Early this spring, while the world was distracted by Egypt’s uprising, President Barack Obama pushed the Secretary of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets in the United States. The USDA came through as he directed, totally deregulating these Monsanto-patented genes in early February.
In so doing, Obama and the USDA have chosen to override and ignore decisions and injunctions made by the U.S. Supreme Court that banned planting of genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets without consideration of the Environmental Impact Assessments, which showed high risks to organic and conventional (chemical) farmers.
So how does this affect you and me? Neither of us remembers seeing alfalfa or sugar beets on our breakfast table or even on our Seder table. Or do we?
Sugar beets provide over 50 percent of the sugar Americans use in their coffee, cereals, and desserts. For the moment, let’s not focus on the fact that sugar beets can cross-pollinate with red beets and make our borscht genetically modified.
Alfalfa reaches our tables within milk, cream, butter, and meat, as it is used as a major animal feed in the dairy industry. It is also used to enrich soils in organic farming.
At this time, no genetically engineered crops are permitted for sale in the European Union (though WikiLeaks has revealed that the U.S. government is exerting strong pressure on the EU to allow them). Thus this new deregulation will potentially close off present markets for organic farmers’ crops.
Obama’s push for deregulation potentially also means the end of the organic meat and organic dairy industries as we presently know them. Essentially, he is choosing to favor the profits of big agribusiness over the survival of America’s family farmers, and especially America’s organic farmers.
Our democracy has to work for farmers and consumers and not just for multinational biotech corporations. It makes absolutely no sense that the economic risks to farmers are not considered before genetically engineered crops are put on the market. It is farmers who pay the costs of genetic contamination, not the biotech companies.
How else does this affect you and me? I’ll defer to Canadian geneticist David Suzuki on this.
In an interview with the True Food Foundation, Suzuki said anyone who claims genetically engineered food is perfectly safe is “either unbelievably stupid, or deliberately lying,” adding: “The reality is, we don't know. The experiments simply haven't been done, and now we have become the guinea pigs.... I am most definitely not in favor of release of GMOs in the food stream and given that it's too late, I favor complete labeling of GMO products.”
In “More Science Needed on Effects of Genetically Modifying Food Crops,” a September 2009 article for the Vancouver news site Straight.com, Suzuki wrote:
Some have argued that we’ve been eating GM foods for years with few observable negative consequences but as we’ve seen with things like trans fats, it often takes a while for us to recognize the health impacts. With GM foods, concerns have been raised about possible effects on stomach bacteria and resistance to antibiotics, as well as their role in allergic reactions. We also need to understand more about their impact on other plants and animals.
And in “Experimenting With Life,” an article in Yes! magazine, he wrote:
We have learned from painful experience that anyone entering an experiment should give informed consent. That means at the very least food should be labeled if it contains GMOs so we each can make that choice.
Like Dr. Suzuki, I think it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that we are also guinea pigs in another big experiment. Ours is the first generation to ever eat food that has been intentionally sprayed with poison before being eaten. While it may be argued that we need greater quantities to “feed the world,” the truth is that we’ve lost quality, we’ve lost fertility in humans and in the soil, and our health care budgets are indicative of the effects of this path.
Maria Rodale’s book Organic Manifesto cites shocking studies that make a strong case against chemical farming, while at the same time highlighting the positive nutritional and environmental benefits of organic farming. And according to a 2009 report from the UN Environmental Program, organic farming may be the only way we can solve the growing problem of hunger in the developing countries. Yes, organic farms can feed the world, and do it sustainably.
So why is Obama favoring Monsanto? This is the company responsible for more than fifty uncontrolled or abandoned places where hazardous waste is located (“Superfund sites” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites). We also have Monsanto to thank for Agent Orange, PCBs, DDT, and more.
Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds already dominate the entire U.S. corn, soy, canola, and cotton crops. About 93 percent of soy, 86 percent of corn, 93 percent of cotton, and 93 percent of canola seed planted in the United States in 2010 were genetically engineered. Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications, explained the company’s regulatory philosophy thus: “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is FDA’s job.”
To assure the Food and Drug Administration and USDA do not regulate genetically engineered crops, biotech has spent more than half a billion dollars lobbying Congress since 1999.
If we follow the “historical” pattern of genetically engineered corn, soy, cotton, and canola, we will likely soon see engineered alfalfa and sugar beets, with their wind- and bee-carried pollen, completely taking over the entire seed industry for those crops. This contamination would disallow farmers’ ancient practice of keeping and breeding seeds from year to year, and drive up expenses for all farmers. This is nothing new from the American government, which has historically supported policies favoring the consolidation of U.S. seed ownership in the hands of a few major corporations.
So let us remind our children that we were “slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt.” For surely having one corporation control the seeds gives it unprecedented control. The state of affairs reminds me of how Pharaoh, at Joseph’s urging, took control of the grain supplies of Egypt, causing Jacob’s family to go down into Egypt and eventually become enslaved. Not worried yet? Chew on this: it’s been said that most U.S. cities do not have three days of food supplies on their shelves.
Extremes of weather in recent years have shown us how vulnerable this situation is. Meanwhile, the National Farmers Unions in the United States and Canada have advocated support for local family farmers and the implementation of local and national programs to ensure food security and food sovereignty -- programs that fail to interest corporate-controlled politicians.
The fact that the executive wing of government has chosen to override a recent major decision by the Supreme Court to stop all dissemination of genetically engineered alfalfa until the completion on an environmental assessment of its danger is certainly cause for questioning.
What’s going on here? Did Obama betray us? Did Obama, a man, a charismatic politician, betray the people who voted for him, whose spirits were raised high with the slogan “Yes, we can”?
Perhaps. Yet I am reminded that to run a presidential campaign requires a great deal of money. And since the Supreme Court Citizens United decision -- supported by Clarence Thomas, a former attorney for Monsanto -- to allow corporations the unlimited ability to anonymously fund political campaigns, it is becoming obvious that Obama owes something to many rich people.
U.S. corporations have gained inordinate power over all our politicians by manipulating the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment was adopted in 1868 to protect the rights of newly freed Blacks, yet by 1886 the Supreme Court had begun recognizing it as a protection of the rights of the “persons” called corporations -- persons which do not breath, do not have consciences, and are mandated to make a profit for their shareholders.
Which group would you betray? Your funders or your fans?
When Obama cried, “Yes, we can!” he obviously was speaking for a different “we” than those who voted for him imagined.
Monsanto’s seeds are genetically engineered for use with the company’s chemical herbicide RoundUp. Last year we learned that weeds are growing resistant to RoundUp. Monsanto’s profits and stock prices began dropping.
A failed technology is now getting another chance to dance and prop up a failing corporation. Oddly, alfalfa (Arabic for “king of herbs”) does not need herbicides for more than 93 percent of its common applications. Farmers have been growing it for many centuries and know how to do so without herbicides. The push for genetically engineered alfafa is just a game move toward controlling the food supply.
After all, what will we eat when America’s family farmers are all driven off their farms and into our cities? We would then be dependent on corporate factory farms, whose managers are far from the soil and lack experience in dealing with the whims of nature and weather. We would also be dependent on oil and the prices of oil to supply us with imported food. WikiLeaks has just revealed dispatches from Saudi Arabia to the United States from 2007–9 stating that Peak Oil is happening now: reports of oil in the ground were exaggerated by 40 percent. Thus shipping prices, and agrichemical prices are soon to rise even further.
In the 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in 9 percent of the nation's total income. Today, the top 1 percent take in 23.5 percent of total income. With median workers earning less than they did thirty years ago, who will be able to afford food, let alone nourishing food?
Even in the face of these dire circumstances, however, the consciousness of humans is rising. People are increasingly demanding to know where their food comes from. People are supporting organic production even in the face of recession. People are taking up gardening and shopping at farmers markets.
Obama taught us not to look for a charismatic messiah, while also teaching us those magic words, “yes, we can!” The coalitions that came together to elect Obama can be revived, as can the networks, and the social media to keep alive the connections.
The Center for Food Safety has already filed a legal brief to halt the actual dissemination of these genetically engineered seeds, and Canadian Organic Growers and several other organizations have joined in on the lawsuit. This struggle needs our support. We all eat; it goes beyond all differences. In addition to supporting the legal struggle for food safety, we can also make our voices heard by refusing to invest in big genetic engineering companies such as Monsanto and Bayer.
We can do it. We can craft food security and food sovereignty for the people of America and beyond.