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Letter from a Reader

Bio-Engineering Concerns
In response to the 15 May 2000 issue,
"Labeling Bio-Engineered Foods Would Be a Disaster"

I agree that requiring labeling of foods to alert consumers to GMO use could be a "disaster." But I see another side to this public dialogue. Many proponents of labeling have as their purpose the slowing down of the intro.

A beneficial purpose for requiring labeling, and segregated handling, is to slow down the introduction of GMOs. Which I think may be a good thing on two levels, one ecological and the other sociopolitical.

The ecological concern is that the current practices of genetic modification, such as gene splicing, are far more radical and extreme than Mendelian hybrid development. For example, inserting the Bt gene into corn means that Bt is vastly more present in the ecosystem, all the time, than it ever was before. Not only will it be present in the corn tissues that corn borers eat, during that small window during the growing season when excessive levels of corn borers can reduce corn yield; but the Bt will be present in all cells of all corn plants throughout the entire growing season. This means its toxicity may affect many other actors in the ecosystem -- aren't there some preliminary studies that suggest it may be lethal to Monarch butterfly larvae? -- in ways that we haven't fully identified nor understood. The ecosystem in which we grow corn and other foodstuffs is way more complex and interdependent than a controlled laboratory is, and we should not naively assume that Monsanto and Novartis scientists, and the corporate managers who employ them, have adequately researched the possible consequences.

My understanding is that the similarity between hybrid seed development and gene splicing is like the similarity between surgery with a scalpel and surgery with a machete. The consequences of the latter are far more sweeping, and the action is far more clumsy. It's like the difference between early-era electro-shock therapy, which was not "pinpoint" precise at all, and the newest post-Prozac generation of mood-altering pharmaceuticals, which while not perfect, have far fewer side effects. Both have some impact on the identified problem; but one has much less effect on other functions.

As with doctors, the first responsibility of food researchers, producers and the processors and merchants who bring food from the farm gate to the dinner plate is to "do no harm." I for one am not confident that today's gene implanters know enough to meet that standard.

My second concern, the sociopolitical one, has to do with who is likely to benefit and who is likely to suffer from a shift to genetically modified seedstocks. I'm afraid that the current Northern City Journal column has fallen prey to fallacies about the causes and cures for world hunger. I encourage you to review the excellent resources produced by Bread For the World, Food First, the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy which is also headquartered here in Minneapolis. People aren't hungry because heirloom seeds are low-yielding; people are hungry because they don't have the money to buy food or because the food production and distribution systems are disrupted by war, economic sanctions, drought (possibly caused by global warming?!) and other human-induced malfunctions. In fact, there is substantial evidence that the "Green Revolution" of high-yielding hybrid seeds, because they depend on massive applications of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, both degrades the environment (and thereby reduces our ability to continue growing adequate food) and forces farmers to join the cash economy to buy fertilizer, chemicals, bigger machinery, etc. It disrupts local food systems, displaces peasant families and communities, and sucks countries into the export commodity business which enriches companies such as Cargill and ADM and the largest 5% of farmers far more than anybody else. The corporations who sell to and buy from farmers are far more likely to benefit from GMO agriculture than are the farmers themselves! They introduced it, they are aggressively marketing it, they are leading the charge to prevent disclosing it to the public.

If we care about preventing hunger in the world, we should concentrate our efforts -- and I would hope Northern City Journal would contribute its formidable communications talents -- on ending poverty and militarism, and on creating food production and distribution systems that are beneficial to farm families and rural communities around the globe rather than hastening the displacement of families off the land and into the global cash economy.

The central issue is not whether labeling GMO ingredients is a workable practice. The issue is how can we reduce the degradation of communities and the environment -- a sad trend of which the aggressive promotion of GMO seedstock is part. The issue is how can we recover, or create, food systems that produce plentiful, nutritious, affordable food for everyone and does so in ways that enhance the environment and communities. If we had one tenth of the research and policy investment in low-input agriculture and local food systems as we now see in hi-tech bioengineering and no-holds-barred global trade, think what a different world we might see!

     David Scheie
     Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
     16 May 2000


The truth on subjects such is bio-engineering and globalization is somewhere between the viewpoints of corporations and those of the radical left. Concepts such as sustainable agriculture don't stand up well when one stands in the field of a wheat farmer as he describes how he farms; it quickly becomes obvious that sustainable agriculture cannot sustain the world's population. It's also worth noting that farmers put far less herbicides and pesticides on their farm fields than city dwellers put on their lawns.

Twenty and thirty years ago, the Club of Rome and others made dire predictions that the world could not handle the increase in population we now have, and forecast massive starvation. Those predictions have not happened because of many of the advances in agriculture in recent years.

Today, researchers are experimenting with separation technologies that will make it possible to greatly reduce harmful byproducts from many industrial and agricultural processes. Others are developing new techniques that may make it possible to eliminate the use of many caustic substances.

Many farmers now believe the era of local food systems is long past. U.S. farmers see their competition right now comes from farmers in Latin America and Australia who can out-produce them. Other countries are implementing competing technologies, such as processing palm oil so that it can be a low-cost, less-fatty competitor to the vegetable oils we currently use.

A recent issue of Commonweal, a liberal Catholic theological magazine, ran an article called "Why globalization aids the poor." It points to UN research which indicates that countries that export (like Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, and Brazil) do far better than those that do not export very much (like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Ethiopia). And NAFTA is an important reason for Mexico's increase in exports. Some economists are now predicting that within five years (or less!), Mexico will have a labor shortage. That will have an interesting impact on our food prices, as migrant laborers return to Mexico to make far more money than they can here harvesting our crops.

There are reasons to question whether the left's concern for the world's poor really benefits the poor. The Egyptian trade minister asks "Why, all of a sudden, when third-world labor has proved to be competitive, do industrial countries start feeling concerned about our workers?" It's odd to see more in-depth concern for the rest of the world on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal than in the efforts of the AFL-CIO to trash the WTO and world trade.

This doesn't mean we have to have no-holes-barred global trade or unrestricted bio-engineering. That's not going to happen. We're not the only country in the world, and the rest of the world isn't going to let us walk all over them. There are massive changes coming as other countries develop and then out-do us in technology and knowledge. When we visited Korea six years ago, one major impression was that this was no "Third World" country, whatever that condescending term really means.

There are some companies that mistreat the environment. But there are huge differences between companies, and if we tar them all with an anti-corporate outlook and destroy their research, the middle class will feel some pain, but the poor of the world will be devastated.

     Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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