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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 FDADockets@oc.fda.gov and/or FDADockets@fda.gov
and put the docket number in the subject line. The complete proposal is
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project,
Everett, Washington, (see www.ea1.com/tiller) email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 www.rafi.org, phone 919-542-1396;
e-mail: email@example.com; Physicians and Scientists Against Genetically Engineered
Food at www.psagef.org-/sitemap.htm. The Campaign for Food Safety at www.purefood.org;
phone (218) 226-4164; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 www.rachel.org.
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