Green Entrepreneur Ted Nordquist Brings a Sustainable Philosophy to the Business World
(Part 2) Posted on February 10, 2011 by David R.
This is the second part of my interview with WholeSoy founder Ted A. Nordquist. In addition to running his soy yogurt company, Dr. Nordquist serves on the technical advisory board for the Non-GMO Project. So, it's not surprising that a large part of the discussion focused on the risks and ethics of genetically engineered.foods.
GMO stands for genetically modified organism, a life form created by combining genes that would not come together in nature. "The best example is a tomato that is resistant to frost," Nordquist says. To create this plant, "[biotech researchers] take a gene from the DNA of an arctic fish that is cold-resistant and inject it into the DNA of a tomato plant. But the tomato plant DNA won 't accept the gene, so they take a virus called a marker gene, attach it to the fish gene, and shoot it into the DNA of the tomato plant."
While people have been hybridizing plants for centuries, genetic engineering is different. Using traditional breeding methods, you could combine separate tomato plants to produce a desired characteristic, such as larger fruit. But you couldn’t combine a fish with a tomato.
Genetic engineering is a way of breaking the rules, or "reprogramming the operating system of nature," as Nordquist puts it. Because this form of genetics is relatively new, its consequences are largely unknown.
The problem, Nordquist says, is that DNA is extremely complex (one strand has enough information to fill the Library of Congress), and researchers don't completely understand its workings. Many people, including Nordquist, believe there is not enough evidence to declare genetically engineered food safe. "It's a huge human experiment."
Due to the uncertainty surrounding GMOs, several countries have banned or restricted them, and the European Union requires GMO foods to be labeled. But no such measures have been passed in the United States, thanks to lobbying by the biotech industry.
What advantages do GMO plants offer? In many cases, they can increase productivity. For instance, a farmer who plants herbicide-resistant corn can spray Roundup on his fields without killing the crop. GM has also been used to make vegetables more nutritious and to give them a longer shelf life.
Even for farmers, GMOs have their downsides. When using conventional plants, a farmer can collect the seeds and replant them year after year. However, Nordquist explains that this is not possible with GMO plants, because the engineered organisms are considered the property of the company that invented them. No one else has the right to reproduce the ”name-brand” plant varieties.
“What biotech companies are after,” Nordquist warns, “is control of the food chain.” If the industry keeps progressing the way it is, “someday in the future, some guys in black suits will show up at a small Asian farm and tell the farmer that he has to pay them a dollar an acre, or they will sue him” because he is planting a seed they created.
The power to change the GMO situation lies in the hands of consumers. That is why groups like the Non-GMO Project are working to educate shoppers. The Non-GMO Project is also pioneering a labeling system for certified GMO-free foods.
Third-party certification is an important tool for buyers that want to support Non-GMO foods. Many people do not realize that up to 90 percent of corn and 92 percent of soybean acreage in the U.S. is genetically modified. And the “USDA organic” sticker does not necessarily indicate a GMO-free product.
After discussing the concrete issues of green business and genetic engineering, Nordquist returns to philosophy-a subject with which he seems fittingly comfortable.
“The only way people will be able to survive on the planet, he says, “is if they can come in contact with their fundamental natural essence, a sense of comfort, being at peace with themselves.”
It is this deeper sense of nature that makes Nordquist stand out among other green business leaders. For him, social responsibility isn’t just a buzzword. He is committed to sustainability because he believes it’s the right thing to do-and he isn’t afraid to say so.
Nordquist closes with a hopeful message for the future. “Everyone has inside them the essential program that runs the universe. If people become one with that innate essence, that essence of love and joy-everything will be all right”