You Say Tomato, I Say Fish

By Tooker Gomberg, Edmonton, Alberta.

The basic genetic material of the food we eat is being manipulated for corporate profits. Concerned citizens are starting to fight back.

You heard it here first: the Pillsbury Doughboy and Ronald McDonald are into some serious shit. Eat their food and you can join the huge experiment in the field of Genetic Manipulation (GM).

Large corporate interests like Monsanto (the folks who brought us Agent Orange and PCB’s) are altering genes, the building blocks of life, by splicing together genetic material from one species into another and creating new organisms that never existed before. Bits of a fish gene have been added to a tomato’s. Potatoes are being grown with pesticides built into each cell.

Nobody knows what may happen when these mutant organisms are set loose in the environment. And nobody knows what these new foods will do to our bodies and our health.

The health concerns are real. Dr. Arpad Pusztai, one of the UK’s highest-ranking researchers, claimed that laboratory rats suffered damage to their immune systems and vital organs after being fed GM potatoes. This set off a flurry of protests, and attempts to sack him.

One of the key strategies of the large corporate interests has been to refuse to label products that contain GM materials, for they know that if people had the choice many would choose to avoid the manipulated foods. But without the choice, consumers have considerably less power. And without labeling, if something goes wrong, it will be hard to put the companies responsible on the legal hook.

In Edmonton some activists have been labeling foods themselves with stickers warning customers that certain foods may well contain GM products, like soybeans. If Monsanto has their way, by next year just about all the soybeans grown in the U. S. (except for the organic ones) will be grown from genetically modified seeds. But even the organic crops aren’t safe – pollen from GM crops can cross-pollinate and pollute the organic crops.

Some may see small scale stickering as petty vandalism, but the real vandals are corporations like Monsanto who are willfully destroying our common genetic inheritance.

We all know to look before we leap. Why couldn’t such a precautionary principle apply to our relationship with the natural world? Once these new organisms are created, and let loose in the environment, you can’t bring them back to the laboratory. Nobody knows what they will do to complex ecosystems that have evolved over millennia. We are still reaping the damage from decades of pesticide abuse; what will this new technology bring?

With so much at stake, you might think that democratic countries would be engaged in lively and vigorous public debate. But here in Canada only one medium, the Internet, has been ringing with concern and warning.

But make no mistake – change can come quickly. Issues can catch fire and awaken the public mind. In England, largely thanks to the involvement of a crusading newspaper, the Independent, concern has been catalyzed and many of the nation’s corporate players are suddenly turning away from purchasing and selling genetically modified foods.

Over the past few weeks Unilever, the world’s largest food manufacturing company, made a commitment to stop using GM ingredients in its products throughout Britain. Nestle, Cadbury, and a raft of large companies and supermarkets and quality restaurants followed suit – just like that. The GM industry is reeling, at least in Europe. They desperately need a toehold, and North America is their hope.

Change can happen here too, and will come when outraged citizens begin applying sustained pressure. The long tradition of civil disobedience suggests that when corporations are out of control and the government refuses to act on behalf of citizens, it becomes the duty of citizens to take action themselves.

Concerned citizens can speak out and share information, label products, and push for government action. In Ireland, the Ross Seven, because of an act of civil disobedience, are on trial for partially destroying a field of genetically manipulated sugar beets. In India farmers have set fire to GM fields. Numerous boycotts of genetically manipulated products are underway and can hurt a company where it hurts – in the bottom line.

Genetic manipulation has only recently arrived on the scene, and concerns about food safety, and health are growing. As more people become aware, and share their concern, momentum could build here too for a moratorium on this technology. Perhaps organic food production will get a boost from all the uproar, and Monsanto and their “Frankenstein Foods” will be stopped in their tracks. Imagine how we could all then feast on their just desserts.