In April 1997, the International Union of Food and Allied Workers' Association passed a resolution calling for a ban on genetically altered food products until they are proven safe to eat. "Unions fight corporate-produced safety problems wherever they exist - in the factory, in the field, or in the kitchen," noted the IUF. "Transnational corporations like Monsanto should know workers won't let them experiment with our health so they can fatten their bottom lines."
Photo: ©Martha Tabor
Environmentalists and consumer groups note that genetic engineering mixes components of different organisms, often putting proteins from non-food organisms into foods. For instance, some corporations have experimented with putting moth proteins into potatoes in order to make them "more nutritious." People who know they have a food allergy can avoid those foods that cause a reaction. But how do you know if you're allergic to moths? And how will the companies that are creating these foods know if anyone is allergic to moths? They are proposing to find out by putting these new foods on the market and making the consumer the guinea pig. They also want to put the products on the market without labels, so even if you know you're allergic to moths, you won't know if the food you're eating has moth genes in it.
You might think that the U.S .Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would regulate these strange new foods. Not really. The FDA only requires testing of new foods if they are engineered with a protein that is a common allergen. Moth proteins (for example) probably won't fit into this category. The FDA also does not require labeling of genetically engineered foods as such. At the urging of genetic engineering companies like Novartis and Monsanto, federal regulators want to keep the consumer in the dark. They refuse to acknowledge that consumers have a right to know if their food is genetically engineered or not. And yet in all surveys done to date, the vast majority of consumers want to know whether or not their food is genetically engineered. Consumers believe they have a fundamental right to know how their food is produced, and a right to make choices in the marketplace based on whatever they think is important information - which may or may not be what the biotechnology industry wants to tell them.
By contrast, in Europe, not only consumers but wholesalers, retailers, and government officials alike want genetically engineered food labeled. However, the U.S. agriculture and biotechnology industries are lobbying hard against new food labeling regulations in Europe because they know that the majority of European consumers won't eat genetically engineered food. Putting forward the industry position, both the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representative have taken a hard line stance against European demands to keep genetically engineered soybeans and corn separate from non-engineered beans and grain. Europeans, too, have to serve as guinea pigs for the U.S. biotechnology industry.
These attempts to keep consumers here and abroad in the dark is part of a much larger offensive by transnational agrochemical and food corporations to control the character and supply of food worldwide. Monsanto and other companies are buying up large and small seed companies left and right. Soon these agri-biotechnology giants will be the only major source of seed - farmers won't have a choice whether or not to grow genetically engineered crops, and consumers won't have a choice whether or not to eat them. In addition, the industry is fast becoming vertically integrated - Monsanto sells tomato seed to growers, tells them how to grow the tomatoes, buys tomatoes from those growers, and sells them to supermarkets through a packer-shipper subsidiary. As these companies become both seed supplier and produce marketer they increase control over the food supply and increase their ability to profit at the expense of both farmer and consumer.
Companies like Novartis, Pioneer HiBred, and Monsanto gain control over and profit from selling seeds by acquiring patents on genetically engineered crops. For instance, Monsanto has a patent in Europe covering all genetically engineered soybeans. So if European farmers want to grow Monsanto's new soybean varieties, they not only have to buy the seed, they have to pay royalties to the agrochemical giant every year - an arbitrary "technology fee." If these biotechnology companies become the only source of seed by buying up smaller seed companies, they will have more incentive to reap monopoly profits off powerless farmers - which will translate to higher prices for consumers.
If the companies did not have the ability to patent their genetically engineered seeds, it would be much harder for them to get an economic stranglehold on farmers and consumers. The ability to patent living organisms was only recently created by a 1980 Supreme Court decision. Until that time, living organisms were not considered patentable. Many people still do not believe that they should be patentable. When a sunflower is genetically engineered, only a minute amount of foreign material is added to it. The sunflower is still a sunflower - the corporation adding the new material did not "invent" the sunflower. Patent protection gives to that "inventor" rights over all sunflowers modified in the same way, and all their progeny for the next twenty years. Why should a corporation be allowed to have proprietary rights over an entire lineage of living organisms? Why should anyone be given monopoly rights over food crops? Food is just too important to every human being. Our Supreme Court shouldn't be handing over monopoly control of our food supply to transnational agrochemical corporations.
Labor Party members and friends can get involved in the fight against monopoly control of the food supply by joining the No Patents on Life Campaign of the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG). They can also get involved in the fight for our right to know how our food is produced, and our right to choose whether or not we want to eat genetically engineered food.
- Doreen Stabinsky
Doreen Stabinsky teaches in the Environmental Studies Department of California State University in Sacramento. She is a member of the Labor Party's Science and Technology Committee.