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A Tale of Soybeans and Frankenfood
By Jean Hay
August 1999

The Olestra lady hasn’t yet sung, but already the signs are clear – genetically-engineered food is a financial and public relations disaster for the producer.

The more the public learns about this tinkering with nature, the more is the call for labeling. People want to avoid this stuff, to opt out of the massive experiment now being conducted on the American population. The farmers who successfully testified against a Maine labeling law earlier this year know this. They know that people – not everyone, to be sure, but a high percentage – would not buy their food if they knew what it was.

This food experiment, it is important to note, is not being conducted on the European population. The European Union, whose member citizens learned to mistrust the assurances of their governments during the Mad Cow Disease fiasco a few years ago, are not buying the USDA/Monsanto line that genetically-engineered food is harmless. They have said no thank you to our potatoes and corn with the built-in Bt insecticide, and to our cotton and soybeans engineered to withstand a withering dose of Round-Up, a Monsanto herbicide whose patent is about to expire.

In some European countries this GE or GM (genetically modified) food is banned outright. In others, it must be labeled, and when it is, it is being avoided like the plague.

Note: These particular genetic modifications were not done to enhance the nutritional value or even to increase yields. In fact, in most tests the yields were the same or lower than comparable plots. The Bt was added to make it more convenient for the farmer, who wouldn’t have to spray since the poison was built-in. The Round-Up Ready crops were designed simply to protect Monsanto’s investment – if they couldn’t be the only manufacturer of Round-Up, they would be the only producer of Round-Up Ready crops. They could (and do) insist that those farmers who buy their RUR seed also buy the herbicide from them.

European consumers, and their legislators, don’t believe that the high doses of Bt , or the so-called "inert" antibiotic segment attached to the Bt gene as a marker, have been adequately tested for their long-term effects, particularly on children. They are worried that increased levels of plant hormones, particularly plant estrogens, found in the Round-Up resistant cotton and soybeans might alter the normal growth and maturation of the sex organs in young children, particularly males. And then there are the unforeseen consequences of these weird gene-splicings getting out into the environment and wrecking havoc with the balance of nature.

The Europeans are more than a little irked that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Monsanto think they can bully Europe into eating the stuff.

Monsanto certainly misread the signals. It convinced a whole bunch of farmers to grow the tampered-with soybeans, and deliberately mixed the crop with ordinary soybeans. They were in effect telling Europe that if you want US soy, some of it will be GE or GM. The EU said it is not our fault you blended the two crops, we don’t like your tactics, we don’t want any of it thank you.

This, of course in turn has irked our government no end. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman chastised the Common Market sternly, telling them their recalcitrance has cost the American farmers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Translation – the decision of American farmers to buy not only the seed but the assurances of Monsanto that the EU would cave under a threat of unilateral US-imposed trade sanctions has cost the American farmer hundreds of millions of dollars. In their haste to be on the cutting edge of food technology, the farmers forgot the most basic business plan – make sure you have a willing buyer.

The problem is that these are not esoteric niche crops. They are huge. Soybeans are the mainstay of vegetarianism, used in the making of everything from tofu to veggie-burgers to soy sauce, not to mention infant formula for babies who can’t digest cow’s milk. Corn is used to feed cattle (as is soy), pressed for corn oil, and also found in many popular breakfast cereals. With cotton, the fiber may not be a food product, but the cottonseed oil is used in many prepared foods like salad dressings, and cottonseed meal is fed to cattle, putting it right into the food chain that leads to you and me. And of course, potato chips and french fries are staples in many families.

The American mainstream media started paying attention to this issue just a few months ago. At first, the slant was that the Europeans are luddites and scaredy-cats, paranoid for calling this stuff Frankenfood. After all, the American consumer was not up in arms about this.

Whoops. Turns out the American consumer was not up in arms about GM food because it simply didn’t know about it. The talk shows picked up the issue. I remember Monsanto, people said, that’s the same company that brought us Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam, the same company that has denied adverse affects on veterans who were sprayed with the stuff. Sure, we can trust them.

Other people were more than a little upset with government regulators who on the one hand issued patents for these new life forms, but on the other hand said they were no different than their generic forebearers and therefore did not require labeling.

And suddenly, just last month, the tables turned, with CBS Nightly News doing a week-long expose, calling outright for labels on all such foods. Just days later, the baby food giant Gerber announced that henceforth it would not use any genetically engineered foods in its products.

The bottom is about to drop out of these commodities.

Europeans have learned to mistrust their governments when it came to food safety. American consumers are just beginning to ask some hard questions.

As for America’s farmers, they should cast a wary eye on the promises and assurances of seed companies and government officials who haven’t done their homework. And they should ask themselves why they would possibly want to stake their future on a crop they know they couldn’t sell if it suddenly had a label on it down to the consumer level.

This column appeared in the August 1999 issue of the Northern Democrat, edited by Roger Roy, Caribou, Maine.

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