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
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
Genetic modification is different from traditional
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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.