Europeans would be forgiven for thinking that the war against genetic tampering
in the food supply has been all but won. There are labels in the supermarkets
aisles, there is mounting political support for organic farming, and Greenpeace
campaigners are seen to represent such a mainstream point of view that the
courts have let them off for uprooting genetically modified crops. With 35
countries world-wide that have, or are developing, mandatory GM labeling laws,
you’d think that the North American agricultural export industry would have no
choice but to bow to the demand: keep GM seeds far away from their unaltered
counterparts and, in general, move away from the controversial crops.
be wrong. The real strategy is to introduce so much genetic pollution in the
food system that meeting the consumer demand for GM-Free is seen as not
possible. The idea, quite simply, is to pollute faster than countries can
legislate – then change the laws to fit the contamination.
reports from the front lines of this invisible war.
April, Monsanto recalled about 10 percent of the GM canola seeds it had
distributed in Canada because of reports that the seeds had been contaminated by
another modified rape-seed variety, one not approved for export. The most
well-known of these cases is StarLink corn. The genetically altered crop (meant
for animals and deemed unfit for humans) made its way into much of the U.S. corn
supply after the buffer zones surrounding the fields where it was grown proved
wholly incapable of containing the wind-borne pollen. Aventis, which owns the
StarLink patent, proposed a solution: instead of recalling the corn, why not
approve its consumption for humans?
then there is the now famous case of Percy Schmeiser, the Saskatchewan farmer
who was sued by Monsanto after its genetically altered canola seeds blew into
his field off passing trucks and from neighbouring fields. Monsanto says that
when the seeds took root, Mr. Schmeiser was stealing its property. The court
agreed and, two months ago, ordered the farmer to pay the company $20 thousand,
plus legal costs. “I was really alarmed at the fact that it said in the decision
that it doesn’t matter how it gets into a farmer’s field,” Mr. Schmeiser said,
“whether it blows in or cross-pollinates, floods, comes in on farm machinery –
it doesn’t belong to the farmer. It belongs to Monsanto.” The ruling was a
warning to independent North American farmers trying to go at it without the
gene giants: try it, and you’ll pay the price.
Stephens, president of Nature’s Path, an organic food company in British
Columbia, told the New York Times earlier this month that GM material is even
finding its way into organic crops. “We have found traces in corn that has been
grown organically for 10-15 years. There’s no wall high enough to keep that
stuff contained.” Indeed, there is so much genetic contamination in North
American fields that a group of organic farmers is considering launching a class
action suit against the bio-tech industry for lost revenues – how can you sell
to consumers demanding GMO-Free foods when you can’t keep the genes out of your
week, the grounds for this case received a significant boost. Loblaws, Canada’s
largest supermarket chain with 40 per cent of the market, sent out a letter to
all of its health food suppliers, including Nature’s Path, informing them that
they were no longer permitted to claim that their foods were “Non-GMO.” Company
executives argue there is just no way of knowing what is genuinely GM free.
“Dear Valued Suppliers,” the letter begins, and goes on to demand written
commitments “to remove Non-GMO claims from …packaging no later than September 1
2001” and “make all necessary arrangements to sticker over, or otherwise cover,
Non-GM claims prior to the September 1, 2001 deadline.”
can already see the handiwork in the aisles of Canada’s major
supermarkets: hand-drawn black scribbles on boxes of organic breakfast cereal
where the labels used to be. At first glance, Loblaws’ decision doesn’t seem to
make market sense. Although roughly 70 per cent of foods sold in Canada contain
GM ingredients, more than 90 per cent of Canadians tell pollsters they want
labels telling them if their food’s genetic make-up has been tampered with. It
would seem sensible for supermakets to give customers what they want, as chains
like Tesco and Safeway tried to do by labeling their own lines “GMO- Free” when
the frankenfoods protests first came to Europe. In North America, however the
supermarkets are part of a broader agricultural strategy to present labeling as
simply too complicated. In part this is because chains like Loblaws are not only
food retailers but manufacturers of their own private lines. Loblaws’ line is
called “President’s Choice” or “Memories Of,” containing such Third World-Chic
products as Memories of Kobe Sauce and Memories of Singapore Noodles. Company
chairman Galen Weston has publicly warned that "there will be a cost associated"
with labeling and if Loblaws sells some products that are labeled “GMO-Free” it
weakens attempts to block GM labeling for the rest of its wares.
does all this mean to Europeans and your far more advanced campaigns against GMO?
It means that your labels could soon be as obsolete as the scratched out ones in
our supermarkets. If contamination continues to spread in North America, and
agri-business’s current push to overturn Brazil’s ban on genetically modified
seeds is successful, it will become next to impossible to import non-GM
soybeans. Backed up by predatory intellectual property laws, the agribusiness
companies are on their way to getting the global food supply so hopelessly cross
pollinated, commingled, contaminated, polluted and generally mixed up, that
legislators may well be forced to throw up their hands.
we look back on this moment, munching our genetically modified Natural Values™
health-style food, our human approved StarLink tacos, and our mutated farmed
Atlantic salmon (escaped from their pens, recaptured “wild” in the Pacific), we
may well remember it as the precise turning point when we lost our real food
options. Perhaps Loblaws will even launch a new product to bottle that wistful
feeling, Memories of Consumer Choice.