Women of Grace enjoyed a lively response from the TV episode on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). What is a GMO? Essentially a genetically modified organism (typically food) is the insertion of gene components from one species into a target organism of another species. For instance, a fungus-eating bacteria may be coded via bio-technology into a variety of corn so that the resulting GMO corn seed is more resistant to fungus. The new seed is then patented by the bio-tech corporation. Such seeds are attractive to agribusiness because they increase yields (less loss to pests) and profits. Proponents argue that GMO seeds will “feed the world.” But, are there risks?
Most of us have simply trusted that a trip to the grocery meant a purchase of nutritionally sound food for our families. While trust in our food sources was once well placed, we no longer have such assurances. Today we face an urgent food crisis, literally seeds of our destruction.
Perhaps you recall the panic in Great Britain in the late 1990s over “mad cow disease.” Soon afterwards, the rest of Europe, Canada and the United States refused to allow imports of British meats. Governments moved to protect their populations from deadly food contaminations. More recently, Chinese baby food exports were found to contain melamine, a by-product of plastic manufacturing. Why would plastic be used in infant formula? Melamine was used as an additive that mimics protein at a fraction of the cost. And this past summer Germany was put on alert when over 3000 people were sickened and more than 50 died from consuming sprouts on their salads. The sprouts were grown in Germany from bacteria-contaminated seeds shipped from Egypt.
These three examples (and there are thousands more!) illustrate the point of this post: Food has gone global. Food is a key element in the global economy. Giant corporations seek advantages in the international markets. Governments regulate the import and export of food products and food additives to protect their populations and their own agribusinesses. Global trade in food is often a blessing—surplus food can be shipped to nations where crop failures cause famines. Food aid is rushed to countries suffering from natural disasters. However, food can also be used as a political tool, an economic club, or even a means to curb population growth.
Yet, a second factor to the globalization of food is more alarming: Some globalized mega- corporations seek to control the very genetic code of the food that is produced everywhere on the planet. This is the crucial difference: A few corporations no longer hope to create a product that will sell well in global markets; they seek to control all commercial-grade seeds so that farmers will be dependent on such seeds each year. That is, they seek to control the food of the world. How? Two methods overlap. The first is the production of seeds deliberately engineered not to germinate from saved seeds. Community or small scale farmers cannot save seed for the next season’s crop. Second is the growing dominance of GMO seeds. It’s true that nature cannot be patented. Bio-tech firms splice genes to create a new organism—one that has never existed before –and the new gene code (for seeds or animals) is then patented. These patents permit a few international corporations to “own” the seeds of basic food crops.
In just15 years the avalanche of genetically modified foods (GMOs) has taken huge a market share of commercial agribusiness. Soy, corn, canola, papaya, sugar beets, alfalfa and cotton have been modified for mass market farming. Conceivably, farmers will soon lose the ability to grow crops from traditional seed, and, will be forced to re-purchase new seeds each year.
Does this sound like science fiction? Let’s look at what one company spokesman said, “The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded that there’s nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender.” (quoted in Toronto Sun 1.9.2001)
Next: Are GMO Foods Safe?
©Mary Jo Anderson February 2012