SEEDS OF DESTRUCTION
Every once in a while the NEW YORK TIMES knocks your socks off showing how the world got the way it is. The TIMES recently ran "Playing God in the Garden" by Michael Pollan --the cover story in the magazine section. It explains why many of us are already eating genetically engineered foods like corn and potatoes without knowing it, and why there is a lot more genetically engineered food in our future whether we like it or not. It's the story of a powerful corporation on a dangerous mission and a huge government too feeble to intercede. The TIMES story makes these points:
** Genetically engineered food crops have been on the market in the U.S. for four years now. Some brands of corn, potatoes and soybeans are now genetically engineered.
** The nation's food safety authority --the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) --does not require genetically engineered food crops to be labeled as such, so none of us can know whether the food we are eating is genetically engineered or not. Chances are pretty good that if you eat french fries at McDonald's, or if you eat Frito-Lay potato chips, you've eaten a genetically-engineered potato patented by Monsanto, the St. Louis chemical giant. The TIMES story focuses on Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potato, a thin-skinned white spud found fresh in your supermarket.
** Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potato is, itself, legally registered as a pesticide with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] because it has been genetically engineered to poison any Colorado potato beetle that might eat even a tiny portion of it. Every cell of Monsanto's New Leaf Superior contains a gene snipped from a bacteria called BACILLUS THURIENGENSIS, or Bt for short, which produces a protein that is highly toxic to Colorado potato beetles. The Bt gene is present in every cell of a Monsanto New Leaf Superior, which is why the potato itself is registered as a pesticide.
** U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has responsibility for licensing new pesticides. EPA pesticide officials believe that the New Leaf Superior potato is reasonably safe for humans. As a test, EPA fed pure Bt to mice without harming them. Because humans have eaten old-style New Leaf potatoes for a long time, and because mice are not visibly harmed by eating pure Bt, potatoes containing Bt genes must be safe for humans, EPA reasoned. The TIMES reported, "Some geneticists believe this reasoning is flawed" because inserting foreign genes into plants may cause subtle changes that are difficult to recognize. Only time will tell.
** The label on a bag of Monsanto's pesticidal potatoes in the supermarket lists all of the nutrients and micronutrients in the potato, but fails to mention that the potatoes have been genetically engineered or that they are legally a pesticide. Food labeling is ordinarily the responsibility of FDA.
** An FDA official told the NEW YORK TIMES that FDA does not regulate Monsanto's potato because FDA does not have the authority to regulate pesticides. That is EPA's job.
** EPA-approved pesticides normally carry an EPA-approved warning label. For example, a bottle of Bt bears a label that warns people to avoid inhaling Bt and to avoid getting Bt in an open wound. However, in the case of Monsanto's pesticidal potato, EPA says FDA has responsibility for requiring a label because the potato is a food. However, FDA told the TIMES that it only requires genetically-engineered foods to be labeled if they contain allergens or have been "materially changed" and FDA has determined that Monsanto did not "materially change" the New Leaf potato by turning it into a pesticide. Therefore no FDA label is required. Furthermore, the law that empowers the FDA (the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) forbids FDA from including any information about pesticides on food labels. Pesticide labels are EPA's responsibility, says FDA, and we come full circle.
** Some genetically-engineered food crops are NOT registered as pesticides, and FDA DOES have the authority to regulate those. However, according to the TIMES, FDA maintains a list of foods that need no regulation because they are "generally recognized as safe" (or "GRAS"). Since 1992 FDA has allowed companies like Monsanto to decide for themselves whether their new genetically-engineered foods should be added to the GRAS list and thus escape regulation. In other words, FDA regulation of genetically engineered foods is voluntary, not mandatory.
** A Monsanto official told the NEW YORK TIMES that the corporation should not have to take responsibility for the safety of its food products. "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food," said Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications. "Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job," Angell said.
In sum, biotech is an industry in the grip of a frontier mentality. Anything goes. Government is a willing and servile participant. If it turns out worse than the chemical debacles of the last 50 years, will anyone be surprised?
** Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potatoes will have major effects on U.S. agriculture, regardless of their human health consequences (if any).
** Organic farmers --those who try to avoid synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers to the extent possible --apply powdered Bt sparingly to their crops from time to time, a natural pesticide of last resort. In this powdered form, Bt is neither present in high concentrations nor for very long because it degrades in sunlight. Therefore, insects have not developed "resistance" to Bt.
** But now that Bt is continuously present in whole fields of Monsanto potatoes, the insects in those field will be continuously exposed to Bt. Therefore it is only a matter of time before they develop "resistance" and become immune to Bt's toxic effects.
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Written by: Peter Montague,
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