Against the Grain

Genetically modified foods are rapidly becoming as common in the American diet as salt and soft drinks – but most Americans don’t know it. Food processors, grocery stores, regulators don’t have to tell you – and chances are they don’t even know

 A new book by Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey, Against The Grain, makes it clear that genetic engineering is revolutionizing U.S. agriculture almost overnight.

In 1997, 15 percent of the U.S. soybean crop was grown from genetically engineered seed. By next year, if Monsanto Corporation's timetable unfolds on schedule, 100 percent of the U.S. soybean crop (60 million acres) will be genetically engineered. The same revolution is occurring, at the same pace, in cotton. Corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and other food crops are lagging slightly behind, but compared to traditional rates of change in farming, are being deployed into the global ecosystem at blinding speed.

The mass media have largely maintained silence about the genetic engineering revolution in agriculture, and government regulators have imposed no labeling requirements. The result is the public has little or no knowledge that genetically altered foods are already being sold in grocery stores everywhere.

Genetic engineering is the process whereby genes of one species are implanted in another species to give new traits to the recipient. Under the natural order, the movement of genes has only been possible between closely related species. Now, however, genetic engineering allows scientists to play God, removing genes from a trout or a mosquito and implanting them in a tomato with unknown long-term consequences.

Three federal agencies regulate genetically engineered crops and foods in the U.S.: the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The heads of all three agencies are on record with speeches that make them sound remarkably like cheerleaders for genetic engineering, rather than impartial judges of a novel and powerful technology. All three agencies have set policies that no public records need be kept of which farms are using genetically engineered seeds, nor does anyone need to label any crops or any food products with information about their genetically engineered origins. In the U.S., every food carries a label listing its important ingredients, with the remarkable exception of genetically engineered ingredients.

These policies have two main effects: They keep the public in the dark about the rapid spread of genetically engineered foods onto the family dinner table; and they will prevent epidemiologists from tracing health effects, should any appear, because no one knows who has been exposed to novel gene products.

Today, according to the authors of Against the Grain, soy-based infant formulas, oils, salad dressings, veggie burgers, margarine, potato chips, corn chips, and fast food french fries all commonly contain genetically engineered materials.

It is safe to say that never before in the history of the world has such a rapid and large-scale revolution occurred in a nation's food supply. And not just the U.S. is targeted for change. The genetic engineering companies – Dow, DuPont, Novartis, and preeminently, Monsanto – are aggressively promoting their genetically engineered seeds in Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, India, China, and elsewhere. Huge opposition has developed to Monsanto's technology everywhere it has been introduced outside the United States. Only in the U.S. has the “ag-biotech” revolution been greeted with a dazed silence.

Monsanto argues that genetic engineering is necessary if the world's food supply is to keep up with human population growth. If genetically engineered crops were indeed aimed at feeding the hungry, Monsanto and others would be developing seeds that:

• grow on substandard or marginal soils;

• produce plants containing more high-quality protein, with increased per-acre yield, without increasing the need for expensive machinery, chemicals, fertilizers, or water;

• favor small farms over large;

• are cheap and freely available; and

• produce crops that feed people, not livestock.

None of the genetically engineered crops now available or announced has any of these desirable characteristics. Quite the opposite. The new genetically engineered seeds require high-quality soils, enormous investment in machinery, and increased use of chemicals. And there is evidence that their per-acre yields are about 10 percent lower than traditional varieties (at least in the case of soybeans). The genetic engineering revolution has nothing to do with feeding the hungry.

The plain fact is that fully two-thirds of the genetically engineered crops now available or in development are designed specifically to increase the sale of pesticides produced by the companies that are selling the genetically engineered seeds. For example, Monsanto is selling a line of “Roundup Ready” products that has been genetically engineered to withstand heavy doses of Monsanto's all-time top money-making herbicide, Roundup (glyphosate). A Roundup Ready crop of soybeans can withstand a torrent of Roundup that kills any weeds competing with the crop. To make Roundup Ready technology legal, EPA had to accommodate Monsanto by tripling the allowable residues of Roundup that can remain on the crop.

Monsanto's other major line of genetically engineered crops contains the gene from a natural pesticide called Bt. Bt is a naturally occurring soil organism that kills many kinds of caterpillars that like to eat the leaves of crops. Bt is the pesticide of choice in low-chemical-use farming, IPM (integrated pest management), and organic farming.

Monsanto has taken the Bt gene and engineered it into cotton, corn, and potatoes. Every cell of every plant contains the Bt gene and thus produces the Bt toxin. It is like dusting the crop heavily with Bt, day after day after day. The result is entirely predictable and not in dispute. When insect pests eat any part of these crops, the only insects that will survive are those that are either resistant to the Bt toxin or change their diet to other plants, thus disrupting the local ecosystem and perhaps harming a neighboring farmer's crops.

According to Dow Chemical scientists who are marketing their own line of Bt-containing crops, within 10 years, Bt will have lost its usefulness because so many insects will have developed resistance to its toxin. Thus Monsanto and Dow are profiting bountifully in the short term, while destroying the usefulness of the one natural pesticide that undergirds the low-pesticide approach of IPM and organic farming.

Sustainable agriculture taking hold?

Ultimately, for sustainability and long-term maximum yield, agricultural ecosystems must become diversified once again. This is the key idea underlying organic farming. Monoculture cropping – growing acre upon acre of the same crop – is the antithesis of sustainability because monocultures are fragile and unstable and can only be sustained by intensive, expensive inputs of water, energy, chemicals, and machinery.

Slowly over the past two decades, IPM and organic farming has begun to take hold. Now comes the genetic engineering revolution, which is dragging agriculture back down the old path toward vast monocultures, heavy reliance on machinery, energy, water, and chemicals. It is precisely the wrong direction if the goals are long-term maximum yield, food security, and sustainability.

It is a wrong direction for another reason as well.

When 100 percent of the soybeans in the U.S. are grown from Roundup Ready seed – next year – then 100 percent of America's soybean farmers will be dependent upon a single supplier for all their seed and the chemicals needed to allow those seeds to thrive. If something doesn't change soon, it is safe to predict that a small number of “life science” corporations – the majority of them American and the remainder European – will have a monopoly on the seed needed to raise all of the world's major food crops. Then the hungry, like the well-fed, will have to pay the corporate owners of this new technology for permission to eat.

Peter Montague edits RACHEL's Environmental and Health Weekly, 1-888-2RACHEL; Web: Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey, Against The Grain; Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food, 1998, Common Courage Press, Box 207, Monroe, ME 04951.

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