The Future of Food - Fake FoodsApril 09, 2006
Investigative Reporter, Pam Killeen interviews Deborah Garcia about her new movie, The Future of Food.
Could Deborah Garciaís movie help save our food supply?
Since the introduction of genetically modified organisms into our food supply over 10 years ago, many scientists, farmers and consumers have voiced their concerns over a variety of issues, such as safety, drift, contamination and so on. Internationally, there are already signs that genetic engineering (GE) is more than just a risky business decision. There are consistent reports now showing that this untested new technology is already having negative consequences on the farmers and the environment.
To get to the bottom of the issues surrounding this radical new science, Deborah Garcia wrote, produced and directed the new movie, The Future of Food.
Pam: How did you become interested in doing a movie about genetically engineered food?
Deborah: In 1970, when I was still in college, I began to study the area of organic food and farming. Agriculture has always intrigued me. For many years, I had been thinking about making a film about the relationship between agriculture and agribusiness. Four years ago, I began to think more seriously about making that film so I started studying what was going on in agriculture. It became really obvious that genetic engineering was the hot topic.
Pam: How did you first learn about genetic engineering?
Deborah: Actually, I have a friend who is an organic farmer and also happens to be a filmmaker. I told him I was thinking of making a film about agriculture, focusing on pesticides (organochlorines, xenoestrogens etcÖ). He proceeded to tell me about companies like Monsanto and how they are making seeds that are herbicide resistant to their own spray. That means that farmers can spray their plants with Monsantoís proprietary Roundup herbicide, kill the weeds yet not kill the plant because it has been genetically engineered to tolerate that spray. That sounded very strange to me. He continued to explain to me that herbicide resistance was a new technology (this was in 1998 or 1999). It just seemed so bizarre to me that their idea of an ďadvanceĒ in technology was to be able to heavily spray a plant without killing it. I could hardly believe it. I started studying this phenomenon some more and decided that I should do a movie about it.
Pam: This subject ties into issues surrounding seeds, seed technology and seed control. Can you tell me what you have learned about Monsanto since the inception of genetically engineered seeds?
Deborah: Monsanto has spent billions of dollars buying up seed companies in the 1990s and it recently purchased Seminis, which is the largest vegetable seed company. They have been consolidating the seed supply. Now, the company that makes the herbicides and pesticides controls the seeds. Basically, what that means is that they are trying to corner the market place. This is a huge concern for those of us who see the dangers in having our food supply controlled by a few giant multinational corporations whose only responsibility is to make money.
Pam: You mentioned the word responsibility ...what about accountability?
Deborah: As far as I know, there isn't anything in place to protect us from what may happen if these crops fail or to protect neighboring farms if their crops are contaminated. And so the whole question of liability now is one that has been reversed. Monsanto owns the patent on the seeds and the farmers just lease them. If these genetically engineered seeds blow onto a farmerís field, Monsanto could come on their field, test their crops, demand money from them and claim ownership of the crops. The farmer, who probably doesn't want to have genetically engineered seeds anywhere near his field, now has this responsibility. Itís a very strange situation. It seems like Monsanto has all the power and that they don't have any accountability or responsibility. If contamination occurs on an innocent neighboring farm, somehow the innocent farmer has to pay for the contamination. Itís illogical. This is now the way that the system is working. Itís the opposite from what you would imagine.
Pam: The biotech industry has made a lot of promises in order to lure farmers into using their technology. For example, they have promised that yields would increase and pesticide use would decrease. I've read statistics that yields are down and that pesticide use has increased.
Deborah: It seems to me that the biotech industry has been using a great deal of propaganda and bad science to be able to peddle their products. During the first George Bush administration, in order to determine whether or not these crops would be regulated, both the government and the biotech industry decided that these seeds would be considered ďsubstantially equivalentĒ to normal seeds. This is simply not true. The reason why they came up with this determination was so that GE foods wouldn't have to be regulated, tested nor labeled.
They numb us into believing this by saying that nature has been doing this for thousands of years. They want us to believe that itís the same as crossing one plant with another. However, itís very different than that because itís actually a cell invasion technology where they use bacteria and viruses to take DNA from one species and put it into another that it would never get in without human manipulation (they use a gun to shoot it in). You would never have a fish mating with a tomato you would never have a human gene in rice. These things would just not happen. When they say genetic engineering is exactly the same as a naturally occurring process such as hybridization, and not to worry about it because we have been doing it forever, don't believe them. People need to educate themselves and realize that it is a very, very different process. Basically, they are making synthetic seeds. If people really understood this, they would stay away from anything that has been genetically engineered.
Pam: What have you found out in the fields? How big a problem is the contamination?
Deborah: I think contamination from genetically engineered crops is a real problem. Itís virtually impossible to keep them contained. They are not in a confined environment. They are blowing all over the place, crossing with other plants. Some people think that horizontal gene transfer occurs from one species to another and that the cauliflower mosaic virus (which is used to promote the action of the DNA) actually crosses these boundaries. Itís not supposed to be in the new species so it has to have this extra push to make it express itself. A lot of people think that this actually makes these plants more aggressive than non-engineered plants.
Pam: How much contamination from genetic engineering could I potentially be consuming in a certified organic product?
Deborah: Thereís some confusion about this issue now because organic farmers, for example, can't be organic if theyíre growing genetically engineered seeds. USDA organic guidelines tolerate a certain percentage of contamination from genetically engineered crops in organic crops. I guess that is something that organic regulators need to deal with because clearly if someone is buying organic, they don't want to feel like they are eating anything that is contaminated with genetic engineering. Obviously, most organic farmers would do anything to avoid having their fields contaminated. I think it is important to continue to support organic farming and organic farmers so that they become a very powerful entity in our food system today.
Pam: You've spoken about risks such as crop contamination, but what about risks for human health?
Deborah: There have been virtually no satisfactory safety studies done on genetically engineered crops. Basically, we are the ones who are being tested -- we are the guinea pigs. The way they make this technology is by using viruses and bacteria to cross species boundaries. Many people are concerned that they may now have bacteria, viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in every cell of genetically engineered food that was never there before. Any tests that have been done are difficult to trust as they have been funded by the biotech industry themselves. Some independent sources have found potential health problems (immune system problems, problems with organs, weight, stomach lesions and rashes).
Pam: Studies show that if these foods were labeled, the majority of shoppers wouldn't buy them. What can consumers do to protect themselves if they want to avoid GE food?
Deborah: Consumers can choose to buy organic, go to farmers markets or join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and get foods delivered from a farm. I think that consumers need to make their wants known. When people shop, they need to ask the produce manager to point out the foods which are genetically engineered. Imagine what could happen if 20, 30 or 40 people a week start demanding to know whether foods are genetically engineered. If they choose not to buy genetically engineered food, we will hopefully see a reduction or removal of them in our grocery stores. Since the customer is always right, they can force these businesses to remove genetically engineered foods. Some studies indicate that up to 90% of consumers would like to see genetically engineered foods labeled. The biotech companies are too nervous to label their products. Since these foods aren't currently labeled, consumers buy them blindly. If consumers knew that certain foods were genetically engineered, they could vote by not purchasing them. Also, consumers need to write our politicians and let them know that we want genetically engineered food labeled and properly tested by independent researchers.
Pam: In order to diversify our food supply, we need to encourage the farmers to save their seeds. If consumer demand moves in this direction would we not also help prevent Monsanto from controlling potentially all the seeds on the planet?
Deborah: Thatís another huge issue. Now that Monsanto has purchased Seminis, the largest vegetable seeds company on the planet, farmers may be forced to lease more seeds. Thatís the problem with genetically engineered seeds. Farmers aren't allowed to save them, reuse them or trade them with other farmers which they have always been able to do. I think itís very important that people protect our food supply by demanding that these seeds are part of a commons rather than letting them be genetically manipulated, controlled and locked up by a corporation. A lot of farmers are very concerned that Monsanto is buying up more and more seed companies. They are concerned for a variety of reasons: farmers will have to pay higher costs to buy these seeds (because of patents and licensing fees); and, if a few multinationals control the seeds, we will see less bio-diversity in our food supply. No seeds, no food.
Pam: How has a company like Monsanto been able to gain so much control over the seed supply?
Monsanto is suing a lot of farmers for contamination or for growing genetically engineered crops without a license. They shouldn't have to pay a licensing fee to buy seeds and they shouldn't be sued for having their fields contaminated by Monsantoís seeds. Itís a huge issue and I think itís another reason why people need to support organic farmers. Both the Canadian and American governments need to increase their budget for organic farming. Currently, the USDAís budget for organic farming is only .01 percent of their entire budget. There simply has to be more support and more protection for organic farmers from the government. Consumers can show their support by purchasing organic foods. It seems as though our governments are asleep at the wheel. They simply haven't shown organic agriculture the support it deserves. After all, it is the fastest growing segment of our food supply today.
Pam: The European organic farmers get far more support than the organic farmers in the US or Canada. In your movie, Dr. Chuck Benbrook states that subsidies are nothing more than a ďseed rebateĒ that ends up in the pockets of companies like Monsanto. He also says that, in actuality, farmers are not making any extra money growing genetically engineered crops and if they think they are making money, they must have really creative accountants.
Deborah: I think that farms should be supported by society and government, but not in the way that itís happening now. In other words, the subsidies only support monoculture agriculture (corn, cotton, soy, Canola). There is an overproduction of these crops. The big, wealthy farmers get the big check and the small farmers get very little in the form of subsidies. This is not an equitable situation. I think society should support more small farmers in order to help keep them in business and support biodiversity. The way the situation is right now is wrong - our tax dollars pass through the big growers and end up in the pockets of companies like Monsanto.
Pam: What do you see as being the future of our food?
Deborah: I think there are two futures and we are at a crossroads right now: One future is industrial pesticides, chemical laden, tasteless food that is heavily processed, controlled by huge multinational corporations for their own benefit; the other future is exemplified by organic farmers who farm and feed people regionally with good healthy food that people can feel safe eating and eat in a sense of community and family. If people really understood what was happening to our food supply, they would choose good, safe, healthy food grown by a local farmer. If we choose to eat this way, we will also benefit by supporting local economies.
Pam: Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. I would also like to thank you for doing this movie. Iím sure it will help consumers make healthier food choices.
Deborah: Thanks for interviewing me.
© 2006 Pam Killeen www.pamkilleen.com. All rights reserved. Permission to Distribute with acknowledgement.
Pam Killeen is an Investigative Reporter and Health Watchdog, linking together subjects such as health, nutrition and agriculture. Her website: www.pamkilleen.com and email: email@example.com.