Whoever says that the visions of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are passé hasn’t taken a close look at our food supply recently. For those of us who enjoy wholesome, natural foods, a trip to the local supermarket these days can be fraught with potential pitfalls.
The list of things people might be concerned about is long: Have those vegetables been genetically engineered to include fish genes, pesticides, or Roundup Ready resistance? Have they been grown with the help of toxic waste-laced fertilizer? Has that food been irradiated? What kinds of pesticides are on that fruit? Are these foods safe for my kids?
It’s enough to make one wonder just who’s in charge of the food we eat. Is anybody watching out for the consumer’s best interests? Can we trust the companies behind these frightening "Frankenfoods" to make wise decisions about agriculture and the food we eat? Are they concerned more about profits and slick marketing campaigns than doing the right thing? And what is the government doing to protect us?
Smart and clever, but not wise
My topic of specialty is genetically engineered foods. As communications director for The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods since mid-1999, one of my responsibilities has been to read hundreds of media articles about the many issues surrounding biotech. Often, I’ve been frightened by what I have read.
Take the case of the super salmon—genetically modified to grow at four times the natural rate. When Scottish Parliament member Robin Harper learned that Scottish scientists were experimenting with the mutant salmon, he was horrified, and called for a ban on all genetic engineering experiments.
"We should be extremely concerned about genetically modified (GM) fish because of the danger that they could escape into the wild," he told the Scottish media. "It’s a similar, if not even more dangerous threat, to that we are facing with GM plants. If a GM fish escaped or was released accidentally into the wild it could never be recaptured. This fish could breed with wild populations and devastate the existing natural balance with its modified behavior. There can be no doubt as to the huge threat GM fish would be to fish stocks wherever they were released in the world’s oceans."
Indeed, many scientists are concerned about the widespread release of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) into the environment. Millions of acres of American farmland have been planted with genetically engineered crops. Scientists fear that GMOs will be spread, by bird, insect or wind, to non-GM crops—and to the wilderness. And genetic contamination, unlike other kinds of waste, cannot be cleaned up, or contained.
Genetically modified foods have been sold in the United States only since 1994. But already, two-thirds of products on supermarket shelves are genetically engineered, or contain GMOs. By 1999, more than one-fourth of American crops were genetically engineered, including 35 percent of all corn, 55 percent of all soybeans and nearly half of all cotton.
Tortilla chips, drink mixes, taco shells, veggie burgers and baby formulas are some foods that commonly include GMOs. Processed foods that contain corn or soy byproducts such as corn syrup, cornstarch and lecithin, are especially likely to include GMOs.
There is no doubt that the scientists and corporate officers behind genetic engineering are exceedingly clever. The brainpower required to come up with some of the developments in genetic engineering is astonishing. But are the companies behind genetic engineering acting in an ecologically wise manner? That’s another story altogether.
The backlash against biotech foods in the United States gathered steam in mid-1999 when Cornell University researchers found, in laboratory experiments, that genetically engineered corn is deadly to Monarch butterflies. For many Americans, it was the first awareness that genetically engineered foods have been rushed to the market far too quickly, with inadequate understanding of the complex ramifications they may hold for the environment.
Pesticidal potatoes, terminator seeds and other frightening ideas
One of the latest, and strangest, food inventions to hit our supermarkets is the pesticidal potato. It used to be that growers merely sprayed pesticides on potatoes. Now, however, these new potatoes are engineered to produce pesticides in each of their cells. The New Leaf Superior potato, marketed by the Monsanto Co. since 1995, actually has been registered as a pesticide with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The New Leaf Superior is genetically engineered to include the organic insecticide Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt produces a protein that is deadly to the Colorado potato beetle, which farmers consider one of the biggest threats to healthy potatoes. Every cell of the New Leaf Superior contains a gene snipped from the Bt bacteria.
The pesticidal potatoes are unlabeled, so if you purchase non-organic potatoes, there’s no way to be sure that they aren’t the pesticidal variety. Monsanto insists that the potatoes are safe, but some scientists are concerned about the possible long-term health and environmental effects of mass Bt use.
Given the damage pesticides have done to the environment over the past 50 years, and the health risks associated with them, many folks are wondering just who’s making sure the pesticidal potatoes are safe. Clearly not the creators of the new gene technology, nor, apparently, the government agencies charged with protecting the American public.
Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications, dropped the usual corporate PR banter and bluntly told the New York Times that "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job."
The Food and Drug Administration, however, told the Times it does not regulate the pesticidal potato because it does not have the authority to regulate pesticides; that responsibility, it claims, falls on the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, meanwhile, says labeling pesticidal potatoes is under the FDA’s purview, since potatoes are a food. But the FDA says federal law forbids the food agency from including information about pesticides on foods.
Perhaps Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, an environmental watchdog, put it best when it said the biotech industry has a "frontier mentality."
The "terminator seed" is another biotech development that has raised hackles, especially among farmers in developing countries. Monsanto is also the prime force behind the terminator—a genetic technology that sterilizes seeds produced by crops, forcing farmers to purchase seeds from the company every year instead of saving seeds from one year to the next.
"By peddling suicide seeds, the biotechnology multinationals will lock the world’s poorest farmers into a new form of genetic serfdom," says Erma Must of the World Development Movement. "Currently, 80 percent of crops in developing countries are grown using farm-saved seed. Being unable to save seeds from sterile crops could mean the difference between surviving and going under."
"It’s terribly dangerous," adds Hope Shand, of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian group. "Half of the world’s farmers are poor and can’t afford to buy seed every growing season. Yet they grow 15 to 20 percent of the world’s food."
Monsanto, bowing to intense international criticism, announced in 1999 that it would not develop the terminator seed. However, RAFI reports that Monsanto is working on several related technologies, and critics fear that Monsanto will change its mind about the terminator and pursue it again.
I’ve also read newspaper reports about glow-in-the-dark potatoes that mix jellyfish genes with potatoes, resulting in spuds that glow when they need watering, and glow-in-the-dark Christmas trees that won’t require Christmas lights.
Then there are the reports about genetically mutated tree farms, in which scientists have come up with plans for "terminator" trees engineered never to flower. Some ecologists think that might mean a "silent spring" in the forests.
"If you replace vast tracts of natural forest with flowerless trees, there will be a serious effect on the richness and abundance of insects," says George McGavin, curator of entomology at Oxford University Museum. "If you put insect resistance in the leaves as well you will end up with nothing but booklice and earwigs. We are talking about vast tracts of land covered with plants that do not support animal life as a sterile means of culturing wood tissue. That is a pretty unattractive vision of the future and one I want no part of."
Two radically different visions
I’ve been eating a natural foods diet for a decade. As author of Green Cuisine: A Guide to Vegetarian Dining around Seattle and Puget Sound, I’ve met hundreds of people who either work in the natural foods industry, including many organic growers, or who shop for organic foods. I often am struck by the vast differences between the philosophies of organic growers and the chemical and biotech agricultural establishment.
Warfare is a common metaphor used by the agricultural establishment, which seems bent on controlling and dominating Mother Nature through the use of powerful toxic chemicals, large-scale factory farming and other non-sustainable practices. Some of the companies involved in biotech also were behind the tremendous rise of such dangerous pesticides as DDT. Pesticides, which became the rage after World War II, have their roots in the chemical weapons developed in the two world wars.
The agricultural establishment has come under fire under recent years for a host of environmental and social problems, ranging from topsoil depletion and groundwater contamination to the decline of family farms and poor living working conditions for migrant laborers. All too often, it seems, the corporations behind the agricultural establishment are willing to sacrifice long-term sustainability for short-term profits.
In comments that reminded some people of Michael Douglas’s infamous "Greed is good" speech in the movie Wall Street, Grocery Manufacturers of America executive Gene Grabowski, one of the top spokespeople for biotech, told the Toronto Star that "America is about progress. Progress and profit. It may sound jingoistic, but I love America."
The anti-biotech movement has "an anti-progress agenda," he said, adding that the entire free enterprise system is at stake if progress is slowed. "Other forces are going to take over. Evil forces." Organic forces.
Organic agriculture is based on a strikingly different set of values. Organic practitioners don’t speak of a "war" or "battle" against the forces of Mother Nature. They don’t feel like they have to own her, or that they can do better than her. Rather, they seek to work in alliance with Mother Nature’s powers, and they respect her abilities. Leaders in the organic farming and sustainable agriculture movement are well aware of our connection to the fragile web of life, and strive to maintain an ecological balance.
The dichotomy between the two mindsets reminds me of Daniel Quinn’s description in his popular environmental novel, Ishmael, of Leaver peoples, who are willing to live in the hands of the gods, and Takers, who feel they must seize control from the gods for themselves.
Another author I’ve turned to in order to make sense of this dichotomy is Jerry Mander, author of The Absence of the Sacred. Echoing the concerns of many Americans wary of nuclear power, the Dalkon Shield and toxic waste dumps, among other failed technological ideas, Mander calls for a cautious and conscientious approach to new technologies. In short, he advocates an approach based on wisdom instead of profit mongering.
One of the principles Mander lives by is that new technologies should be scrutinized extremely carefully because the people who stand to profit from them are the ones who control the information about them.
Many scientists and environmentalists share a similar opinion.
"We are living today in a very delicate time, one that is reminiscent of the birth of the nuclear era, when mankind stood at the threshold of a new technology," says Dr. John Fagan, a molecular biologist and former genetic engineer. "No one knew that nuclear power would bring us to the brink of annihilation or fill our planet with highly toxic radioactive waste. We were so excited by the power of a new discovery that we leapt ahead blindly, and without caution. Today the situation with genetic engineering is perhaps even more grave because this technology acts on the very blueprint of life itself."
At war against organic foods: Who’s winning?
Indeed, the giant agribusinesses behind genetic engineering have been no friends of organic farmers and consumers. In fact, they have taken many steps that have fans of organic foods crying foul.
The corporations behind biotech are driven by visions of profit, and they recognize that organic foods represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the food industry, with sales increasing by approximately 20 percent per year over the past few years.
In 1998, the USDA proposed a new set of organic standards. Under heavy industry pressure, the department suggested that genetically engineered foods, irradiated foods and foods grown with toxic sewage sludge-laced fertilizers should be included in the new organic definition. It was only after 275,000 people sent letters to the USDA ripping the proposal that the department relented. It was one of the largest letter-writing campaigns ever to hit Washington. The new organic standard, adopted in 2000, excludes these Frankenfoods.
Organic farmers also have reason to worry about the New Leaf Superior pesticidal potato, because it could render Bt, an organic insecticide that some farmers spray on their crops as a last resort, ineffective. Overuse of the pesticide could enable bugs to develop resistance to it.
Then there’s the issue of genetic contamination. In 1999, Terra Prima, a Wisconsin organic chips exporter, was forced to destroy 87,000 bags of chips at a cost of $147,000, after a European importer discovered that they were contaminated with genetically engineered corn.
In early 2000, British Food Safety Minister Baroness Hayman told organic farmers they would have to put up with contamination.
"We cannot have 100 percent total purity because we do not have the appropriate barriers," she said. "The organic movement has to recognize and find a way of living with contamination from other crops."
Hayman’s statement angered organic farmers to no end.
"I am very disappointed that ministers are asking us to put up with a little contamination," said Michael Rowland, an organic farmer from Wiltshire. "It’s like asking someone to put up with a little cancer—it’s immoral and totally unacceptable."
While the biotech industry has been attacking the organic market, biotech itself has come under increasing fire. European and other countries largely have rejected America’s biotech exports, and American farmers planned to grow fewer biotech crops in the year 2000, for the first time in several years.
Meanwhile, it has been encouraging to see that the natural and organic foods movement is growing so rapidly in this country, and especially in the Puget Sound region. It is inspiring to see so many people starting to "get it." There are many things we can do to help make the organic market flourish: Continue to shop for organic foods, consume more plant-based foods, support local farmers, join Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, and grow your own organic produce, among others.
As more and more people learn about the wisdom of the organic approach, it will be increasingly difficult for the agricultural establishment to fool us with dangerous Frankenfood creations like pesticidal potatoes.
Cameron Woodworth is the author of Green Cuisine: A Guide to Vegetarian Dining around Seattle and Puget Sound. Visit The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods Web site at www.thecampaign.org. Cameron’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.