The Coastal Post - March 2000

Marin Inundated With Genetically Modified Food For Sale

By Carol Sterritt

On Tuesday, February 15th 2000, The Board of Supervisors for the County of Marin accepted comments regarding the issue of whether genetically-altered foods should be labeled or not. Because of the excellent testimony offered by the citizens of Marin, the Supervisors then went on to adopt a Resolution endorsing the Genetically Engineered Foods Labeling Initiative. Only Supervisor Cynthia Murray abstained.

It is now understood that perhaps as much as 40 to 60% of all foods sold in Marin supermarkets are foods containing some byproduct of the GE revolution. With a significant portion of corn, soy and rapeseed (from which canola is derived) currently undergoing such treatment, the local food chain is impacted. And because these crops end up as corn oil, soy oil and canola oil, they are in a myriad of edibles. Things like cake mix, breads, pastries, ready-to-eat snack foods, candy, and popcorn are all likely to be GE. Even soda pop and fruit juices containing corn syrup in their formula are suspect. If you aren't choosing only organic foods, you can't say for sure. Unless and until things are labeled, you won't be certain.

The seed and food monopolies promoting these DNA games say that there is nothing to worry about. They use a technology in which a genetic snippet is selected from a host, and then inserted into a vector that will carry it into and through all the cells of an organism. For example, in making a frost resistant tomato, the genetic code from a flounder is examined. Scientists know that somewhere in the genome map of this frost resistant fish is the DNA code that makes the fish impervious to temperatures at which other fishes shiver.

Once scientists have selected that frost-happy bit of genome sequence, they piggyback this DNA onto something called a vector. The vector will carry this DNA into and through all the cells of the tomato. Since a virus is one of the few substances that can perform such a feat, it is the preferred object. The Cauliflower Mosaic Virus now happens to be one of the favored viruses for this purpose. And here is where things get scary.

First of all, scientists assume that this combination of DNA and vector will express themselves correctly once inside the intended object. Second, scientists assume that the viral matter will not exceed the bounds of the scientific experiment and do something other than what the scientists intend. In our example, the desired outcome is to create a tomato with a frost resistant component. But what if the viral vector spreads this frost resistance not only to the tomato, but also to a fungus sitting and munching away at the tomato's skin? Perhaps now you would have a fungus that is super-enhanced and frost resistance.

As you might expect, industry scientists say that any such outcome is unlikely. But a recent spat of e-mail spells out the over-optimism of their belief. In Canada, a farmer had planted three separate types of herbicide resistant GE rapeseed. One crop was resistant to the herbicide RoundUp, one to the herbicide Liberty, and the third to the herbicide Pursuit.

Lo and behold, some volunteer rapeseed plants shot up. These volunteers are each highly resistant to all three herbicides.

Scientists are unfazed. But the implications are clear. Monsanto has already developed a RoundUp resistant soybean. When it grows here in the U.S. or in Europe, there are no plants of related genus to cross-pollinate. But the story is quite different in Japan. There the soybean plants are likely to cross-pollinate with another member of its Glycine genus. The fear is that a cross-pollination between cultivated soy and G. soya, a cultivated weed, will occur. The plant stock would then be resistant to RoundUp.

When critics of GE discuss such things, they are told by industry that they are overly emotional, and that their decision-making abilities have been clouded by "junk science." But what of the decision-making patterns of the industry and governmental scientists who support GE?

When the situation in Canada with the herbicide resistant canola volunteers is examined, little about the scene suggests careful research or science. The tests of the GE crops are done from the standpoint of examining the canola's agronomic traits, not any possible environmental risk. So if the rapeseed that is planted becomes a viable plant, all is well. In the case of the RoundUp-ready soy altering G. soya, again, tests done by Monsanto only examine the viability of the plants, not their effect on similar plants and whether they may do irreparable modification to these similar plant stocks. The concept of a superweed and its future agricultural and economic impact on Japan matters little to the CEO of Monsanto. He is into the short term, maximum profit that defines the American way.

The story on GE foods has other implications. Recently a Mexican farmers' cooperative was hit with a lawsuit for violating the copyright licensing of a certain type of yellow bean to an American plant specialist. This plant specialist had gone to Mexico, had come home with a sack of seeds of a particular Mexican bean. Then he had hybridized this bean to create a particular yellow bean. Now he claims that the cooperative has infringed on his bean patent. Never mind that in Mexico this bean has been grown and eaten for thousands of years. My question is: Perhaps they had it all along? Perhaps the American is the one who infringed.

Thus the third world countries are worried about GE. I have had someone send me an e-mail to the effect that recently in India, four thousand farmers committed suicide because of the economic "challenges" that they faced immediately after they switched from their traditional seed crops to RoundUp ready seed. It was not explained to them that there would be an expense for the RoundUp needed to make a go of this crop. Or perhaps they were not even aware that the seed that they planted was of the RoundUp ready seed. Monsanto has fought against mandated labeling of its seeds and foods.

Which brings us back to the labeling issue. If GE foods are of concern to you, then do one of the following: sign the Labeling Initiative, which you'll find at HYPERLINK "http://www.safefood.org/-campaign/petition.htm" . Or write to your Congressperson, your senators, and to the President. It's up to each and everyone to try the typical democratic processes. Although I tend to agree with Jim Hightower as he laughs and rants that "If the Gods had meant for us to vote, they would have given us candidates," I still haven't perfected that oversized GE slug that will eat Washington. I'm testing it out on some smaller fare right here in Marin. (I'll be sure to keep you posted as to the results.)

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