Only If You Eat Food

03.16.2006 | David L. Steinhardt | Food, National Affairs, Science | 2 Comments

Now that the World Trade Organization has ruled that the European Union may not withhold approval of genetically engineered (GE) crops, much though the member countries would like to, let’s take a look at how applying “liberal” trade rules to food science stacks up.

Farmers have, since time immemorial, bred the local corn with other strains, while also cross-breeding these crops with bacteria, viruses, fungi, and the occasional jellyfish or horse, in search of grains that can infect others, grow under toenails, cause intense pain or run the steeplechase.

Not convinced? Just ask the FDA, which considers GE crops to be Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), a definition that exempts them from having to be proven safe, since they’re part of traditional agriculture.

The legal ability to patent life in the US dates back only to 1978, and genetically altered foods have only been around since 1994, but GE food production has reached the point where most processed foods in this country now contain at least one such ingredient. We should still be in the first decades of testing such crops and foods in the lab, rather than making our continent the largest uncontrolled biochemical experiment ever. However, the FDA official who secured the no-testing GRAS designation was Michael Taylor, previously outside counsel to Monsanto, and, after his FDA stint, Monsanto’s VP for policy.

Did I mention that Monsanto is, by far, the largest GE-food company in the world?

But don’t worry: This is something you only have to worry about if you eat food.

The documentary The Future of Food features an interview with Professor Ignacio Capela of University of California at Berkeley’s Environmental Policy Management program. He is a former commercial biotech researcher. He says that GE crops, which contain modifications that include pesticides, herbicides, spermicides and other lethal substances in every cell, have been proven to change the ecology of the very soils they grow in. These crops affect everything from microbes to insects and worms, with effects that have not yet and are not now being studied on the hundreds of millions of acres where they are planted.

We’ve all seen enough horror movies to know that these changes just might have some unforeseen consequences.

GE crops are legally required to have small buffer zones around them to protect neighboring crops from contamination. The thing is, bees pollinate in a 15-mile radius, birds travel farther than that, and wind - well, Hawaii was just a lava flow 2000 miles from its nearest neighbor before the wind brought in plant life. In other words, the protections that everyone agrees are necessary are not possible, which means that farmers, whether or not they choose GE seeds, are forced to use them.

Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian grower of canola, had part of his field infected, without his knowledge, with Monsanto-owned DNA. Monsanto sued him, seeking payment for his unauthorized use of their product. Percy refused to be shaken down for a settlement and instead took his case to the Canadian Supreme Court. Monsanto won the patent infringement portion of the case in a 5-4 ruling. In the old days, you had to do something to steal; now you can be convicted of stealing if you can’t stop the wind.

May I do that? “Here’s an invoice for your use of your Rolls Royce. I sneezed on it, so it’s now defined by my DNA, not your title.”

Since life can be owned, Monsanto has patented thousands of seeds that activists claim are purely natural, thus securing legal means to license the earth’s own gifts. That’s not Monsanto’s only trick, either. It makes many GE crops sterile, the better to force payment for each and every seed planted. Sterile, at least, until sprayed with another GE product that must be purchased - from Monsanto, of course.

GE crops are filled with genes from all manner of life, haphazardly inserted by viruses, lasers and other means, with no testing or evidence that these contaminants are safe to eat. Nor is testing done to ensure that new “trigger genes” are only triggering the parts of the DNA they were inserted to activate. So if a GE gene in your sandwich activates a dormant cancer gene in your intestines or stomach, the FDA has already blindfolded itself to that possibility. It’s Generally Recognized As Safe, remember? Because Monsanto helped staff the FDA, remember?

When GE soy was introduced in England, soy allergies immediately jumped by 50%. I used to love tomatoes, but since about the time GE tomatoes hit the market, all raw tomatoes make my mouth break out in small sores. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.

UK studies have confirmed that GE crops are particularly prone to random reordering of their already artificially-scrambled DNA. The sobriquet “Frankenfoods” may be an understatement. More like shape-shifting aliens. Literally. Altered DNA are known to multiply in unexpected ways. It’s not difficult to imagine Monsanto’s modifications spreading and mutating. There may eventually be natural mutations which render other species sterile, or perhaps fertile only with a patented activator spray.

In Iraq, the birthplace of agriculture, the occupation – that’s us – has made it illegal for farmers to plant anything that hasn’t been certified by US officials, which could mean Monsanto seeds or starvation. Did I mention that Donald Rumsfeld used to be president of Searle, now owned by Monsanto?

I recently returned from New Zealand, where GE agriculture is still severely restricted. I was there assisting a filmmaker who was interviewing native Maori activists who are fighting to save their country from such infestation. The situation there seems idyllic compared to the one here, where GE ingredients are not even identified on food labels. In Europe, such warning labels are mandatory.

But now, with the new WTO ruling, that states, “The Panel did not examine whether biotech products in general are safe or not,” nations that wish to keep such products off their shelves can be held liable for damages to the companies whose products are withheld.



A well-written and amusing article. My only fault is that it does not place forward the most important argument against GE (frankenfoods): it tastes like cardboard.

I would like to draw the author's attention to the Slow Food movement. It is based on biodiversity, the maintaining of traditional agriculture, and support for small farmers. A delicious and radical politic, it tastes good and is good for you.
03.22.2006 | Constantine Constantus
News reports yesterday about omega-3-rich pork exemplify what's been missing in MSM reportage on frankenfoods.

"The Fat From These Pigs May End Up Helping Your Heart" goes the LA Times hed; "Cloning May Lead to Healthy Pork" is the NY Times' similarly gee-whiz tease. Both stories' "downsides" concern the likelihood that such meat will turn out to be unappetizing.


Far better, yet still devoid of scrutizining the issues addressed above, is the Toronto Globe and Mail's story (linked from Raw Story) "Will consumers have a beef with test-tube meat?", which at least addresses some serious issues in depth, if without even a glance at macro issues of health, ethics and traditional scientific standards of caution.
03.28.2006 | David L Steinhardt

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