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GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD

Imagine yourself one morning on a modern jetliner, settling into your seat as the plane taxis toward the active runway. To pass the time you unfold your morning newspaper, and just as the plane's rapidly building acceleration begins to lift the wheels from the ground, your eye catches a front page article mentioning that engineers are beginning a series of tests to determine whether or not the new- model airplane that you are in is safe.

That situation would never happen, you say to yourself. People have more foresight than that. Yet something we entrust our lives to far more often than airplanes-our food supply-is being redesigned faster than any of us realize, andscientists have hardly begun to test the long-term safety of these new foods. The genetic engineering of our food is the most radical transformation in our diet since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. During these thousandsof years, people have used the naturally occurring processes of genetics to gradually shape wild plants into tastier, more nutritious, and more attractive food for all of humanity. Until very recently, these evolved food plants were part of the common heritage of humankind. Food plants have been available to allin conveniently small and storable packets-seeds-for distribution, trade, and warehousing. In fact, selective plant breeding has brought food security, greater nutrition, and increased biodiversity, while at the same time protectingfood systems against hard times, like natural or economic disasters.

In the new kind of agriculture, a handful of giant corporations have placed patents on food plants, giving them exclusive control over that food. These transnational corporations have altered the minute life-processes of food plantsby removing or adding genetic material in ways quite impossible in nature. And like our nightmare vision of the untested airplane, genetically altered food is being quietly slipped into our markets and supermarkets without proper labels, and without having passed adequate safety tests. Furthermore, genetically engineered food confers no advantage to consumers: it doesn't look better, tastebetter, cost less, or provide better nutrition. To distinguish this different sort of food from the natural food we have eaten all our lives, people give it different names. In Europe they call it "GMO food." Here, we use a new term: "genfood."

While we eat this new kind of food and feed it to our children on a daily basis,independent scientists are just beginning to conduct tests to learn about the food's safety. In fact, a person in the United States shopping in a modern supermarket would find out that most food products contain genetically modified ingredients-but the lack of useful labeling of genetically engineered food keepsthis information hidden. Meanwhile, economists are determining if our local and national farming will be hurt by this dramatic change in agriculture, and environmentalists are considering the ecological damage that genetically modified plants may cause. Unfortunately these food crops are already growing onmillions of acres all around our world: at the end of the twentieth century enough genetically engineered crops are being grown to cover all of Great Britain plus all of Taiwan, with enough left over to carpet Central Park in New York. With this abrupt agricultural transformation, humanity's food supply is being placed in the hands of a few corporations who practice an unpredictable and dangerous science.

As we eat genetically altered food and read about new safety tests, we may startto realize that we are the unwitting and unwilling guinea pigs in the largest experiment in human history, involving our entire planet's ecosystem, food supply, and the health and very genetic makeup of its inhabitants. Worse yet, results coming in from the first objective tests are not encouraging. Scientistsissue cautionary statements almost weekly, ranging from problems with monarch butterflies dying from genetically modified corn pollen to the danger of violentallergic reactions to genes introduced into soy products, as well as experimentsshowing a variety of actual and suspected health problems for cows fed genetically engineered hormones and the humans who drink their milk. And this doesn't even consider slow-acting problems that might not show up for years or decades. Who decided this was an acceptable risk?

On the economic front, trade wars are starting to break out around the world as the countries that produce genetically modified food seek to force other nationsto accept it, even when such modified food provides no benefit to recipient nations and raises all the risks mentioned above. Meanwhile, environmental activists warn of "superweeds" and "superbugs" being created by genes that escape from genetically engineered plants. And the file of court cases grows as people questioning this new technology are sued into silence and as activists around the world demonstrate to express their concerns.

Three features distinguish this new kind of food. First and most important, the food is altered at the genetic level in ways that could never occur naturally. As genes from plants, animals, viruses, and bacteria are merged in novel ways, the normal checks and balances that nature provides to keep biology from runningamok are nullified. Exactly how genes work is a topic of enormous complexity andsome controversy, so it is difficult if not impossible to predict what will happen when individual combinations of genes are created in ways that have neverbeen seen before-and then released into the environment.

The second novel feature of the revolution in our food is that the food is owned. Not individual sacks of wheat or bushels of potatoes, but entire varieties of plants are now corporate products. In some cases, entire species are owned. The term "monopoly" takes on new power when one imagines a company owning major portions of our food supply-the one thing that every single person now and into the future will always need to buy.

Finally, this new technology is "globalized." This means that local agriculture,carefully adapted to local ecology and tastes over hundreds and thousands of years, must yield to a planetary monoculture enforced by intricate trade agreements and laws. According to these trade treaties, local laws that we have come to rely on for protection must take a back seat to decisions made far away by anonymous officials working in secret.

In the forthcoming chapters of this book, we are going to examine the genetic engineering revolution in our food. We're going to have a non-technical look at genetic engineering and how it works. We're going to see who benefits from genetically engineered food and who loses out. We'll take some time to look at risks to health, the environment, and our economy. We'll also consider some of the wider implications of genetically engineered food, including the ethical andspiritual consequences of owning and altering the substance of life. Finally, we'll spend some time looking at the practical steps each of us can take to preserve the independence and integrity of our food supply and to safeguard our ability to make informed choices about what we feed our children and ourselves.Biotech's commandeering of our food is widespread but hardly inevitable. Tens ofthousands of natural seeds still exist to form the basis of a diverse, healthy, and locally controlled food system in our world. With proper attention from ordinary people, our food supply will be put back into the hands of farmers and food suppliers and all the rest of us-for the sake of our health and our environment, and for the future that we leave to our children's children.

Written by: Martin Teitel, Ph.D., and Kimberly Wilson


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