June 22, 2001
Do you try to pay attention to what you eat? Given we have someone in the White House who thinks drinking arsenic is nothing to worry about, and that a little salmonella never hurt anyone, it might not be a bad time to start. Maybe you’re a little nervous about genetically engineered (GE) foods? Want to pass up eatables filled with designer pesticides? Good luck. Three quarters of the stuff on your supermarket shelf is GE.
How did this happen, you ask, and is it a bad idea? Oh yes, a very bad idea. As to how it happened, that’s an interesting tale.
A little background. Scientists can now insert a gene into a plant to kill insects, or make it invulnerable to pesticides. Half the soybeans (and soy products) you consume contain the pesticide Roundup. If a bug eats Roundup Ready Soybeans by Monsanto, zap! But of course you eat it as well.
Is it bad for you? Good question. The problem is, who knows? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the mainstream media, GE foods are harmless, but since there are no long term studies on its impact on humans, that is, at best, whistling past the graveyard. A recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) study of 17 people who claimed allergic reactions after ingesting GE StarLink corn turned up nothing, which CDC epidemiologist Carol Rubin says is “good news for consumers.” But 17 people are hardly a rigorous scientific study.
Unlike food additives or new drugs, which are carefully assayed for two years, the FDA “recommends” that GE products be tested for 90 days. In practice, most are released in half that time. The FDA does require that any adverse reactions, like allergies, be posted on the web. However, if that information might reveal a “trade secret,” then the companies can keep mum. Who determines if something is a “trade secret”? The companies.
Earlier this year the FDA blocked manufacturers from putting a “100 percent GMO free” label (GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”), because the Agency argues it can’t guarantee that such products are really GE free.
The FDA claims the move was pro-consumer, but according to the Campaign for Food Safety, “The biotech industry does not want to see GMO free labels because they are afraid their products will look bad in comparison.” Greenpeace activist Kimberly Wilson told Gene Watch, a publication of the Council for Responsible Genetics, the action demonstrates the FDA is “working with industry to keep genetic engineering a secret ingredient.”
The lack of basic information on GE’s long-term impact on humans also applies to the environment. We already know that Monsanto’s GE corn StarLink is bad for Monarch butterflies. What we don’t know is how many other organisms in the biosphere it will affect, nor what the potential is for creating “superweeds.” Roundup Ready Soybeans, for instance, are engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup. What happens if the soybeans cross-pollinate with wild varieties of plant life, which, in turn, become immune to herbicides?
No way, say the researchers, we’ve got this down to a science. But funny things happen when experiments move from the lab to the field. For instance, when German scientists gene engineered aspens, they took what they thought was every precaution to make sure the GE aspens would not get into the environment. Aspens flower and spread their pollen at age seven, so the plan was to cut down the trees at age five. Except the GE aspens flowered after three years.
A tale to make the companies careful? Not quite. Biotech firms are presently planting plantations of GE pine trees chock full of insecticides. The trees are engineered to be sterile, but as the German experience indicates, genes can surprise you. And a single pine tree, according to the magazine The New Physiologist, can pollinate 1.1 million square kilometers.
So how did this happen? Well, that’s the interesting story.
Back in the ‘80s, the big biotech firms got the Reagan Administration to back the patenting of genes. You can’t patent a food crop, but you can patent a GE food crop. Then when the federal government cut support for agricultural research, the biotech forms stepped in to fill the vacuum.
Private spending on agriculture now outstrips public spending nearly three to one. There are presently 1085 agricultural biotechnology patents. The USDA and a handful of universities hold 285 of them, while the Big Five—Monsanto; Dupont; Syngenta; Dow Chemical; and Aventis— hold 937.
The goal of the companies is profit. You don’t make it in the world of competitive capitalism by handing out freebies. Which means the research is skewed toward those areas that will bring in the cash. In GE food and wood products, the profit is in sales, and if the Big Five can get enough GE products out there, those sales will be enormous.
There are presently 100 million acres planted with GE crops in the U.S., 25 times more than in 1998. Some 68 percent of the world’s GE acreage is here in the U.S. Half our soybeans and a quarter of our corn are GE. We export almost twice as much corn and soybeans as the rest of the world combined (75.9 million metric tons vs. 41 million metric tons).
Europe and Asia are presently resisting GE crops, but if biotech firms successfully lobby Brazil to open that country to GE soybeans, consumers worldwide will have little choice but to accept them. “That is why the environmentalists are putting up such a stink down there in Brazil,” Bob Callahan, spokesperson for the pro-GE American Soybean Association told the New York Times. “They know if that goes, it’s all gone.”
As GE crops spread, they pollute non-GE crops. Between biotech fields and GE black-market seeds, virtually the whole biosphere will soon be contaminated if something isn’t done.
And something can be done. When consumers pressured fast food distributors into not using Monsanto’s GE potatoes, the company stopped making the product. Not only are European and Asian countries protesting GE products, but increasing numbers of Americans are as well. Twenty-seven states have tried passing legislation restricting GE crops. The most successful of these have united environmentalists, worried about the biosphere, and farmers, worried about foreign crop sales. For a state like North Dakota, which exports $500 million in wheat each year, that is no small potatoes.
The supporters of GE crops are powerful. The financial power of the Big Five, coupled with an accommodating government, and a quiescent mainstream media, is a formidable trinity. But so is the growing alliance of environmentalists, farmers and consumers who are increasingly allergic to the alliance of multi-national companies and governments that increasingly dominate our world.