A Thumbs Up Media Review
The Future of Food (Video)
Written and directed by Deborah Koons Garcia
©2004 Lily Films
Review by Jill Nienhiser
Video can be viewed online for free at www.thefutureoffood.com/onlinevideo
In The Future of Food, Deborah Koons Garcia (trivia buffs: she’s Jerry Garcia’s widow) has created a gripping documentary on the politics of genetically modified (GM) food.
The film briefly discusses how genes are modified and details the shocking lack of safety testing, labeling, and regulation by the USDA, FDA and EPA (each of which is responsible for different aspects of GM food). Garcia’s visualizations are particularly helpful for understanding how genetic material is transferred from one organism to another and why these procedures are so risky. Use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes (which help scientists discover whether the genetic material made it into the cell; if the cell doesn’t die in response to antibiotic exposure, it got the genes) can contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance worldwide because these resistant genes sometimes end up in the gut bacteria.
Use of “promoter genes” (derived from bacteria or virii, which “turn on” the inserted genes, overriding the cell’s protective mechanisms) could turn on genes elsewhere in the cell and thus have multiple unintended consequences. New “terminator” technology, in which a seed is engineered to produce sterile seeds, could wreak unimaginable havoc if it were to get loose into the environment. Companies are even working on technology whereby you would not only be obligated to buy a company’s seeds and herbicides, but also a chemical to spray on the seed to make it germinate and grow at all. Ideally (for the company), the seed would terminate in one generation so you’d have to buy all those products again the next year.
The industry is also working on plants that would produce drugs, plastics and industrial chemicals. We already know from the StarLink corn fiasco that GM foods will get into the food supply, no matter how often the companies reassure us to the contrary–after all, people make mistakes, bags get mixed up, and hello, the pollen my friend, is blowin’ in the wind! Ask yourself, what’s an “acceptable level” of contaminants in your food? No one likes to think about eating rat hairs or insects. What if the “contaminants” were blood thinners, industrial solvents or plastics grown in the food itself? Give me a few spider parts any day.
The film does an excellent job of outlining these health and environmental risks, and explaining how we got to the point that these GM foods have been released into the food supply with no government oversight or safety testing–basically because of the corporations’ successful bid to have GM foods considered “substantially equivalent” to conventional breeding methods. However, what really separates this film from the other treatments of the same subject is its focus on the political and legal shenanigans going on without the knowledge, input or consent of the millions of people who are unknowingly taking part in this biological experiment.
The main villain here is Monsanto, and while there are other companies to blame, Monsanto is by far the biggest player. The notorious Arthur Andersen consulting firm (which went down the toilet in the Enron debacle) helped Monsanto map out a plan to reach its vision: 100 percent of the world’s seeds genetically modified and patented by Monsanto. Monsanto has been diligently putting this plan into action, buying up seed companies throughout the 1990s. Then, based on an unrelated 5-4 Supreme Court decision from 1978, which allowed a company to patent life for the first time in history (a microbe that had been genetically engineered to eat oil), Monsanto and other companies began patenting seeds. Not just seeds that they genetically engineered–any seeds. The only requirement was to be the first to the patent office with the application. Thus, the seeds in our seed banks, developed by countless generations of farmers, have been co-opted by Monsanto, a pesticide company. This seed heritage is part of “the commons” to which no one should be allowed exclusive claim. Note that in addition to allowing the patenting of life, the courts have upheld patent extension to the offspring of the patented seed, no matter how many generations removed, and no matter how the seed may have mutated by itself over time.
Monsanto may now hold more than 11,000 patents. When they wish to, they can genetically modify a type of plant, let’s say a cabbage, and take all other varieties of cabbage that it owns off the market. The patenting of life has never been voted on by the people or the Congress of the United States.
GM companies like Monsanto have successfully argued that their products are “substantially equivalent” to those produced by conventional breeding (thus avoiding costly safety testing and liability because they also don’t have to label and thus health effects can’t be traced); and yet that their products are also paradoxically “new and different” (thus they should be able to patent them and retain exclusive rights to profit from them).
These companies have deep pockets and considerable influence, and they are having it both ways. They pack the top jobs at the regulatory agencies with former attorneys and executives friendly to their agenda, and they can pay for the best lawyers.
Some of the most heartbreaking yet inspiring moments in the film involve the story of Percy and Louise Schmeiser of Saskatchewan, Canada, who were targeted by Monsanto. Monsanto won a suit against Schmeiser in Canada’s Supreme Court, which ruled that it didn’t matter how Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Canola got into Schmeiser’s field–and all parties agreed that it had blown into his fields off a passing truck–simply by virtue of it growing there Schmeiser had infringed on Monsanto’s patent. The age-old farm etiquette that it is your job to fence your cattle in, not your neighbor’s job to fence your cattle out, is thus turned on its ear. Monsanto has prosecuted hundreds of farmers, most of whom settled and agreed never to discuss their settlements. The Schmeisers had to destroy all their canola seeds, developed over decades, because they are now contaminated with Roundup Ready Canola. They spent their retirement funds fighting this injustice, and they lost.
The next step for the companies involved in genetic engineering is to work at harmonizing patent law worldwide so they can extend their reach to the world’s impoverished subsistence farmers.
There is good news, however. The number of farmers’ markets increased 79 percent from 1994 to 2003. Participation in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) continues to grow. Organic food has grown from a $1 billion industry in 1990 to $13 billion in 2003. There is growing resistance to globalization and to GM foods. Thirty countries require safety testing of GM foods and 27 require labeling. The European Union has rejected GM foods, and some African countries won’t even accept it as food aid. The more people learn about GM, the more they reject it.
Films such as The Future of Food are part of that education process. Get yours at www.thefutureoffood.com.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2006.