Have you heard of “The Butterfly Effect?” Both a scientific concept and an ecological reality, its essence is that the flapping of one butterfly’s wings in central Mexico can have consequences tomorrow in New York City, Rome, or Hong Kong. The notion is that our physical world is more intricately balanced than we know. Seemingly inconsequential acts in even the remotest area are connected to results far away in both time and space.
Okay, let me step down from the professional pose and put this in terms I understand: we human geniuses don’t know what the ?*$! we’re doing. Corporations spew tons of nasty chemicals called organochlorines into our air and water and suddenly male alligators in Florida are born without penises (you did know they had penises, didn’t you?). Detroit loads up its auto air conditioners with CFCs and – lo! – there’s a big hole in the earth’s ozone layer. At issue here are industrial practices that amount to peeling a grape with an ax – the ax does get the peel off, but it makes a horrible mess of the pulp.
Now the ax is falling on the very genetic makeup of our food supply, and the Butterfly Effect is beginning to affect butterflies – not to mention you and me. The ax wielders are chemical companies that are determined to outsmart Mother Nature by manipulating the DNA structure within the cells of plants. They’ll take a gene from a fish and put it in a tomato, a gene from a mouse and put it in corn cells, a gene from a peanut and put it in potatoes. The combinations are limitless – “Here a gene, there a gene / everywhere a gene, gene / Old McDonald had a lab / E-I-E-I-O.” The results are variously known as G.A. (genetically altered food), G.M.O. (genetically modified organisms), G.M. (genetically manipulated), G.E. (genetically engineered) – or, more rudely: “Frankenfood.”
In the forefront of this Brave New Food World are the big four global giants who refer to themselves with a straight face as “life science” corporations: Monsanto, Novartis, DuPont, and Hoescht. They plan to remake the world’s food supply – all in the interest of humanity, of course – to include foods with vaccines in them, foods that can go weeks without spoiling, and foods that have pesticides genetically implanted in them. But what if you’re deathly allergic to a peanuts-in-potato concoction, or what if we don’t want our children consuming foods with unknown vaccines and sex hormones (yes, sex hormones, too, are being added by the beneficent life-science people) – and what the holy hell do you mean that pesticides are genetically implanted in the foods?!
No problem, you think, I don’t have to buy their G.A., G.M., G.M.O., G.E., or whatever other G.D. term they apply to the Frankenfoods that come out of their laboratory larder. You wish. Do your kids drink Coca-Cola, have you had a McDonald’s french fry, has Kraft salad dressing been on your table, is Land o’ Lakes butter in your fridge, do you use NutraSweet, and – get this – have you fed your babies with Similac infant formula? Welcome to the Brave New Food World. All of these products have genetically manipulated ingredients in them. In all, more than 30,000 food products on America’s grocery shelves today – from milk to sodas, from Big Macs to tofu burgers – contain genetically altered ingredients. At least 60 percent of “convenience foods” sold in the U.S. right now contain genetically altered ingredients. Altered seeds now are used to plant 25 percent of America’s corn crop, 30 percent of the soybeans, 40 percent of cotton, and 50 percent of canola.
Yes, but, surely they’re safe – right? The government has tested each of these to assure that nothing bad can happen from eating this altered assortment of DNA, hasn’t it? Well, Pollyanna, er (how shall I put this?), um: “No.” They have not been tested, even though government scientists expressed concern (according to internal reports) about potentially dangerous “unexpected effects” of genetic engineering and recommended that each product be individually tested before being marketed. Still, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency insist that genetically engineered foods are safe. Actually, they put their assurances in the negative, asserting that the bio-engineered goodies “have not been proven to be unsafe.” Bottom line: There have been no long-term human tests on these products. The government, at the behest of the genetic engineering companies, has simply said that you and your family are the guinea pigs in this grand genetic experiment. Are the products safe? Three ways to check it out:
(1) Ask the insurance industry. It declines to provide long-term insurance for the corporations or farmers engaged in these genetic adventures. What if some of these altered genetic genies get out of the bottle and taint other crops or hybridize into something not only unforeseen but destructive – who is liable? These “what ifs” already are happening – 87,000 bags of organic corn chips sent from the U.S. to Europe were rejected this year because they contained genetically altered corn. It turns out the organic corn from which the chips were made had been contaminated by cross-pollination from some of the surrounding farms raising the altered varieties of corn. All 87,000 bags were destroyed.
(2) Ask the butterflies. Half of North America’s beautiful orange and black monarch butterflies breed in the Midwest corn belt, where the monarch caterpillars’ sole food supply is the milkweed plant that frequently grows along the fence rows of the cornfields. Millions of acres of this corn are now of the “Bt” variety – genetically engineered by Monsanto, DuPont, and Novartis to contain the Bt toxin throughout each corn plant. The Bt is meant to kill the corn borer that feeds on the crop. The corporations claimed there was zero chance of damage to “non-targeted” insects, birds, or other life. But, oops, a Cornell University research team reported in May that windborne pollen from the altered corn can kill the monarchs. In a controlled study, some milkweed leaves were dusted with Bt corn pollen. Half of the monarch caterpillars that ate these leaves died, and those that survived only grew to half their normal size. Monarchs that ate milkweed dusted with non-altered corn pollen did just fine. “Why is it that this study was not done before the approval of Bt corn?” asked the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This is 20 million acres of Bt corn too late. This should serve as a warning that there are more unpleasant surprises ahead.”
(3) And most important, ask yourself. Ask yourself why the industry and government, in a cabal of avarice and arrogance, have unleashed this technology so quickly and quietly. The sudden surge in these crops has come in just the last few years without any public debate. Yet whether you want it or not, unless you are buying nothing but certified organic food, chances are that your family is consuming huge amounts of genetically altered foods, completely unaware that you’re doing so. Also, if this stuff is so safe, ask yourself why the food industry has to label for salt, fat, and cholesterol content, letting consumers decide for themselves which products they want to buy – yet we aren’t being told which food bin or package contains the corn that’s had its DNA rearranged, or which carton has the milk with artificial sex hormones in it.
World Gags on Frankenfoods
The good news is that the rebellion against this corporate bullying is building around the globe. In Japan, two-thirds of the country’s local governments have petitioned to compel national labeling of any genetically altered food. In India, the supreme court upheld a ban on the testing of such crops, and enraged farmers have torched fields suspected of testing for Monsanto. In England, the British Medical Association has called for a ban on growing the crops and on the sale of the food products there, concerned about allergic reactions and the spread of antibiotic resistance. Prince Charles vowed that biotech food would never pass his lips, and Sir Paul McCartney has pledged to keep it out of the health-food line bearing his late wife’s name.
When first reports of the butterfly deaths hit the press, the Austrian government banned Bt corn, and the French might follow. U.S. agribusiness already lost $200 million worth of corn sales to Europe last year, because that corn was genetically altered. And the European Union refuses to buy U.S. beef because 90 percent of it comes from cattle given implants of sex hormones, including artificial hormones, to make them grow faster.
The public reaction in Europe is so heatedly negative that the very name Monsanto is now an epithet, and such major food marketers as Unilever, Nestle, and Cadbury-Schweppes have rushed out in recent days to declare their products to be biotech-free. Likewise, the largest supermarket chains in six European countries have made a public commitment that they will not sell genetically altered products.
In these places, Frankenfood has become a major political issue. In Denmark and Australia, citizens’ panels, made up of people from many different occupations, have held days of hearings and decided that any genetically altered foods should be clearly labeled, and the crops grown in quarantined areas; the Danes called for seed banks to preserve diverse natural food plants, and an insurance fund, paid for by industry, to pay for accidents. Yet in the U.S., politicians and the general public are quiet about it, not because they approve, but because the companies, the government, and the media have kept the issue buried.
Many countries, and many religious groups, believe that decisions about this should include consideration of ethics – imagine the scorn that idea would elicit from our corporations and their friendly scientists! In fact, corporate think-tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute, Heartland Institute, and Consumer Alert, are campaigning to silence critics. These folks call this stuff “biotechnology” – because that sounds better than “genetically altered” or “genetically engineered.” They say people who diss G.E. food are pushing “junk science.” That’s what they said to critics of nuclear power, the Dalkon Shield, and thalidomide, too.
This issue won’t stay buried, though. Thanks to activists and independent news outlets, word is spreading, and it will become an explosive issue. They can’t mess with what people feed their babies and think there’ll be no consequences. Before it’s over, people here will be hunting the perpetrators of this perversion with dogs.
The Washington Connection
These “biotech” companies have been able to foist their Frankenfoods on an unsuspecting American public because they have become adroit inside-the-beltway players. They spread campaign donations to both parties (doling out more than $2 million since 1997). They establish tight connections to key policy makers (Al Gore’s chief domestic policy advisor, for example, is the former head of lobbying for Genentech Inc.), and they even become Washington policy makers.
In this last category is the case of Monsanto’s mystery milk. The company makes the artificial sex hormone rBGH that is sold to dairies, which give it to their cows, forcing them to produce more milk. Problem is, not every mother wants her children drinking milk spiced with sex hormones, so Monsanto not only needed the product approved by the F.D.A., but also needed an okay for dairy processors not to have to label the milk as having been produced with Monsanto’s stimulant.
That’s where Michael Taylor came in. He worked for five years at the F.D.A. and then joined a Washington lobbying and lawyering outfit, where one of his clients was Monsanto, which wanted the F.D.A.’s okay to market its artificial milk hormone. Sure enough, Taylor got his former F.D.A. colleagues to go along. But then the F.D.A. had to decide whether the mystery milk would have to be labeled. No problem. By this time, Michael Taylor had returned to the F.D.A. as deputy commissioner for policy, and in 1994 decided the label issue in Monsanto’s favor.
According to the Edmonds Institute, others slipping in and out of government include:
Linda J. Fisher – Then: Assistant Administrator of the E.P.A.’s office of pollution prevention. Now: V.P. of government affairs for Monsanto.
Marcia Hale – Then: Assistant to the President of the U.S. and White House director of intergovernmental affairs. Now: Director of intergovernmental affairs for Monsanto.
Mickey Kantor – Then: Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign director, U.S. Trade Representative, and Commerce Secretary. Now: Board of directors of Monsanto.
Josh King – Then: Director of production for White House events. Now: Director of global communication for Monsanto.
Margaret Miller – Then: Laboratory Supervisor for Monsanto. Now: Deputy director of the F.D.A.’s human food safety and consultative services.
William D. Ruckleshaus – Then: E.P.A. Administrator. Now: Board of Directors of Monsanto.
Lidia Watrud – Then: Microbial biotechnology researcher for Monsanto. Now: At the E.P.A.’s environmental effects laboratory.
“The Frankenfoods Experiments” is adapted from an article in Jim Hightower’s newsletter, “The Hightower Lowdown.” E-mail: [email protected]