Put Down What You're Eating

Seeds of change: Genetic engineering of plants comes under scrutiny in 'The Future of Food'
Cinema Libre Studio

In 1997, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was spraying weeds on his property with the herbicide Roundup when he discovered that some did not die. Monsanto, Roundup's maker and owner of some 11,000 seed patents, concluded that Schmeiser's plants were actually "Roundup Ready" canola, its own product. Soon Schmeiser, a lifelong seed developer, found himself the defendant in a lawsuit for patent infringement. It mattered not that Schmeiser never actively sought to use the seed--it likely blew onto his property from a strong wind or passing truck. Two courts sided with Monsanto, saying it didn't matter how the cross-pollination occurred. The unlucky Saskatchewan man used up his retirement funds and had to destroy 50 years' worth of personal seed development work because the seeds were corrupted with the Monsanto product.

According to The Future of Food, a 2004 documentary by Deborah Koons Garcia (wife of the late Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia), Schmeiser is not the only one to face the lawsuit-happy Monsanto attorneys. Some 9,000 letters, the movie claims, have been sent to farmers, offering them the choice to pay the company or meet it in court. These cases would appear to be just a tiny stumbling block to Monsanto's relentless campaign to gobble up broad swaths of global agribusiness: By 2003, Koons reports, some 100 million acres of land in the United States were devoted to growing genetically manipulated, pesticide-resistant corn, canola, cotton, and soybeans.

Focusing primarily on Monsanto, Garcia's polemical documentary makes a provocative case that the competitive desire for low prices and high yields has wreaked havoc on the family farmer, rural communities, and, most likely, our health.

Garcia takes compelling stories like Schmeiser's, historical background, and interviews with experts to demonstrate just how sinister genetic modification practices have become. Crop patents, for example, are a relatively new phenomenon. Up until the 1930s they were banned. Then, patents were allowed, but not for subsequent generations of crops. During the Reagan administration the rules expanded to allow for the patenting of genes. Corporations could literally own and control a species, plant, or animal. Since 75 percent of the world's farmers depend on their own seed samples, the trend toward excessive patenting by corporations could render off-limits many widespread crops.

Back in the lab, genetic engineering has evolved into a highly creative and extremely frightening endeavor when it comes to plant life. Biotechnology use in the medical fields is closely monitored and many life-saving products are developed in secure environments. Genetically modified plants, on the other hand, blow around and reproduce. They cannot be controlled. DNA is manipulated, viruses and bacteria are inserted into plant cells, and weird hybrids of plant and animal species are invented (flounder genes in tomatoes, for example).

It's all in the name of creating a hardier specimen, but the long-term possibilities are troubling. Increased use of antibiotic matter contributes to drug resistance, making it difficult to treat some diseases. Allergic reactions are also possible: Garcia includes the story of Grace Booth, who suffered severe symptoms after eating taco shells containing Starlink, a corn product that was later banned.

Still, corporations and government, fearing future liability, continue to resist the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) despite widespread public support for the practice. All 15 countries in the European Union require labeling. Yet accountability in the industry, at least in this country, remains lax to this day.

This public policy owes largely to former Vice President Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness, which in 1992 trumped a Food and Drug Administration policy favoring regulation. Perhaps such animosity toward healthy food stemmed from the embarrassment he suffered during the "potatoe"-misspelling incident. More likely it had to do with filling his campaign war chest. Monsanto has supported many powerful political figures. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, received substantial sums during his run for a Missouri Senate seat.

Perhaps the saddest part of Garcia's film occurs when she ventures down to Oaxaca, Mexico, where farmers have cultivated maize through culturally specific methods for centuries. Mexico has banned genetically modified corn but the increasingly one-sided dynamics of globalization have made it cheaper for the country to buy its corn from the United States. The foreign corn has now contaminated the Mexican fields, and the current international patent system does not protect the farmers against claims by Monsanto and other multinationals.

And the final insult? The so-called "terminator" technology or "suicide" gene that renders crops useless after only one growing season. While small-scale growers have historically collected seeds from each year's crop to plant the next spring, terminator technology renders those seeds fallow. Should this gene drift into the broader food supply, the effects on subsistence agriculture could be disastrous. By the way, Garcia's film reveals that the co-owner of this patent is the United States government.

Garcia's doc is clearly provocative, but it suffers in some respects for a lack of opposing arguments. What we get instead are more opinions from experts who are knowledgeable but also closely mirror her strong viewpoint. The final minutes of the film focus on organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Yet the film could do more to examine how these models might offer viable alternatives to the corporate-driven manipulation of foods.

Still, Garcia's sources are certainly credible, and her alarming message is vital. One of her experts, Ignacio Chapela, an assistant professor at Berkeley in ecosystem sciences, observes that "this is probably the largest biological experiment humanity has ever entered into." (In return, he has been attacked by the university and some of his scientific peers.) Most Americans standing in the grocery aisles probably aren't aware of that experiment. Yet it's hard to believe that any of them actually want a part in the GMO revolution. In a sign that the message is catching on, California's Mendocino County recently banned GMO farming in its environs.

Nonetheless, Garcia's doc is more unsettling than hopeful. It's easy to feel powerless next to the moneyed and connected Monsantos of the world. You may never look at an ear of corn the same way again. If you'd prefer a more upbeat way of saying the same thing, try this: The old-school produce at co-ops and farmers' markets looks even more appealing after you've seen The Future of Food.

The screening on Sunday, October 2 at 7:15pm will be followed by a panel discussion with Deborah Koons Garcia, director of The Future Of Food; Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minnesota; and Ronnie Cummings, current national director of the Organic Consumers Association.

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