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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: Fooling Mother Nature

Genetically altered food? What could go wrong?

by Mindy Pennybacker

My husband has always hated tofu—and that was before he learned that it is sometimes made from soybeans genetically engineered to survive megadoses of herbicide. "I always suspected there was more wrong with it than just the taste," he says.

Taste is not the primary problem with bioengineered, or transgenic, foods, nor is there much evidence that they cause adverse health effects. The problems are more fundamental: biotech goes hand in hand with pesticide dependence, corporatization, and monoculture; it undermines organic, sustainable agriculture; and consumers get it whether they like it or not.

Bioengineers can manipulate DNA to block certain traits or processes—seed production, say—or add those they find desirable, like increased milk production in cows. Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soybean, for example, can survive doses of its Roundup weed killer that would kill unaltered beans. Although Monsanto calls it safe, Roundup is the third most commonly reported source of pesticide-related illness among California farmworkers. It can drift up to 800 yards from the site of application, which could force neighboring farmers to use the expensive immunized seeds in self-defense.

The pollen of bioengineered plants drifts as well. Scientists at Riso National Laboratory in Denmark recently found that genetically engineered canola can pass on its herbicide resistance to weedy relatives. Such gene flow has the potential to create new types of super-weeds that could invade and overwhelm natural ecosystems. And crops that are resistant to viruses or contain insecticides may simply spur the creation of new viruses and tougher pests.

Biotech agriculture turns farmers into addicts, forever dependent on giant chemical companies. Since companies' patents make it illegal to plant seeds from a prior harvest, farmers could be forced to buy patented seeds each year. Meanwhile, sustainable farms with diverse crops risk marginalization in the world of agricultural monoliths.

North American sales of bioengineered crops are $200 million a year and growing. These goods are now turning up, unlabeled, on supermarket shelves; the Food and Drug Administration requires labels only on products altered to include genes from known food allergens, such as peanuts. Because of the "food disparagement" laws in 13 states ("Vegetable Hate Crimes," November/December 1995), foods cannot even be labeled to show that they are not bioengineered. Monsanto, the maker of rBGH, a synthetic hormone that increases milk production in cows, has blocked Ben & Jerry's and others' attempts to label dairy products as rBGH-free. Monsanto convinced a Vermont court that doing so would disparage unlabeled dairy products by implication.

The situation is far different in Europe, where last November overwhelming consumer demand led the 15-country European Union to require all foods containing bioengineered organisms to be labeled. Consumer concern is equally strong here: a survey by the Swiss biotech giant Novartis showed that 93 percent of Americans want all bioengineered foods to be labeled, and 73 percent "feel strongly" about it. Novartis also found that most Americans prefer organic farming to both pesticide use and bioengineering.

If the USDA has its way, however, we soon won't even be able to trust "organic" labels. Against the advice of the National Organic Standards Board, the USDA is apparently ready to allow some transgenic foods to be called organic. Biotechnology has the power to change the face of world agriculture, and even of the world itself. American consumers have a right to vote with their pocketbooks on whether they want to go along with this brave new world of food— but they can't do so without truthful labels on both organic and biotech products.


Mindy Pennybacker edits The Green Guide, the newsletter of Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet, (888) ECO-INFO. Keep genetically altered materials out of the new organic standards by writing Secretary Dan Glickman, USDA, 14th St. and Independence Ave. S.W., Washington, DC 20250.

For more information, contact Pure Foods' Save Organic Standards campaign at (202) 775-1132 or alliance@mr.net. To demand labeling of all genetically engineered products, write to Michael Friedman, Lead Deputy Commissioner, FDA, 5600 Fishers Lane, Room 1471, Rockville, MD 20857.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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