by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, January 21, 2000

Prompted by consumers, some members of Congress are calling for the labeling of genetically-engineered foods. Business Week magazine stated last month that food companies "regard mandatory labeling as tantamount to slapping a skull and crossbones on packaging."

In Europe, consumers who worry about the effects of these Frankenfoods on human health and on the environment have been protesting for five years. They have demanded and gotten labeling, have driven these engineered products off of supermarket shelves and out of some manufacturers' foods.

Finally, in the past few months, the tide has turned quickly and definitively against genetically-engineered food in this country, too. American farmers, some food companies, the media and now the public are beginning to wake up to the reality that so-called "Life Science" companies have already begun to radically alter much of the food we eat, in their endless search for higher profits.

Since most of the gene-spliced changes so far have been designed either to promote sales of particular pesticides, or to make a plant produce an internal, systemic pesticide, there are valid concerns about pesticide residues in and on the food we eat. There is also worry about viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are part of the gene-splicing process.

Because the most common processed-food ingredients such as milk, corn, soybeans, potatoes, and canola were the first to be bioengineered, about 60 percent of the food in the supermarket already is likely to contain some transgenic material. We'd better hope it is not too dangerous to our health. No long-term studies of the effects of a Frankenfood diet on humans have ever been done.

It is generally acknowledged by friends and foes that these novel foods cannot be proven to be safe. However, there are studies which suggest that they might not be safe for us or for the environment. Recent reports have also shown that greater use of genetically-altered seeds will lower profits for farmers and raise costs for consumers.

The biotech industry and its government supporters assure us that there is plenty of regulation and that this bioengineered food is safe. For example, in a recent issue of the Connecticut Weekly Agricultural Report the state's Ag Technology Program urges farmers not to pay attention to those who speak against biotech. Farmers should trust the complicated regulatory process, and should rely on their seed salesmen. In effect, the fox will be guarding the henhouse. With an arrogance often seen in biotech's supporters, the article notes in an upbeat finish that, "As more of the general population learn and read from what we tell them..., familiarity and comfort level will rise."

Confidence in these assurances is weakened both by the well-used revolving door between high-level government regulators and biotech industry executives, and by the destructive track record of these corporations. Between them, the three dominant, engineered-seed companies are responsible for bringing us cancer-causing PCBs, ozone-destroying CFCs, as well as Agent Orange and other very toxic pesticides. And now they say that we should trust their judgment on Round-up Ready® soybeans and Bt corn and potatoes?

You can see why honest labeling might be a marketing problem. In response to the proposed legislation, food processors, grocery manufacturers and distributors (who collect about 80 cents of every food dollar) went on the offensive. According to Business Week, the food industry hired expensive and influential lobbyists, passed out hefty campaign checks, and contacted every lawmaker, apparently weakening support for labeling. Monsanto went so far as to have its public relations firm pay for buses and lunches to get one church group to demonstrate in favor of biotech foods.

Currently, the only way to avoid Frankenfoods is to buy certified organic products. The Connecticut State Organic Law and the NOFA Organic Certification Programs prohibit their use. The scope of these changes to our food supply make it vital for us to know what we're eating. Encourage your lawmakers to support labeling of genetically-engineered foods.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.

Resources on Genetic Engineering:

The resource list below comes from the wonderful Fedco Seed Catalog (free from Fedco Seeds, PO Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903-0520).

This page and its contents are copyright © 2000 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.