Jeffrey Smith’s Anti-GMO Crusade

Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon


Jeffrey Smith was born in 1958 and raised in Westchester County, NY. In 1996, when genetically modified organisms (GMOs) began their rapid infiltration into the American food supply, Jeffrey found his calling and emerged as the leading consumer advocate promoting non-GMO choices through his Institute for Responsible Technology. His works include the bestselling Seeds of Deception and the award-winning documentary Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives. Pitted in a 21st-century David and Goliath confrontation with the deep-pocketed biotech industry, he speaks on the road nine months a year in a grassroots mission to prompt a tipping point of consumer rejection of GMOs. With recent decisions by mainstream brands such as Cheerios and Hershey’s Kisses to remove GMOs from their ingredients, Jeffrey’s work is proven to effect change. Having lived for many years in Iowa (surrounded by genetically modified soybeans and corn), he is relocating to the Bay Area to advance his projects.

Common Ground: You’re the leading anti-GMO crusader. Why do you devote your life to this?

Jeffrey Smith: The dangers presented by genetically engineered foods and organisms are unprecedented. In a San Francisco conference in 1999, an Arthur Andersen consultant described how they had worked with their client Monsanto, and he outlined the corporate goals for 15 to 20 years out, whereby 100% of all commercial seeds would be genetically engineered and patented. Monsanto and its consultants worked backward from that goal to create the strategies and tactics to make it happen. Since that time, the biotech industry’s goals have only widened to include livestock, insects, bacteria, algae, grasses, trees. Essentially, they are seeking to replace nature, to eliminate the products of millions of years of evolution and replace it with designer organisms, inserted with designer genes, designed for greater profit and control. This is an irreversible replacement.

The self-propagating pollution of the gene pool is permanent. In fact, the genes already released can outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste. The only thing that lasts longer than self-propagating pollution of the gene pool is extinction. We are at the crossroads now. Are we going to accept Monsanto’s ideal future and bequeath that to all living beings and all future generations, or are we going to protect nature and its current state of evolution? If genetic engineering were benign, natural, and of no consequence, then this is not a big question at all. But we have found that the No. 1 result, the most common result of genetic engineering, is surprise side effects. Mounting evidence shows GMOs are indeed responsible for promoting numerous diseases and are setting up environmental disaster. This is why I am dedicated, but I also hope this will not be a lifelong affair. I’m confident we’ll be able to stop genetically modified organisms soon.

GMOs are complicated and confusing; can you give a simple explanation?

If you take a gene from one species and force it into the DNA of another species, that’s what we mean by genetic engineering. The alternative is sexual reproduction. You can put a pig and a tomato in a room, turn down the lights, play some music, and serve wine, but the pig will not mate with the tomato. But scientists in a lab can extract pig genes and insert them into a tomato, or vice versa. Genetic material can be swapped across kingdoms. This is genetic engineering.

GMO is an abbreviation for genetically modified organism, but there’s a joke people tell about what it stands for.

God, move over. I came up with that in a long, late-night brainstorm of acronyms.

Hybridization has been around a long time, but genetic modification is new, and you say it poses significant health risks to humans.

FDA scientists in the early ’90s were asked to evaluate GMOs and their risks, and made it clear that the processes of genetic engineering and traditional hybridization were entirely different and posed unique health risks. They concluded that it would be difficult to evaluate and urged their superiors to require long-term studies. At the time, the person in charge of policy for the FDA was Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney. He claimed falsely that the FDA was unaware of information showing significant differences between GMOs and the foods we already ate. It was a lie. We didn’t know it was a lie for seven years until a lawsuit forced the FDA to turn over its GMO files. On the basis of that fiction, the FDA’s policy allowed Monsanto—the same company that told us that Agent Orange, PCBs, and DDT were safe—to determine on their own that their genetically modified foods were safe and to put them on the market without even telling the FDA or consumers.

You refer to Monsanto as if it were synonymous with GMOs. What do you know of this company?

They’re based in St. Louis. They have a 100-year-plus history. Year after year it wins the award for world’s most hated corporation—which they’ve profoundly earned. They knew that they were poisoning the residents of Anniston, Alabama, with their PCB factory and yet persisted for decades until they were eventually discovered and fined $700 million. An investigator from the EPA charged Monsanto with fraud, claiming that they were changing research data about their Agent Orange, and that that ultimately deprived victims—the soldiers of the Vietnam War—from getting compensation. We have seen how they intimidate and threaten scientists, rig research, and lie about their products. They have been convicted in courts in the US and in Europe for false advertising and false claims about Roundup, and told by a South African government agency that they were lying about the performance of GMOs. We have seen their treatment of reporters and activists. Monsanto epitomizes the worst of corporate America—and the world, for that matter.

There must be a human side to Monsanto.

I talked to a former scientist for Monsanto, and he admitted that his colleagues had fed genetically engineered corn to rats and had discovered that the rats were damaged from the corn. But instead of withdrawing the corn, they allegedly rewrote the study to hide the effects. He also told me that three of his colleagues had been doing safety studies on the milk from cows treated with Monsanto’s genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, rBGH. These scientists found so much cancerpromoting hormone IGF-1 in the milk that they refused to drink milk thereafter unless it was organic. One of the scientists bought his own cow.

What are the other big biotech firms?

Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF. These companies together own the vast majority of the seeds in the world and most of the pesticides as well. They are essentially chemical companies masquerading as life sciences companies.

Can you explain the relationship between pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and GMOs?

Monsanto was the patent holder for Roundup, the world’s most popular herbicide, which utilizes glyphosate as the active ingredient. The Roundup patent was set to expire in 2000. So as a way to give themselves a de facto extension, they genetically engineered crops not to die when sprayed with this weed killer. The farmers who bought their Roundup Ready seeds were forced to buy Roundup. The crops from the seeds that had not been engineered would die upon application, but Roundup Ready crops can absorb the glyphosate. After being soaked in Roundup, they are later sold as food to you and me.

The other trait are corn and cotton plants engineered to make their own pesticide. When insects feed on these crops, the poison breaks open holes in their stomachs and they die. The crops are like pesticide and herbicide delivery systems. This happens indirectly too, as livestock eat Roundup Ready crops as their primary diet in America.

What dangers are posed to humans by ingesting glyphosate?

The level of Roundup that is responsible for problems can be minuscule—measured in parts per trillion. Yet the EPA allows residue levels of Roundup that can be one million times this amount in our food and water. A series of peer-reviewed papers discussing the biochemistry of glyphosate linked it to most of the diseases associated with the Western diet, including cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, anorexia nervosa, gluten sensitivity, kidney failure, ADHD, depression, anemia, anxiety, and others. Many problems stem from the gastrointestinal system because glyphosate kills beneficial bacteria in our gut and can promote the overgrowth of negative gut bacteria. It can also block our internal production of key amino acids, which in turn allow the production of serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine, which are very important for health and human behavior. Roundup in our systems also can block or inhibit the ability of the body to detox hundreds of other toxins in the liver. It is an endocrine disrupter that promotes cancer growth and tumor growth. All according to peer-reviewed, published studies.

If I snack on corn chips at my local restaurant—and if the chips are not organic, then there is a very high likelihood they are produced with GMO corn. What’s the effect on me?

Do you really want to know? The corn will likely be engineered to contain two traits: on one hand, the Roundup Ready corn will contain glyphosate. On the other, it will also contain genes that produce Bt toxin. If lab rats are an indicator, French studies showed damaged liver, kidneys, and pituitary glands, and also multiple massive tumors from the Roundup.

Three years ago scientists discovered that Bt toxin can poke holes in human cells; poking holes in cells is how it kills insects. The toxin also has a long history of demonstrating allergenic properties. The Bt toxin may cause leaky gut—holes in the walls of the intestines—which may be why it was found in the bloodstream of 93% of the pregnant women tested in Canada, and in 80% of their unborn fetuses. Bt toxin has been shown to be toxic to red blood cells in mice and may be causing serious blood problems in humans. Because it is in the unborn fetus, and the fetus does not have a well-developed blood-brain barrier, it may be poking holes in cells in the brain as well.

One of the scariest studies associated with GMOs confirmed that part of the gene inserted into genetically engineered crops transferred into the DNA of bacteria living inside our intestines. They never confirmed whether that gene continued to function, but if it did—in the case of the corn chips, for example—it might convert our intestinal flora into living pesticide factories, producing Bt toxin 24/7. This might explain why 93% of pregnant women tested had Bt toxin in their blood. Because the Bt toxin should wash out fairly quickly, this might explain why there was such a high percentage—because it was being produced in their own intestines. I don’t have to tell your readers about the importance of gut bacteria. Our digestive system is part of our immune system and has a huge influence on behavior and cognitive ability. Like a proverbial Trojan horse, your seemingly harmless and tasty corn chips are likely killing beneficial gut bacteria and possibly allowing GM genes to colonize your intestines.

Oh, mercy, we’ve been dosed! Can you outline when GMOs were introduced?

There was a tomato introduced in 1994 that was removed by ’97. 1996 is when soy, corn, cotton, and soon after, canola, were introduced. Then came sugar beets and alfalfa. These are the six major GMOs. The three minor crops are papaya—but only from Hawaii or China—plus some zucchini and yellow squash. Other products have been approved but not yet commercialized. Hundreds or thousands of products have been created in laboratories and may be in some part of the pipeline at this point. The government just approved genetically engineered apples and potatoes, and the FDA is considering greenlighting genetically engineered mosquitoes in Florida.

Back in 1991, the White House’s desire was to not include Congress in the creation of new laws on GMOs, so they told the regulatory agencies—the USDA, EPA, and FDA—to figure out how to regulate GMOs based on existing laws that were never designed to handle the complexities and risks of genetic engineering. As a result, the USDA claims that it has no jurisdiction over certain types of crops, and the FDA has completely abdicated its role because it was told to promote biotechnology. The EPA is not much better. The three regulatory agencies are essentially the wings of the biotech industry and wave these products onto the market with only the facade of regulation.

I feel betrayed by my government.

Unfortunately, corporate hijacking of regulatory agencies is not new in this country but has become the standard. And because GMOs pose an unprecedented risk, the danger is also unprecedented. Genetic tampering is not something to take lightly because the results are irreversible. Sorry, Rob, but don’t look for political solutions to GMOs, especially in this country.

President Clinton was the original culprit?

Every administration, Republican and Democrat, since the first Bush administration has been marching lockstep with Monsanto. GMOs were first greenlighted by the Council of Competitiveness chaired by then vice president Dan Quayle, under the theory that GMOs would increase US exports and US domination of the world food trade. The opposite happened. We lost 99% of our corn exports to Europe, and our soy exports shrunk. Canada lost its canola exports to Europe, and even its honey exports. That shrinking of markets has followed the introduction of GMOs around the world. But instead of admitting failure and acknowledging that, the US has been employing bullying tactics to try to force open markets.

If you read the WikiLeaks report put out by Food and Water Watch, it describes how the State Department has been deployed as their enforcement wing. The ambassador to France wrote Washington, saying it should create a retaliation list of the countries that have been rejecting GMOs and that they should commit action to “cause some pain.” The ambassador to Spain wrote to Washington that he had met with the director of Monsanto in the region and was asking Washington to now put pressure on Brussels to accept GMOs and to help the Spanish government establish a more GMO-friendly policy. It goes on and on in every continent.

Does this issue divide on party lines in the US?

When I joined state senators and representatives in the Connecticut State House for a press conference promoting GMO labeling, I was flanked by the most liberal and conservative members. And the religious right are typically outraged by our tampering with God’s creation—as we said, for them, GMO means “God, move over.”

You travel a lot; what differences do you see between American and European consumer awareness of GMOs?

Europeans were shocked to discover that most Americans had no clue about GMOs. Just five years ago or so, 60% of Americans claimed they had never eaten a GMO in their life. Only 25% of Americans even knew that GMOs were in the food supply, let alone throughout the food supply. Simply put, Europeans are more informed, whereas Americans have been kept in the dark. Consistent studies show that the more people learn about GMOs, the less they trust them, especially in the area of long-term health consequences.

Europeans laws are more protective.

In the UK there was a scientist who had been given a grant by the UK government to figure out how to test the safety of GMOs. This proGMO expert scientist was shocked to discover that the process of genetic engineering was responsible for massive damage to rats in just 10 days. After going public with concerns, he was fired from his job after 35 years and silenced with threats of a lawsuit.

In 1999, the UK Parliament lifted his gag order and he was able to speak, at which point more than 700 articles were written about GMOs in the UK alone within just a month. Within 10 weeks of lifting the gag order, the tipping point of consumer rejection was achieved. On April 27, 1999, Unilever publicly committed to stop using GMO ingredients in its European brands. The next day Nestlé followed suit, and within a few days the rest of the industry followed. This immediate tipping point, inspired by educated consumers and the response by food companies concerned about market share, is the reason GMO ingredients have been out of Europe for the past 16 years. However, the same event that created and erupted into an international food safety scandal in Europe was described by Project Censored as one of the 10 most underreported events in the US.

Just a couple years ago, the informal census I conducted among parents at my kid’s school about GMO awareness was depressing, but that has changed.

Education of consumers about the health dangers leading them to choose non-GMO foods turns out to be the most effective and stable strategy. We saw this when consumers forced the rejection of genetically engineered bovine growth hormone from Walmart, Starbucks, Yoplait, Dannon, and most American dairies. In fact Monsanto sold the division that made rBGH. We saw a tipping point of consumer rejection in the natural products industry, inspired in part by the announcement by Whole Foods’ president that when a product becomes Non-GMO Project Verified, sales increase by 15% to 30%. Now, in conventional supermarkets, the original Cheerios and Grape Nuts have removed GMOs from their ingredients. Same with Smart Balance and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. Hershey’s just announced that their chocolate Kisses will no longer contain GMOs after this year. That’s huge! It’s just a matter of time before competitors realize they can’t afford not to make the same move. We are predicting a European-style tipping point. Perhaps not as sudden, but the jig is up.

Hershey’s Kisses going non-GMO has symbolic significance. Unfortunately, in the same month, apples, which are equally symbolic, were approved to be genetically engineered.

I know you’re fond of Hershey’s Kisses and apples. It’s incredible news about Hershey’s, but apples are a serious issue. They’re called Arctic apples and are engineered by a company called Okanagan in Canada. They are designed to be non-browning. Not only are there the normal dangers of the genetic engineering process, but they also may be duping people into eating rotten apples. In other words, you can look at an apple that is hours old or days old, and you’re faked out into thinking it is fresh. Even more serious is that they are using a technology called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) that many scientists believe is far more dangerous than the technology used for Roundup Ready and Bt crops. dsRNA is known to have a considerable influence on regulating gene behavior—in other words, for deciding which genes are on or off and how much they are turned on. In this technology, they insert a gene that produces an RNA sequence to silence the browning gene.

The dsRNA used in the apple might also regulate other genes in the apple, potentially turning on an oncogene (carcinogen) or toxic, or allergenic gene. The dsRNA might directly control or influence our DNA expression as well. I would say that the most dramatic and clear illustration comes from a study that was published on honeybees. Bees were fed dsRNA that they thought would have absolutely no impact—to establish a control group. Instead, the sequence ended up altering, directly or indirectly, close to 1,400 genes in the honeybee genome, which is nearly 10% of all their genes. This is a potential nightmare. By eating an Arctic apple, there may be dramatic changes in your gene expression that you will never know were linked to the apple. Furthermore, these types of epigenetic changes could also theoretically be passed on to your offspring, especially if you are pregnant. This is backed up by peer-reviewed science, yet the apple has never been submitted to serious health studies to rule out such consequences. The FDA and USDA essentially allowed this apple on the market, knowing that its risk assessment falls pitifully short on consumer protection—especially given that children eat a lot of apples and are most at risk. When the truth comes out, consumers will likely snub Arctic apples—even though unfortunately, they would be visibly indistinguishable from regular apples unless they’re adequately labeled.

If you’ve learned anything, it’s that biotech puts up a strong fight. When Prop 37 was being voted on in California for GMO food labeling, the airwaves were blanketed with ads sidestepping the issues. The ads went on and on about how it was a bill designed by lawyers to benefit lawyers, etc.

In California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, the various labeling bills lost narrowly, though they did ignite public awareness that GMOs were in the food supply. It made labeling and being against GMOs popular among celebrities, musicians, etc. Biotech has seemingly endless money to spend on ads, and they’re desperate—they’ll say whatever it takes, and they’re tactically very sophisticated.

But there is something completely new in the GMO debate: people are claiming very specifically that they and their families or their patients are getting better from a wide variety of disorders when they switch to non-GMO diets. I have to admit that when people came up to me before 2009 and told me about their reactions to GMOs, I was skeptical—even though I had been working with scientists and gathering all the health dangers, which I published in a thick book in 2007 called Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. Frankly, I never anticipated that people would be sensitive enough to actually notice problems. I thought it would be a background change in disease rates that would be noticeable over time.

But when physicians started prescribing non-GMO diets to thousands of patients, they told me in no uncertain terms that GMOs were causing problems. Physicians knew from their own experience approximately how many days on a non-GMO diet it would take for symptoms to alleviate or disappear. I realized that these doctors were conducting more experiments on their patients than any of the scientists have done with lab animals. Only after the encouragement of the doctors did I start to pay attention to the statements by their patients and others. In the last year to 18 months, the biotech industry has been absolutely shaken. Like a cornered animal, they have poured millions and millions of dollars in a last-ditch attempt to try to protect their fortunes with huge public relations, social media, and attack mechanisms trying to discredit those of us who are pointing out the truth.

Like how?

For example, we who are demanding more science are called “anti-science.” I know that my friend Vandana Shiva, who is a world-class scientist, and I and others have been the subject of discrimination campaigns that are pure fiction. A Wikipedia page was manufactured for me that’s impossible for anyone to edit. Even though they got my birthday wrong, my publications wrong, and so much of my background wrong or distorted, there’s nothing I can do about it. In fact, I don’t even pay attention. They even mock me for being a meditator.

Do you have a regular practice? What has been the effect on your work?

I practice TM twice a day, which has allowed me to travel eight to nine months per year and have a crazy schedule. The year Prop 37 was being contested, for example, I gave 108 public talks, 165 media interviews, and made the feature-length documentary. Without meditation I probably would have burnt out long ago.

The other pro-GMO argument is that they’re needed to “feed the world.”

The notion that GMOs feed the world is a public relations ploy. It has nothing to do with reality. I have interviewed numerous experts on this topic. The IAASTD report, sponsored by the UN and the World Bank and written by more than 400 scientists, clearly stated that GMOs have nothing to offer to feed the hungry world, eradicate poverty, or create sustainable agriculture. The Union of Concerned Scientists, in a report called Failure to Yield, pointed out that GMOs do not increase yield and in some cases reduce yield. In the USDA’s own reports, it’s the same thing. And the whole model of forcing farmers to buy seeds annually flies in the face of sustainable agriculture for the 1.4 billion farmers that save seeds.

What is your advice to readers who might want to accelerate their GMO consciousness to the next level?

We have lots of information on our website,, including links to my movie, Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives. It consistently motivates people to become non-GMO eaters. In terms of behavior modification, I think it’s helpful for the whole family to transition together. We’ve heard repeatedly about families that watch the movie and have gotten to what I call the “cupboard stage,” where they throw out GMO products so they can replace them with nonGMO alternatives. It’s also good for people to take notes in a journal about the symptoms and levels of energy before and after they attempt a non-GMO diet. People tend to lose weight and have more energy, get colds less. This might provide the extra motivation to continue with a GMO-free diet.

There’s a whole connection between gluten sensitivity and GMOs that we won’t have time to address here, but there are alarmingly strong correlations with the rise of gluten sensitivity and the introduction of GMOs. At, we discuss the leaky gut, gut bacteria imbalances, damaged intestines, and other links between Bt toxin, Roundup, and gluten problems.

Eating non-GMO is easier when you avoid processed foods and cook for yourself, but it’s more challenging at restaurants. It’s good advice to put pressure on the restaurants you patronize to provide non-GMO foods. Tell your friends to do the same. Be an activist educator. Ask whether the corn chips or the tofu or the canola oil is organic. Emphasize that it’s very important to you and that it would be a strong selling point for the restaurant. This will help ignite a restaurant revolution.

Many of our readers take vitamins and supplements, but I’ve heard that nonGMO verification is more challenging for vitamins.

Vitamins and supplements have been slower to adopt Non-GMO Project verification because of the challenges in the supply chain. For example, vitamin C comes from corn and vitamin E from soy, but I just gave a talk at the Garden of Life’s national sales conference, and they have adopted a dual certification of both organic and Non-GMO Project verified. So the trend is shifting there too.

What makes you happy?

When Cheerios and Hershey’s move to nonGMO ingredients, I am very, very happy because this is the beginning of a domino effect that I’ve been working toward for 19 years. On a personal level, I have been listening to mothers describe the changes in their children when they switch to non-GMO diets. Mothers of autistic children, mothers of children with ADHD and asthma and allergies, and I cry when they cry. I may hear more stories like this than anyone in the world, but it fills my heart.

Five years ago I went to the office of a doctor who by that time had been prescribing non-GMO diets to over 5,000 patients. She described how the non-GMO diet prescription had a profound difference across the board. After interviewing the patients for two or three days, I then interviewed the doctor. At the end, I casually asked, “How did you learn about GMOs?”

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor-in-chief of Common Ground.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join our once-monthly newsletter to get all the latest news & resources

No spam. Unsubscribe any time.