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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 toproduce milk naturally. Instead, cows today are often dosed withrecombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and made to produce up tothree times their natural milk yield. Meat once cost a pretty pennybecause it didn't come from the factory farms that we have today,which churn out as much beef as possible to make it cheap andavailable to the masses. (Ronald McDonald loves to see you smile,remember.) Now, thanks to the agri-biotech industry, futuregenerations may look back on the 1990s and think of a time when cropsgrew naturally; when corn was corn and soy was soy.

Today, the majority of crops are grown from natural seed, but atleast 25 percent (a total of over 88 million acres in 2001) ofsoybeans, cotton, corn, and canola grown in the U.S. consist ofgenetically altered plants; plants that are grown with a foreign geneinserted or an undesirable gene deactivated. Squash and tomatoes-like1994's "FlavrSavr" tomato, the first genetically modified (GM) foodto appear (and subsequently flop) in America's produce aisles-havebeen experimented with, and GM alfalfa, lettuce, cabbage and broccoliare on the horizon.

Genetic modification is different from traditional crossbreeding.Crossbreeding takes two of the same or very similar species andcombines them to enhance ideal traits (for example, making fruit growfaster or taste sweeter). Genetic alteration may cross two unrelatedspecies like cabbage and scorpions. In that instance, the gene thatgives 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 yieldsand reduce pesticide use, it has also been widely criticized asgiving less than a dozen corporations-like Monsanto, Aventis, andDuPont-too much power over the food supply. Patented seeds can beprogrammed to not reproduce or to depend on other products from agiven corporation for survival. Organic farmers have also protestedthe proliferation of GE crops because cross-pollination cancontaminate their own crops-intended to be grown naturally-with GEcharacteristics.

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

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

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

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

"They're not on the market yet, but it's the kind of thing thatimpinges 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 glomon some health benefits, but you'd have to eat 15 pounds a day toreap 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) issupposed 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 onimproving one crop," Brandstein says. "It's just patently absurd, andyou have to deconstruct the logic of corporate agriculture."

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

The reluctance to label food stems from the industry's belief thatlabeling would be seen as a stigma, and stigmata are not good forsales. As Norman Braskick has said, "If you put a label on agenetically engineered food, you might as well put a skull andcrossbones 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 theirnutritional content differs greatly from their naturally producedcounterparts; if they have an increased amount of allergens ortoxins; or if they are `novel' foods. Novel foods apparently wouldnot include scorpion cabbage, daffodil rice, or strawberries bredwith flounder DNA, though you can certainly rate their novelty by theunpleasant faces people will make if you mention any of the abovecombinations. All of these are things that have been experimentedwith but are not currently on the market.

Public Labors for Labeling

Slowly but surely, the campaign to label GE foods is spreading acrossAmerica. is a tremendously informative resource foranyone willing to take the initiative. If the food industry, with thegovernment securely in its back pocket, says there will be onlyvoluntary labeling, then says, "Let's build a networkof 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 thefact that genetically engineered ingredients are in our foodsunlabelled, untested and without our consent." The site was designedon behalf of several groups working to eliminate GE foods fromAmerican stores, among them the Genetic Engineering Action Network, North-West Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, and Greenpeace.

Greenpeace has its own site on the topic (, whichincludes its staggeringly comprehensive "True Food" list. From babyfood and baking supplies to heat-and-serve meals and energy bars, theTrue Food list shows foods that have been proven to contain GEingredients and lists GE-free alternatives. The site is also a goodstarting point for people to take action via petitions and letter- writing.

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

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

Zimmerman, the Greens activist, focused on a Trader Joe's outlet inBoston last year as part of a nationwide campaign to raiseconsciousness about the use of GM ingredients, and ultimately to getthem 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 onlyafter several visits from Zimmerman and a handful of other activists.When meetings with the manager initially failed to get results, theywent shopping. After filling their carts, they wheeled them up to theregisters and announced to the other customers that all of theproducts in their carts were made with genetically modifiedingredients, present without consumers' knowledge or consent. Themanager removed them from the store only to find that activists hadalso hung a banner outside, attesting, in large print, to the same.

Trader Joe's issued a statement in November 2001 recognizingconsumers' concerns over the issue, but also acknowledged thatbecause of "genetic drift by genetically engineered crops to non- genetically engineered is not possible for any supplier orretailer to realistically offer any guarantee that their productsare `GMO-free.'"

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

"We think that's a double standard and for that reason we've targetedthem," Brandstein says. "I think we need to step up the pressurebecause they're not responding. I think the biotech industry thinksit can ignore consumers, because even though over 90 percent ofconsumers say that they want changes, the media and the governmentwrite it off."

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

SOS Food has been tabling outside Food Emporiums for the past coupleof years and is organizing a fast to protest GE foods. This June thegroup plans to maintain a 24-hour presence outside of the FoodEmporium near Manhattan's Union Square for several days. SOS Foodvolunteers will hand out information, talk to people about thepotential dangers of genetic modification, and encourage them to takeaction by doing simple things like expressing their concerns to theirstore 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 meatin that the end product may or may not be immediately dangerous tothe consumer, but the means to the end product can be problematic andethically untenable.

Consider the "Terminator" seed, part of something known as Traitortechnology, developed by Monsanto. The company agreed in 1999 not toput the seed on the market, but still conducts research on similarproducts. The seeds have been called "The Neutron Bomb ofAgriculture"-programmed not to reproduce, they simultaneously preventbad genes from being handed down and guarantee that farmers will haveto buy new batches of seed annually.

In a March 2002 article posted on CorpWatch (,Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero writes that it is far from inconceivable thatcorporations or governments (or a coalition of the two) would usesuch technology to achieve their own ends. Traitor technology wouldallow genetic traits to be activated or deactivated, depending onwhat "inducer chemical" the organism is given. Therefore, Monsantocould sell seeds for plants that die unless given constant doses ofits Roundup herbicide. Ruiz-Marrero then asks the importantquestion, "What, then, will happen to farming and food security?"

Both Zimmerman and Brandstein said that part of the problem with GEfoods is that their effects, not just on the environment, but onhuman health, are not yet fully understood. Because people have beeneating foods with GM ingredients for some time now without massiveadverse health effects, it may seem a non-issue when compared toeverything else you could be concerned about today. But by the sametoken, compared to cigarette smoking, it could take some time to makethe connection. With cigarettes, it was cancer and heart disease;with genetic alteration of food, it might not be disease we should beworried about, but the idea that new species could eventually phaseout 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 growmedicine, like a strain of spermicidal corn. There are also GE treesand fish, and British scientists have bred pigs with human genes toallow them to grow faster and larger, as well as sheep that producemilk with a human protein, which reportedly would benefit people withlung disease.

"Even hungry meat eaters may turn up their noses at humanized porkchops 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 scorpioncabbage, are not part of the food supply. Yet.

Now, the Good News.

Particularly active in this issue is The Campaign, a nonprofitpolitical advocacy group whose founders successfully passed theDietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. The act requiredsafety provisions to "ensure that safe and appropriately labeled"dietary supplements be available to consumers. The group later tookup the same issue with food and announced on April 26 that they wouldsoon be ready to introduce their final draft of the GeneticallyEngineered Food Right to Know Act to Congress. Earlier drafts weresubmitted in late 1999 and early 2000.

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

In the meantime, scores of GE crops remain. Whether or not labelinglegislation is passed, the potential for organically grown crops tobe infected with GE characteristics still exists and experimentationwith introducing human genes into the food supply is taking the issuefurther down the slippery slope. Labeling of GM ingredients would bea good first step, but consumers should remain vigilant and demandregulation to ensure that future generations will indeed be able toeat natural foods.

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

For a list of genetically modified foods currently on the market, seethe Union of Concerned Scientists' site, The Campaign is online at, and another great resource on all aspects ofgenetic engineering is


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