What is This Thing We Now Call Food

Stealthy by stealthy step the lives of people living today and the lives of those generations yet unborn are inexorably, profoundly and irretrievably being changed at hyperspeed as the nature of our food--humanity's greatest common denominator next to life itself--is being systematically and radically altered by a tiny handful of profit-obsessed corporate entities seeking to control its production and availability.

At the same time corporate mastery of the food we eat is rapidly being pursued, most of the population of the world, particularly in the U.S., knows little or nothing by design of these revolutionary changes currently taking place. Such is the intention of those corporations and their policy-making shills in government.

Ironically, while the American public is being kept in the dark about these dramatic changes in our food the U.S. at the same time has become in large measure the well spring of the technology that is driving this revolution. Yet, millions of people living throughout the rest of the world--from Great Britain to New Zealand, from Brazil to India--are raising their voices and taking to the streets over the way they must grow and produce their food and the fact that the nature of the food itself is being established by corporate priorities with little or no public discussion such that it can be questioned and interrogated in a concrete way. Meanwhile, in the U.S. all is relatively quiet.

In the forefront of this food revolution is biotechnology; genetically engineered (GE) food products, where the genes of one species are implanted in another species giving us a new crop with new traits and also giving us a virus and a bacteria which has not previously been an integral component of the human diet (and whose long term health effects have been questioned within the scientific community). From soybeans to corn, from cotton to tomatoes genetically modified organisms (GMO) are being introduced into our food system.

For example, in 1997, 15% of the U.S. soybean crop was grown from genetically engineered seed. By next year, if the timetable of the Monsanto Corp., the producer of GE soybeans, unfolds on schedule, 100% of the U.S. soybean crop (60 million acres) will be genetically engineered. Eighty percent of all vegetable oils in American foods are derived from soy beans, so most foods that contain vegetable oils will contain GE components by next year or the year after.

In the United States, 25% of the corn, 38% of soy beans and 45% of cotton are currently genetically modified--or transgenetic, industry officials say. They expect some 90% of U.S. agricultural exports to be biogenetic within a decade.

While largely ignored by the mass media this genetic engineering revolution in agriculture has seen the three federal agencies charged with regulating GE crops and foods--the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)--all on record with speeches that make them sound, as Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly recently described it, "remarkably like cheerleaders for genetic engineering, rather than impartial judges of a novel and powerful new technology."

USDA, FDA and EPA have all set policies favorable to the corporations that stand to profit by GE crops and GMO food. At the same time no labeling requirements are being imposed, so the public has little or no knowledge that GMO foods are already being sold in grocery stores everywhere, and that soon few traditional forms of food may remain on the shelves.

The rationale for such engineering from the corporations, namely Monsanto, DuPont and Novartis who are producing such crops, is that genetic engineering is necessary and essential if the world's food supply is to keep up with human population growth and still maintain an environment conducive to producing that food.

But as Rachel's Peter Montague correctly points out none of the genetic engineering companies appears to be developing GE crops that might solve global food shortages.

"If genetically engineered crops were aimed at feeding the hungry," he points out, "then Monsanto and the others would be developing seeds with certain predictable characteristics: (a) ability to grow on substandard or marginal soils; (b) plants able to produce more high-quality protein, with increased per-acre yield, without increasing the need for expensive machinery, chemicals, fertilizers, or water; (c) they would aim to favor small farms over larger farms; (d) the seeds would be cheap and freely available without restrictive licensing; and (e) they would be for crops that feed people, not meat animals."

None of the genetically engineered crops now available, he adds, or in development (to the extent that those that have been announced) has any of these such desirable characteristics. Quite the opposite.

"The new genetically engineered seeds require high-quality soils, enormous investment in machinery, and increased use of chemicals. There is evidence that their per-acre yields are about 10% lower than traditional varieties (at least in the case of soybeans), and they produce crops largely intended as feed for meat animals, not to provide protein for people. The genetic engineering revolution has nothing to do with feeding the world's hungry."

Montague also notes that fully two-thirds of the GE crops now available, or in development, are designed specifically to increase the sale of chemical poisons produced by the companies that are selling the GE seeds, e.g. Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" products that are genetically engineered to withstand heavy doses of Monsanto's all-time top money-making herbicide, Roundup (glyphosate).

From the farmer's perspective the consequences of this revolution have already begun to transform agriculture.

For example, a recent study by the Rural Advancement Fund International (RAFI) reports that without immediate government action, Terminator and Traitor (negative trait) biotechnologies may well be commercialized within a few years with potentially disastrous consequences They note that over two dozen "Terminator II" patents that "link suicide seeds to proprietary chemicals, genetically-weakened plants, and the patented power to make genetically-inviable plants rise from the dead."

The patents seek to exploit--or could exploit--new genetic engineering techniques that use inducible promoters to disable critical plant functions governing reproduction, disease resistance, and seed viability. If commercialization of such seeds proceeds, RAFI warns, farmers worldwide will be tangled in an expensive web of chemicals, intellectual property, and disabled germ plasm that leads to bioserfdom.

The technology would also spell additional disaster for over three quarters of the world's farmers--mainly poor farmers--who depend on farm-saved seed. The complete removal of farmers from the age-old process of plant breeding through sterilized seed could also signify a disastrous narrowing of the gene pool on which everyone depends for food security.

At the same time this new technology is being rushed into the fields and onto our food plates its corporate producers are struggling mightily to deny the public one of their most fundamental consumer rights--the right to know the contents of their food.

In Cartagena, Colombia in February, for example, Monsanto's White House policy "procurers" were successful in scuttling an accord approved by more than 125 nations to forge an environmental protection treaty on trade in genetically modified plants and animals.

While the European Union and more than 110 other nations at the U.N.-initiated talks agreed to a so-called Biosafety Protocol, an outgrowth of the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, the U.S., Australia, Canada, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, blocked the proposed compromise.

Most developing countries want international safeguards to protect themselves against potential biogenetic disaster. They want biotech companies legally liable for any damage to biodiversity or human health--another provision opposed by the U.S. Critics rightfully worry about the possibility of still unfathomable and possibly catastrophic consequences if the products goes awry.

As previously noted federal regulatory agencies have largely acquiesced to the interests of the likes of Monsanto, DuPont and Novartis, such as the 1993 FDA's speedy approval of rBGH. Recent findings by Health Canada (the Canadian federal health agency) in its assessment of Monsanto Corp.'s recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) billed by the company as "the most extensively tested product in its history," dispute the FDA's decision. No other country other than the U.S. has approved rBGH for use, although Monsanto has sought approval in Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and Canada.

The drug, which Monsanto sells under the brand name "Posilac," is widely used in the U.S. About 13,000 U.S. dairy farmers inject their herds with it to increase the cow's milk production, generating about $200 million in annual sales for the St. Louis biotechnology and pharmaceutical concern.

Likewise, a European Union panel recently issued a report that called for more study into whether cows treated with rBGH produce an insulin-like growth factor in their milk in such quantities that drinking it increases the risk of cancer in humans. The report is more than likely to extend the EU's moratorium on the sale of the Monsanto product.

Legitimate questions are also now being raised by consumer groups as to the FDA's need to tighten controls over "functional foods"--those foods advertised as providing new ingredients to boost their healthfulness. The Farm Journal's Barbara Fairchild has reported, however, that a cumbersome FDA process that grants manufacturers the right to proclaim such health benefits on food labels is currently winding down which would allow such health claims for products containing soy protein. A final ruling was expected in April.

Critics of the soy petition correctly point out that if the approval of such labeling (which was formally applied for by a DuPont subsidiary) is confirmed, it may mean that GE soya in the U.S., far from being labeled as a GMO (which is not provided for by U.S. food regulations), would actually end up having a label specifically telling consumers how beneficial it would be for their health.

But the government hasn't been the only one to acquiesce to Monsanto's financial priorities when it comes to the public's right to know. (See related story in "Calamity Howler")

While GE foods are appearing more and more on our grocer's shelves another technology--irradiation--is also changing the nature of the food we eat.

Yet, the FDA is currently planning to remove all labeling requirements for irradiated food as it has already approved irradiation for essentially all foods, including fruits and vegetables. Save a public health catastrophe, without such labeling, consumers will have no way to know if their food has been irradiated.

Food irradiation, a process in which gamma rays, X-rays or electrons are passed through food or a food package to kill insects, molds or microorganisms that can lead to spoilage or disease, has been rapidly gaining popularity among corporate agribusiness companies, which praise it for its safety and its extraordinary ability to extend the shelf life of foods.

To date the labeling requirement has been the sole impediment to widespread use of irradiation. Irradiation proponents fear that even the current requirement--a tiny statement no bigger than the ingredients, and no statement at all for irradiated components of mixed food--will scare consumers.

The Campaign for Food Safety is urging people to send their comments by May 18 to the FDA demanding prominent labeling, the use of the terms "irradiation" or "irradiated," the use of the radura symbol, and rejecting FDA alternative terms such as "cold pasteurization" and "electronic pasteurization" as misleading and not satisfactory. The Campaign also points out that the absence of a statement would be misleading because irradiation destroys vitamins and causes changes in sensory and spoilage qualities that are not obvious or expected by the consumer.

The Campaign notes that the FDA is only asking for comments on the issues of 1) whether labeling of irradiated foods should remain and 2) if so, what kind of label. The FDA has already decided that irradiation is "safe." Irradiation advocates in the medical establishment, corporate agribusiness, the nuclear industry and Congress know that labels frighten consumers as most consumers do not want irradiated foods (77% according to a CBS poll in 1997).

Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence exists that suggests irradiation on the food supply could have not only very serious health and environmental consequences, but serious economic effects as well. Critics contend that the issue of food irradiation turns on two major issues: safety and the consumer's right to know.

Using irradiation to "cleanse" our food would also assuredly add to the many environmental and safety issues relating to the dangers of the trafficking of nuclear materials through our cities and rural communities.

The Department of Energy (DOE), not surprisingly a long-time supporter of food irradiation, has even advanced the idea of building mobile food irradiation units, which would move to different farm areas to irradiate crops immediately after harvesting. Not only would this lead to the further centralization of agriculture as regional production would be required, but plant species would have to be further hybridized to facilitate radiation tolerance, thus possibly increasing crop vulnerabilities.

Advocates of food irradiation also speak of it in terms of reducing the disposal costs of nuclear plant wastes whose byproducts could be utilized by a possible 1000 different food processing plants scattered throughout the nation.

Whether it be irradiation of our food or biotechnology the words of Peter Montague ring true when he observes: "Our recent experiences with PCBs, CFCs, DDT, Agent Orange, and global warming should give us pause. Genetic engineering is by far the most powerful technology humans have ever discovered, and it is being deployed by the same corporations that, historically, have produced one large-scale calamity after another. Is there any good reason to think things will be different this time?"

Send comments on the FDA proposal on irradiation before May 18 to: Dockets Management Branch (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. Refer to Docket #98N-1038, "Irradiation in the production, processing and handling of food". E-mail is discouraged, because garbled messages will be discarded, and e-mail is MUCH less effective than a letter. Send e-mail to and/or and put the docket number in the subject line. The complete proposal is at (

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, Everett, Washington, (see email He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books: 1992). For more information on genetically engineered food products see columns by Donella Meadows and David Morris on page 15 or contact: Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) at, phone 919-542-1396; e-mail:; Physicians and Scientists Against Genetically Engineered Food at The Campaign for Food Safety at; phone (218) 226-4164; e-mail Food & Water, 389 Vermont Route 215, Walden, VT 05873; phone: (802) 563-3300, publishes the Food & Water Journal. Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403; web site

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