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Date: 22 Jan 1999 13:09:54 -0600
From: MichaelP firstname.lastname@example.org
So I posted this item about the US Ambassador's ideas on GM foods.
At Felix Rohatyn Remarks to Credit Agricole Federation in Vichy 10/22/98 URL: http://www.amb-usa.fr/usis/text/vichy.htm
you'll find the whole speech - its's more than just food-news. It three month's old.
Thursday, October 22, 1998 - Vichy, France
Following is the text of US Ambassador Rohatyn's remarks:
(Note: In the following text, "billion" equals 1,000 million.)
Speech by US Ambassador Felix G. Rohatyn
Remarks to Credit Agricole Federation in Vichy, France October 22, 1998
"Thank you Monsieur Bue, Monsieur Stefani, Monsieur Barsalou, and Monsieur Douroux for the opportunity to speak here today. I am honored to address this biannual meeting of Credit Agricole and its member institutions. I know that all of you share my interest in the financial and economic issues that we face during this time of great transformation in Europe -- issues that dominate the U.S.-European agenda and will shape the future for people on both sides of the Atlantic.
Today, I would like to discuss several important components of the economic relationship between my country, France, and the European Union, and suggest ideas about where current policies are taking us, and how we can chart a course that will further strengthen our economies, and, at the same time, our close ties. Credit Agricole's main interests are banking, agriculture, and Europe. I will briefly touch upon each of these issues today.
The United States wants a strong, united Europe with a strong, stable euro as a partner in this economic relationship. I believe the run-up to the euro, and the evolution of banking systems in the U.S. and Europe point toward this development, and I will address these topics a bit later. But first, I would like to discuss the issue that is, perhaps, the most hotly debated between the United States and Europe -- the issue of agricultural trade.
Agriculture is an area of strong competition; the U.S. is the world's largest exporter of farm goods, and France is second. It is a subject with complex political dimensions, since farmers and food producers are major political powers in both our countries. And it is an area in which U.S. domestic policy has evolved significantly in the last few years.
Agriculture is at the heart of the U.S. economy. It employs some 20 million people, or about 18 percent of the American labor force. It accounts for over 15 percent of the U.S. domestic product. In Fiscal Year 1998 we had an agricultural trade surplus of just over 100 billion French Francs. Agricultural products are our biggest export.
The last few years have seen a major shift in American agricultural policy -- the greatest change since the 1930s -- due to the globalization of agricultural markets, and in particular to the terms of the Uruguay Round Trade Agreement, which called upon governments to make their agricultural sectors more competitive and more free-market oriented.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed what it called "the Freedom to Farm Act," or the FAIR Act, a law designed to give American farmers the ability to react more quickly to changes and trends in global markets. It was also designed to reduce government involvement in the agricultural sector, and the budgetary burden of such involvement.
First, the FAIR Act eliminated all government-directed management of what farmers grow, giving them complete freedom to cultivate the crops that they choose, based on market demand and their own judgment, rather than on government policy. Second, the FAIR Act overhauled the old system of commodity price support, and immediately reduced government price support levels for many crops. Price supports for other products are scheduled to decline over time. Price support for dairy products, for example, will be completely eliminated by the year 2000. Also, direct payments to producers are scheduled to be eliminated by the year 2002. This represents both a dramatic change in policy and a dramatic reduction in our government's agriculture budget.
The FAIR Act has brought both greater flexibility and greater risks to American farmers. Farm income is more affected by abrupt changes in world crop prices. American farmers have seen their income suffer as a result of the Russian and Asian financial crises, the abundance of global supply, and the resulting drop in commodity prices. This situation has been exacerbated by recent drought conditions in the United States. To respond to these hardships, the U.S. government is seeking ways strengthen the social safety net for American farmers, while preserving the market freedoms gained from reduced government intervention. France faces a similar challenge: how to encourage dynamism in the agricultural sector and reduce government subsidies, while at the same time providing a safety net for farmers whose livelihood is often threatened by conditions beyond their control. I believe this shared challenge should be a point of departure in the dialogue between our two countries, and that we have much to learn from each others' experience.
The proper role of biotechnology in agriculture is a particularly delicate issue. In the United States, we consider the results of biotechnology used in farming to be extremely promising. Insect-resistant plants or drought-resistant corn are two such examples. In each case, biotechnology has increased output. It has also lowered production costs and reduced the use of pesticides and water, bringing environmental and health benefits to both farmers and consumers. If we can use biotechnology to increase food stocks and permit crops to grow in harsh climates, we may begin to eliminate the scourge of famine and hunger in the world.
Given this positive point of view, the use of biotechnology in agriculture has expanded rapidly in the U.S. More than 30 transgenic crops have been approved for sale, including such staples as soybeans, corn, potatoes, and canola oil. Three years ago, not a single genetically-engineered crop was planted for commercial use. This year, an estimated 65 million acres worldwide were planted with transgenic seeds, including about one-quarter of next year's U.S. corn and one-third of the soybean crops. Experts predict that in ten years, an estimated 95 percent of America's plant-derived foods will be genetically engineered. Research is underway on the next generation of foods enhanced by biotechnology that could have real health benefits: meat without cholesterol, oils with less fat, wheat with more protein, to name but a few.
The safety of biotechnology is widely discussed in the European press. Confidence in biotechnology in the United States is due largely to our confidence in the government agencies responsible for food safety. No genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be used in the United States without meeting strict government requirements. In fact, three federal agencies must review and approve the use of GMOs in the United States.
American scientists are not the only ones who have studied GMOs. Scientists for regulatory agencies in the European Union, Canada, Japan and Australia, plus the World Health Organization, have also studied any possible risks -- and have determined that the GMOs on the market today are safe for human health.
Another reason that American consumers have generally accepted these products is that they aren't really anything new. All plant breeding involves the genetic manipulation of plants. Virtually all of the agricultural products sold and consumed have been altered by this kind of cross-breeding. Genetically-modified foods are as safe as the original plants from which the genes were taken.
Every country has the right and the responsibility to establish a policy of food labeling. Since May 1998, the European Union has required the labeling of GMO products as such. However, for the reasons I have just outlined, the United States has taken a different position. We believe, for example, that a type of corn that has been genetically-modified to resist drought is no different from a hybrid corn developed to give higher yields, and therefore requires no special label.
The difference of opinion on these issues may result from historical and cultural factors, but one thing is clear: American, French and European consumers must have confidence in what they consume, and producers must be responsible for what they produce. As we seek to meet this common goal, we should open channels of communication, share our scientific findings, and isolate our decisions from politics and emotion. Together we can find solutions that give our farmers the best available technology and protect our consumers.
Let me now turn from agriculture to finance. As in agriculture, we have seen major changes in America's banking system. Consolidation is the most obvious trend in U.S. banking today. In the last two decades, nearly all the traditional barriers to geographic expansion in the United States have been removed, as first states, and then the federal government, have relaxed regulatory constraints. The transition to a nationwide banking structure continues to result in numerous mergers and acquisitions. Bank mergers have been an important phenomenon since 1980, and about 400 healthy-bank mergers now occur each year. The high level of merger activity is reflected in the steady decline in the number of U.S. banking organizations: from over 12,000 in 1980 to about 7,000 in 1997.
This diminishing number of institutions has been accompanied by a substantial increase in the share of total banking assets controlled by the largest banking organizations. The proportion of U.S. banking assets accounted for by the 100 largest banking organizations grew from just over one-half in 1980 to nearly three-quarters in 1997.
These statistics don't tell the whole story, however. It is important to realize that the consolidation trend doesn't signal the end of the small community banks in the United States. We remain a country characterized by a large number of smaller community banks, just as we remain a country characterized by the diversity and, on average, the small size of our non-financial businesses. It is interesting to note that fewer banking organizations in the U.S. does not mean fewer banking offices to serve the public. From 1980 to 1997 the total number of banking offices in the U.S. increased sharply, from 53,000 to 71,000.
The U.S. banking industry is dynamic and open to competition. Although there were about 1,450 commercial bank failures between 1980 and 1997, some 3,600 new banks formed.
The pressures of global competition are another reason for the consolidation trend in the United States. In addition, rapid technological advances have spurred financial innovations, especially in securitization and derivative instruments. A broad array of financial products is now available at lower costs, and traditional boundaries among types of financial services providers are blurred. The dramatic growth in transnational finance in recent years has required that financial institutions expand sufficiently to compete in global markets for corporate customers seeking the best funding options worldwide.
At this conference, Credit Agricole will consider ways to face increased competition that will likely result from European monetary union. I am told that over the last decade, your quest for consolidation and increased efficiency has reduced the number of Credit Agricole regional banks from 94 to 56, and that you plan even more consolidation in coming years.
It is clear that the banking sector in France and Europe, already faced with thin profit margins, will encounter increased competition with the introduction of the euro. Capital markets are likely to become more liquid, increasing incentives for firms to seek non-bank capital, and competitive pressure in the banking system will grow.
At the wholesale banking level, EMU should eliminate remaining barriers to cross-border competition that will benefit the most efficient banks and result in consolidation of weaker firms. I believe the impacts of increased competition at the retail banking level could be larger, given perceived inefficiencies in that sector -- overbanking, overstaffing, and high transaction costs. The elimination of a host currency advantage and increased harmonization of banking requirements will stimulate demand for EMU-wide banking services and will motivate participants to seek the most favorable rates when lending or borrowing capital.
While we all expect merger activity in the French banking sector, its timing is yet unclear. Although recent stock price declines make banks more attractive, the uncertainty created by ongoing market turbulence is seen as an obstacle to consolidation in the near future. Whatever the timing, a round of banking consolidation within countries in Europe may well occur prior to cross-border merger activity.
I would like to say a few more words about our perspectives on the euro in particular and globalization in general. Recent volatility in the securities and foreign exchange markets in the U.S. and Europe, combined with the financial crises in Asia, Russia and threatening Latin America, are creating questions as to the risks and benefits of globalization. These are valid questions. Globalization carries with it the promise of huge benefits both for the developed as well as the developing countries. However, it carries with it large risks if improperly controlled.
I believe that in the U.S. we have found a formula that works for us: it is "popular capitalism." It is a high-growth market economy with a strong legal and regulatory infrastructure and an ample social safety net. To be a success, the euro will, in my judgment, require a European version of this type of structure, or as Prime Minister Jospin describes it: "a market economy but not a market society." It is clearly in the interests of the United States to see a successful euro, since Europe and the U.S. have global responsibilities both in the security area through the Atlantic Alliance and in the financial area through their cooperation with the international financial institutions, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
More directly, the U.S. has investment of about one trillion dollars in Europe, and about three and a half million Europeans work for U.S. enterprises. European companies have similar levels of investment and employment in the United States; 350,000 Americans work for French enterprises in the United States; a similar number of French employees work for U.S. companies in France. Economically speaking, what is good for the United States is good for Europe, and vice versa. This does not mean that Europe can, or should, become a mirror image of the U.S. But we do have parallel interests in economic stability and financial soundness, and a successful euro is necessary to achieve these objectives.
The coming of the euro is no longer discussed in the future tense. The euro is here, as a virtual currency. The stability of intra-European exchange rates, interest rates, the convergence in budgetary policies, the functioning of the futures and derivative markets, all point to the euro as a "fait accompli." In addition, the euro is credited by many as having protected European currencies from the contagion of the current financial crisis, and therefore having protected European economic growth from a possible downturn.
The question that is now raised, in the United States as well as in Europe, is: "What happens next?" What will be the relationship of the euro, serving as single currency for 290 million people, vis-a-vis the dollar serving as currency for 270 million people, as well as being the reserve currency of choice for central banks all over the world?
There is certainly no simple answer to questions like these. There is no precedent for two major currencies functioning side by side as reserve currencies. There is no precedent for a single currency and a single central bank functioning without the institutional framework of a unified budget and parallel policies with respect to taxes, social benefits, labor, etc., by the countries served by the single currency. The euro is a major act of political will and political faith by 11 European countries to leapfrog these uncertainties in order to achieve a goal of political and economic integration begun by Jean Monnet 50 years ago. The U.S. has consistently supported these goals, beginning with the Marshall Plan; we continue to do so today.
The strength or weakness of a currency today, and its competitiveness vis-a-vis other currencies, depend on more than just trade balances, monetary policies, or the credibility of central banks. The Asian financial crisis has shown that the rigors of the global economy demand a sound and highly sophisticated structural underpinning. As the evolution of the euro takes place, it is likely that more attention will be devoted to these structural questions and to how the EMU member counties undertake the necessary reforms to assure the success of the single currency.
The 1994 Mexican crisis and the current Asian and Russian crises have caused investors to be more and more selective in trusting a particular currency. The word "credit" comes from the Latin "credere" meaning "to believe." A fundamental belief in the U.S. dollar, regardless of its market fluctuations, stems not only from the strength of the U.S. economy and the soundness of its economic policies, but rests on faith in its institutions. These are legal as well as regulatory; they are political as well as philosophical. The U.S. is a continent as much as a country, with four or five regional economies, different but complementary. They are tied together by one set of laws, one currency, one capital market, and one language. They function within the framework of a political system which is stable and essentially centrist as to economic-social policy -- a system which tempers the risks of the marketplace with an extensive social safety net.
These are the standards to which the euro will be compared. The dollar does not exist by itself. It is woven into the fabric of the American political, social and economic system, which give the dollar its strength and character.
Europe has access to all of the same basic assets as the United States: ample capital; advanced technology; high levels of education; developed legal systems, and so forth. It will be up to the economic policies under EMU and to the political will of the member countries to weave this into a fabric which, while not a European version of the USA, will nonetheless have some of its attributes. It will be a mix of a vibrant market economy combined with intelligent and active governments to provide an ample social safety net and European institutions to provide the architecture to the system. The euro may well be the catalyst toward what Prime Minister Blair refers to as the "Third Way."
In my view, two powerful forces will determine the evolution of the European market economy. First, at the macro-economic level, the euro will exercise powerful monetary and budgetary disciplines which, in combination with structural reforms, should stimulate growth and the creation of wealth and employment. Second, at the micro-economic level, "corporate governance" and the influence of major international institutional investors will create pressures for higher levels of profitability and competitiveness in the private sector, which should stimulate investment, consolidation and increased efficiency. The success of these forces will determine the success of the euro.
The U.S. has an enormous interest in the success of the euro. What is the definition of success? Its success will be determined by the progress of economic and political integration of Europe; by its role in stimulating economic growth and the reduction of unemployment; by encouraging the enlargement of the EU.
Success will also be determined by the progress, institutional or otherwise, of the member countries, towards a European, growth-oriented, market economy combined with an appropriate level of social protection. Europe would then further strengthen its role as transatlantic partner to the American economy. I am confident that this will happen and that it will benefit both Europe and the United States."
Date: 22 Jan 1999 16:37:57 -0600
Subject: news from Greenpeace Germany
The chairman of the leading Association for Restaurants in Germany (the NNG) has called for an 'Ethics Committee' on the use of genetic modification.
Franz-Josef Moellenberg told the Deutsche Press Agency such a commission, made up of science, politics, business, church, consumer associations and restaurateurs should decide on the benefits and risks of genetic technology. The continued monitoring of genetic technology is particularly important for food he said. In particular clear and unequivocal labeling of genetically produced and modified foodstuffs and additives was necessary. Moellenberg said: "For the benefit of the consumer, the oldest food law of the world - the law of purity for German beer - should also be applied to all other foods."
Date: 22 Jan 1999 16:37:57 -0600
Subject: news from Greenpeace Germany
Date: 22 Jan 1999 16:41:19 -0600
House Of Lords report :- full details available at:- http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld/ldeucom.htm
Objectors say peers 'bamboozled' by biotech companies, writes John Vidal, The Guardian, Friday January 22, 1999
Leading consumer and environment groups yesterday accused a House of Lords select committee on genetically modified foods of being biased, muddled and inaccurate after publication of a report that strongly backed the controversial technology.
Objections centred on the fact that nine of the 12 peers on the Lords' European select committee are farmers or have interests in the food industry. Two were government ministers or opposition spokesmen on agriculture officially in favour of the technology. One, Lord Joplin, is a shareholder in one of the biggest biotech companies and was minister of agriculture when US companies first lobbied to bring the technology to Britain.
The peers were also accused of taking evidence overwhelmingly from people who had financial interests in the development of the technology.
The committee interviewed all leading GM companies, lobby groups and institutes with industry research contracts, as well as the US Department of Agriculture, the US Soya Bean Association and academics who fiercely push the technology or sit on government advisory boards known to favour the technology. Among more than 50 witnesses the peers called on, there were only two consumer groups, three environment groups and one company known to be doubtful about the technology.
"We are concerned about whether this was a genuinely independent inquiry into the use of genetic technology in agriculture," said Julie Shepherd of the Consumers' Association. "The industry and its friends are entitled to give evidence, but... the list is overwhelmingly the interests of the food industry and of their associates."
The peers accepted in their report that there could be "significant" environmental risks in the technology but said these were outweighed by substantial future economic benefits to farmers, the food industry and consumers.
They said the technology would bring important benefits to poorest countries but failed to talk to anyone from developing countries.
They recommended a new organisation to test the crops' safety and called on the government committee that givescompanies permission to grow them to take into account ethical issues and the cumulative effects of the crops on the environment.
They also recommended that countries should be able to bar farmers or companies from growing certain crops, and that there should be no further "consolidation" of the industry.
The peers accepted that the technology could dominate world agriculture and was in the hands of five transnational corporations which owned the biggest seed companies.
The report was welcomed by the life-science industry. "We are moving towards a sensible discussion of the science and away from scare stories and myths," said a spokeswoman for the US company Monsanto.
The committee also outraged organic farmers by saying that the new technology was "compatible with the principles of organic farming". Organic farmers are prohibited from using GM organisms andconsider the technology to be a serious threat to their objectives.
Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth, who was not invited to give evidence, said the committee had been "bamboozled by the industry".
The chairman, Lord Reay, and other members of the committee were not available for comment yesterday.
Date: 22 Jan 1999 16:41:46 -0600
By David Hencke, Westminster Correspondent UK Guardian, Friday January 22, 1999
A plan to show videos to shoppers at checkouts that extol the virtues of genetically modified food is being examined by Lord Sainsbury, the minister in charge of biotechnology.
Lord Sainsbury, former chairman of the supermarket group and a supporter of genetically modified food, will decide with other ministers whether store chains should be given videos to screen to counter public scepticism. Videos and leaflets could also be given to shoppers.
The proposal is in a report commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture from Sheffield university school of journalism, which sees such publicity as the most effective way to counter fears about thefood. The report is said to have been sent to the special ministerial committee on biotechnology, chaired by Jack Cunningham, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Its members include Lord Sainsbury and Michael Meacher,Environment Minister.
"An important part of... getting ordinary consumers to accept such products will be a clear and credible demonstration that biotechnology is tightly regulated by a body that is concerned purely with maintaining the highest standards of public safety," the report says. In addition to leaflets and videos at checkouts, "people need to be persuaded that biotechnology is not as unnatural as it may first appear".
The ministry's move, backed by the Department of Trade and I ndustry, to prepare a publicity campaign has reopened the row over an alleged "conflict of interest" between Lord Sainsbury's job and his previous business investments in promoting GM food.
Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said: "This planned propaganda campaign is promoting potentially dangerous novel foods. The fact that Lord Sainsbury, with all his previous business interests, is also being allowed to continue in his job in charge of this is appalling."
John Redwood, shadow trade and industry secretary, said Lord Sainsbury should quit because of his past investments - now held in a blind trust - in the biotechnology research companies Diatech Ltd and Innotech Investments Ltd. He also drew attention to Lord Sainsbury's financial interests in the Gatsby Foundation - named after the tycoon in F Scott Fitzgerald's novel - and its investments in genetically modified plants.
Stephen Byers, Trade and Industry Secretary, defended the minister: "There is no conflict as far as my department is concerned on these matters."
Lord Sainsbury and Tony Blair have also written to Friends of the Earth defending his appointment.
Lord Sainsbury said he had been "meticulous" in ensuring there was no conflict between his ministerial responsibilities and private interests. "I totally reject the implication that I should relinquish all decision-making over biotechnology policy".
Date: 21 Jan 1999 19:45:57 -0600
From: Jason Boehk email@example.com
Subject: Article on Stealth Food; free to use for pamphlets, etc...
I wrote the following article for the local Alliance for Democracy newsletter. I think it would be OK to use it for pamphlets, introductions to the problem, etc...
There is a dynamic movement forming around the world to preserve democratic access to pure food uncontaminated by genetic tampering. In Karnataka, India, farmers recently burned experimental transgenic crops they say were planted illegally by Monsanto. Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) is leading a worldwide fight against Monsantois sterile seed patent, dubbed iTerminator Technologyi by critics. Growing resistance in the U.S. includes attempts to secure mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered food, and lawsuits against the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). On December 15, 1998, The Center for Food Safety (CFS), a consumer group, began legal action to ban rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone). CFS is charging that the FDA has ignored evidence of potential health hazards, including breast and prostate cancer in humans who drink the milk.
All of this activity is urgently needed. According to a senior executive of the Monsanto Corporation, the consolidation of the entire food chain has been underway for a few years now. Agricultural biotechnology corporations, dominated by chemical manufacturers such as Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, and others, have morphed into ilife-sciencesi firms and have been given virtual carte blanche from government regulators to alter, reorder, and patentoin short, to commodifyothe very genetic structure of the food we eat. These experimental foods are istealthi foods, because they have not been safety-tested, and they are not labeled-- yet theyire found in every grocery store in the U.S., even premium health food stores.
Already, in 1998, 45 million acres of U.S. farmland are planted in genetically altered crops. More than thirty different staple crops, including soy, corn, cotton, canola, tomato, potato, and yellow squash, have been altered at the DNA level with foreign genes from viruses, bacteria, and even animals. Three prime examples include: a tomato with an arctic flounder gene (in order to extend shelf life by resisting frost); Roundup Ready Soy?, designed to resist Roundup? weedkiller; the iNew Leafi potato, officially classified as a pesticide by the EPA because itis designed to kill any Colorado potato beetle unlucky enough to bite into it.
What does this pesticidal potato do to humans? Well, even though it contains genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)owhich destroy the intestine of the potato beetle--the FDA considers this potato to be substantially equivalent to the original potato. Safety testing involved nothing more than feeding laboratory mice a liquid solution of Bt toxin. The EPA claims the mice idid fine, and had no side effects. No one tested the potato on humans or any other animal. Other stealth foods include milk produced by dairy cows injected with genetically engineered growth hormone. The milk is chemically distinguishable from milk produced without the use of the hormone, and contains higher levels of a known cancer risk factor, IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor-1). Also, some food additives, enzymes, and food supplements are produced by genetic engineering techniques.
In Europe, enormous consumer resistance is partly attributable to the grim spectre of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), which some scientists say may claim thousands or possibly even millions more human victims. Some of the same British authorities who said the British beef supply was safe in 1990 now diminish resistance to transgenic food as fear. According to Professor Richard Lacey, who in 1990 predicted the BSE (mad cow disease) crisis, iit is virtually impossible to even conceive of a testing procedure to assess the health effects of genetically engineered foods when introduced into the food chain, nor is there any valid nutritional or public interest reason for their introduction." Recently Professor Lacey has spoken out strongly against the introduction of genetically altered foods, because of "the essentially unlimited health risks."
Jason Boehk, co-founder of Protect Organic! Campaign, Cambridge, MA, 02140. Phone/fax: (617) 661-5609.
Date: 22 Jan 1999 22:54:59 -0600
From: Judy_Kew@greenbuilder.com (Judy Kew)
Subject: Monsanto and potatoes-from NYTimes Oct Article
From: Christine Massey firstname.lastname@example.org
For Newcomers - Below is an article summarizing a piece on Monsanto that appeared in the New York Times Magazine last October with particular attention to potatoes.
ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
NETFUTURE is a newsletter and forwarding service dealing with technology and human responsibility. It is published by The Nature Institute, 169 Route 21C, Ghent NY 12075 (tel: 518-672-0116). The list server is hosted by the UDT Core Programme of the International Federation of Library Associations. Postings occur roughly every couple of weeks. The editor is Steve Talbott, author of *The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst*.
© Copyright 1998 by The Nature Institute.
Issue #83 A Publication of The Nature Institute January 19, 1999
Editor: Stephen L. Talbott email@example.com
If you missed the exceptional article, "Playing God in the Garden", in the Oct. 25, 1998 *New York Times Magazine*, it's well worth looking up. Focusing on the Monsanto corporation and a genetically engineered potato, author Michael Pollan wonderfully elucidates a mad mix of science, policy, bureaucratic denseness, public ignorance, corporate arrogance, and sheer insanity, all of which coalesced into a stark fact of 1998: forty-five million acres of American farmland were planted with genetically altered crops.
As to the safety of these crops, Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin has remarked, "We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we *don't* get one rude shock after another." Nevertheless, few Americans are aware that they are eating genetically altered crops daily, and government regulating agencies have taken a number of steps to discourage the labeling that would give consumers choice in the matter.
Among the revelations you'll find in Pollan's article are these:
Meanwhile, don't expect Monsanto to take such a radical step as to assume responsibility for its own actions. As Phil Angell, the director of corporate communications, says, "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 the FDA's job."
It probably shouldn't come as a big surprise that conventional farmers would have trouble embracing the notion of an insect refuge. To insist on real and substantial refuges is to ask them to start thinking of their fields in an entirely new way, less as a factory than as an ecosystem.
A central element in industrial agriculture is monoculture -- the devotion of huge acreages to the same crop year after year. As Pollan points out, "monoculture is poorly fitted to the way nature seems to work":
Very simply, a field of identical plants will be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds and disease. Monoculture is at the root of virtually every problem that bedevils the modern farmer.
Pollan found organic farmers working hard to adjust their fields to nature, while conventional farmers work "equally hard to adjust nature in their fields to the requirement of monoculture and, beyond that, to the needs of the industrial food chain." On the conventional side, for example, farmers engage in protracted warfare with net necrosis, a disease of potatoes. When Pollan asked an extremely successful and efficient organic farmer about this disease, the farmer replied, "That's only really a problem with Russet Burbank [potatoes], so I plant other kinds." But a neighboring conventional farmer can't do that:
He's part of a food chain -- at the far end of which stands a long, perfectly golden McDonald's fry -- that demands he grow Russet Burbanks and little else.
All of which illustrates that there is no single villain in this picture - -- even if companies like Monsanto are doing their best to play the role. We who eat McDonald's fries take our place alongside the industrial farmer in upholding the system -- and many others stand with us. We remain largely unconscious of the fact that we are choosing between two different ways of viewing the world. Pollan captures the choice well:
Monoculture is in trouble -- the pesticides that make it possible are rapidly being lost, either to resistance or to heightened concerns about their danger. Biotechnology is the new silver bullet that will save monoculture. But a new silver bullet is not a new paradigm -- rather, it's something that will allow the old paradigm to survive. That paradigm will always construe the problem in [a conventional grower's] fields as a Colorado potato beetle problem, rather than as a problem of potato monoculture.
By our actions, we accede to one view or the other. It is remarkable that in an era of sophisticated systems analysis and all the rest, we find it extremely difficult to see or feel the connections between ourselves and the larger order of things. We don't experience our system-defining choices as system-defining choices. Those who *do* make personal choices in light of the larger picture, and who therefore raise questions about what is good for society, typically find themselves dismissed as quixotic neo-Luddites. They are charged with resisting inevitable technical progress, against which no individual should try to stand. So much for systems thinking.
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