Mark Squire has a long history of being concerned about pesticide content in the food we consume. His belief in the benefits of natural food in the daily diet, as well as this concern, led him to come to Marin in the 1960s and subsequently work for Good Earth Natural Foods, founded in Fairfax in 1969.
Squire has now been with this natural food store for more than 40 years, where he is currently the owner and manager. According to his biography, “The number of organic farms in California could be counted on one hand” when the store was initially founded. He added to this perception by stating, “I never would have believed back in 1969 how mainstream organic foods would be as a result of people understanding more than they had before.”
Not only did Squire become a vital force in helping develop the organic food market in California, but he also helped initiate the standards for organic farming, which became the basis for developing the California Certified Organic Farmers Association in 1973.
During the 1990s, Squire was a member of the board of directors of the Organic Crop Improvement Association — OCIA — a nonprofit that certifies food and farm animals as being organically produced. The OCIA is recognized by the United States Department of Agriculture — USDA — as a valid organic certification agency.
Squire noted that as part of his involvement with food issues he became aware of the presence of genetically modified organisms — GMOs — in food products. “I was learning about the organic issue generally with pesticides,” he said. “I had spent some time with the board of the Organic Crop Improvement Association, which was the largest of organic certifiers in United States.” Squire had also worked with California certified organic farmers on food standards.
When asked at what point he began to become concerned about GMOs in food, Squire stated, “Back in the 80s, I started to care about GMO foods and tried to read up everything I could on them; there was not really very much information back then. The USDA was being lobbied by the so-called GMO equivalent and decided that GMOs were not any different from any traditionally grown foods and therefore did not require any additional testing.”
Squire pointed out that there were “a lot of internal complaints about making that decision,” but that the green light had been given to GMOs, and this has not changed. Squire further said that under George Bush, Sr., a Committee on Competitiveness was created, with the point of view that “biotech is a big industry that we need, and that we do not need testing on these products, and that is the way it is today.”
Squire was instrumental in founding the non-GMO Project in 2008. In his view, the project was a natural outgrowth of food certified as being organic and pesticide-free. He said that many people ask, “Why not just organic?” Squire explained, “I always tell people that when the organic laws were written there were no GMOs in the marketplace. Because of that reason, organic standards were not written sufficiently to cover GMO issue.”
As a consequence, Squire sees that we have a situation where we need a standard for certifying food that is free of GMOs. The non-GMO Project has developed a product seal that is placed upon all goods inspected and certified as being free of GMOs.
When asked about the standard used to define acceptable food products, Squire replied that one is published on their website [www.nongmoproject.org], which is “quite lengthy, as it is the result of several years of research.” He said, “The way it works is very similar to organic certification, called ‘product certification.’ But we also use testing in this. The good news about GMOs is they are pretty easy to detect with testing. It is fairly easy to find the genes in the crops that are GMOs. I think partly is because of the research being done right now.”
Squire further explained some of the reasoning behind starting the project. “The non-GMO Project started almost six years ago now and came about from Good Earth and two other retailers that were hoping to find out how many of the products on our shelves had GMO products in them. Good Earth started by writing letters to manufacturers and asking, ‘How do you know whether GMOs are not in your product?’”
Squire said the responses indicated that “Some companies had a fairly rigorous program to make sure that GMOs were not getting into their products. Other companies had nothing. Many did not know what GMOs were. At that point we realized there needed to be an education program. It was five years ago.” Squire clarified, “I would say not so much education as much as verification that people could be sure they were not getting GMOs in the food they were eating. Hidden GMOs are getting into products even when products are labeled ‘organic.’ Because GMOs are a living thing, they do replicate themselves. Some crops — such as corn — it is really almost impossible to get products with zero contamination,” he emphasized.
“That is the case with pesticides too,” Squire added. “We are always very careful to claim ‘pesticide free.’ if you go outside your house, even if products are organic, you will find a minimal amount of pesticides, because they are so pervasive. You will find the same things with GMOs. What they are doing is verifying there are a minimal amount of GMOs in the product.”
Squire pointed out that the government leaves the evaluation of GMOs in food to the food producers. “Its all voluntary, the way they are evaluated,” he said. “The producer of the biotech crop gets all the studies and passes results on to USDA — that is an important thing to understand.”
Squire also pointed out the limited reach of these evaluations. “The other is that studies are all short term — done with mice, and done for a couple of months. You would be missing out on most of the health problems. We are eating these things for dinner every day, and testing is pretty much nil,” he said.
“This is crazy what we are doing to ourselves,” Squire emphasized. “I tried to learn as much as I could, and even today I would say there are totally inadequate studies. We need a lot more studies. This problem — we simply have no research there. This is the case with GMOs, and government does not demand research. You cannot expect the companies to do this [due to vested interests]. If you take all the studies done on GMOs and all the ones funded by the biotech industry that give a clean bill of health — where are the studies done by independent groups to say there are problems? We need to do more research to check this.”
Squire observed that he learned a lot about GMOs by reading. “One of the guys I learned from was Jeffrey Smith,” he said. “Seeds of Deception is the classic GMO book that explains all the issues involved. It is a complicated issue; there are so many aspects of it. You can talk about the health piece of it; you can talk about the economic piece of it; you can talk about the patent part of it; it is really the patents driving it — and there are the issues with environmental problems, because these are living genes and you can be downwind and that pollen could drift into your garden, and all those crops could be getting that GMO gene in them — and if you save your seeds you have that case of Percy Schmeiser who had the GMO seeds, and Monsanto called it patent infringement, even though that was one of the really outrageous court cases with GMO. Like I said, it is complicated.”
Squire felt that a major milestone in the project happened once food companies began to recognize that GMOs represented contamination of food products. “We started as a very small group,” he said. We really spent a couple of years kind of going to food shows and telling people what we were up to, and I have to admit that at first, people kind of looked at us cross-eyed and said, ‘Why do you care about this?’
“I think it was about three years ago that we became accepted by the natural food industry as being someone important to food groups,” Squire continued. “I think that there was a lot of denial in the food industry about the level of food contamination that occurred — and they tried to ignore it; but No, it is here, and at first there was a lot of denial about the amount of GMOs that were in the food supply, and I think that a lot of companies preferred to not know that. I think one of the big turning points is that we became accepted as someone who could help kind of clean things up. Our mission is overall to help companies avoid contamination in food products.”
Squire sees a steadily rising consciousness of the perils of adulterated food, with a growing number of people opting for pesticide-free and non-GMO daily diets. “There is definitely a lot more awareness than there was,” he said. “Marin County already has a ban in place on cultivation of GMOs, similar to Mendocino. I was actually part of that group that brought that to the ballot. In fact, I think [Prop.] 37 woke up a lot of people to the issue. It was very close, and I think if we had a little bit more money we would have passed it, but they outspent us.”
Squire further stated, “One other thing I definitely want to let people know about is we are getting a lot of what I think is really swift PR stuff from the biotech industry — that they have the key to save the world, but when you look at the research and the effects worldwide — it is total bunk basically; it is PR and there is no science there.
“There was a report by Union of Concerned Scientists, ‘Failure to yield,’ four or five years ago. It is really the only place I have ever seen going to look at the research that asks, ‘Is this really feeding all the people or not?’ And the conclusion is that GMOs have actually failed us in the ability to feed more people. What it is really about is control rather than actually producing more crops. The biotech industry thinks that if they say it enough times we are going to believe it. It is one of the things that is just not true what they are saying, and I think it is important that people see through that; and then, of course, you add to that the worries about the health aspect, and you wonder, what are we doing this for?
With regard to the future of GMO versus organic food, Squire noted that the organic philosophy is to avoid GMOs, and that the non-GMO Project “is an important addition to the organic label,” adding that those who want food to be organic now generally want it to be non-GMO as well. “I almost think the non-GMO Project is the missing piece of the organic that completes it, if you will. They are both mutually supportive.
“The project has itself been growing by leaps and bounds, and we have just passed 9000 products that have been verified,” Squire concluded. “The people definitely want products that have been verified and we are just growing every year.”
More information about the non-GMO Project can be found on the website www.nongmoproject.org