By Analiese Paik
Good, clean and fair food. I use these words each morning to establish a compass point upon which to set my sights, and to prevent myself from being lulled into a false sense of everything-is-okay-ness.
It’s easy to fall prey to seductive food marketing, and nobody’s mastered the propaganda better than the biotech seed industry. Dominated by a mere three players worldwide – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta – the global market for genetically engineered (GE) seed has grown into a $13 billion dollar industry since its introduction in 1992 on a promise to help feed the world.
But there is no free lunch. Everything has a price, and sometimes not even the smartest among us can predict what it will be. In the case of GE crop production, it’s everything we as Slow Food members hold precious and dear.
Good food? Not for the farmer who pays more for patented genetically engineered seeds that claim to deliver higher yields, but don’t. Not for the livestock fed an unnatural diet of GE corn and soy. Not for the environment increasingly doused with chemical fertilizers and herbicides, something the industry claimed they’d reduce. Not for the consumer who has unwittingly been co-opted into an enormous human feeding trial. (GE foods have never been tested for long-term safety in animals, humans or the environment). GE crops have, however, been great for biotech profits.
Clean food? The US is the largest producer of GE crops in the world. Rather than fulfilling their promise to reduce the amount of herbicides needed to manage weeds, hundreds of millions more pounds of herbicides are being used each year and this overuse has spawned super weeds. Thanks to nature’s amazing resilience and adaptability, we’re facing deregulation of the next generation of biotech crops whose genes are stacked to confer resistance to more powerful herbicides, including 2, 4-D, one of two chemical constituents of Agent Orange, the Vietnam-era defoliant. GE crops that can produce their own insecticides, called PIPs or plant-incorporated protectants by the EPA, haven’t proven to be a silver bullet either. The corn rootworm is becoming resistant to Bt corn, a variety genetically engineered to kill the difficult to control pest, forcing the EPA to require that all growers put resistance management plans in place.
Fair food? Certainly not for US consumers who are unjustly denied the basic right to know whether they’re eating genetically engineered foods, a right ironically enjoyed by China and Russia. Not for farmers who used to save seeds each year for next year’s crop, a practice prohibited under biotech seed licensing agreements. GE crops pose an ongoing threat to conventional and organic farms, which fall victim to devastating herbicide drift along with pollen and seed (gene) trespass from GE neighbors, forcing them to destroy contaminated crops and seeds and rendering them vulnerable to law suits for patent infringement.
The power of the consumer is not to be underestimated. Some believe that labeling laws are the answer, reasoning that consumers, upon learning that the foods they’re eating are produced from crops that can withstand being doused with herbicides and/or can produce their own insecticides, will create a backlash powerful enough to force food manufacturers to abandon GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). Proof of this hypothesis can already be seen in Kashi’s and Ben & Jerry’s pledges to remove GMOs from their US products. Many large, multinational food companies gladly manufacture Non-GMO products for European markets to avoid their labeling laws, something made possible through the segregation and identity preservation of non-GMO crops every step along the supply chain.
Use your powerful voice to defend Slow Food. Write local legislators in support of your state’s GMO labeling bills and ballot initiatives (currently Washington State, Vermont, Connecticut, New Mexico and Missouri), sign national petitions to ban GE salmon, and the Just Label It campaign’s petition to the FDA. There’s growing evidence that major food retailers and manufacturers have grown weary of funding campaigns to prevent state-sponsored GMO bills from passing and may band together to petition the FDA for uniform GMO labeling. What a testament to the power of the consumer that would be, but only if it’s a federal law that reflects what states are pushing for, not what large food manufacturers and retailers want as a compromise.
Sow your organic gardens and fields, raise your animals on pasture, shop at farmers’ markets, join a CSA, but please also become aware of what you’re buying at the grocery store, in movie theaters, cafes and restaurants. Our daily food choices are yes votes that help determine what food manufacturers will produce next quarter, what farmers will grow next year, how retailers will stock their shelves, and what restaurants will put on their menus. Non-GMO choices are yes votes for Slow Food.
Analiese Paik is a local-sustainable food advocate and the founder and editor of the Fairfield Green Food Guide, an award-winning website that informs consumers about local and sustainable food. She is a board member of Slow Food Metro North, worked as a grassroots community organizer to lobby for a GMO labeling bill in CT, and frequently writes and speaks on the topic of GMOs.