“Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it.”
— Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
The first Earth Day celebration, held on April 22, 1970, is commonly credited as the birth of the modern environmental movement. More than 50 years later, Earth Day is the largest secular celebration in the world, attracting more than a billion participants across 190 countries.
Each year, the Non-GMO Project team looks forward to Earth Month. We share with our community how the non-GMO movement supports the broader push for ecological regeneration and planetary health.
These two initiatives share a common ancestor: Both the modern environmental movement and the non-GMO movement were inspired mainly by agricultural chemical companies.
Eggs, eagles and Earth Day
During the 1950s and 60s, a synthetic insecticide called DDT was widely used across the United States. DDT was everywhere — farmland, swampland, livestock operations and private residences.
The Sierra Club describes how common DDT applications were: “On warm summer nights, trucks carrying DDT would roll down residential streets, fogging entire neighborhoods with the chemical to combat mosquitoes.” Today the Environmental Protection Agency warns of DDT’s persistence in the environment, potential to accumulate in fatty tissues and its ability to travel long distances in the upper atmosphere.
Researchers noted the ill effects of DDT in certain bird species in the mid-1950s. Songbirds and raptors were particularly vulnerable. Exposed birds produced thin and weak eggshells that failed to protect their offspring. Generations of fledglings were lost and populations plummeted.
In 1962, conservationist and writer Rachel Carson drew attention to the issue with her book Silent Spring. Carson catalyzed the growing sense of unease felt by many Americans during the 1960s. Industrial expansion had been rampant since World War 2, and pollution was a palpable issue for many people.
The combination of the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and Carson’s work gave shape to unprecedented unified action. Many of the agencies and regulations we look to today to protect the environment were created in the years surrounding the first Earth Day, including the EPA, the Endangered Species Act, and a host of laws protecting air and water.
The next generation of activism emerges
More than 20 years after the first Earth Day, products made and sold by agrichemical companies inspired yet another wave of resistance: The movement to protect and build the non-GMO food supply.
Chemical companies had been manufacturing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for decades. Then advances in biotechnology changed everything. Genetically modified seeds could now produce crops that could tolerate chemical weed killers (which were made and sold by the same companies).
The narrative follows a similar arc to DDT from this point on. Farmers and extension agents applied synthetic chemicals without understanding the long-term effects. Furthermore, the crops themselves were novel creations. GMOs are living organisms whose genetic material has been manipulated in a laboratory to create combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Without independent, long-term feeding studies, GMOs’ impact on human health is uncertain.
Members of the natural products community in health food stores and co-ops were among the first to raise concerns about GMOs. They didn’t like how novel and unnatural organisms had entered the food supply without public knowledge. They didn’t like the cynicism of engineering food crops to sell more chemical herbicides, and they didn’t like the hubris of rearranging the building blocks of life.
The movement to protect the non-GMO food supply grew and the Non-GMO Project emerged to raise awareness of the issue and offer a trusted tool for avoiding GMOs.
Since the first Earth Day more than 50 years ago, the environmental movement has grown and evolved to meet the challenges of the climate crisis. Our work at the Non-GMO Project has also changed to keep pace with new developments in biotechnology. New GMO techniques go by many names, including gene editing, synthetic biology and precision fermentation.
Rachel Carson’s work resonates just as much today as it did in 1962. In recognition of Earth Day, we give the last word to her:
“Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”