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The 'Monsanto Act' and the Threatened Future of Food

Congress passed a bill last week that "protects genetically modified seeds from litigation in the face of health risks." What does that really mean?

Congress passed a bill last week that included a provision which "protects genetically modified seeds from litigation in the face of health risks." This provision is now called the "Monsanto Act." This provision was snuck into an "emergency" bill (its always an emergency, isn't it?) which prevented the shutdown of the government, and many of those who voted for it may not have actually read it.

We don't know the eventual consequences of genetically engineered food—we don't even know the current consequences of it. I keep thinking back to the invention of plastics, which must have seemed like a magical solution, but now pollute every ecosystem in the world and also our bodies, causing hormonal changes, cancers, and other effects. There are often unintended and unforeseen consequences in the implementation of new technologies that become obvious only decades or even generations afterward. We are currently running an uncontrolled experiment on the entire population of this country, and other parts of the Earth, without any agreements or controls.

We don't know what the intensive consumption of GMOs will mean for human beings a generation or two from today. Some studies—though the results are contested—appear to demonstrate sterility in rats who are fed a primarily GMO diet for several generations. In The Evolution Explosion: How Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change Stanford Professor Stephen Palumbi recognizes that traditional breeding techniques are also a form of genetic manipulation, ‘‘both artificial selection and genetic manipulation are a kind of evolutionary change,’’ but genetic manipulation differs from artificial selection because it ‘‘can be fast—inserting a trait never-before possessed by a plant almost instantly.’’ This can result in ‘‘very different evolutionary processes and potentially very different outcomes.’’

The argument—made by the Gates Foundation and Monsanto—is that GE food is necessary to sustain the current human population and its continued growth over the next century. Monsanto is currently developing drought-resistant crops: "Because water shortages are predicted for many parts of the world, Monsanto expects these drought-tolerant plants to be a huge commercial success," writes The Economist.

According to Fritjof Capra in The Hidden Connections: To create genetically modified organisms, scientists splice genes into viruses or “virus-like elements” and use these unnatural “gene transfer vectors” to “smuggle foreign genes into the selected recipient cells.” One danger of this process is that “aggressive infectious vectors could easily recombine with existing disease-causing viruses to generate new virulent strains.” Capra cites the work of geneticists Mae-Wan Ho and other critics who think “that the emergence of a host of new viruses and antibiotic resistances over the past decade may well be connected with the large-scale commercialization of genetic engineering during the same period.”

According to many critics, GE only amplifies the mistakes made by the Green Revolution: “Like high-input agriculture, genetic engineering is often justified as a humane technology, one that feeds more people with better food,” writes biologist David Ehrenfeld. “Nothing could be further from the truth. With very few exceptions, the whole point of genetic engineering is to increase the sales of chemicals and bio-engineered products to dependent farmers.” Many GE crops are only effective for a number of years, until the pests they are designed to poison figure out how to mutate themselves (similar to what is happening with antibiotic resistances).

The alternative to GE would be a global initiative to train farmers in organic and permaculture methods of agriculture. Many studies indicate that organic and permaculture-based farming can be more productive—and uses much less fossil fuel, thus producing less CO2—but it is also more intensive and requires a higher level of training, care, and connection to the local land. Over the last two hundred years, the mythology of modern civilization was that people do not want to farm—they want to lead urban lives and be part of "progress." Farming should be done by machines, as much as possible. We need to reverse this ideology/mythology, as climate change and drought could endanger our current industrial food-production system over the next years. I see more and more people feeling a desire to grow their own food and reconnect with the land.

I tend to think that we need to question our whole relationship to technology, which as Martin Heidegger pointed out, is not just an instrument but a way of "enframing" the world as a "standing reserve," a resource for humans to use as they wish. The technologists who are currently running our world are trapped in a worldview that sees the development of ever-more intensive hyper-technologies as beneficial—it is beneficial, in the short-term, to corporate profits, but endangers our future existence on the Earth, if we want to have one.

This month, we're challenging the GOOD community to host a dinner party and cook a meal that contains fewer ingredients than the number of people on the guest list. Throughout March, we'll share ideas and resources for being more conscious about our food and food systems. Join the conversation at and on Twitter at #chewonit.

Farming image from Shutterstock

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