“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?”
Today, millions of people around the world will celebrate Earth Day. With a call to action to Restore Our Earth, more than 1 billion people across the globe will come together to mark a fundamental and familiar truth: That our planet is ailing and that human activity continues to have a profound impact. But there is hope! There's tremendous power in engagement on this scale, in the passion that transcends diverse cultures. As we move towards recognizing social justice as environmental justice, the strength of this movement can transform the status quo.
During the Non-GMO Project's Butterfly Effect campaign, we've explored the complex interconnection of the world around us, how small actions and shifts in perception can lead to remarkable change. With our own butterfly effect in mind, we recognize Earth Day with two questions: How do our perspectives and stories of the natural world impact our relationship with it? How can our points of view also bring us into a better relationship with our only home?
The extraction story
As Western ideas dominated the globe through colonization, the practices of extraction and consumerism also spread. This pattern is one example of how a viewpoint drives action: Resources were of value because they could be harvested and monetized. If we see the world as a collection of commodities, the logical next step is to gather and sell those commodities.
What gets left out of this equation? That which can't be traded is undervalued, leaving so much — including complex connections that make up the web of life — beneath our notice.
Ultimately, this is a losing proposition. No matter how deeply we mine the earth, our understanding of it remains perilously shallow. This extractive mentality has continued to the present day — outpacing what nature can regenerate — and leaving in its wake income inequality, environmental destruction and a food system that fails to nourish us.
The exile story
We are at a moment of clarity about the high cost of extraction-based thinking. In trying to correct those wrongs, we risk the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction, separating ourselves from nature. It's like realizing a relationship has become toxic and breaking up for the good of both parties, but on a planetary scale. Extreme versions of this "exile" philosophy sound like science fiction: an entirely laboratory-based food system that eliminates agriculture from the landscape or the privatized movement to colonize new worlds.
Just as we've learned after centuries of extraction, there's danger in taking an essential truth — such as using resources for survival — to an extreme. Solving our present-day dilemmas by moving farther from the natural world also poses unique risks, particularly when it goes so far as to exile humanity from nature.
Where each of these perspectives fails is in accepting that we are part of nature and that our fate is tied directly to our home. This separateness is a story we've told ourselves for far too long, one that distorts our relationship with the Earth and directs our actions — so far, for the worse.
We are earthbound
There is another perspective: We are very much part of the natural world, as much as any of the continents, valleys, plants, animals, or bacteria we live with. We are among the forces that shaped the landscape for millennia. When we accept our place as part of the natural order, our actions begin to honor that relationship.
This is not a new idea. There's an important tradition of Indigenous land stewardship stretching back through time immemorial. In Latin America, Indigenous peoples are successfully preserving some of the most biodiverse and vital ecosystems in the world. Writer, professor and activist Nick Estes argues that there is a broader precedent at work here:
"For Indigenous caretakers, land use isn’t premised on a return of investments; it’s about maintaining the land for the next generation, meeting the needs of the present, and a respect for the diversity of life."
Across the globe, Indigenous peoples protect and sustain 80% of the world’s biodiversity. With the knowledge and leadership of Indigenous people now recognized in pivotal ways, new paths open up, with opportunities for learning, partnerships and practices that offer real solutions to the issues we will face.
What we will face in the coming decades will require a combination of tradition, innovation and adaptation. The planet has changed, and we have changed with it — but the future is not fixed. On Earth Day, let's work to restore our Earth and our humanity.
On April 22, 2020, we observe the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the birthday of the modern environmental movement. In the half-century since the inception of Earth Day, billions of people have taken part in activities around the world, a clamoring for action that drove the formation of groundbreaking government regulations, including the National Environmental Education Act and the Clean Air Act.
But we all know that work is far from done.
This year's Earth Day is the most important yet. The coronavirus global health pandemic is not the only emergency we face. The global climate crisis — the slow-burn of our only home — was already well underway before coronavirus took the stage.
As Naomi Klein writes in her fantastic book, "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate":
“Climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings.”
The Origins of a Movement
The decades following the Second World War were dominated by science, industry and prosperity. The developed world threw itself whole-heartedly into the profound consumption of the earth's resources. Air pollution became the new normal, and it smelled like progress. But the turbulent 1960s made fertile ground for new ideas: Rachel Carson's seminal book "Silent Spring" was released in 1962, inspiring the grassroots environmental movement. Carson's book focused on the dangers of synthetic pesticides, warning of the cumulative and off-target impacts across species and ecosystems. The use of synthetic pesticides is a subject very dear to our hearts at the Non-GMO Project, as the majority of GMOs are engineered for pesticide-tolerance. This technology has led to a dramatic increase in the frequency and toxicity of chemicals used in agriculture.
Carson's book was both influential and provocative, gaining the attention of the public and the ire of chemical companies whose profits depended on the sales of dangerous pesticides. One prominent spokesman for the chemical industry during the 1960s warned the public, "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." (Curiously, we encounter similar comments today in the Non-GMO Project's social media pages. It's nice to see the classics are still popular). "Silent Spring" raised public awareness of the dangers of excessive chemical use and the risks, not only to human health but to the environment upon which our survival depends. The movement ultimately coalesced as the first-ever Earth Day, on April 22, 1970.
Silent Earth Day
Since its inception, Earth Day has grown globally to include over a billion participants each year. It is the greatest secular event on the planet, for the planet. But this year is of particular importance: We are a species at a crossroads.
In the last decade, we've seen the hottest temperatures on record. The effects of a changing climate are tangible: Through droughts, floods and wildfires, a growing number of citizens have personal experience with the dangers of climate change. Inspiring young climate leaders have taken up the cause, working to build a future for themselves. In the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic pushed a wave of social, economic and political disruption into hyperdrive. The cost, the sheer human suffering of it, has been all too high. But we now know how great our capacity to change truly is; how quickly our actions can be altered to support a greater good. As we emerge from this pandemic, we have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild our world. What world do we want to create?
This year's Earth Day events won't clog the streets of the world's largest cities. We won't make placards, paint our children's faces and head out for a day of action. With a pandemic pushing us indoors, we must find new ways to connect and commit to much more than a single day. Earth Day starts on April 22, and it's up to all of us to keep it going.
Start with 24 hours of action! For more information about participating in the Earth Day movement, visit earthday.org.