to the environment? What will it do to small, organic farmers like Burns, or to farmers in developing countries who rely on traditional farming for survival? Some of these questions could be answered in time through testing and research, but it seems like no one is taking this important step before the food supply is inundated with unnatural organisms we can't see, taste or smell. And with companies like Pepsi Co., ConAgra Foods, Kellogg Company, Nestle, Coca Cola, Campbell's Soup and a plethora of other giants opposing GMO testing and labeling, it may be a hard road to find the answers we seek.
"I would like to see us think though some of the ethics before we go pell-mell about it," Bjorling said. "We do a lot of things quickly, without thinking of long-term ramifications of what it's going to do."
The United Church of Christ, working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, recognizes this campaign as a great opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.
Here's a preview of Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 Great Days.