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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007 12:51 pm

The future of food

The loss of biodiversity is a clear and present danger

Untitled Document “If you eat food, you need to see The Future of Food.” — Newstarget.com
Have you have you ever read or seen something so powerful, so mind-boggling, so eye-opening that you had the urge to rush out and grab total strangers off the street and insist that they read or see it, too? To think that it should be a required topic of study in high schools? That was my reaction the first time I saw The Future of Food, a 2004 documentary as dramatic and intriguing as any thriller flick. It was just as compelling when I saw it again recently at “Political Art and the Public Sphere,” a monthly forum at the University of Illinois at Springfield in which different forms of “political art” that raise provocative social and political questions are showcased and discussed. The Future of Food investigates the genetically engineered products that have entered our food without being tested or labeled, as well as the politics and corporate interests that have manipulated and promoted these products’ rise. In the most basic sense, food has been genetically engineered for almost 12,000 years, when early peoples first planted crops and domesticated animals. Seeds from the best-yielding or tastiest plants were saved for the next year. Animals were bred for such things as good milk production, egg-laying ability, and hardiness. As knowledge and methods became more sophisticated, thousands of varieties of thousands of plants and animals came into existence, adapted to varying climates, soils, locations, and human needs. At one time there were more than 5,000 varieties of potatoes. In the 19th century there were more than 7,000 varieties of apples in the United States alone. Today, it’s estimated, 97 percent of the plant varieties that existed at the beginning of the 20th century have become extinct. Only four varieties of potatoes are widely grown today. Virtually all poultry raised commercially for eggs and meat comes from one breed. Why is biodiversity important, and why is it declining? Biodiversity is important for many reasons, not least because it provides choice and variety. Perhaps the biggest reason for biodiversity, however, is that it acts as a fail-safe mechanism against the possibility that disease, climate change, or some other disaster could wipe out a type of plant or animal. In the mid-1800s, for example, the Irish grew only a few types of potatoes. When blight struck their potato crop, more than a million people died of starvation. When the same blight came to Peru, which had hundreds of types of potatoes, it had little effect. The reasons for biodiversity’s decline are complex, rooted in agricultural history and the increasing influence and control of large corporations. It started with the development of monocultures: huge tracts of land planted with just one crop. These monocultures depleted the soil of nutrients (a problem solved through crop rotation and the application of nitrogen fertilizers initially developed as a means of using excess nitrogen produced in the manufacture of nitrogen bombs during World War II). The monocultures were also more susceptible to disease, pests, and weeds. (The first insecticides were created as offshoots of nerve gases used during the World War I.) It became a vicious circle. The more farmers used chemicals, more and stronger chemicals were needed as insects, weeds, and diseases developed resistance. Enter the biotech industry. Monsanto developed Roundup, a herbicide capable of killing pretty much everything green, in the ’70s, but even though it was useful for killing weeds growing in the cracks in your sidewalk, clearly it couldn’t be sprayed on crops, which it would kill as surely as it did the weeds. Monsanto’s answer was to develop Roundup Ready seed, initially done by genetically modifying soybeans and corn to be resistant to the herbicide. Now the company that sold the herbicide also sold the seed. It’s quite clear — not just in the Future of Food but also in books such as an excellent history of the biotechnology industry, Lords of the Harvest, by Daniel Charles — that most scientists making rapid advancements in genetic engineering were genuinely committed to ending world hunger, be it through developing plants resistant to herbicides or adding a vital element such as vitamin K to rice. It was corporate front offices that engendered the sorry tale of political intrigue and corporate coercion. It’s important to understand the role played by U.S. patent law as well. Patent protection is guaranteed in the Constitution. Until recently, however, patent law specifically excluded living organisms on “moral grounds.” Since the ’30s, hybridizers have been able to patent their work but not extend it to subsequent generations. That changed in 1978, when a General Electric biologist won a patent for the development of an oil-eating bacteria as a way to control oil spills. The bacteria was never used — as it turns out, it ate a lot of other things besides oil — but the floodgates had opened. Now companies had the ability to own and control Earth’s species, and the U.S. pesticide industry raced to buy seed companies. It’s ironic that biotech companies continue to insist that there’s no danger of contamination/cross-pollination of genetically engineered crops yet vigorously pursue litigation against small farmers who’ve chosen not to use them. Take, for example, the case of Percy Schmeiser, a farmer in Saskatchewan. Schmeiser has been farming wheat, canola, oats, and peas on his family farm for 53 years, saving and developing his own seed. He’d never used or purchased Roundup or Roundup Ready Seed for his crops. In 1997, Schmeiser sprayed Roundup to kill weeds around fence posts. He noticed that some canola plants there weren’t killed. Somehow Monsanto heard about it, took samples from his farm without permission, and filed a lawsuit, claiming that Schmeiser had infringed on Monsanto’s patent and illegally obtained Roundup Ready seed. Eventually Monsanto dropped the charge that Schmeiser had illegally obtained the seed, but the company claimed that that didn’t matter — it was still patent infringement. Schmeiser’s best guess about the contamination source is that his fields abut a road on which other farmers bring their canola seed to the elevator. Loose tarps and winds blew Roundup seed into his fields, where they cross-pollinated with Schmeiser’s non-Roundup crops. After a protracted legal battle that cost Schmeiser his life savings and more than 1,000 pounds of seed he’d spent a lifetime developing, the Canadian Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled in favor of Monsanto. Sadly, this wasn’t an isolated case. In the United States and Canada, Monsanto has sent more than 9,000 letters threatening litigation. Most farmers can’t afford the legal costs and so settle out of court, but at the time Future of Food was made more than 100 lawsuits were pending. According to Fred Kirschmann, of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, farming ethics used to dictate that responsibility for anything damaging rested with its owner. For example, if cows got loose and destroyed a neighbor’s property, their owner was responsible for damages. Now it’s become the victim’s responsibility to keep contaminants and damaging elements out. How did this come to pass? One of the main reasons is the close, almost inbred, relationship between big biotech companies and the U.S. government. It’s gotten much less press than that between government and, say, Big Oil, but the list of Washington insiders with ties to the biotech industry is broad and deep, including such people as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (a former Monsanto attorney for regulatory affairs), Mickey Kantor (secretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton and a member of the Monsanto board of directors), Ann Veneman (secretary of agriculture in the current Bush administration and board member of Calgene, a Monsanto subsidiary), William Ruckelshaus (first head of the EPA and a Monsanto board member), and Donald Rumsfeld (former secretary of defense and former head of Searle, a Monsanto subsidiary). Other lesser-knowns, such as Linda Fisher, have flipped back and forth between government and biotech-industry positions — Fisher served as an executive vice-president at Monsanto, then worked at the EPA for 10 years, then headed Monsanto’s Washington lobbying office before landing in her current position as deputy administrator of the EPA. Deregulatory sentiment in Washington led to genetically modified foods’ being categorized as “substantially equivalent” to conventional foodstuffs, thus keeping them from being tested and labeled and making it impossible to track their impact on human health and worldwide crops. The biotech industry has vigorously — and successfully — fended off any attempts to investigate, regulate, or monitor GMOs, leaving consumers ignorant of what or how much of them they consume. Polls consistently show that 80 to 90 percent of U.S. consumers want GM foods labeled. There’s lots more in The Future of Food, including the effect of corporate grants on independent and academic research — and the role that government farm subsidies play in promoting bioengineered crops. It’s estimated that U.S. taxpayers pay a $20 billion dollar subsidy to the biotech industry each year. Still, the film’s ending is upbeat, noting that “there has been a revolution in genetic engineering, but there has also been a counterrevolution.” The number of local farmers’ markets increased by 79 percent between 1994 and 2002. Organic, sustainably raised foods (many of which proudly claim to contain no GMOs) are easier to purchase than they have been in decades. The Future of Food ends simply: It’s up to you.
For more information on “Political Art and the Public Sphere,” contact Richard Gilman-Opalsky at 217-206-8328 or e-mail rgilm3@uis.edu.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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