Monday, May 7, 2012

Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else

Late last week, activist-citizens around California showed up at county offices around the state to advance an initiative that would require genetically engineered food to be labeled as ... wait for it ... genetically engineered food.

Yep. You've got to sign a petition these days just to be informed of the facts. The intrepid activists showed up with more than 900,000 signatures in hand, which means there's a pretty good chance that California voters will have a chance to decide the question, yea or nay ... give or take a few years in the courts, I suppose.

Is it a good thing when people have a chance to know how the food they're buying, eating, and serving their children came to be? Would it be better if people just shut up and ate whatever's on the grocery store shelf?

We know now, at any rate, that at least 900,000 California voters would like to make that decision for themselves, thank you very much.

As the SF Chronicle reported a week ago today, in Genetically modified crops' results raise concern, there's some political context to this initiative drive:
The initiative is part of a nationwide drive to thwart the Obama administration's expected clearance of a new genetically modified corn that could flood the nation's cornfields with 2,4-D, a 1940s-era herbicide used mainly on lawns and golf courses to kill broadleaf weeds.

More than a million people have signed a petition to the Food and Drug Administration to require labeling of genetically engineered food. That is "more than twice the number who have ever commented on any food petition in the history of the FDA," said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of organic yogurt maker Stonyfield and a leader of the "Just Label It" campaign.

The stakes on labeling such foods are huge. The crops are so widespread that an estimated 70 percent of U.S. processed foods contain engineered genes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved more than 80 genetically engineered crops while denying none.
And some historical and scientific context too. From the NY Times Dow Corn, Resistant to a Weed Killer, Runs Into Opposition:
[...] some consumer and environmental groups oppose approval of Dow’s corn, saying it will lead to a huge increase in the use of [the pesticide] 2,4-D, which they say may cause cancer, hormone disruption and other health problems. [...]

The Save Our Crops Coalition, as it calls itself, says it is not opposed to biotechnology. But it fears that fruits and vegetables, which will not be immune to 2,4-D, will become unintended casualties of herbicide drift as the chemical is sprayed on tens of millions of acres of corn.


The activity stems from the huge success, at least initially, of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, which are genetically engineered to tolerate its herbicide Roundup, also sold generically as glyphosate.

Those crops made it so easy for farmers to control weeds by spraying glyphosate that Roundup Ready crops now account for about 90 percent of soybeans and around 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States. And use of glyphosate skyrocketed, at the expense of rival herbicides.

But farmers relied too much on glyphosate, allowing weeds to develop resistance to the chemical. The problem has been worst in the South, where a particularly strong and prolific plant called Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, has overrun cotton fields, forcing many farmers to hire crews to remove weeds by hand.

“It has changed agriculture forever,” said Stanley Culpepper, a weed scientist at the University of Georgia.


But some critics say the new crops will lead to a manyfold increase in use of 2,4-D and dicamba. Neither is used that much now on corn and soybeans — the two leading crops by acreage — out of fear of harming the crops.

Critics say that weeds will eventually develop resistance to those chemicals as well and that more sustainable methods are needed to control weeds, like planting cover crops and rotating crops.

The new crops “ratchet up dependence on the use of herbicides, which is very much a treadmill,” said David A. Mortensen, a professor of crop and soil sciences at Pennsylvania State University. Scientists in Nebraska have already discovered a small amount of waterhemp — perhaps the most troublesome weed in the Corn Belt — that is resistant to 2,4-D.
And, continuing in the same vein from that SF Chron article of 30 April, cited above:
Corn and soybean farmers are clamoring for the new genetically engineered crops because those now in use have spawned an infestation of "super weeds" now covering at least 13 million acres in 26 states. The crops are engineered to tolerate glyphosate, commonly known by its Monsanto trademark Roundup. They greatly simplified weed control by allowing farmers to apply the herbicide to their fields yet leave their corn and soybeans unharmed.

The crops led to a 400-million-pound net increase in herbicide applications throughout corn, soybean and cotton growing regions, according to Benbrook.

The resulting overexposure to glyphosate encouraged the evolution of hardier weeds that can tolerate it. Dave Mortensen, a weed ecologist at Pennsylvania State University, said the number of "super weed" species grew from one in 1996, when genetically modified crops were introduced, to 22 today.

Scientists warn that the next generation of genetically modified crops will likewise encourage overuse of 2,4-D and dicamba, creating still hardier weeds that can tolerate virtually every herbicide on the market.

"It's like pouring gasoline on a fire," Benbrook said.

This isn't a new problem, and it's not only an economic issue. It's a moral issue as well.

Collateral damage to the biosphere has been occurring from the dawn of industrial herbicides. And the collateral damage is severe. Savage, even. I'm going to repeat a quotation from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) that I included in a post only a few weeks ago. The passage references a campaign to wipe out the Japanese beetle in the American Midwest by massive application of insecticides.

And so, the moral context:
Incidents like the eastern Illinois spraying raise a question that is not only scientific but moral. The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.

[...] Scientific observers at Sheldon described the symptoms of a meadowlark found near death: "Although it lacked muscular coordination and could not fly or stand, it continued to beat its wings and clutch with its toes while lying on its side. Its beak was held open and breathing was labored." Even more pitiful was the mute testimony of dead ground squirrels, which "exhibited a characteristic attitude in death. The back was bowed and the forelegs with the toes of the feet tightly clenched were drawn close to the thorax ... the head and neck were outstretched and the mouth often contained dirt, suggesting the dying animal had been biting the ground."

By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?
More recently, here's Dr. Elaine Ingham, of the Rodale Institute, and a former researcher at Oregon State University. The quote below is taken from her essay in Nature's Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies (2004). The essay is called Unnatural Selection: The Bacterium That (Almost) Ate the World.

The article describes an experiment Dr. Ingham performed in the early 1990s on the potential environmental impact of genetically engineered bacterium, modified from Klebsiella planticola. The genetically modified bug was 'invented' to solve a big problem and provide significant benefits: it was meant to turn the chaff left in fields after a harvest into alcohol that could be burned constructively as fuel, as an alternative to burning plant waste in the fields after a harvest, thus releasing massive quantities of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Alas, Dr. Ingham demonstrated that release of the bacterium into the environment would kill plants dead. Or, as she put it, turn plants to "slime on the surface of the soil." Dr. Ingham wrote of the sort of reception this and others of her findings have received in political circles:
I have attended some of the United Nations biosafety protocol meetings. At the 1995 meeting in Madrid, the U.S. delegation was the strongest in saying, in essence, "Don't worry, be happy. Trust us. We don't need a biosafety protocol. Why would biotech companies ever do anything to harm people?" To me, their words echoed those we've heard before from tobacco, pesticide, and fertilizer companies.
Yes indeed.

Bazillion-dollar corporations like Monsanto and Dow would rather you close your eyes, hold your nose, and swallow what they want to feed you. How can I say that? Well, for starters, let's take this excerpt from a brief SF Chronicle article reporting delivery of those 900,000+ signatures just last week, Petitions urge labels on genetically altered food:
Opponents, led by an arm of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, whose members include Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, say labeling would mislead consumers by implying that genetically engineered foods are unsafe.
Mislead by implying? Well, Monsanto and Dow would know quite a bit about that...

It's a lot of work to find your way through competing narratives, to sift information from spin. I've quoted a lot of words in this post, but they represent only snippets of the articles or books from which they are excerpted. What would motivate a person to slog through all that verbiage?

I don't know if Plato really said it, I've only seen this 'quote' on a bumper sticker (I'd welcome an assist from any readers who can cite chapter and verse). But whether the ancient Greek philosopher said it or not, the message rings true:
The price of apathy toward public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.

You betcha.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The lemming situation: things we've known for 50 years about environmentalism
Paying what things cost
Bioneers and Occupy Wall Street

Thanks to Javier Izquierdo for permission to use his photograph in this post, and to Wikipedia for the biohazard symbol image.


  1. Roundup-resistant weeds, resulting from overuse of that product on Roundup-resistant crops? Ahhhh ... Thanks for this post, Steve!

    Here's the scoop on that all-too-perfect Plato quote, with suggestions for two authoritative sources of quotes:

  2. @Aron -- Thanks! Plato, Edmund Burke, none of the above ............. I guess the motto is never believe attribution on a bumper sticker! And yet ... I'd say the message holds up to scrutiny in this case.

  3. Land is running out, the human population is rapidly increasing out of control.
    We need to produce higher yeilds to accomodate this. Unless everyone who opposes it starts growing and eating there own food there are not many options to GM cropping left.