Jeffrey Smith answered the phone. It was the lab manager. “We found Starlink corn in Kraft taco shells.”
“Don’t tell the client yet!,” insisted Jeffrey. “We need to run confirmation tests.”
It was September 2000. Jeffrey was the Vice President of Marketing Communications with a GMO detection laboratory. Although not yet in the activist role that the world now knows him for, the work done at the lab where he worked allowed consumers worldwide to choose non-GMO foods.
Their eventual confirmation of unapproved genetically engineered Starlink corn in tacos carried a billion dollar price tag, with over 300 products subject to recall, countries around the world closing their doors to US corn exports, and the world getting its first taste of how GMOs spread uncontrollably. As the spokesperson for the lab, Jeffrey was in the center of it, interviewed by dozens of news outlets including the New York Times.
As part of his responsibility, Jeffrey had to stay abreast of all the news about GMOs, as well as understand and explain the science. His analysis helped him sort out key characteristics of the major players in the GMO landscape.
- The biotech industry, led by Monsanto, actively covered up GMO dangers. At the same time, they created a false, but compelling narrative that captured support from their four primary targets: government, farmers, the media, and academia.
- Although the European media provided some limited coverage of real concerns about GMOs, US media blocked discussions and parroted Monsanto’s talking points.
- GMO companies bought up all the relevant seed companies, and gained control of virtually all the ways that farmers gain information. Agribusiness was marching in lockstep towards a GMO future.
- Critical voices, especially scientists who discovered incriminating evidence, were immediately attacked and quashed by Monsanto’s network of front groups and political friends. High profile campaigns to discredit critics effectively silenced would-be dissenters and suppressed independent research.
- The more consumers learned about GMOs, the less they trusted them. A consumer-led rejection forced major retail chains in Europe to promise non-GMO products.
What Jeffrey did not see, however, was a comprehensive and effective strategy being pursued by anti-GMO organizations. That, more than anything else, he says, is why he decided to take the next big step.
In 2003, he released Seeds of Deception, which quickly became the world’s bestselling GMO book of all time. He founded the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), spoke in nearly 45 countries, created 5 documentary films, wrote a second book, helped build and lead a global movement, and reframed the global debate.
Jeffrey Smith and IRT continue to create awareness about the dangers of GMOs, seeking to protect the health of consumers, create stronger regulations, reform the food system, and defend the genetic integrity of nature. With the introduction of GMO 2.0, new genetic engineering techniques including gene editing, their work is more urgently needed than ever before.
It Took Just One Lecture
It started for Jeffrey in 1996, when he attended a lecture by a molecular biologist–a genetic engineer–who knew with certainty that there was no way that Monsanto, which was about to release their GMO soy and corn, could prevent potentially dangerous side effects. Everyone who ate their food would be at risk. And since pollen spreads and crops reproduce, the gene pool of those species would be forever corrupted.
This was a lightning bolt for Jeffrey, and ultimately changed the trajectory of his life.
He started creating talks and materials on GMOs for people running for office who were interested in addressing the topic in their campaigns. Seeing how elections gave them an instant public platform, Jeffrey took it one step further. In 1998, he ran for US congress as a way to spread further awareness on the issue.
Later, Jeffrey started consulting with the GMO detection laboratory, which later turned into a position of vice president.
Finding the Right Strategy in a Hurry
In the late 90s, when GMOs were just beginning to reach the market, the biotech industry was on a fast track to genetically engineer all commercial seeds. Monsanto, in particular, had set their sites to complete this goal within 15 to 20 years. There was limited time to mobilize and prevent that from becoming a reality.
NGOs that were working on this issue were focused on the environmental impacts, as well as concerns surrounding patent rights on nature and seeds. There was very little discussion about the health impacts of GMO foods.
Governments and farmers were already aligned with the interests of biotech companies. There was little time to put a stop to Big Agriculture’s plans.
Jeffrey knew, the easiest way to make an impact was through depleting the corporate bottom line by shifting consumer shopping and consumption habits. Consumers, he believed, would be motivated with the right education on the impact GMOs had on their health.
With few resources and an abundance of passion, he decided to start the journey of writing a book with that strategic focus. Jeffrey asked the company Chelsea Green to distribute the book. After reading sample chapters, they said that they wanted to publish it. Jeffrey was aware of how Monsanto had pressured other companies to cancel their publication of GMO books. He wanted to maintain control. So he took the chance of self publishing, with Chelsea Green as distributors.
With little funding, Jeffrey relied on deferred payments from supportive editors, designers, and printers. In 2003, Seeds of Deception was released and everything changed.
The book’s impact was beyond what could have been predicted, and the discussion of health was finally brought to the table. It opened the minds of consumers, scientists, even politicians. A master’s thesis described Seeds of Deception as a primary reason why the Vermont legislature passed the first state regulation on GMOs.
The book was released in September, and by May of the following year, Jeffrey had spoken in 108 cities in 12 countries, spanning five continents. The book struck a nerve and Jeffrey–and his newly founded Institute of Responsible Technology, were in high demand.
Activist Math–The Tipping Point
For IRT to fight some of the world’s largest corporations and shift consumer behavior it would require a plan. That’s when the tipping point strategy came to light.
The idea was, if a portion of the population, as small as five percent, removed GMOs from their diet, it would be enough to put a dent in corporate profits. Consumer choice sends a message to the food industry. When demand changes, the supply does too, and this could force companies to reconsider their ingredient sourcing.
All of the IRT campaigns, speaking events, tours, books, and documentaries that were to come had one goal, educate the public enough to reach the tipping point.
Achieving this required people from all backgrounds to be able to understand scientific studies and research. Jeffrey’s next book Genetic Roulette hit the shelves in 2007 to make that possible. The book took the world by storm, being the first of its kind to compile GMO science in a digestible way. It became a guide for many around the world when having discussions on the safety of GM foods.
Soon after, Jeffrey made the jump into the world of video storytelling, and has since produced and directed five hard hitting documentaries. Most notably, Genetic Roulette–The Gamble of Our Lives, Secret Ingredients, and Don’t Let the Gene Out of the Bottle. The films have made education on this topic accessible to everyone, translating science to a non scientific audience, and bringing consumers into the conversations they are often left out of.
Storytelling through books and films created a food revolution that exposed the biotech industry and changed the minds and hearts of individuals around the world.
When you challenge big companies you often face repercussions and Jeffrey was no exception. The biotech industry, namely Monsanto, tried to discredit him at every turn. From writing smear articles about him, to creating pseudo science websites to push their propaganda, and even dissuading some press from interviewing him, Monsanto’s true colors showed.
Internal Monsanto documents made public from a lawsuit revealed that the company had a whole team set up to deal with Jeffrey, trying to squash his growing impact. In addition to using their own executives and PR companies, they paid so-called independent scientists to be front men on the attack.
One such scientist sent an email about Jeffrey’s latest article on the health dangers of GMOs, using the subject line, “Whack a Mole.” In response, Monsanto executives acknowledged that they also used that same term for years, apparently referring to how they try to smash down anyone who tries to bring incriminating evidence to light.
While Monsanto and their paid attackers might use that term as an insult, it illustrates that no matter what they did to stop Jeffrey’s activism, he just kept showing up and doing the work, relentlessly determined to help protect the food system and our health.
It worked. In large part due to Jeffrey and IRT’s dissemination of the health dangers, polls show that approximately half of US consumers believe GMOs to be dangerous to health.
The resulting consumer rejection helped to limit commercial GMO food crops to about 12 varieties, far less than the goals and expectations of the industry. Their efforts to keep GMOs off the shelves has impacted the health of the entire population, who would have otherwise been further exposed to far more genetically engineered foods in their diets.
Protecting Health and Planet from GMO 2.0
While there have been countless victories over the last two decades, the story of our food system is still unfolding and unfortunately the battle is far from over.
While commercialized GMOs were kept to a minimum, new regulations are allowing an influx of gene edited products to the market with no proper studies to verify their safety.
Without having to tell consumers, farmers, or governments what they are gene editing, biotech companies can release their products onto the market. Releasing patented living organisms into nature, with no proper tracking methodology, or ability to recall, poses huge threats to biodiversity. Unfortunately the pace of biotechnology has far outpaced regulation, leaving the health of citizens and the environment vulnerable.
With basic CRISPR gene editing labs selling for less than $2,000, virtually anyone can get in on the GMO making business. GMO foods will no longer be limited to just corn, soy, canola, or a handful of others that have been on the market for decades. Now biotech companies can and are looking to gene edit and patent everything they can think of.
The greatest danger comes from altering microbes. Microbes exchange genetic information, work synergistically together, and support complex ecosystems. For instance, microbes are what makes it possible for trees in forests to communicate and share nutrients. Microbes can dictate the amount of nutrients in our food, sequester carbon into the soil, and produce most of the world’s oxygen (algae). And the human microbiome can determine whether we are sick or healthy. Just imagine the potential for catastrophic side effects. Our health and nature could be permanently damaged.
Jeffrey and IRT are now spearheading a campaign to protect the global microbiome. They are calling people from all backgrounds; healthcare practitioners, regenerative agriculture advocates, climate change activists, environmental conservationists, religious and faith based communities, ocean protectors, the natural health industry, and everyone in between to join the global movement to block releases of engineered microbes.
With Jeffrey at the helm, IRT has worked hard to protect our food system and consumers, but the reality is these new developments threaten to erase two decades of dedication and successes.
With the state of our food system, IRT’s work is more important now than ever. The decisions made in this generation will determine if our grandchildren will inherit the same nature we did.
It took Jeffrey only a single lecture to realize the gravity of the situation 27 years ago. When he started out, almost no one knew what a GMO was and there was very little likelihood that he could make a real difference. He beat the odds.
Today, although new GMO technology brings even greater risks, there’s already widespread awareness. Now it’s time for Jeffrey and IRT to create a bigger movement that can pass the laws and treaties needed to protect nature from being destroyed, and preserve our earth’s integrity for the generations to come.