A Large-Scale Experiment

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, July 4, 1997

Ready or not, genetically-engineered food is here. One of the most rapid changes in our food system is under way. This large-scale experiment in human feeding raises many questions about our democracy.

The New York Times recently sent 12 common food products to be tested for the presence of genetically-engineered ingredients. Eleven of the twelve contained what are called "novel food ingredients." Four infant formulas, four soy-based meat substitutes, and three popular brands of corn chips tested positive. The new ingredients were a soybean variety bred to be a sales tool for the toxic herbicide, Roundup and a corn variety which produces an internal pesticide.

Soybeans are used in over half of the processed foods in this country. Corn is used to make sweeteners, chips and many other foods. Both are used for animal feed as well. Although engineered varieties were only a small percentage of US production last year, these "novel" grains and beans were nevertheless mixed with the conventional varieties and then processed into thousands of food products.

At fast food outlets, genetically-engineered potatoes are fried in canola oil bred to sell herbicide. Beef, chicken and pork come from animals which have eaten "novel" grains and beans and soda's sweetener is made from pesticide-producing corn. No tests have ever been conducted on the short-or long-term effects of eating these foods!

In fact this new kind of food has become so pervasive, so quickly, that the spokesperson for a leading biotech company believes that the choice to eat or not to eat genetically-engineered food will become untenable anyway, in five or ten years. With genetically-engineered corn, canola, soy and other foods coming on the market, he says that if you try to avoid all genetically-engineered foods, "you'll be backed into a corner with not a lot of food options." Not much freedom here. In fact, there are 11 of these new foods on the market right now (ranging from abalone to tomatoes), and 29 other foods (from apples to wheat) under development or waiting for approval.

It's amazing how the much-praised bounty and extensive selection of choices in the US food system seem to be coming down to eating genetically engineered food or not eating at all. That's one reason many of us work so hard to grow most of our food in home, community and school gardens, on CSA projects, and on local small farms. Genetically-engineered varieties are prohibited in certified organic production.

Government and industry spokespeople say all this genetic engineering is just fine. They hide behind self-interested science and regulation carried out by government and industry's revolving door bureaucrats. Several former high ranking Clinton administration members now work for Monsanto, one of the country's leading biotech firms. Its vice president is a likely candidate to head the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA.

Ninety-five percent of the comments received by the FDA on its novel foods policy were from consumers who oppose the introduction of these genetically-engineered varieties. However, a report from a committee representing USDA's land grant colleges dismisses this as merely a "public affairs" issue.

You don't have to be a brain surgeon to understand that it doesn't make sense to breed our food to be a sales tool for toxic chemicals. That's why the sycophants of this Frankensteinian technology so often hide behind science. It puts us regular folks off. The Europeans, however, have been paying enough attention to make a lot of fuss about US exports of genetically-engineered foods. In response, the Secretary of Agriculture threatens a trade war and says their protests are based "phony science."

These "novel" foods raise many concerns about: the safety of the food itself, the pesticides required, the increasing concentration of control over agricultural resources and the long-term social and ecological consequences. This July 4th, government and industry's imperialistic science threatens our freedoms. If we trust scientists and PR people or just don't care, we can do nothing. However, if we doubt those who claim to have all the answers, and if we believe in freedom to choose and to know, we should make a big fuss just like the Europeans. Of course, we can continue to buy organic food and grow our own as much as possible.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.