Corporate bioengineers tinker merrily and dangerously with the DNA of food
Jim Hightower's newest book, Let's Stop Beating Around The Bush, is scheduled for release next month. Until then, Utne will be running a series of excerpts from the title.
As you're flipping through the back sections of your morning paper, do you sometimes come across a story that strikes you as the real news of the day? I'm talking about stories that are somewhere between reeeaaally important and jawdropping, and you ask yourself: Why did they bury this back here... Why isn't this the front-page lead with a screaming two-inch headline?
I had one of these moments recently when I came across this deceptively bland headline: "Modified Seeds Found Amid Unmodified Crops." Most people scanning the February 24, 2004, issue of the New York Times would either have missed this story entirely, since it was stuck down at the bottom of page 6, section C, or they would have not bothered to read beyond the boring headline, which made it seem like a farmer story.
A more appropriate headline would have been:
CONTAMINATING U.S. FOOD SUPPLY!
Yes, it needs that exclamation point, for this is a truly alarming story that should be the subject of ongoing reporting by every media source, perhaps matching the in-depth analysis the media establishment gives to such stories of national import as, say, Michael Jackson.
[A LITTLE BACKGROUND: For some time, the likes of Monsanto have had their white-smocked engineers tinkering merrily and dangerously with the very DNA of food, genetically modifying the natural composition of things like potatoes so they contain a pesticide in every one of their cells, or altering rice so it contains a diarrhea drug in every bite. This is no mere lab experiment, for unbeknownst to the vast majority of Americans, Monsanto and a handful of other global biotech giants have quietly spread the seeds of these genetically altered Frankenfoods to so many farms over the past decade that about a third of the foods on U.S. supermarket shelves now contain organisms with tampered DNA -- everything from baby food and milk to products made with soybean and corn. Thanks to well-placed campaign donations and powerhouse lobbying, this infiltration of our food supply has been done with practically no consumer awareness, since both Bill Clinton's and George W's administrations have let these foodstuffs be sold in America without so much as a label on them to tell us that we're buying something that our families might prefer to avoid. WE NOW RETURN YOU TO THE PRESENT.]
As anyone living around a corporate hog factory knows, hog stuff stinks. Mightily.
Should the corporations have to clean up their act and drastically cut the massive number of hogs it jams into each factory? No need, because here comes: The Biotech Stink Busters!
By splicing some genes from mice and E.coli bacteria into pig genes, a less stinky critter has been created, which is now trademarked under the sweet name of "Enviropig." It still contaminates the air and water with its excretions, but you don't notice as much. No report on what happens to those of us who might eat ham with mice genes and E.coli bacteria in it.
The industry and our so-called "regulators" keep saying that they have these GMOs -- genetically modified organisms -- under tight control so the altered plants won't spread (through their pollen or through mixing of seed) into the fields of unaltered crops. This is what you might call "IMPORTANT" -- since no one knows the longterm impact of Monsanto's lab creations on human health and on the earth's ecology. It would be beyond stupid, Biblical-level stupidity, to let this stuff escape and taint our entire food supply.
In the last few years, however, there have been unsettling "incidents": a shipment of organic corn from Texas was rejected by France (GMO foods are banned in Europe, Japan, Brazil, and other nations) because it contained the altered genes, apparently the result of pollen drifting from farms growing altered corn onto the fields of the organic farmers; a load of GMO corn not approved for human consumption ended up unannounced in Taco Bell's corn products; scientists found that Monarch butterflies were sickened and dying from exposure in the Midwest to GMO grain; Mexico, which does not allow GMO corn it its country, has found native varieties deep in the country's interior to be tainted by Monsanto's corn pollen, which had drifted hundreds of miles, much farther and in a much quicker time than the industry and our government thought possible.
Knowing this is why the small article in the Times caught my eye. It reported on new findings by the widely-respected Union of Concerned Scientists, which had just run a series of systematic tests on 36 batches of corn, canola, and soybean seeds. All of the seeds supposedly were nature's own, free of any genetic manipulation. Yet, UCS found that more than two-thirds of the batches had traces of GMOs in their DNA.
This means that Monsanto's engineered demon is loose on the land. As one of the scientists put it "The door to seed contamination is wide open."
A LITTLE STATE MAKES A BIG STATEMENT
While Washington is asleep at the switch, the state of Vermont is doing something. In March, by a stunning 28-0 vote, the Vermont senate passed the Farmer Protection Act, to hold the biotech giants legally accountable for the contamination of any farmer's crops by a corporation's GMOs.
This is our food supply we're talking about. Shouldn't this story be way up front in the papers, the lead item on the nightly news, a topic of talk-radio heat, the subject of congressional investigations, a story worthy of comment by presidential candidates? But, Nothing. Just a small article on page C6.
Even more alarming than the findings by the scientists was the disdainful attitude of the contaminators. Did we get an "Oops, sorry about that," or an "Oh my gosh, we've gotta do something to fix this, starting with not planting any more of these seeds until we figure out the problems"? No, we did not. What we got was a demand from an industry lobbying group that other countries stop banning GMO Frankenfoods and simply learn to live with [Feel the love in this statement] "acceptable levels of contamination."
Did I mention that it's our food supply we're talking about?
UCS was not the first group of scientists to hit the alarm button on this willy-nilly, corporate splicing of assorted pesticides, bacteria, sex hormones, drugs, and animal genes into the foods we're eating. In January of 2002, the National Academy of Sciences, more establishment than which you cannot get, stepped forward to say: Hold your horses, buckaroos!
In 2000, the NAS convened a panel of biologists and ag scientists to conduct a study of the process by which the Monsantos are rushing these genetically-altered plants into production, into the environment, onto our grocery shelves, and into our bodies. Their study finds that there should be "significantly more transparent and rigorous" review of the testing, monitoring, and assessment of these genetic manipulations before they're unleashed on an unsuspecting and vulnerable world.
As one critic of the current regulatory system noted in welcoming the NAS findings: "It has been a cakewalk for the industry in terms of getting products approved."
It has indeed. NAS's scientific panel pointed out that the Agriculture Department presently allows the corporations to plant unlimited acreages to test their experimental plants, with no independent evaluation of the danger this poses to our environment and food supply. The NAS wants this slipshod process to end, calling for independent reviews of all tests, less secrecy by the corporations, more involvement of the public before these experimental foods are approved, and long-term regulatory monitoring of any approved crops.
CLOSING THE CIRCLE
Linda Fisher spent five years as Monsanto's top Washington lobbyist. She also managed Monsanto's political money. In 2001, George W chose her to be deputy administrator of the EPA, the agency's second-highest post. The EPA has regulatory authority over plants genetically altered to contain pesticides. Monsanto is the leading producer of those altered plants.
Science has spoken, but money shouts. Monsanto and the other food contaminators have poured more than $100 million into Washington lobbying in the past six years and they are major campaign donors to Bush, the GOP, and the Democrats in congress, so the essentially unregulated, let-'er-fly policy toward these dangerous organisms was written by them. The scathing NAS report was only a one-day story. If Bush even saw the report, neither he nor anyone in his administration lifted a finger to implement any of its recommendations, nor have the congressional leaders of either party.
"Virtually all participants said that bioengineered foods should be labeled as such... Most participants expressed great surprise that food biotechnology has become so pervasive in the U.S. food supply... [and] outrage that such a change in the food supply could happen without them knowing about it."
-- The "Well, duh!" findings from a series of 12 focus groups convened by the FDA, 2001
When informed about the genetic tampering with our dinner, a good 80 percent of people polled say, "Hell No!" to being Monsanto's guinea pigs. But it's the old tree-falling-in-the-woods question: "If the people shout their opposition, but congress and the White House have Monsanto checks stuffed in their ears, do the people make a sound."