In this age of information, why is there so much about the food we eat that America's agricultural establishment doesn't want us to know?
Ironically, there are nutrition labels on almost everything. They tell us important facts such as the protein content of bottled water and the amount of saturated fat in chewing gum. But, we are not supposed to know or care about new technologies such as genetic engineering, hormone use in animals and irradiation, all of which radically change the foods we eat.
Agribusiness offers a choice of dozens of kinds of colas and potato chips, but try to choose between beef and dairy products produced with or without hormones, between genetically-engineered food and plain old-fashioned food, or soon, between irradiated and non-irradiated meats. There just isn't any information.
The genetically-engineered growth hormone rBGH (developed by Monsanto to make cows produce more milk) provided an early example of the hard-ball tactics which that company uses to suppress information. When rBGH appeared on the market, surveys overwhelmingly indicated that consumers didn't want this product and they wanted its use to be labeled. (Besides adding to the already large surplus of milk, rBGH puts extra stress on cows which makes them sick more often, encourages antibiotic use and shortens their lives.)
Farmers who didn't drug their cows were happy to say so in order to give milk drinkers the information they wanted. However, Monsanto took some of these dairies to court. It worried that full disclosure of information would negatively impact its hormone sales. Since several of Monsanto's former employees were now making decisions at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the government sat by while Monsanto sued those who wanted to provide consumers with the information they desired. The government's labeling policy was developed by Michael Taylor, who for years has alternated between working for Monsanto's Washington law firm and for the FDA. Now, only a few years later, most non-organic dairy products in the US contain some milk from hormone-treated cows.
It's not that way in other countries. Earlier this year, despite nine years of pressure from Monsanto, Canada permanently banned the use of rBGH. The European Union, Japan and Australia have also banned this hormone because of concerns about its effects on animals and people. Last month, the EU said that the risk of breast and prostate cancer in humans could be increased by milk from hormone-treated cows.
The situation has had one beneficial effect in this country: an enormous increase in the demand for, and production of, organic dairy products because hormone use is prohibited in organic farming.
Perpetuating this lack of information is so important to the industrial food system that agribusiness and its friends in government would rather start a trade war between Europe and the US than clearly identify beef that's been fattened using growth hormones and food grown from genetically-engineered seeds.
European consumers do not to want artificial hormones in their beef, or the herbicide marketing genes and internal pesticides that agricultural chemical companies now engineer into the most common seeds. Europeans demand truthful labeling. Without it, assume that beef animals are treated with hormones and that corn, soybeans, canola and potatoes have been genetically engineered.
Although the current law requires food that has been treated with irradiation must be labeled, the FDA is holding hearings that may eliminate that requirement. Send your comments to the FDA before May 18.
The next two weeks have been designated "Global Days of Action Against Monsanto and Genetic Engineering." For more information, go to http://www.purefood.org/.
This dangerous corporate and government collusion for secrecy and greater profits provides yet another reason for growing more of our own food and connecting directly with local farmers.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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