Say Tomato, I Say Technology
By Tracy VanStaalduinen
There used to be a time when milk came from cows who were allowed to
produce milk naturally. Instead, cows today are often dosed with recombinant
Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and made to produce up to three times
natural milk yield. Meat once cost a pretty penny because it didnt
come from the factory farms that we have today, which churn out as
beef as possible to make it cheap and available to the masses. (Ronald
McDonald loves to see you smile, remember.) Now, thanks to the agri-biotech
industry, future generations may look back on the 1990s and think of
a time when crops grew naturally; when corn was corn and soy was soy.
Today, the majority of crops are grown from natural seed, but at least
25 percent (a total of over 88 million acres in 2001) of soybeans,
corn, and canola grown in the U.S. consist of genetically altered plants;
plants that are grown with a foreign gene inserted or an undesirable
gene deactivated. Squash and tomatoeslike 1994s FlavrSavr
tomato, the first genetically modified (GM) food to appear (and subsequently
flop) in Americas produce aisleshave been experimented
with, and GM alfalfa, lettuce, cabbage and broccoli are on the horizon.
Genetic modification is different from traditional crossbreeding. Crossbreeding
takes two of the same or very similar species and combines them to enhance
ideal traits (for example, making fruit grow faster or taste sweeter).
Genetic alteration may cross two unrelated species like cabbage and
scorpions. In that instance, the gene that gives the scorpion its poisonous
tail was inserted into cabbage DNA, whereby they could produce their
own poison to kill caterpillars.
While genetic engineering (GE) is purported to increase crop yields
and reduce pesticide use, it has also been widely criticized as giving
less than a dozen corporationslike Monsanto, Aventis, and DuPonttoo
much power over the food supply. Patented seeds can be programmed to
not reproduce or to depend on other products from a given corporation
for survival. Organic farmers have also protested the proliferation
of GE crops because cross-pollination can contaminate their own cropsintended
to be grown naturallywith GE characteristics.
Resistance to genetically modified food has been active just about
everywhere outside the U.S. since the early 90s. Australia, China, New Zealand,
Russia and all 15 countries of the European Union now require all foods
containing GM ingredients to be labeled. Algeria, Brazil, India and
Sri Lanka have prohibited GE foods altogether. But as with milk and
rBGH, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration
do not require foods containing GM ingredients to be labeled as such;
they suggest that food companies label products, but do not require
that phrases like genetically modified or genetically
modified organism (or even just modified) be used
in doing so.
At the same time, the government and the food industry have listed
many potential benefits that can come from genetic engineering: allergen-carrying
genes can be turned off; crops can produce their own pesticides
if given the right genes; vitamins can be added to foods that naturally
lack them. But activists have a different view.
Genetic engineering is just another way to take life and sell
it as a commodity, says Andy Zimmerman, an activist with the New
York State Greens. Its just that much more power to give
us bad food for cheap.
As an example, Zimmerman cites the idea entertained by some scientists
of non-browning fruit. Naturally, fruit develops bruises in damaged
areas, and people are less inclined to buy bruised fruit. Zimmerman
says GE fruit could have certain genes turned off, allowing its skin
to remain healthy-looking and spotless, while inside, bruising and rotting
could be taking place. Its shelf life would be extended, increasing
its potential profit.
Theyre not on the market yet, but its the kind of
thing that impinges on your rights as a consumer, Zimmerman said.
Howard Brandstein, director of Save Organic Standards Food, a non-profit
New York City group focusing on agricultural issues, agrees. Their
aim is really a commercial one. They might try to glom on some health
benefits, but youd have to eat 15 pounds a day to reap the benefits,
he says, referring to the vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice that
was developed in the late 1990s. The rice (slightly yellow because
of the insertion of daffodil genes) is supposed to supplement the nutritional
intake of millions of Asians, whose diets are based on the vitamin-deficient
Instead of encouraging a wide variety in diets, they focus on
improving one crop, Brandstein says. Its just patently
absurd, and you have to deconstruct the logic of corporate agriculture.
Golden rice is currently in development at the International Rice Research
Institute in Manila, the Philippines, where scientists say it will undergo
field testing over the next five years.
The reluctance to label food stems from the industrys belief that
labeling would be seen as a stigma, and stigmata are not good for sales.
As Norman Braskick has said, If you put a label on a genetically
engineered food, you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it. Braskick
is the president of Asgrow, a Monsanto-owned seed company.
The FDAs requirements are that GM foods should be labeled if their
nutritional content differs greatly from their naturally produced counterparts;
if they have an increased amount of allergens or toxins; or if they
are novel foods. Novel foods apparently would not include
scorpion cabbage, daffodil rice, or strawberries bred with flounder
DNA, though you can certainly rate their novelty by the unpleasant
people will make if you mention any of the above combinations. All
of these are things that have been experimented with but are not currently
on the market.
Public Labors for Labeling
Slowly but surely, the campaign to label GE foods is spreading across
America. Labelthis.org is a tremendously informative resource for anyone
willing to take the initiative. If the food industry, with the government
securely in its back pocket, says there will be only voluntary labeling,
then labelthis.org says, Lets build a network of volunteer
labelers to inform our fellow citizens!
The site is just thata Web site, not an organization. It is a
self-described resource for citizens taking peaceful action to
remedy the fact that genetically engineered ingredients are in our foods
unlabelled, untested and without our consent. The site was designed
on behalf of several groups working to eliminate GE foods from American
stores, among them the Genetic Engineering Action Network, North-West
Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, and Greenpeace.
Greenpeace has its own site on the topic (www.truefoodnow.org), which
includes its staggeringly comprehensive True Food list.
From baby food and baking supplies to heat-and-serve meals and energy
bars, the True Food list shows foods that have been proven to contain
GE ingredients and lists GE-free alternatives. The site is also a good
starting point for people to take action via petitions and letter-writing.
Valerie Suzdak, an environmental studies major at Long Island Universitys
Southampton College, has used the True Food list for the voluntary labeling
campaigns she has organized in some of Southamptons grocery stores,
including King Kullen, Waldbaums and IGA. Suzdak says her labeling
are not as organized as labelthis.org suggests they should be, but
they have been effective, at least in getting people to think about
if not in getting those stores to stop stocking GM foods altogether.
With a small group of activists, Suzdak has more than once set about
placing labels on GE foods, mostly focusing on products made by Kelloggs,
Del Monte and Kraft. (The labels are easily removable, which prevents
labeling from being straight-out vandalism.) While the labelers are
at it, others hand out pamphlets and talk to shoppers before they enter
For me its such a big issue because its what were
eating, Suzdak said. We need to eat food to live, and we
need good food in order to be healthy.
Zimmerman, the Greens activist, focused on a Trader Joes outlet
in Boston last year as part of a nationwide campaign to raise consciousness
about the use of GM ingredients, and ultimately to get them removed
from the shelves.
They have a health-conscious image, but [sell] GE foods in reality, Zimmerman
said of the nationwide chain.
That particular Boston store agreed to stock non-GM foods, but only
after several visits from Zimmerman and a handful of other activists.
When meetings with the manager initially failed to get results, they
went shopping. After filling their carts, they wheeled them up to the
registers and announced to the other customers that all of the products
in their carts were made with genetically modified ingredients, present
without consumers knowledge or consent. The manager removed them
from the store only to find that activists had also hung a banner outside,
attesting, in large print, to the same.
Trader Joes issued a statement in November 2001 recognizing consumers
concerns over the issue, but also acknowledged that because of genetic
drift by genetically engineered crops to non-genetically engineered
crops...it is not possible for any supplier or retailer to realistically
offer any guarantee that their products are GMO-free.
In New York City, Save Organic Standards Food has been taking action
similar to Zimmermans and Suzdaks, though Brandstein, the
director, disavows knowledge of any labeling. The groups
main target is The Food Emporium, a chain owned by The Great Atlantic
& Pacific Tea Company, which also owns stores in Europe. The European
stores, due to popular demand, do not sell GE foods; the American stores
We think thats a double standard and for that reason weve
targeted them, Brandstein says. I think we need to step
up the pressure because theyre not responding. I think the biotech
industry thinks it can ignore consumers, because even though over 90
percent of consumers say that they want changes, the media and the
write it off.
Customer service representatives for The Food Emporium did not return
phone calls for comment.
SOS Food has been tabling outside Food Emporiums for the past couple
of years and is organizing a fast to protest GE foods. This June the
group plans to maintain a 24-hour presence outside of the Food Emporium
near Manhattans Union Square for several days. SOS Food volunteers
will hand out information, talk to people about the potential dangers
of genetic modification, and encourage them to take action by doing
simple things like expressing their concerns to their store manager
and spending the extra money to buy organic food.
Hasta La Vista, Tradition?
The debate over GE food has its similarities to the debate over meat
in that the end product may or may not be immediately dangerous to the
consumer, but the means to the end product can be problematic and ethically
Consider the Terminator seed, part of something known as
Traitor technology, developed by Monsanto. The company agreed in 1999
not to put the seed on the market, but still conducts research on similar
products. The seeds have been called The Neutron Bomb of Agricultureprogrammed
not to reproduce, they simultaneously prevent bad genes from being
down and guarantee that farmers will have to buy new batches of seed
In a March 2002 article posted on CorpWatch (www.corpwatch.org), Carmelo
Ruiz-Marrero writes that it is far from inconceivable that corporations
or governments (or a coalition of the two) would use such technology
to achieve their own ends. Traitor technology would allow genetic traits
to be activated or deactivated, depending on what inducer chemical
the organism is given. Therefore, Monsanto could sell seeds for plants
that die unless given constant doses of its Roundup herbicide. Ruiz-Marrero
then asks the important question, What, then, will happen to
farming and food security?
Both Zimmerman and Brandstein said that part of the problem with GE
foods is that their effects, not just on the environment, but on human
health, are not yet fully understood. Because people have been eating
foods with GM ingredients for some time now without massive adverse
health effects, it may seem a non-issue when compared to everything
else you could be concerned about today. But by the same token, compared
to cigarette smoking, it could take some time to make the connection.
With cigarettes, it was cancer and heart disease; with genetic alteration
of food, it might not be disease we should be worried about, but the
idea that new species could eventually phase out the old, and if they
did prove to have negative health effects, what would we be left with?
GE crops came first, but theres all kinds of scary stuff, Zimmerman
said, adding that there have been tests for plants to grow medicine, like a strain
of spermicidal corn. There are also GE trees
and fish, and British scientists have bred pigs with human genes to
allow them to grow faster and larger, as well as sheep that produce
milk with a human protein, which reportedly would benefit people with
Even hungry meat eaters may turn up their noses at humanized pork
chops with their scorpion salad and rubberized tomatoes, says
Dr. Patrick Dixon, author and chairman of Global Change Ltd. But luckily,
those animals being bred with human genes, just like the scorpion cabbage,
are not part of the food supply. Yet.
Now, the Good News
Particularly active in this issue is The Campaign, a nonprofit political
advocacy group whose founders successfully passed the Dietary Supplement
Health and Education Act of 1994. The act required safety provisions
to ensure that safe and appropriately labeled dietary supplements
be available to consumers. The group later took up the same issue with
food and announced on April 26 that they would soon be ready to introduce
their final draft of the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know
to Congress. Earlier drafts were submitted in late 1999 and early 2000.
We are very pleased with the content of this legislation and have
officially endorsed it, the statement said. When passed
into law, this legislation will require foods that contain genetically
engineered ingredients to be labeled.
In the meantime, scores of GE crops remain. Whether or not labeling
legislation is passed, the potential for organically grown crops to
be infected with GE characteristics still exists and experimentation
with introducing human genes into the food supply is taking the issue
further down the slippery slope. Labeling of GM ingredients would be
a good first step, but consumers should remain vigilant and demand regulation
to ensure that future generations will indeed be able to eat natural
Tracy VanStaalduinen is a graduate of the State University
of New York at New Paltz and has previously written for both Satya and
the mid-Hudson magazine, the Chronogram.
For a list of genetically modified foods currently on the market, see
the Union of Concerned Scientists site, www.ucsusa.org/agriculture/gen.market.html.
The Campaign is online at http://thecampaign.org,
and another great resource on all aspects of genetic engineering is