Originally published on The Green Fork.
I've been working on a broad range of food and environmental issues since 2005, but food politics became especially personal for me came a few years ago, when I was helping a field producer for a popular comedy show research a story on rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), a controversial man-made hormone supplement given to dairy cows to increase milk production. The drug, at the time, was being marketed under the name Posilac by Monsanto (which sold it to Eli Lilly in 2008) and in the course of my research, I learned that Monsanto had also created DDT and more importantly - at least to me - Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used by the US military during the Vietnam War and the likely cause of high rates of certain cancers, as well as birth defects, among millions of Vietnamese and thousands of veterans of that war, including my father.
At the time, Dad was about a year into treatment for prostate cancer, a common disease among all men but especially those who were exposed to Agent Orange, even sailors like him, who merely served offshore in the Navy, never putting "boots on the ground" but bathed in and brushed their teeth with desalinated ocean water contaminated with runoff. The US government has acknowledged the association between Agent Orange and prostate and many other cancers, if only by paying exposed veterans, but no longer pays reparations to "blue water vets" like my dad. (This and several other things I'll mention in this post are huge enough to warrant posts of their own, but Monsanto's history is extensive, so click on the links for more details and try to keep up). He'd had his prostate removed, which killed his sex life and caused him temporary incontinence, and was emotional all the time as a result of hormone therapy. I was sympathetic to his plight but glad he was ok. The people of Vietnam - who have also never received the reparations promised to them in the Paris Peace accords - have suffered much more serious fallout than men like my father, whose exposure to the chemical was limited.
I already knew a lot about Monsanto before I figured out the Agent Orange connection. I knew that Posilac made cows' udders hurt, and could cause pus to get into your milk. I knew that Monsanto had long ago cornered the seed market and bought up the rights to Terminator technology, which, should they ever go back on their word not to use it, could put the world's food production at the mercy of the corporate giant. I knew the company had a very large team of lawyers, who'd been employed, at times, to sue or threaten to sue small farmers (Some of these farmers never even intended to grow GM crops but rather, found their fields to have been contaminated by drifting pollen. You would think such a farmer could sue Monsanto for the contamination, but you would, unfortunately, be wrong.)
These days, not surprisingly, Monsanto is the subject of a number of growing controversies. A series of "workshops" organized by the USDA and the Department of Justice (part of an investigation into possible antitrust behavior) start later this month, and at least two states - Iowa and Texas - are holding independent investigations in the anticompetitive realm, as well. At a meeting with the Kellogg Foundation back in December, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan called the DOJ investigation "long overdue."
I would argue that, while competition in business is incredibly important, especially when dealing with seeds and by extension, food supplies, that if the US government is interested in protecting farmers, citizens, markets and global ecosystems, a broader - and deeper, and longer - investigation into the safety of genetically modified organisms is also long overdue. Government agencies have approved all of the GMO products that are on the market today, but the overtaxed agency's tendency to rely on industry science places too much trust in a company that my Dad thinks has proven would "rather make a buck than worry about what happens next."
So it's good to see that in addition to the antitrust investigations, the USDA is at least considering the regulation of two genetically modified crops, sugar beets and alfalfa. Both glysophate resistant, otherwise known as "Roundup Ready," they are designed to be sprayed with Roundup, Monsanto's popular weed killer. The overuse of glysophate as an herbicide is problematic in and of itself (carrying the risk of breeding "super weeds" that could build resistance to glysophate and require the application of ever more potent chemicals) but at issue is also the safety of ingesting a plant whose genes have been tampered with enough - by injecting, among other things, E. coli bacteria (is it just me, or does this stuff read like a John Grisham novel?) into them.
The alfalfa case is further along (the USDA has already written an Environmental Impact Study on GE alfalfa -- the sugar beet lawsuit would require one), and according to most people, the one to watch, as it may have broad implications for all genetically modified seed. The organic industry is up in arms on both fronts, as are farmers, and a recent Consumers Union study reveals that consumers are freaked out, too. The comment period on alfalfa ends today, and even the Canadians are watching, and they want you to weigh in, dear reader, as does Food Democracy Now. For their part, Monsanto has a signon letter, too.
I may be comparing apples to oranges here, but at the root of the Agent Orange controversy and the fight against GMO beets and alfalfa are the same issue - public health. I've written before in favor of the precautionary principle, and though I can imagine the comments this post will receive from Monsanto's PR people, I would challenge any one of them to argue against it.
When the US and South Vietnamese governments decided to dump chemicals into the jungle, we were at war, and expediency and efficacy were the order of the day. No doubt, there is a PR man out there who would find a reason that GMO beets and alfalfa are not only safe but imperative. But he'd have a hard time convincing most folks. When I called my Dad last night to ask what he thought about GMOs, he said he thought that he hoped we'd learned a lesson from what happened to him and others in Vietnam, that the government and the chemical companies were too quick to call a product safe and that there needed to be greater accountability -- to people, not just to the bottom line.
Ever my father's daughter, that's where I come down on this stuff, too.