RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Gene-tinkered foods: Is 'is' is?

If you're watching the Senate's GMO labeling bill poke through the halls of Congress, you know that a lot of organizations have gotten on board to endorse it. Organic farmers and consumers have jumped in with both feet. If it passes, they say, consumers will know what they eat and be able to choose genetically altered or not.

At the same time, a number of key groups haven't gotten on board. These include ag magazines and University "bioethics" professors.

At a public program on March 10, the coordinator of Iowa State's bioethics program, Dr. Gary Comstock, spoke about what he called "intrinsic" questions about biotech food. The intrinsic questions include such riddles as, "Is it wrong to play God?" "Is it wrong to change the world through technology?" "Is it wrong to use nonsexual means to reproduce?"

While I've heard a lot of questions about biotech -- namely that the industry is putting family farmers out of business, consolidating the food-and-farm business to create five or six global corporations, harming the environment and putting consumers at risk -- I haven't heard anybody ask the "intrinsic" questions Dr. Comstock answered, with slides, during his hour and a half.

Like other "bio-ethicists," Dr. Comstock discussed the many aspects of God and nature and morality, but dismissed the concerns of consumers, farmers and environmentalists, calling them neo-Luddites. He got a laugh when he said that these neo-Luddites have forgotten that they've accepted killer automobiles, word processors, and e-mail.

He admitted that nobody has benefitted from the invention of GMOs except the corporations that hold the patents, but he called that an "oversight." In the future, he said, the corporations are going to make foods that benefit the consumer. But, apparently, they forgot.

During the question and answer period, another wise panelist let us in on a conversation the panel had at lunch. The subject was labeling. If you allow labeling on GMO foods, he said, people might reject the foods as a "knee-jerk" reaction.

I don't think the panel ate at McDonald's, but that corporation was very much on the panel's minds. McDonald's is thinking of banning GMO foods, and the bioethicists warned us that if McDonald's bans GMOs, the industry will be dead. If you're interested in letting McDonald's know your opinion, you can call McDonald's customer satisfaction line at 630-623-6198 or write c/o McDonald's Corp., Oak Brook IL 60523.

The audience, a collection of students, farmers, eaters, thinkers, and seed scientists from the University of Monsanto, was polite. During Q and A, one student said she'd like to see some balance in future panels. The Associate Provost, in charge of the program, looked distressed and concerned that his panel might be biased. He said he didn't know anyone who could give the other point of view. At least with the same, bio-ethically correct credentials.

Ag magazines are spinning the same story. They say that only the fanatics disagree with them -- the environmentalists and neo-Luddites. They say there's no need to label because GMO food is the same as non-GMO food.

The devil's in the details, of course, and this time the devil is in the word "is." Does "is" mean "looks like" or "tastes like"? Or does "is" mean "is"? Because a GMO crop is not a traditional crop. A traditional crop doesn't make its own insecticide like Bt corn, potatoes and other Bt plants. A traditional crop doesn't survive when you spray Roundup on it, like Roundup-Ready soybeans and corn.

So, if you believe that "is" means "is," you will believe that GMO food is different than food made with traditional crops. And, at least, you'll agree that consumers should be able to choose which food they want to eat, by reading the contents on the label. Still, there are good arguments against labeling GMOs. And these are worth a look.

Argument number one: Allowing labeling lets the madness go on. Genetically altered crops haven't helped anyone but the industry. GMOs have gotten more farmers in more debt because of the high costs of planting and treating the seeds. At the same time, traditional seeds have been polluted by GMO pollen. The answer is to simply stop allowing GMOs out of the lab until, as my sister says, someone puts little condoms on them.

The second big reason for not endorsing the labeling bill is that industry is good at making labels confusing and misleading.

Confusing tactics have been used in labeling before. Think about the word "frozen." Before 1998, we understood that "frozen" means cold and hard as a rock.

No more. "Frozen" has been officially defined as below zero degrees. Food freezes at thirty-two degrees. So that "fresh" chicken you're buying might have been shipped at one degree -- cold and hard as a rock. It was then thawed out for the meat case and labeled "fresh."

And if you're still buying chemicals for your lawn, you might notice that there's a lot -- like maybe 99.5 percent -- of "inert ingredients." Do you think that's water just added to fill the bottle? Good guess, but it's probably not. Many inert ingredients are killer poisons, but not the ones you think you're paying for. The "inerts" are protected as trade secrets, and industries can even use the inert category to hide toxic industrial waste.

And, getting back to chicken, you'd probably guess that "chicken" nuggets are made of chicken meat. Well, there's no telling. It may be chicken meat, but it may be laced with bone fragments and organs. Same for the contents of chicken hot dogs, bologna and all the chicken and poultry cold cuts.

The list goes on and on. Recycled paper isn't really made from that newspaper waste you take to the recycle center. It may be "recycled" from trimmings at the mill and has never really been used before. For the really recycled stuff, look for the label "post consumer."

Some labels are swell, of course, and leave no room for error. There's that "Remove before driving" label on the huge sunscreen I put over my windshield in the summer. And there's the warning on the kids' cough medicine to not operate heavy machinery. And my friend liked the advice on her new iron: "Do not iron clothes on body."

So what would the label on GMO food look like? "Warning: If you choose this food, you're buying something that has not been proven safe, that puts family farmers out of business, and that may change the environment irrevocably in just a few years."

It's your choice.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 The Progressive Populist