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You Are What You Eat

Carolyn Szczepanski Feb 4, 2004

The “Flavr Savr” tomato was supposed to be the pick of the produce department. In 1994, after a decade of genetic tinkering, a small biotechnology company in California introduced a delayed-ripening tomato that could be left to mature on the vine and resist bruising while in transit.

The Food and Drug Administration quickly pronounced the product safe. More than 2,000 stores cleared space on their shelves. But, when the seemingly perfect tomato made its debut, consumers balked at the costly, tasteless red globes, and the product was recalled in less than a year.

The failure of the Flavr Savr did not save consumers from a bumper crop of genetically engineered foods. In the past ten years, GE corn and soybeans have spread across the country so quick that more than 70 percent of products on grocery store shelves contain ingredients derived from GE crops. And industry experts boast corn and soy are just the beginning of the biotech revolution.

But, as 2004 marks the tenth anniversary of the commercial adoption of GE foods, recent reports confirm that biotechnology is continuing to advance across the globe, increasing corporate dominance, threatening environmental health and spurring a global resistance movement.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 40 percent of the corn and 81 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States in 2003 were genetically engineered. In January, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, an industry-funded group, reported that more than 7 million farmers in 18 countries cultivated GE crops last year. The group touted a 28 percent increase in acreage in developing countries and an 11 percent jump in industrialized nations, and heralded further growth in 2004.

While biotech once faced firm international opposition, governmental barriers are starting to fall. In May 2003, the United States made good on its threat to file a lawsuit in the World Trade Organization against the European Union for an “illegal, non-science based moratorium [on GE foods], which is harmful to agriculture and the developing world.” With that case pending, in January Australia approved the use of Monsanto’s genetically modified canola. Germany announced it will allow the cultivation and sale of GE crops under certain regulatory conditions. Even the United Kingdom, a hotbed of public resistance that spurred a four-year moratorium on GE products, announced it will approve the commercial growing of such crops in February.

Though acreage is expanding, profits are concentrating in the hands of a few transnational corporations, according to a December 2003 report from the Canada-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration. In 2002, the top ten seed corporations took in more than $7 billion in sales or 31 percent of industry revenues, ETC said, and, currently, Monsanto and Dupont alone control 65 percent of the global maize market and 44 percent of the soybean sector. And the spread of biotechnology will only enhance their dominance, ETC warned. For instance, in 2003, 19 of Dupont’s 23 new soybean varieties contained a biotech trait, and, in an effort to continue to lead the industry, Monsanto will allocate a full 80 percent of its research budget in 2004 for biotech seeds.

Despite companies’ claims that their products enhance human and environmental health, new studies continue to undermine such assertions. In December, Charles Benbrook, director of Northwest Science and Environment Policy Centre, released a study that found 11.5 percent more herbicides and insecticides were sprayed on GE crops than non-GE varieties in 2003, and between 2001 and 2003 accounted for an extra 70 million pounds of chemicals applied to U.S. agricultural land. Several weeks later on Jan. 20, the National Academy of Science published a study asserting there are currently insufficient “bioconfinement” methods to keep genetically engineered traits from spreading from agriculture to the larger environment.

Lisa Archer, campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth US, said science continues to raise unanswered questions regarding the environmental and health impacts of GE crops and such concerns are propelling a growing movement against GE products in the United States. For instance, Friends of the Earth recently started a campaign urging Kraft Foods to stop using GE ingredients, and in just two years, the campaign has sparked more than 900 demonstrations nationwide. Archer said that recent testing, which showed six out of seven Kraft products contained less than 1 percent GE material, is evidence that food corporations could be starting to take consumer concerns seriously.

“Food companies, consumers and scientists alike are concerned,” Archer said. “We believe we should have a moratorium on all GE crops until we have adequate safety standards, labeling on all products, and measures that make the corporations – not food companies or farmers – liable for any damage these crops cause.”

For more information: www.foe.org, www.etcgroup.org