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genetically engineered food
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Satya June 19, 2002

 

You Say "Tomato," I Say "Technology" By Tracy VanStaalduinen

There used to be a time when milk came from cows who were allowed to  produce milk naturally. Instead, cows today are often dosed with  recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and made to produce up to  three times their natural milk yield. Meat once cost a pretty penny  because it didn't come from the factory farms that we have today,  which churn out as much beef as possible to make it cheap and  available to the masses. (Ronald McDonald loves to see you smile,  remember.) Now, thanks to the agri-biotech industry, future  generations may look back on the 1990s and think of a time when crops  grew naturally; when corn was corn and soy was soy.

Today, the majority of crops are grown from natural seed, but at  least 25 percent (a total of over 88 million acres in 2001) of  soybeans, cotton, corn, and canola grown in the U.S. consist of  genetically altered plants; plants that are grown with a foreign gene  inserted or an undesirable gene deactivated. Squash and tomatoes-like  1994's "FlavrSavr" tomato, the first genetically modified (GM) food  to appear (and subsequently flop) in America's produce aisles-have  been experimented with, and GM alfalfa, lettuce, cabbage and broccoli  are on the horizon.

Genetic modification is different from traditional crossbreeding.  Crossbreeding takes two of the same or very similar species and  combines them to enhance ideal traits (for example, making fruit grow  faster or taste sweeter). Genetic alteration may cross two unrelated  species like cabbage and scorpions. In that instance, the gene that  gives the scorpion its poisonous tail was inserted into cabbage DNA,  whereby they could produce their own poison to kill caterpillars.

While genetic engineering (GE) is purported to increase crop yields  and reduce pesticide use, it has also been widely criticized as  giving less than a dozen corporations-like Monsanto, Aventis, and  DuPont-too much power over the food supply. Patented seeds can be  programmed to not reproduce or to depend on other products from a  given corporation for survival. Organic farmers have also protested  the proliferation of GE crops because cross-pollination can  contaminate their own crops-intended to be grown naturally-with GE  characteristics.

Resistance to genetically modified food has been active just about  everywhere outside the U.S. since the early `90s. Australia, China,  New Zealand, Russia and all 15 countries of the European Union now  require all foods containing GM ingredients to be labeled. Algeria,  Brazil, India and Sri Lanka have prohibited GE foods altogether. But  as with milk and rBGH, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the  Food and Drug Administration do not require foods containing GM  ingredients to be labeled as such; they suggest that food companies  label products, but do not require that phrases like "genetically  modified" or "genetically modified organism" (or even  just "modified") be used in doing so.

At the same time, the government and the food industry have listed  many potential benefits that can come from genetic engineering:  allergen-carrying genes can be "turned off;" crops can produce their  own pesticides if given the right genes; vitamins can be added to  foods that naturally lack them. But activists have a different view.

"Genetic engineering is just another way to take life and sell it as  a commodity," says Andy Zimmerman, an activist with the New York  State Greens. "It's just that much more power to give us bad food for  cheap."

As an example, Zimmerman cites the idea entertained by some  scientists of non-browning fruit. Naturally, fruit develops bruises  in damaged areas, and people are less inclined to buy bruised fruit.  Zimmerman says GE fruit could have certain genes turned off, allowing  its skin to remain healthy-looking and spotless, while inside,  bruising and rotting could be taking place. Its shelf life would be  extended, increasing its potential profit.

"They're not on the market yet, but it's the kind of thing that  impinges on your rights as a consumer," Zimmerman said. Howard Brandstein, director of Save Organic Standards Food, a non- profit New York City group focusing on agricultural issues,  agrees. "Their aim is really a commercial one. They might try to glom  on some health benefits, but you'd have to eat 15 pounds a day to  reap the benefits," he says, referring to the vitamin A- enriched "Golden Rice" that was developed in the late 1990s. The rice  (slightly yellow because of the insertion of daffodil genes) is  supposed to supplement the nutritional intake of millions of Asians,  whose diets are based on the vitamin-deficient grain.

"Instead of encouraging a wide variety in diets, they focus on  improving one crop," Brandstein says. "It's just patently absurd, and  you have to deconstruct the logic of corporate agriculture."

Golden rice is currently in development at the International Rice  Research Institute in Manila, the Philippines, where scientists say  it will undergo field testing over the next five years.

The reluctance to label food stems from the industry's belief that  labeling would be seen as a stigma, and stigmata are not good for  sales. As Norman Braskick has said, "If you put a label on a  genetically engineered food, you might as well put a skull and  crossbones on it." Braskick is the president of Asgrow, a Monsanto- owned seed company.

The FDA's requirements are that GM foods should be labeled if their  nutritional content differs greatly from their naturally produced  counterparts; if they have an increased amount of allergens or  toxins; or if they are `novel' foods. Novel foods apparently would  not include scorpion cabbage, daffodil rice, or strawberries bred  with flounder DNA, though you can certainly rate their novelty by the  unpleasant faces people will make if you mention any of the above  combinations. All of these are things that have been experimented  with but are not currently on the market.

Public Labors for Labeling

Slowly but surely, the campaign to label GE foods is spreading across  America. Labelthis.org is a tremendously informative resource for  anyone willing to take the initiative. If the food industry, with the  government securely in its back pocket, says there will be only  voluntary labeling, then labelthis.org says, "Let's build a network  of volunteer labelers to inform our fellow citizens!"

The site is just that-a Web site, not an organization. It is a self- described "resource for citizens taking peaceful action to remedy the  fact that genetically engineered ingredients are in our foods  unlabelled, untested and without our consent." The site was designed  on behalf of several groups working to eliminate GE foods from  American stores, among them the Genetic Engineering Action Network, North-West Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, and Greenpeace.

Greenpeace has its own site on the topic (www.truefoodnow.org), which  includes its staggeringly comprehensive "True Food" list. From baby  food and baking supplies to heat-and-serve meals and energy bars, the  True Food list shows foods that have been proven to contain GE  ingredients and lists GE-free alternatives. The site is also a good  starting point for people to take action via petitions and letter- writing.

Valerie Suzdak, an environmental studies major at Long Island  University's Southampton College, has used the True Food list for the  voluntary labeling campaigns she has organized in some of  Southampton's grocery stores, including King Kullen, Waldbaums and  IGA. Suzdak says her labeling efforts are not as organized as  labelthis.org suggests they should be, but they have been effective,  at least in getting people to think about the issue, if not in  getting those stores to stop stocking GM foods altogether. With a small group of activists, Suzdak has more than once set about  placing labels on GE foods, mostly focusing on products made by  Kellogg's, Del Monte and Kraft. (The labels are easily removable,  which prevents labeling from being straight-out vandalism.) While the  labelers are at it, others hand out pamphlets and talk to shoppers  before they enter the store.

"For me it's such a big issue because it's what we're eating," Suzdak  said. "We need to eat food to live, and we need good food in order to  be healthy."

Zimmerman, the Greens activist, focused on a Trader Joe's outlet in  Boston last year as part of a nationwide campaign to raise  consciousness about the use of GM ingredients, and ultimately to get  them removed from the shelves.

"They have a health-conscious image, but [sell] GE foods in reality,"  Zimmerman said of the nationwide chain.

That particular Boston store agreed to stock non-GM foods, but only  after several visits from Zimmerman and a handful of other activists.  When meetings with the manager initially failed to get results, they  went shopping. After filling their carts, they wheeled them up to the  registers and announced to the other customers that all of the  products in their carts were made with genetically modified  ingredients, present without consumers' knowledge or consent. The  manager removed them from the store only to find that activists had  also hung a banner outside, attesting, in large print, to the same.

Trader Joe's issued a statement in November 2001 recognizing  consumers' concerns over the issue, but also acknowledged that  because of "genetic drift by genetically engineered crops to non- genetically engineered crops...it is not possible for any supplier or  retailer to realistically offer any guarantee that their products  are `GMO-free.'"

In New York City, Save Organic Standards Food has been taking action  similar to Zimmerman's and Suzdak's, though Brandstein, the director,  disavows knowledge of any "labeling." The group's main target is The  Food Emporium, a chain owned by The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea  Company, which also owns stores in Europe. The European stores, due  to popular demand, do not sell GE foods; the American stores do.

"We think that's a double standard and for that reason we've targeted  them," Brandstein says. "I think we need to step up the pressure  because they're not responding. I think the biotech industry thinks  it can ignore consumers, because even though over 90 percent of  consumers say that they want changes, the media and the government  write it off."

Customer service representatives for The Food Emporium did not return  phone calls for comment.

SOS Food has been tabling outside Food Emporiums for the past couple  of years and is organizing a fast to protest GE foods. This June the  group plans to maintain a 24-hour presence outside of the Food  Emporium near Manhattan's Union Square for several days. SOS Food  volunteers will hand out information, talk to people about the  potential dangers of genetic modification, and encourage them to take  action by doing simple things like expressing their concerns to their  store manager and spending the extra money to buy organic food.

Hasta La Vista, Tradition?

The debate over GE food has its similarities to the debate over meat  in that the end product may or may not be immediately dangerous to  the consumer, but the means to the end product can be problematic and  ethically untenable.

Consider the "Terminator" seed, part of something known as Traitor  technology, developed by Monsanto. The company agreed in 1999 not to  put the seed on the market, but still conducts research on similar  products. The seeds have been called "The Neutron Bomb of  Agriculture"-programmed not to reproduce, they simultaneously prevent  bad genes from being handed down and guarantee that farmers will have  to buy new batches of seed annually.

In a March 2002 article posted on CorpWatch (www.corpwatch.org),  Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero writes that it is far from inconceivable that  corporations or governments (or a coalition of the two) would use  such technology to achieve their own ends. Traitor technology would  allow genetic traits to be activated or deactivated, depending on  what "inducer chemical" the organism is given. Therefore, Monsanto  could sell seeds for plants that die unless given constant doses of  its Roundup herbicide. Ruiz-Marrero then asks the important  question, "What, then, will happen to farming and food security?"

Both Zimmerman and Brandstein said that part of the problem with GE  foods is that their effects, not just on the environment, but on  human health, are not yet fully understood. Because people have been  eating foods with GM ingredients for some time now without massive  adverse health effects, it may seem a non-issue when compared to  everything else you could be concerned about today. But by the same  token, compared to cigarette smoking, it could take some time to make  the connection. With cigarettes, it was cancer and heart disease;  with genetic alteration of food, it might not be disease we should be  worried about, but the idea that new species could eventually phase  out the old, and if they did prove to have negative health effects,  what would we be left with?

"GE crops came first, but there's all kinds of scary stuff,"  Zimmerman said, adding that there have been tests for plants to grow  medicine, like a strain of spermicidal corn. There are also GE trees  and fish, and British scientists have bred pigs with human genes to  allow them to grow faster and larger, as well as sheep that produce  milk with a human protein, which reportedly would benefit people with  lung disease.

"Even hungry meat eaters may turn up their noses at humanized pork  chops with their scorpion salad and rubberized tomatoes," says Dr.  Patrick Dixon, author and chairman of Global Change Ltd. But luckily,  those animals being bred with human genes, just like the scorpion  cabbage, are not part of the food supply. Yet.

Now, the Good News.

Particularly active in this issue is The Campaign, a nonprofit  political advocacy group whose founders successfully passed the  Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. The act required  safety provisions to "ensure that safe and appropriately labeled"  dietary supplements be available to consumers. The group later took  up the same issue with food and announced on April 26 that they would  soon be ready to introduce their final draft of the Genetically  Engineered Food Right to Know Act to Congress. Earlier drafts were  submitted in late 1999 and early 2000.

"We are very pleased with the content of this legislation and have  officially endorsed it," the statement said. "When passed into law,  this legislation will require foods that contain genetically  engineered ingredients to be labeled."

In the meantime, scores of GE crops remain. Whether or not labeling  legislation is passed, the potential for organically grown crops to  be infected with GE characteristics still exists and experimentation  with introducing human genes into the food supply is taking the issue  further down the slippery slope. Labeling of GM ingredients would be  a good first step, but consumers should remain vigilant and demand  regulation to ensure that future generations will indeed be able to  eat natural foods.

Tracy VanStaalduinen is a graduate of the State University of New  York at New Paltz and has previously written for both Satya and the  mid-Hudson magazine, the Chronogram.

For a list of genetically modified foods currently on the market, see  the Union of Concerned Scientists' site,  www.ucsusa.org/agriculture/gen.market.html. The Campaign is online at  http://thecampaign.org, and another great resource on all aspects of  genetic engineering is http://special.northernlight.com/gmfoods/#gmo.

 

 
 
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