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June/July 2002
You 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 their natural milk yield. Meat once cost a pretty penny because it didn’t come from the factory farms that we have today, which churn out as much 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, cotton, 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 tomatoes—like 1994’s “FlavrSavr” tomato, the first genetically modified (GM) food to appear (and subsequently flop) in America’s produce aisles—have 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 corporations—like Monsanto, Aventis, and DuPont—too 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 crops—intended to be grown naturally—with 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. “It’s 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.

“They’re not on the market yet, but it’s 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 you’d 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 grain.

“Instead of encouraging a wide variety in diets, they focus on improving one crop,” Brandstein says. “It’s 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 industry’s 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 FDA’s 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 faces 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. 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 says, “Let’s build a network of volunteer labelers to inform our fellow citizens!”

The site is just that—a 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 (, 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 University’s Southampton College, has used the True Food list for the voluntary labeling campaigns she has organized in some of Southampton’s grocery stores, including King Kullen, Waldbaums and IGA. Suzdak says her labeling efforts are not as organized as suggests they should be, but they have been effective, at least in getting people to think about the issue, 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 Kellogg’s, 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 the store.

“For me it’s such a big issue because it’s what we’re 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 Joe’s 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 Joe’s 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 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 Zimmerman’s and Suzdak’s, though Brandstein, the director, disavows knowledge of any “labeling.” The group’s 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 do.

“We think that’s a double standard and for that reason we’ve targeted them,” Brandstein says. “I think we need to step up the pressure because they’re 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 government 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 Manhattan’s 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 untenable.

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 Agriculture”—programmed not to reproduce, they simultaneously prevent bad genes from being handed down and guarantee that farmers will have to buy new batches of seed annually.

In a March 2002 article posted on CorpWatch (, 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 there’s 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 lung disease.

“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 Act 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 foods.

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, The Campaign is online at, and another great resource on all aspects of genetic engineering is


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