RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen

Consumer Power

Feeling powerless? Like nobody listens? Like your vote doesn't count? Like nothing's going to change because everyone's engrossed in the dash to the edge of the bluff?

It turns out you have a Super Power -- one you can conveniently exercise -- the power of using your dollars wisely. And it turns out that your consumer choice may be the most powerful force for change of all.

Consumers are changing markets. In Europe and Japan, two of our nation's big trading partners, consumers are just saying no to biotech foods. And when consumers say no, corporations listen.

The consumers are refusing foods from genetically-altered plants. The plants, also called GMOs, were dreamed up by American corporations, perfected in the laboratories of American college campuses, and approved by American government agencies like the FDA and USDA.

Deceived by the inventions of the past -- from accelerated tobacco products to leaky breast implants -- these consumers say there hasn't been enough testing. They can point to studies in their own countries that confirm their suspicions.

I have just returned from Farm Aid, and a conference on GMOs with speakers from around the world. More about this in another column, but the problem is complex and the data coming in from other countries is more than alarming. The British Ministry of Agriculture and Food says that bacteria in the mouth -- your mouth -- can take up antibiotic-resistant genes from modified plants and actually become antibiotic-resistant themselves.

Research on animals fed biotech plants show they have more health problems. Indeed, one favorite corporated alteration is to take a bacteria gene that kills insect larva and put it into a plant, making the entire plant an insecticide. Think eating insecticide is bad? American watchdog agencies don't think this is a problem.

Unless you eat only organic foods, foods grown by a farmer you know, or foods from seeds you saved in your own backyard, you have eaten biotech foods. Fast-food fries, taco shells, off-the-shelf cereals, breads and vegetable oils all have biotech ingredients. You can't tell because our FDA has approved the ingredients and doesn't allow labels that distinguish whether ingredients are genetically manipulated.

Still, on July 30, 1999, the Wall Street Journal front-page article announced that Gerber, part of Europe's Novartis Corporation, has promised to not use genetically altered ingredients in baby foods. The Journal quotes a Novartis spokesman saying Gerber wants to set the "'gold standard' for measuring and labeling these ingredients."

Gerber's announcement was splendidly pro-active. Seeing big-dollar legal settlements for consumers, the baby-food maker figured there could be future costs for using biotech ingredients. Nobody knows what might happen to people that eat biotech foods because these are foods that have never before been on the planet. Since babies are particularly susceptible to food problems, Gerber won't take the risk of a generation of problems no one anticipated.

The Gerber announcement has left other manufacturers scrambling. Heinz immediately followed with an announcement of its own.

Here in Missouri, ground-zero for the biotech industry, industry flaks sent a flurry of letters to editors criticizing Gerber and blaming environmentalists for Gerber's announcement. Environmentalists were the problem, said the letters, because Greenpeace, an environmental organization, initiated the Gerber announcement when a Greenpeace staffer sent samples of grocery-store foods to a lab for testing.

The laboratories found Franken-ingredients in many of the samples. The staffer faxed Gerber to find out if the corporates knew what they were selling. The corporates didn't.

To the chagrin of the scientific community, the letters-to-editors blaming environmentalists fell flat. Consumers and farmers don't think environmentalists are the problem. So, a lecture series brought bio-ethicists to the University of Missouri to take a little spin with the scientific community.

In one lecture, a heavy-set, bearded guy in a suit brilliantly explained that the consumer fuss in Europe was due to public ignorance. He admonished scientists for not explaining the benefits of science to consumers. He suggested that scientists should begin visiting elementary schools to get at consumers at an early age.

One audience member commented that the problem isn't science, but that science in the hands of industry has often been manipulated to hurt consumers. The engaging New Yorker dismissed consumers, indeed mostly female, as feminists with their own agendas.


But back to the Gerber announcement. Where will Gerber find all these non-biotech ingredients for their baby food?

American fields have been absolutely polluted by the Franken-genes. Even farmers who raised traditional crops for decades are unsure if they can go back. Here's why:

It takes two to tango -- and that's as true of soybeans and canola as Latin dancers. Old-timers say the best way to raise prize-winning crops is to give some of your best seed to your neighbor so you benefit from the cross-pollination. Having second-rate seed in the neighborhood hurt everyone.

In 1999, more than half the U.S. acreage was planted in biotech crops. On our little farm, we are bordered on two sides by fields of genetically altered soybeans. Less than a mile away is a field of Bt-corn.

This means that any soybeans or corn we grow could be pollinated by biotech pollen, making our soybeans or corn offspring -- the seeds we would sell for food or save to plant next year -- genetically altered. The only way to find out is to have the crop tested, at our expense.

And this is true for all farmers. We're all downwind from somebody with GMO fields.

In the last year, organic farmers from coast-to-coast have found their fields invaded by GMO neighbors. Harvesting and shipping a crop as organic, they've had it refused at the manufacturer, and through no fault of the farmer's.

It's going to cost American consumers, farmers and taxpayers a lot to get shut of this biotech monster. Because when the corporations, the universities and the government all got together and convinced farmers to plant biotech, farmers stopped saving seeds from generations past.

Even if all farmers decide to abandon biotech, reliable non-GMO grain seeds are now rare. The company that owns bins full of them is going to make a killing.

And, yeah, we're all going to pay.

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

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