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.