A safe-food crusader answers questions
When Monsanto (the big guy) took on Oakhurst Dairy (the smaller guy) here in Maine, Oakhurst did a bit of hedging on their label language. How could things have happened differently? What should dairies do? — Steve Hoad, Windsor, Maine
For those not familiar with this story, Monsanto sued Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine, in July 2003 for carrying this wording on their non-rBGH milk: “Our Farmers’ Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones.” The wording was true and perfectly legal, but that didn’t stop Monsanto’s lawyers, who claimed that the label was deceiving consumers by implying that Oakhurst’s milk was safer than milk that had artificial growth hormones.
The two sides ended up settling in December. Oakhurst kept its label but had to add the word “Used” after “Hormones.” They were also forced to add another statement: “FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.” Of course, there are significant differences, which I’ll get to in a later question.
As far as what dairies should do, each one has to make its own decision on labeling. A lot of people were disappointed in Oakhurst, feeling that Monsanto didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. I was sorry to see the settlement myself, but it takes a lot of money to go to court, and I’m sure Oakhurst was under considerable financial pressure.
How do we get dairies like Oakhurst not to settle with Monsanto? — Chris Miller, Gray, Maine
I can’t tell an individual dairy how to run its business. But I sure do have an idea, and Maine is the best example of how it can work. For a variety of reasons, consumers from Maine and other northern New England states know more about rBGH than almost anyone else in the country. Because the other major dairies supplying Maine stores were losing market share to Oakhurst, they were forced to go rBGH-free there too. Thanks to this consumer knowledge of rBGH and demand for non-rBGH dairy products, neither one of the two major Maine retail grocery stores — Shaw’s and Hanniford’s — even carries rBGH milk. That’s the power of the consumer.
I think that’s why Monsanto sued Oakhurst. They saw what was happening in Maine and were afraid of the trend spreading. I suggest you let people know to vote with their dollars too. The very existence of rBGH has its foundation in the suppression of knowledge about it. Once the public finds out about it and starts switching to organic or non-rBGH milk, you can be sure that other dairies will take notice of their falling sales and act accordingly.
What do you think about the steroids that are being pumped into our beef and poultry? — D. Goodwin, Norman, Okla.
More than 90 percent of U.S. beef cattle are given growth hormones, a practice banned by the European Union. One of the most widely used hormones, 17 beta-oestradiol, is a proven carcinogen, both initiating and promoting cancer. When the E.U. banned hormone-treated beef, the U.S. complained to the World Trade Organization. The WTO’s panel ruled against the Europeans, who must now pay $150 million a year to protect their citizens from U.S. beef. This is another example of the U.S.’s attitude of, “You’ll eat what we tell you to eat, whether you want it or not.” Of course, the government and biotech corporations are trying the same thing with genetically engineered foods through the WTO. And Americans wonder why people in other countries resent our government so much.
I am curious to know if you are a vegetarian. — Marylou Noble, Portland, Ore.
I’m not a vegetarian, but for a variety of reasons, I eat very little meat, averaging maybe one small portion a week. Any meat I eat is almost always local chicken or turkey, and it’s only cage-free, with no hormones or antibiotics. There is also some Oregon beef that is produced in a similarly sustainable way — we’re very lucky here to have these choices. I don’t actively promote vegetarianism in my work, which concentrates on genetically engineered food. However, I believe that the American system of meat production is very damaging to the environment and significantly reduces the clean water supply and total food supply of the world.
What decisive turn has to be made in global environmental policy over the next five to 10 years to see a real change? Do you think a vegetarian diet by all humans alone could save our planet? — Guido Barth, Hannover, Germany
A movement toward a vegetarian diet would be a huge improvement. Water shortages are looming as one the biggest problems we face. It’s been estimated that it requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, 815 gallons for one pound of chicken. By comparison, it takes 33 gallons to produce one pound of carrots. Regarding world hunger, it takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, eight pounds to produce one pound of pork. This is a pretty inefficient way to provide food for people. Finally, livestock, through their belching and manure, generate huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful (although not as long-lasting) as carbon dioxide. This only makes global warming worse.
But having said all that, no, I don’t believe that a vegetarian diet alone is enough to create a sustainable world. It’s going to take a lot of activity in a lot of areas — switching to renewable energy, stopping deforestation, lessening consumption, making manufactured goods that can be reused (see Cradle to Cradle), combating pollution, etc. One key to all this is the reduction of poverty, which as much as anything else contributes to environmental and social degradation.
Do you think it is wise to widely publicize the Precautionary Principle? If you were to rewrite the principle, what would you include that isn’t there? — Louise Fry, New York, N.Y.
For those not familiar with the Precautionary Principle, it’s an elaborated form of the old adage, “look before you leap.” There are a number of variations. Here’s a good one: “Even in the face of scientific uncertainty, society should take reasonable actions to avert risks where the potential harm to human health or the environment is thought to be serious or irreparable.” The PP first asks if a proposed new technology is necessary, if there are other options that would accomplish the objective with little or no risk. It isn’t advocating avoiding all risks. It’s simply saying to avoid unnecessary risks. Then, if there is evidence of harm or serious unintended consequences, even when not fully proven, take appropriate precautions. This isn’t rocket science, it’s just plain old common sense.
Many nations around the world have already made the PP formal policy and use it in evaluating new technologies, including genetically engineered food. That’s why the concept of the PP scares the daylights out of biotech corporations and the U.S. government, and why they don’t want us to even know about it. If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s what a senior Bush administration official said last year: “The Precautionary Principle is an unjustified constraint on business and [the administration] does not even recognize the existence of the doctrine. We consider [the PP] to be a mythical concept, perhaps like a unicorn.” It’s a classic example of this administration in action. First, make business a priority over anything else. Second, if you don’t like something, pretend it doesn’t exist. They’ve done the same thing with scientific evidence of global warming. I know this sounds like I’m Bush-bashing (well, I am), but to be fair, for decades, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, corporations producing genetically engineered food have gotten virtually anything they wanted. This hasn’t been a partisan issue.
If it were up to me, not only would I widely publicize the PP, I’d have it taught in school and in neon lights on Times Square.
I wouldn’t rewrite or add anything to the PP. For genetically engineered food, global warming, or other issues, it’s just necessary to muster the will to act accordingly, to walk the talk.
Recently I have discovered the permaculture movement, and truly believe it holds the potential to change the world. Are you familiar with its philosophy? — Jim Chamberlin, Brainerd, Minn.
I’ve heard of permaculture — actually, my daughter was studying it for a while — and know that it involves working with nature, not against it, to create and maintain a sustainable society. I’m all for that. For those who want to check it out, go to permaculture.net.
I am wondering if you have any insight into why the U.S. and Europe have such different approaches to the environment. — Susan Doleman, Stoneham, Mass.
This question comes up quite often. First, I think there is a cultural difference, at least with a number of European countries, when it comes to food. They consider local food a part of their culture, take more time with their meals, and are far more concerned about quality, while we have more of a fast-food mentality that emphasizes homogenized food, with the biggest quantity for the cheapest prices. Second, they’ve been through mad cow disease, especially in England, where they were told by the government not to worry, only to find out that consumers’ suspicions were accurate and that the government was wrong. Finally, their mainstream media is far better at reporting the scientific debate and government scandals about genetically engineered food. In the U.S., this is pretty much ignored, or in some cases, suppressed. In 1997, Monsanto threatened to sue a TV station in Tampa if it aired an expose on rBGH. The station buckled under and ended up firing two reporters when they refused to sanitize the story.
Bottom line: You can’t always believe what you hear from the mainstream media or the government. Moreover, what often appears as straight news on TV or in newspapers has actually come from a corporate PR department. It’s wise to supplement that with information from independent news sources, like Grist, Jim Hightower’s newsletter, and foreign news bureaus.
Can you explain to me how corporations came to be endowed with the same rights as people? This is a major source of irritation to me. — Sue McFadden, Mineola, Texas
It wasn’t always this way. In the early years of the U.S., corporations were strictly controlled. An obscure court case in 1886, Santa Clara Country v. Southern Pacific Railroad, is usually cited as the turning point in granting corporations constitutional rights, i.e., giving them the legal status and protections intended for citizens. For ideas on what you can do, I suggest checking out reclaimdemocracy.org.
Do you think Monsanto scientists eat genetically modified foods (and feed them to their children)? Have they convinced themselves it is safe, or do they secretly buy organic? — Anita Fieldman, Seattle, Wash.
Whenever I’m dealing with people, I try to put myself in their shoes to gain a better understanding of their perspective. But it’s really, really tough for me to pretend I’m a Monsanto scientist! So, I couldn’t really say. But here’s a funny story: In December 1999, this was the statement posted in the cafeteria of Monsanto’s headquarters in England: “In response to concern raised by our customers … we have decided to remove, as far as is practicable, genetically modified soy and maize from all food products served in our restaurant … We have taken the above steps to ensure that you, the customer, can feel confident in the food we serve.”
Where I live, it is hard to find good organic produce at a reasonable cost. To whom can we direct our complaints? Where do you shop? How do you know the market is presenting true organic foods at a good value? How do you feel about fish? — Jennifer Lahey, South Salem, N.Y.
I’m sorry you live in an area with limited organic food options, but I know you’re not alone. A lot of areas in the country have the same problem. I’m very lucky to live in the Portland area, which has many stores and farmers’ markets with local organic food. My family contracts with a local organic farmer in a system called community-supported agriculture (CSA). We pay the farmer up front in the spring and then get fresh vegetables and fruits throughout the growing season. Everyone wins — the farmer gets a good price without losing any money to a middleman, the food is delicious, and we’re supporting local, sustainable agriculture. At other times of the year, we shop at grocery stores that provide organic food. If they’re labeled properly, I assume they are what they say they are.
For your situation, there’s encouraging news. Organic food sales have been skyrocketing across the country, growing around 20 percent a year for the past decade. This fact isn’t lost on retailers, who may be looking to satisfy market demand. I suggest you write a letter or talk to your local retail stores asking them to stock more organic food. If you can get some of your friends to do this too, it will make your argument much more powerful. If there is a local nonprofit that is interested in sustainable food issues, you could also link up with them. Finally, you may have some CSAs or farmers’ markets in your area. As I said before, voting with your dollars can make a huge difference.
I’m worried about the mercury levels in fish, so I only eat it a few times a month.
Is there any evidence that pollution from industry and utilities in the Midwest, precipitated by rain onto fields in New York state and New England, ends up in the crops? That would include, of course, organically grown vegetables, fruits, and grains. — Dave Stone, Albany, N.Y.
Dave, for God’s sake, you’re my brother-in-law. Couldn’t you have come up with an easier question? Do you know how many phone calls I had to make so I wouldn’t look like a total idiot trying to answer this? Don’t you have anything better to do in Albany, like shovel tons of snow?
OK, I feel better now. According to Pete Gonzalves at Oregon Tilth, a highly regarded certifying agency for organic food, this shouldn’t be a major problem. For the most part, plants get their nutrients through their root systems, which typically take in what they need and exclude what they don’t want. Pete hasn’t come across any situation where this pollution has been harmful, but it could still be possible.
Are any genetically engineered products labeled? And should we assume that all dairy products contain rBGH? — Alane Celli, Charlottesville, Va.
Genetically engineered products are not labeled, even though polls consistently show that 80 to 90 percent of all Americans want them labeled. So why aren’t consumers informed? Because the FDA decided that genetically engineered foods are “substantially equivalent” to non-GE foods and therefore don’t have to be labeled. Companies including genetically engineered food can voluntarily inform consumers on their labeling. Of course, none do, realizing that the development of genetically engineered food had absolutely nothing to do with what consumers want and that labeling their food as such would devastate their sales.
There are two ways to know if your dairy products are rBGH-free. First, organic dairy products, by definition, are. Second, if the label says that the product doesn’t contain rBGH (also known as rBST) or artificial hormones, you should be OK. If the product doesn’t have one of these two kinds of labels, I would assume it contains rBGH. There may be, of course, some dairies that don’t use milk from rBGH cows, but if they don’t label — better safe than sorry.
Is any of the corn seed sold for home gardens GMO seed? Do you have to buy organic seed to be sure that you’re not growing GMO corn? — Tricia Knoll, Portland, Ore.
I called the Junction City Farm and Garden store and they weren’t aware of any GMO seed in Oregon being sold for home gardens. It’s mainly used for commercial growers. So, you wouldn’t have to buy organic seed to get non-GMO. However, you should be aware that there has been a lot of inadvertent genetic contamination of corn, soybeans, and canola. Check out the Union of Concerned Scientists for their report on this, which just came out about a month ago.
I don’t have any information on the possible effects of rBGH or rBST, and I stay pretty well informed about food safety. What exactly are the possible effects? — Cristy Williamson, Palmdale, Calif.
With rBGH, cancer tops the list. rBGH increases levels of another growth hormone, IGF-1, which is present and identical in cows and humans. Elevated levels of IGF-1 have been associated with increased cancer risk in humans. Monsanto and the FDA contend there’s no problem because the additional IGF-1 coming from rBGH milk is destroyed by digestion. However, several reputable studies have demonstrated that in the presence of casein, a milk protein, most of the IGF-1 is protected. We can’t say with 100 percent certainty (yet) that rBGH will increase your risk of getting cancer, but the evidence is compelling.
All 15 nations of the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other nations have banned the use of rBGH. In some cases, the main reason cited is that the drug is so harmful to the cows. Scientists in both Canada and the EU have cited human health concerns also. The U.S. has tried three times to get the Codex Alimentarius, the UN’s main food safety body, to declare rBGH safe. Three times the Codex has voted not to do so.
The other problem cited is that rBGH increases mastitis rates in cows, which is treated by antibiotics. This can create a situation where antibiotic resistant bacteria then enter humans through milk, which can lead to increased antibiotic resistance in us.
There is simply no reason — price, nutrition, milk supply, anything — to buy rBGH dairy products and expose you and your family to these risks. Even many of the FDA’s own scientists objected strongly to rBGH’s approval, to no avail.
As a new teacher of chemistry in high school, what would you recommend I include in my classroom that could help educate high-schoolers about environmental issues without being too political? Or should I just not worry about being political in this case? — Charles Rettiger, Gainesville, Ga.
How about a unit on rBGH? Or, how about a unit on pesticides? They both involve chemicals and I’ll bet you and your students would learn a tremendous amount about what you can do to protect yourselves and the environment. This would be very useful information and I think your students would really enjoy it — everyone is interested in food. I don’t know if that’s being too political. I hope not — the students and their families could take what they’ve learned and make their own decisions about their food.
What’s the best way to effect national labeling regulations for GMOs, milk, etc.? — Craig Collier, Brownfield, Texas
There is a great organization, the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Food, that’s been working to label genetically engineered foods for years and has all kinds of suggestions and exciting news about recent developments. The director’s name is even Craig, so he’s got to be a good guy, right?
What can I do to fight genetically engineered food production? — Nandra Evans, Deland, Fla.
First, I’d get some basic information on genetically engineered food by checking out the websites of the Organic Consumers Association, Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Food (see above), Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, or many others. As I said before, the best single book I’ve seen on the entire food scene is John Robbins’ The Food Revolution. Second, I’d buy non-GE food whenever possible. Third, I’d get together with others who you think may have similar concerns, whether in a pre-existing organization or just among people you know. Finally, I’d start asking grocery stores to stock non-rBGH dairy products and more organic produce. The important thing is to get started with some easy, basic acts. Everything you do, no matter how small, will be a step in the right direction.
Produce has an organic designation to indicate it’s met (or exceeded) certain standards. Is there something similar for, say, fish? — C. Kaye Lowe, Boston, Mass.
For fish, I’m not aware of an organic designation. However, there are big differences in wild fish and farmed fish. Farmed fish create all kinds of environmental problems and I recommend avoiding them. There have also been experiments done in genetically engineering fish. This is really far out there and could lead to the destruction of wild fish stocks.
Are there sister or affiliated organizations attempting to do what you are doing in the rest of the Northwest states? If not, are you intending to widen your horizons? — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.
We’re just in Oregon and so far we’re the only Physicians for Social Responsibility chapter in the country to address genetically engineered food. One group we work with is Northwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, which covers a bigger geographical area and more subjects. Also, there are national organizations, like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and others that have members in the Northwest, but I’m not sure if they have any specific localized programs.
For the next few years, we’ll most likely be staying with our two core issues in Oregon: rBGH and the open-air growing of biopharmaceutical crops. After that, we’ll assess the situation and see what we’d like to do. For now, we certainly support efforts by other groups anywhere in the country (or world) to address the environmental and human health problems, known and unknown, raised by genetically engineered food.
What can I do about the deer population moving into my garden? What can I do to get my neighbors to stop using pesticides and herbicides? — Kara Lynn Klarner, Eureka, Calif.
For the deer, I’d check the Oregon State Extension Service. For talking to your neighbors, consult the Washington Toxics Coalition. My thanks to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, which has all kinds of great information.
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