RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Playing Tricks with Food

The Outagamie Museum in Wisconsin has opened an exhibit on the magic of the late Harry Houdini and present-day magicians like David Copperfield complain that the collection of trap doors, handcuffs and straitjackets gives away their secrets.

Hey, man, get a grip! The exhibit won't damage your trade. Americans love being fooled. You can tell us a thousand times to watch the tiger instead of the hand and we'll still watch the hand and say wow!

That's why the New York Times can be gleefully apologetic, but make no promises to fix itself, as it blames Ahmad Chalabi and Judith Miller for misleading Americans to support a needless war. The paper -- from the top down -- took government statements at face value, didn't send reporters to cover peace marches, and served as the pirate's parrot instead of a trusted voice in the cacophony of false messengers. But they know, even as they reveal their secrets, that we might be momentarily baffled but we'll still love the tricks.

We're watching the hands instead of the tiger as the media chatters incessantly about the epidemic of obesity, especially among the poor. Grocery stores and restaurants in poor neighborhoods long ago dropped raw produce and meats. Instead, they offer prepared, high-carb foods wrapped in bread and plenty of grease and sugar.

But as soon as we believe that obesity is the big problem with American food, we're fooled. The real problem of the system isn't the recipe or the way eaters make choices. The real problem is the narrowing of alternatives as a few industrial processors increasingly dominate supply. That's the tiger we need to watch.

In the last month, industry has scored some big wins. In the case of Mad Cow Disease -- which the cattlemen say should be called BSE because it sounds less threatening -- the USDA has refused to tighten rules and increase testing. After a BSE-infected cow from Canada was slaughtered in the USA, USDA promised tighter rules. But while the rules were being negotiated, according to producer group R-CALF USA, the USDA allowed as much as 38 million pounds of Canadian beef to be imported secretly.

If USDA cared about consumers they'd be falling all over themselves to ensure our safety. Mad Cow Disease, as it was called when it was only Britain's problem, brought huge changes in Britain's cattle industry and resulted in Japan's mandatory testing of all carcasses. All. But, instead of mandatory testing, USDA has even refused to allow voluntary testing when producers have asked to test animals on their own.

But, besides the Mad Cow debacle, industry has had an even bigger win. This was the defeat in the Canadian Supreme Court of Percy Schmeiser's case against Monsanto. In ruling against Schmeiser, the court voted 5-4 to reverse a 2002 decision and say that life forms can be patented in Canada as they are in the US. The earlier decision ruled that a lab mouse bred to for cancer research could not be patented. That plaintiff, Harvard University, had less clout than Monsanto.

Percy's story in a nutshell: A canola farmer, he had spent 50 years developing and raising a certain strain of canola that performed well in his Saskatchewan neighborhood. He sold the seed to his neighbors.

In 1997, Monsanto sent private detectives to secretly collect seed from some of Percy's 1,000-plus acres. They claimed that the seed contained a patented gene that Monsanto had developed to resist their Roundup herbicide. Farmers started using this genetically-modified organism, a.k.a. GMO or biotech seed so they can spray their fields with Roundup and kill everything except the canola. For the farmer, it means cleaner fields. For Monsanto, it means sales of Roundup.

For the consumer, the patented canola may or may not be a good thing. Nobody knows the allergy or other health consequences of these patented genes because they've never been tested for health consequences. And, for the environmentalist, the patented canola has become a superweed, which cannot be killed by the world's most potent herbicide.

But the real tiger in this magic trick is the narrowing of ownership of seed, the genetic basis for life itself. Monsanto demanded a royalty payment on the patented gene even though Percy didn't need Roundup-Ready capability in his seed and didn't want it. Percy replied that the genes possibly got into his seed because pollen from neighbors patented plants blew into his fields.

Percy fought Monsanto through the court system, arguing that it's wrong to allow Monsanto to claim a royalty for pollen blown on the wind. And any consumer would agree. Imagine that you live near a park that plants Roundup-Ready grass and the pollen fertilizes your yard. Would it be right for Monsanto to demand a royalty payment? And how many years of royalty payment will it take for Monsanto to own all the yards in the neighborhood?

Keep your eye on that tiger. As more seeds fall under the Monsanto patent, we have fewer ways to buy outside their system.

Percy's seed has been polluted and his 50 years of work is down the drain. He can no longer save canola seed for his neighborhood and is, in fact, now raising wheat. So far, consumer resistance has meant that no genetically-altered wheat has been approved.

Conspiracy theorists might see a connection between the BSE story and the Supreme Court decision. The US will take your beef, the deal would go, as long as your top court rules in favor of Monsanto.

Chilling, but possible, given our fondness for being fooled.

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

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