Monday, March 22, 2010

So What Passes for Food These Days?


You are what you eat, as the saying goes, but if you don't know what you're eating, how can you be all you want to be?

The pervasiveness of genetically-engineered (GE) food in America provides a glimpse of the ethical lapse our corporations and government have come to in allowing such food on the market—without American consumers knowing it.

Worse yet, I’ve found that most people do not know what GE foods are—and that includes grocery store managers.

The masking of GE foods brings us to yet another sad but true example that when it comes to policymaking, it’s all about money and power and the people be damned.

Genetic engineering or the genetic modification (GM) of food involves the laboratory process of artificially inserting both genes and genetic control mechanisms into the DNA of food crops or animals. The result is a genetically modified organism (GMO). GMOs can be engineered with genes from bacteria, viruses, insects or animals—including humans. GMO derived foods are pervasive and, due to current laws and regulations, difficult to distinguish between foods that are GMO and those that are not.

Monsanto leads the pack as the nation’s largest producer of GM seeds with total revenues of $11.4 billion and profits of $2 billion (2008). It is the world's leading producer of the herbicide, “Roundup,” and “Roundup Ready,” a line of gene-modified seeds that protect plants against Monsanto-produced herbicides.

Although farmers have enjoyed the initial increases in crop yield from Monsanto seeds, their seed costs have increased disproportionately, in some cases by almost 50 percent
. That's because farmers are prohibited by contract from saving seeds and planting them the following year—an agricultural practice that has 10,000 years behind it. If they do, they face lawsuits because Monsanto has patented the seeds and therefore owns the technology.

St. Louis-based Monsanto was recently touted as Forbes magazine's Company of the Year. It also made Corporate Responsibility Magazine's 2010 list of “100 Best Corporate Citizens,” and Fortune's annual listing of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

What wasn’t mentioned in this award was the fact that Monsanto set forth a plan of dominating the seed market by 100 percent, according to Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You Are Eating (2003).

Monsanto’s corporate strategy was to purchase or acquire hundreds of competing seed companies and to produce GM seeds. Currently, Monsanto has 90 percent of market share on GE seeds. As a result, the company is being investigated by the Department of Justice for violating Federal Anti-Trust laws.

A film has been produced about Monsanto’s devious ways: “The World According to Monsanto”.

However, Monsanto shouldn't be singled out. Other corporations are engaged in food biotechnology with multi-billion dollar revenues (2008) including Syngenta ($11.6 billion), Bayer ($42.23 billion in 2009), BASF ($84.4 billion), Dow ($57.5 billion) and DuPont ($31.8 billion) that with Monsanto control 75 percent of the agrichemical market.

Most of these corporations started out as chemical companies that made explosives during World War I and World War II. They then applied their technologies to peacetime products, such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

The U.S. government shares a lot of the blame for the presence of GMOs in the market, said Smith. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed it had no information showing GM foods were substantially different from conventionally grown foods. Therefore, they were considered safe to eat and warranted no safety studies. But internal memos made public by a lawsuit revealed that the agency’s position was staged by political appointees who were under orders from the Bush I administration and later the Clinton administration to promote GMOs. In addition, the FDA official in charge of creating this policy was Michael Taylor, former attorney for Monsanto, who later became its vice president. Monsanto is among six multinational corporations that manufacture GM seeds.

FDA scientists had repeatedly warned that GM foods can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems, said Smith. FDA scientists urged long-term safety studies but were ignored. Today, the same multinational and biotechnology companies that have been found guilty of hiding information about the toxic effects of their chemical products are essentially in charge of determining whether GM foods and products are safe!

Such shenanigans give science a black eye and didn’t sit well with reputable science journals like Scientific American. “Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised,” said the editors in their August 2009 issue. “That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.”

Apparently, the same political influence and money that got the biotech corporations past the FDA have also prevented any GMO labeling laws from being implemented. President Obama had indicated support for labeling laws during his 2008 campaign, however, many of his top appointees for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are known backers of GMO-producing corporations. He has received much criticism from non-GMO activists as a result.

U.S. government statistics from 2007 show that the vast majority of the country’s commodity ingredients come from GMO crops: 91 percent of soy, 87 percent of cotton and 73 percent of corn. It is estimated that GMOs are now present in more than 80 percent of packaged food products found in U.S. or Canadian supermarkets.

“The coming year promises to bring about a greater, more pervasive awareness of those numbers as opponents of GMOs bring a unified campaign—complete with a non-GMO standard—to the public,” notes Robert Vosburgh, editor of Supermarket News.

Over the past 70 years the American agriculture system has focused primarily on productivity, not quality of product or the adverse effects farming methods have on soil, the plants and animals raised, other species, and even health. GMOs are a product of “industrial agriculture” where farmers try to gain the greatest productivity and provide the cheapest food possible without the laborious practices of manuring soils, planting, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting crops. Instead, they rely on machines and chemicals to do the work for them.

This system changed the pre-World War II system of managing small, multi-crop farms to create large farms that grow high-value monoculture crops like corn, wheat, and soy, which became products for world trade as well as for fast food, animal feed, high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol. Industrialization was eventually applied to animals that supply consumers with meat and dairy products through concentrated-animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) or factory farms.

This switch to large-scale industrial food operations really kicked into gear when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (1971-74) revolutionized federal agricultural policy and reengineered many New Deal-era farm support programs that sought to protect farmers from the big agribusiness companies overseeing a hyper-efficient, centralized food system capable of “feeding the world” by manipulating (or “adding value to”) corn and soy production. Butz’s mantra of “get big or get out” forced tens of thousands of small family farms to close in the 1980s after grain prices plummeted from overproduction and debt—the consequences of buying more land, bigger and more expensive machines, new seed varieties, more fertilizers and pesticides, according to Tom Philpott. Our current Farm Bills are structured to continue Butz’s policy.

“Industrial agriculture” is also run by a handful of food megacorporations like Archer-Daniels-Midland, ConAgra, Cargill, and Continental. Their TV advertisements are clean and slick and make you love America, mother, home, and apple pie. But the truth is that these corporations are controlling nearly all of our food supply. That seems to me to be a problem of food justice when a small group of people control so much of our country’s—and their world’s—food.

So as you wheel your cart around the grocery store, remember that the food you see probably isn’t the food you think it is—and that the corporations providing it are making a lot of money off you!

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