Technology and Food

Joshua Frank: Organic Inconsistencies

Columnist Joshua Frank explores the watering-down of organ food regulations by the FDA under the influence of agribusiness lobby. It is a disturbing story of how something that seems beyond debate--the definition of organic food--can be distorted by the profit motive into nearly the opposite of its original meaning. Read the article.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM): Survey Shows Americans Don't Realize Chicken and Beef Are Often Infected with Feces

A new study shows that 84 percent of adults have no idea that the primary source of salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli, and other foodborne pathogens on poultry and meat is animal feces. Read the article

Doctors Denounce New Dietary Guidelines As Unhealthy
Physicians Group Releases Healthier Version;
Accuses Feds of Catering To Food Industries

Washington, D.C.-A panel of nutrition experts convened by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is issuing an alternative to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the federal government's recommendations of what Americans should eat. President Clinton released the government's new guidelines this morning in his weekly Saturday radio address. Read the article.

Insuring the GM Industry

Swiss Re, the large Swiss reinsurance company, recently published a monograph on the insuring of the genetic engineering industry. We can learn much from the insurance industry on the dangers of GM foods. We can also gain insight into the corporate mentality. Read the Article

Montreal: U.S. Backs Down on Genetically-Modified Foods Issue

130 nations, including the U.S., have agreed to a biosafety treaty that embodies the "precautionary principle" as a legitimate reason for countries to refuse imports of any genetically modified product they believe carries a safety risk, whether or not there is less than full scientific evidence of their danger. This is a major breakthrough. Under previous WTO rulings, countries must be able to demonstrate strong scientific evidence that such foods or organisms were dangerous, or face severe economic sanctions. Under the new biosafety treaty, shipments of genetically altered commodities like corn or soybeans must be labeled that they "may contain" genetically modified organisms.

Many European countries already require that food made from genetically-modified organisms be labelled, so that consumers may make their own choices about eating them. The U.S. and its partners, Canada, Argentina, Australia, chile and Uruguay, unfortunately succeeded in erasing mandatory labelling and information about the use of genetically modified organisms in food among all the signatory nations.

Exactly what does that mean? It means that in this country--the United States--producers and sellers do not have to label genetically modified foods as such. In a society where the consumer is supposed to rule supreme, it seems a bit odd to us that we aren't allowed a choice about whether or not to buy GM foods. Nobel laureate Milton Friedman once wrote a book called Free to Choose, claiming that the individual choices of sellers and buyers would assure personal and political freedom. Assuming his thesis to be true, which we don't, without the information to make choices, Friedman's "freedom" is illusory. Large, politically influential corporations that have invested heavily in the new genetic technology have decided that you and I aren't intelligent enough to be given the freedom to choose what we will eat, and have spent much money in lobbying the FDA and Congress to not require labelling that would enable us to make those choices. Until public outcry forced a retreat, the Department of Agriculture was even planning to allow organic food to contain GM components without labelling.

We would like to have the same choice that Europeans have. It is not unreasonable to demand that GM foods be labelled, so that we, the American public, can make our own decisions.


Greenpeace congratulated the 50 environment ministers and approximately 130 government delegations for adopting the Biosafety Protocol

The Guardian (UK): America backs down on GM foods

The Independent (UK): Treaty will give right to block GM foods

The New York Times: Montreal Talks Agree on Rules for Biosafety

NewDr. Pusztai Takes his Case to the Web

Dr. Árpád Pusztai, a researcher working in a prominent lab in England, got himself into a lot of trouble last spring when his lab published on the web an internal memo detailing some of his research on the effect of genetically modified foods on rats. His research seemed to show that rats, fed on potatoes genetically modified to contain a lectin gene from a snowdrop, developed abnormalities at a rate that was statistically significant. Since the ruling Labor government had approved the development and marketing of GM foods in Britain, this revelation caused a considerable stir, to the extent that the Royal Society became involved.

While Dr. Pusztai was out of the country, the Royal Society sent the internal paper to five anonymous referees who basically condemned the experiment as unscientific and the conclusions as invalid, in spite of the fact that the report, being internal and not intended by Dr. Pusztai to be published, did not even describe the details of the experiment. Dr. Pusztai was suspended from his employment and denied his research papers for a time. Now he has published his story on the web.

Dr. Pusztai's unhappy experience is a warning to persons whose search for truth leads them to oppose the party line. He was treated shabbily by the Royal Society for no other reason than his findings were politically incorrect. He is a hero to the truth. Read his story and view the documents.

The N. Y. Times Runs an Article Questioning the U.S.D.A.'s Approval of genetically modified (GM) Foods

Today, November 3, 1999, the N. Y. Times ran an article entitled "Few Federal Checks Exist on the Growing of Crops Whose Genes Are Altered (registration required)." The article, to be fair, follows the "party" line -- that GM foods are safe and that U.S. consumers have accepted their presence in the supermarkets without protest. In spite of its predisposition to favor the powerful agribusiness industry, however, the article points out that the studies assessing the impact of GM crops upon the environment were virtually worthless.

This year, however, Thiel [a squash farmer] fought back, trying out a yellow crookneck that genetic engineers had armed with resistance to two devastating viruses. In doing so, he joined hundreds of other American farmers embarking on what some scientists say is an uncontrolled ecological experiment carrying unknown risks: the planting of millions of acres of genetically engineered crops on American land.

Pointing out that the Department of Agriculture has not turned down a single application to plant and market genetically modified foods, it states that the "department has frequently relied on unsupported claims and shoddy studies by the seed companies."

We agree that this is a cause for immense concern. We would go further: It's outrageous. We question a licensing system that virtually rubber-stamps the self-serving "scientific" studies submitted by corporations who have a stake in the results. The profit motive, unchecked, has in the past demonstrated its tendency to corrupt virtually everything it touches, including--and especially--the regulatory process intended to insure the welfare and safety of the public.

The word "corruption" is not to strong, either. Corruption does not have to be a direct payment.

It is clear from the August 23 article just below this one, that the easiest way to corrupt a regulatory agency is to starve its regulatory arm of funds and then point to its deficiencies as proof that the regulations don't work. This was the Reagan/Bush/Clinton technique of accommodating the interests of their wealthy and powerful constituencies. Sooner or later the chickens will come home to roost and we will be faced with a disaster, either in public health or in the environment. Let us hope that the lesson will not be too painful or expensive.

FDA Claims that Imported Food is Inspected; GAO Says only 2% of All Imported Food Inspected by FDA

On 8/21 the Associated Press ran a story on the FDA and its inspection of food coming into the US. Government officials, according to the AP, say imported produce is just as safe as domestic varieties and that they won't let foreign producers get around U.S. restrictions. Moreover, the article states that inspections by FDA and the Agriculture Department "seldom find violations of U.S. pesticide standards on either domestic or imported varieties...." The article cites a Consumers Union study that compared pesticide concentrations from 1994 to 1997 which stated that many imported vegetables and fruits had lower pesticide concentrations than their domestic counterparts.

General Accounting Office has recently studied food inspection practices of the FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and found that "federal agencies cannot ensure that the growing volume of imported foods is safe for consumers" and that "FDA currently inspects less than 2 percent of all foreign shipments; and ... inspection will not detect some organisms, such as Cyclospora, for which visual inspections and laboratory tests are inadequate..." Food Safety: Federal Efforts to Ensure the Safety of Imported Foods Are Inconsistent and Unreliable GAO/RCED-98-103.

The GAO report makes it clear that the FDA simply has insufficient resources to inspect a significant amount of food coming across the border. Moreover, the report found that the FDA's procedures for ensuring the safety of imported foods was vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous importers. Importers with a history of violations, for instance, cannot be required to use certain laboratories to test for the safety of their imports. Importers can choose the laboratories that select the samples and perform the tests to prove compliance. For other shipments, the importers can retain control of the goods while the FDA decides whether to inspect them or while tests are being conducted on them. In some cases, when the FDA decides to inspect a shipment, the importers have already marketed the goods. Substitution of goods is also rampant.

We may conclude, therefore, that the AP story was spin. Food imports into the U.S. may be safe, but we have no way of knowing one way or the other because the FDA lacks the resources to do the job it is supposed to do.

So why the spin?

It appears that it is a response by agricultural interests to actions by the Environmental Protection Agency under the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act to ban methyl parathion and to require growers to cut back on use of azinphos-menthyl, used on apples and other crops in the U.S. Farm groups are concerned that their foreign competitors will gain an edge on them by using the insecticide which they are legally prevented from using. Not fair, they say.

A large part of the problem is the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), especially Section 717, which severely limits the ability of parties to the treaty to protect the health and welfare of their people. Trade trumps health. The other part of the problem is Congress's unwillingness to adequately fund the FDA inspection program. See also School of Real-Life Results, a report card by Public Citizen on the first five years of NAFTA (December, 1998)

Foodborne illnesses in the United States are widespread and costly. The magnitude of the problem is uncertain, however, because these illnesses are underreported and health officials often cannot determine their source. As GAO reported in May 1996, up to 81 million cases of foodborne illnesses and as many as 9,100 deaths from these illnesses occur each year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the costs associated with these illnesses and deaths range from $6.6 billion to $37.1 billion. Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness demonstrate that imported foods have introduced new risks or increased the incidence of familiar illnesses. Americans consume more imported foods, which increases the risk of illness. The latest NAFTA food safety crisis was the Shigellosis outbreak in the Minneapolis - St. Paul area this past summer, attributed by Minnesota state health officials to parsley imported from Mexico. Shigellosis is caused by fecal contamination of food products and is contagious.

Derailing the Biotech Express:
U.S. & Global Activists at the Crossroads

In spite of a virtual blackout in the mainstream media, People are taking action against moves by the giant argribusiness corporations to foist GM foods upon an unaware American public. This article contains recent news of the growing movement against the indiscriminate introduction of GM foods into grocery stores and the environment. Read the article published in  In Motion Magazine August 9, 1999

On the Cultivation of Superbugs

The science magazine Nature published an article the other day by two University of Arizona scientists reporting findings that some insects might be able to develop resistance to genetically-modified cotton varieties far sooner than was expected.

The cotton plants have been altered to produce a toxin that kills pink bollworms, one that is produced in nature by Bacillus thuringiensis, a commonly-occurring bacteria. By splicing a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis into the cotton gene, every cell of the plant produces the toxin, which is harmless to human beings. Like other toxins, however, pink bollworms and other pests have a way of developing tolerance to the toxins over a period of time, and Bt, as it is usually called, is no exception. Farmers have for several decades been engaged in a high-tech warfare with insects, introducing ever-new chemicals when insects develop resistance to the old ones. What makes this different, as well as other GM varieties of food for human consumption, is that the plant itself produces the toxin.

The EPA has established rules for planting cotton which require farmers to reserve islands of land without the GM plants, designed to preserve normal insects to mate with bugs that have developed Bt resistance. It is universally acknowledged, however, that, sooner or later, the superbugs will develop, at which time farmers will find it necessary to plant other GM species which produce different toxins, or return to using external insecticides.

GM foods are already being eaten by Americans; the Department of Agriculture decided that labelling of GM foods wasn't necessary, since they were safe. The Europeans, with their food policy not so totally dominated by the food industry, have taken a decidedly different position. To date, they have resisted the use of GM foods, and a number of supermarket chains have publicly pledged to carry no GM foods at all. The Clinton administration is pushing hard for acceptance, and, in the opinion of the JP, will not prevail, and thus the likelihood of a trade war with Europe is very high.

How GM foods were quietly placed on the supermarket shelves of Americans is another story. It took the collaboration of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the newspapers, and the scientific community to keep the cover on. Read the story in Rachel's Environmental Weekly Nos. 637, 638, and 639. (Note: on 8/21.99 the server did not respond. We hope that this is a temporary outage.)

On the Matter of Antibiotics and Hormones in American Beef and the Europeans' Refusal to Eat It: Another Trade War

Read an article by Mark Weisbrot of the Preamble Center on the latest trade war between U. S. and Europe. The Europeans don't want beef imported into the European Community laced with hormones and other chemical compounds that are in virtually all the beef we eat in the U.S. (and Mississippi). A three-judge panel appointed by the World Trade Organization decided several months ago that there wasn't enough evidence that the chemicals were dangerous and that the Europeans were violating the rules of the WTO. Trade trumps public health in the New World Order. Upton Sinclair, where have you gone when we need you?

Do You Know What's in Your Food?

An editorial from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on the advent of "Frankenfoods."

Agriculture and the Environment

Two papers from the Wallace Institute on agriculture and the environment:

Intensive Agriculture and Environmental Quality: Examining the Newest Agricultural Myth This report challenges and refutes the "newest agricultural myth"—that chemically-based intensive agriculture will meet all of our production and environmental goals while feeding between 8-10 billion people in the next century.

The Economics of Organic Grain and Soybean Production in the Midwestern United States Farm profits from organic cropping systems can equal or exceed profits from conventional rotations in the midwestern United States.