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Genetically Modified Plants 

Another reason to buy organic is the issue of genetic modification or engineering of foodstuffs. The hot topic as we move into the new millennium is "Frankenfoods," science's answer to modern agricultures problems of supply and demand, or so it is said. The public backlash to genetic modification of food is in full swing. In an article from the Manchester Guardian in the summer of 1999, Joanna Blythman writes, 2 recently, the Tories have intensified their efforts, demanding food labeling to be extended to cover all GM {modified} ingredients (including derivatives, and additives);

Obligatory labeling on animal feedstuffs, so that GM ingredients cannot continue to be anonymously included in feed (as is happening at present); statutory, not voluntary, regulation of field trials; a public register of these trials...All UK supermarkets and leading food brands have now deserted the sinking ship, and are pulling the plug on GM ingredients.

What started as a steady trickle has become a flood, with recent high-profile defections including Nestle, Unilever, Cadbury."The fast food chain McDonalds removed over twenty genetically modified "ingredients" from its U.K. items in response to the public protest. However , the same Gm products have not been removed in North America.

The most pertinent issue in genetic engineering seems to be the destruction of the natural biodiversity of the planet, particularly within food crops. Biologists warn of the potential problems : "Variety is not only the spice of life, but the very staff of life. Diversity is nature's failsafe mechanism against extinction. Any Banker recommends a diversified portfolio in case one stock fails."

Combine this with the increasing interdependence of chemical farming and the new bioengineered crops with a view to the bottom line and you have a complex problem for which there is no easy solution.

It is not that farmers and agribusiness companies don't deserve to make a profit: everyone does. However, no one deserves to make a profit at the expense of whole nations or, worse, the earth herself. Genetically engineered food is patented. Farmers can be fined or sent to jail for keeping seed to replant the next year. The April 1999 Issue of Harper's magazine reprinted a letter that agribusiness giant Monsanto sent to thirty thousand farmers the previous year.

The letter warned farmers  that "saving and replanting seeds from genetically engineered crops constitutes 'piracy' Now consider that sales of Roundup Ready soybeans, a GM crop, have gone from one million acres in 1996 to over thirty five million acres in 1999 and the predicament of farmers becomes clear. 

The same article also mentioned that Monsanto, "since1996, spent $6 billion acquiring seed companies like Cargill international Seed ($1.4 billion) and DeKalb Genetics ($2.3 billion). Rival Du Pont followed suit by spinning off its petroleum division, Conoco, and forming a $1.7 billion 'research alliance' with Pioneer Hi-bred International, the world's largest seed company.

" Tim Yeo, the U.K. agriculture minister, also quoted in the Manchester Guardian, says "far from GM crops being a way of improving food supplies, there is a risk that their introduction is intended mainly to enhance the market position of a small number of companies, I believe that both Britain and Europe  could secure a commercial advantage if a completely segregated source of GM crops can be preserved.

Of course, if you live in a tiny rural village in Indonesia where twenty varieties of rice have traditionally been grown, then the impact of both chemical farming and patented genetically engineered foods is even more extreme. These farmers can become permanently in debt to the owners of the seed patents, forced to buy seed that they can't afford every year, forced to buy the chemicals that these seeds need to grow: and meanwhile they lose the natural biodiversity of their habitat and diet.

The water, their drinking supply, becomes polluted with the chemicals. And either the pests develop some immunity to the chemicals over time or their natural predators, who would in most years keep the pests under check, succumb to the toxicity of the. It's a nasty vicous cycle.

It is, of course, the ultimate irony. As garrison Wilkes of the UNiversity of Massachusetts says, "The products of agro-technology are displacing the source upon which the technology is based. It is analogous to taking stones from the foundation to repair the roof. " The problems of monoculture agriculture have been devestating for humankind since they began. Here is a partial list of the human, environmental, and economic disasters that have resulted from monoculture farming and the erosion of biodiversity in agriculture:

  • 1840s:Irish potato blight: 2 million die in the famine.
    1860s: Vine disaster cripple Europe's wine industry
    1870-90:Coffee rust robs Ceylon of a valuable export
    1942:Rice crop in Bengal destroyed;millions of people die
    1946: u.S. oat crop devastated by fungus epidemic
    1950s: Wheat stem rust devastates U.S. harvest
    1970: Maize fungus threatens 80 percent of U.S. corn hectarage.

Is it worth the cost, both monetary and environmental, to pursue this line of research and thinking? Surely we can read the writing on the wall, and we must have the ability to respond, to be responsible, in a more appropriate way to the demands of the future.

Reference: Hydrosols The Next Aromatherapy: Suzanne Catty



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