Our grip, the control we have over something as basic to our daily survival as our food, is being loosened, pried loose by multinational biotech and agribusiness companies who are on the verge of achieving a stranglehold over our world’s food supply. Our control over our own food, and our own lives is lost more and more everyday. Lost to faceless bodies in far away buildings. This column is dedicated to reversing that trend, to ending it. This column is dedicated to our world, our food and ourselves.
Continuing the trend of the heirloom varieties being taken over by hybrids, genetically engineered crops are being sold as the only way to go for farmers, farmers who are often modern day indentured servants only able to go from season to season on loans and credit. The sources of these loans or credit can dictate the type of seed the farmer will use and the type of crop the farmer will cultivate. Often the source is a large agribusiness company who could mandate the use of their genetically modified crops. The banks and government agencies, other possible sources of credit, often follow the agribusiness companies’ lead blindly, setting up the same guidelines for farmers with loans. Farmers are generally not able to say no to a trend in agribusiness. They are financially forced to follow along on the money-driven path of the big biotech companies whose decisions are made based solely on the bottom line. The health of agriculture, the land, our food and ourselves suffer at the hands of those companies bottom-line.
A perfect example of that bottom-line driven thinking is the terminator technology - genetically engineered seeds which produce only sterile plants, which I wrote about extensively last issue. The biotech companies are expounding on it, making it even more insidious. They are now developing seeds that will produce productive plants when they’re dosed with a chemical: be it a pesticide or fertilizer, that is also manufactured by and patented to the same company. Monsanto’s new terminator seed won’t germinate unless it’s exposed to a particular additive while Astra Zanaca’s version requires repeated doses of their chemical to avert stunting of the plant. More than two dozen patents have been quietly filed on this sort of genetic modification, creating what’s been dubbed “traitor tech” crops which will be physically dependent on multinational biotech patented products. Like the dependency the plants will have on the chemicals, farmers and people in general will become more and more dependent on the will of these multinationals for their food supply.
The terminator technology is defended by it’s creators as a safeguard against “genetic pollution”, stopping the genetically engineered strains from cross-pollinating with other crops or native plants. While that is a huge concern and something that should have been addressed long ago, long before genetically engineered plants were introduced to the environment -- the catch is that the genetically ingrained sterility could be spread through the terminators pollen. Also in the process, this technology has the potential to concentrate the power over our food into the hands of large corporations and away from the people and individual regions of the world each with their own specific needs. As well as eliminating vitally important seed saving and putting farmers into a form of economic slavery. This technology’s sole purpose is the benefit of these companies profit margin.
Possibly the scariest part of all this genetically modified food is that it is completely integrated into the food supply because the United States has absolutely no policy regarding the labeling or segregation of genetically modified food. Thus allowing it to be mixed in and unknowingly consumed by the public. I’m sure this is requiring considerable legislative effort on the part of the biotech companies. They’ve got to be fighting pretty hard to keep labels off of genetically engineered food. I can’t imagine even the most apathetic of food consumers looking at a label that says “contains genetically modified ingredients” and not having at least the slightest feeling that is was wrong. Meanwhile on March 19, 1999 Jeff Rooker, Britian’s food minister, announced new regulations to further inform British consumers about the existence of genetically engineered ingredients in their food. The regulations now require that restaurants and cafes tell customers when the food they are serving contains genetically modified ingredients. This extends their already existing policy forcing food retailers like grocery stores to label items that contain transgenic food. Without such labeling in the US we are forced to trust the powers that be with the safety of our food.
Yet we may be led blindly by people who don’t care if we fall to our deaths. For example, in 1990 the US Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) decided that recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a drug manufactured by Monsanto, could be injected into dairy cows to artificially increase milk production. In 1993 the US FDA allowed farmers to inject rBGH into American dairy cows, a decision which now effects most of the American population through the consumption of rBGH treated milk and dairy products.
In an attempt to broaden it’s market for rBGH Monsanto has sought approval for it’s use in Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and Canada. It was through this action that a grievous oversight was revealed. As the Canadians scientists reviewed Monsanto’s research they found evidence which lead them to conclude that “procedural and data gaps were found which fail to properly address the human safety requirements of this drug under the (Canadian) food and drugs act and regulations.” Specifically 30% of the lab rats fed rBGH food 90 days absorbed the genetically engineered material into their blood where it caused an antibody reaction. While male rats developed cysts on their thyroid glands. The Canadian researchers also found numerous studies indicating that rBGH had caused adverse effects in cows including birth defects and reproductive disorder, all of which may have an impact on human health. Also noted were elevated levels of IFG-1 (an insulin-like growth factor) in the milk of rBGH-injected cows. As IGF-1 is shared by both cows and humans, Canadian researchers were concerned that many potential health risks like the chance of colon, breast and prostate cancer remain unresolved. Monsanto has grown inpatient with all of the delays with its application, an application that has been pending since 1990, and “has reportedly created political pressures on government scientists there to sidestep normal safety protocols,” according to Peter Montague of Rachels’ Environment and Health Weekly. Monsanto has also, according to the Canadian report, “pursued aggressive marketing tactics, compensated farmers whose veterinary bills escalated due to increased side effects associated with the use of rBGH and covered up negative trial results.” Negative trial results, being those showing harmful side effects through animal testing and the potential for harm through human ingestion.
Yet the US FDA’s rules require that a drug must be shown to be safe for use in animals before it can be approved for human consumption. How could they have concluded that there were no clinical findings in Monsanto’s study suggesting any risk?! The answer came from John Scheid of the US FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine when he told the Associated Press that he FDA had never examined the raw data. “We do not have the data from that study,” he stated. Then what was their approval based on? The FDA, according to Scheid, relied entirely on a summary of the study, a summary provided by Monsanto!
The FDA has failed at it’s job of being an independent watchdog, at guarding the quality of our food and has become a puppet for big business interests. The United States remains the only country in the world to have approved the use of rBGH.
An article in the March 1999 issue of Consumer Reports has also drawn attention to the safety of our food, the chemicals that are allowed to be used, and the politics of the agencies involved. In this article they used USDA date to study not only the amount of residual pesticides in our food, but also how toxic these pesticides are. The results are of special interest to young children and the parents of those children. But I believe we can all use this information to realize just who is driving this bus and how asleep at the wheel they are. The results revealed many instances where fruits and vegetables exceeded the safe limits of pesticides for children while being within the legal limits of chemical residue, as these limits are based on outdated standards and invalid information which doesn’t take the diet and size of young children into account. Children’s diets differ from those of adults. A typical one year old child for instance will eat three times as many fresh peaches per pound of body weight than an adult. And also more than four times as many apples, bananas, and pears. The smaller physical size of children also comes into effect. For example, an apple that contains ten micrograms of a pesticide would only be half of the current safe daily dose for a 154 pound adult; it would be 67% over that safe limit for a 44 pound child. Finally there’s also growing evidence that children are much more sensitive than adults to the effects of pesticides because their nervous systems are changing and developing so rapidly.
And none of this is new information. In 1993 the National Academy of Sciences issued a major report on pesticides in children’s diets which concluded that the US pesticide laws need to be looked at and revised to make foods safe for children. The data in the report suggests that low-level exposure to organo phosphate pesticide, (neurological poisons that function fundamentally the same in humans as in insects), and found in foods such as peaches, green beans, apples and pears, “may have a subtle but measurable effects on neurologic function” in children. That report did lead to the passing of the food quality protection act by congress in 1996, which required that the environmental protection agency (EPA) look at all pesticides and exposure limits to make them safer for children. But now in 1999 they are still merely looking at and possibly considering restricting these dangerous chemicals. Six years after it was shown that these chemicals are dangerous to our children; chemicals that in virtually all situations there are less toxic ways to accomplish the same ends. This information has been revealed for at least six years. Six years of children’s damaged nervous systems, irreparable damage that could have been avoided, damage done to young people -- while this all sits in a committee somewhere and they merely consider doing something. These are the people we trust with our well-being and the well-being of our children. I believe our trust may be misplaced.
Certain people and groups have a vested interest in keeping those chemicals in our food. They will fight to keep them in use, fight with money and with political pressure to not see that change. “There is an incredibly well financed campaign by the American Crop Protection Association and the Farm Bureau to put out the message that there is no risk from these pesticides, no alternatives to them, and no reason to believe that IPM (integrated pest management, programs designed to substantially cut pesticide use) or extra funding for IPM research, would make any difference,” says Charles Benbrook, former director of agricultural research at the National Academy of Sciences. Chemical companies along with the USDA shell out millions of dollars for pesticide research while money for researching alternatives to chemical dependent farming is almost impossible to come by. For example, of the 30,000 research projects supported by the USDA in 1995 and 1996 only 34 (!) focused on organic production. “The chemical industry has been very successful in convincing everybody that without pesticides, American Agriculture will collapse in a short period of time,” Benbrook continues, “It’s just not true.”
As a sidenote doing away with the use of these chemicals is just the first step, getting rid of them completely is another story. For example, a carcinogenic pesticide, dieldrin, was taken off the market in 1974. Yet to this day, it stills effects us all, as it takes decades to disappear from the soil. In 1997 when the USDA last tested winter squash, a crop especially prone to absorb the chemical (along with root vegetables and other members of the cucurbit family like melon and cucumbers), dieldrin was present in 75% of the samples while two-thirds of those positive samples had enough to exceed the safe daily limit for a young child. And this is all twenty-three years since the chemical has been used.
Few human endeavors have more of an impact on our environment than the process by which we grown our food. We clear forests, plow plains, dam rivers for irrigation, we alter the landscape and permanently change our environment. We plow and plant, fertilize and harvest, year after year. All of this exposed soil leads to massive erosion and run-off causing the loss of vital topsoil. At the rate of 2 billion tons a year in the US alone. Food production based on the yearly planting of annuals, annual monoculture, is very hard on the land. But what other option is there? Wes Jackson, co-founder of the Land Institute, has truly revolutionary approach to farming that provides that other option. An approach called perennial polyculture where crops are intermingled in a field that is never plowed because the plants, being perennials, grow back on their own every other year. The goal being a form of agriculture that, like the prairie where Jackson draws his inspiration, runs entirely on sunlight and rain alone. By studying how a prairie works, Jackson aimed to develop a method of agriculture which could support a wealth of wildlife, resist diseases and pests hold water, recycle, fix nitrogen and build soil, all while on using what nature supplies, sunlight, air, snow and rain. At the Land Institute they have been working to develop this perennial polyculture for 25 years. By experimenting with combinations of wild plants, thinking that 70% of the calories in the human diet come directly or indirectly from grains and all of our currently cultivated grains started out as wild grasses, Jackson and his colleagues seek to find a mix which compliments each other while providing an adequate yield of usable food. Recently they have been focusing on a combination of Illinois bundle flower (a nitrogen-fixing legume whose seed is 38% protein), leymus (a mammoth wild rye), eastern gamagrass (a bunchgrass related to corn but three times richer in protein) and maximillian sunflower (a plentiful source of oil). While most people believe that perennials can’t possibly achieve the yields that annual crops do, Jackson thinks that is because so very little effort or research has been put into breeding perennials in comparison to annuals. When that changes he believes they will be able to achieve the necessary yields. For example, as a result of her research Jackson’s daughter Laura, a professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, identified a mutant strain of eastern gamagrass whose seed production is four times greater than normal without any loss of root mass or vigor.
Actually bringing perennial polyculture to the marketplace will require a huge effort, but keep in mind the money and research gong into conventional agriculture is also huge. Wes Jackson has laid out a twenty-five year plan leading to his vision of a sustainable agriculture, a very bold plan indeed. The plan includes such aspects as continuing to breed high-yielding varieties of perennial grains and designing machinery to harvest mixed grains as well as the trickier elements of convincing farmers to be willing to try new seeds and new practices and consumers to be willing to eat unfamiliar foods. To achieve these ends the plan includes an increase in funding, an increase that would need to come from the USDA or even agribusiness companies -- institutions whose philosophy of farming Jackson staunchly opposes. A pretty bleak proposition yet he stays determined, “no matter how dark the times, it’s still worthwhile to do good work.”
As agriculture’s revolutionaries like Wes Jackson appear on the horizon they are kept at bay by the stern financial and governmental control by the multinational agribusiness companies. Even older vanguards like organic farming which have their roots back to the 1940s are barely deemed worthy of financial support. And even that feels like a mere bone thrown to pacify the dog. These people’s pocketbooks depend on staying firmly entrenched within chemically-dependent agriculture and let me tell you, their pocketbooks are very important to them. They will stay there until we realize that they are living off of what is ours, our earth, our food and our health, realize it and are willing to do something about it. While we still blindly support them by not caring what they do, what they often do in our names, they will stay firmly entrenched and the revolutionaries will be kept at bay.
—John/ Carbon Cycle/ PO Box 11741/ Portland OR 97211
(address from 1999 - ed)