Last week, US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said that our country plans to press for recognition of biotechnology's potential to help feed the world at the upcoming World Food Summit. Feeding the hungry has been the justification for many unnatural and frightening developments in our food system.
However, the current controversy over one of the first genetically-engineered foods to come into widespread commercial use reveals that feeding the hungry is not really a priority for global agribusiness. The seeds and grains at the base of our food system are being engineered to provide greater profits to giant agrochemical companies. They also provide cheaper raw materials for foods that most of the world's people would be better off without: French fries, soda, candy bars and salty snack chips.
"Roundup Ready" soybeans are causing a big ruckus on both sides of the Atlantic now. These beans were created by Monsanto, a large US chemical and food-ingredient corporation, in order to sell more of its "Roundup" herbicide. Since the engineered-soybean is not destroyed by this substance that kills all other green plants, selling the soybean seeds assures customers for the toxic, chemical product. The plan is for Monsanto to make big bucks on its research investments because farmers will spend more money on seeds and "Roundup".
If this system produces any savings for the farmer, they will probably be passed along to the giant food processors. It is unlikely to make any difference at the retail level.
Of course, there are many concerns about genetically-engineered food crops. Common sense warns us to slow down this Frankensteinian rush to create "novel organisms." How arrogant of western scientists to think that for corporate financial gain, they can tinker so dramatically with the success of billions of years of evolution.
The current producer of these unusual soybeans, Monsanto, has not been kind to us or to the environment in the past. For example, it produced or licensed the manufacture of all the toxic PCBs ever made. A large portion of its current business encourages farmers and homeowners to use more pesticides and artificial hormones.
Dr. Margaret Mellon from the Union of Concerned Scientists, recently pointed out that in addition to the gene that is added for herbicide-resistance, a marker is used for the convenience of the gene-splicers. This marker is frequently a gene for antibiotic-resistance. What feeding the human population plant foods which contain the gene for antibiotic resistance will do to the effectiveness of medical antibiotic use is unknown, but worrisome.
For thousands of years, humans have selected and bred crops so that they produced larger yields, grew better in a specific location, or were more flavorful, nutritious or beautiful. Now Monsanto breeds our food crops in order to sell more of its herbicide, "Roundup."
Currently, there is a growing movement (particularly strong in Europe) which demands that these soybeans be labeled as genetically-engineered. Then those who don't want to buy them can vote with their dollars, marks, or francs in the marketplace.
More than 300 consumer, health, trade and agricultural organizations from 48 countries have called for a boycott of products containing genetically-engineered seeds, A variety of corn which produces its own insecticide is also now grown commercially in this country. The boycott targets specific brands of candy bars, infant formula, French fries, bottled salad dressings. margarine, soda and snack chips- all made by the largest players in the global food industry. The protest is aimed at getting engineered-foods labeled as such, so that consumers have a choice.
Of course, those who would recreate life (and the processors who benefit from more plentiful food ingredients) would have us ignore the whole thing. Food companies strongly resist any labeling.
It is clear that, with agribusiness's vast financial resources and its allies in the government, if we do ignore what's going on, before long, most everything we eat, that's not grown nearby, will contain genetically-engineered ingredients. And, while the corporations get richer, the world's poor will still go hungry.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.