As we enter 2001, a year that for an entire generation has been synonymous with the wondrous double-edged sword of human technological advancement, now is a good time to take stock of the so-called progress being made in the realm of genetic engineering that is literally transforming the way our food is grown, marketed and sold. As last November’s Mansfield Conference at the University of Montana made abundantly clear, the ability of consumers to purchase food products that are free of genetically modified ingredients or processing agents is becoming increasingly difficult. While large corporate food producers rush to embrace the enormous profit potential of genetic engineering, regulatory agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration face increasing political and corporate pressure to approve those products and get them on the market as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, many people in the public and private sectors, including doctors, medical researchers, nutrition and agriculture experts and other concerned citizens are saying that we need to put brakes on, ask more questions and develop a more comprehensive understanding of exactly what is being unleashed on our environment—and ourselves—before we let the proverbial genie out of the bottle.
How ironic that at a time when so much public discourse is focusing on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), from food product safety to European consumers’ opposition to GMOs, the University of Montana no longer funds one of its most popular and innovative classes on the subject. Since 1996, the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) has been teaching students the fundamentals of organic, small-scale, sustainable agriculture and in the process providing tens of thousands of pounds of food to Montana food pantries, more than 26,000 pounds in 2000 alone. In 1999 the class was moved to the UM Continuing Education program and is now supported entirely by student fees. According to course instructor Josh Slotnick, the future of PEAS remains far from certain.
Rank of Montana nationally among wheat producing states: 3 Minimum number of patents that have been issued for so-called “terminator” seed technologies, which render crops sterile after one growing cycle: 30 Share of a farmer’s gross income spent on seeds and chemicals in 1975: 9.5 percent Share of a farmer’s gross income spent on seeds and chemicals in 1997: 16.9 percent Average yield of wheat per acre (in bushels) of Montana farms in 1993, according to the USDA: 39.2 Average yield of wheat per acre on Montana farms in 1999: 29 Percentage of corn grown in the U.S. created by genetic engineering: 25 Percentage drop in U.S. corn exports to Europe in 1999: 96 Number of acres of genetically engineered corn and soy currently in production: 50 million Decrease in sale of U.S. soybean exports to Europe between 1996 and 1999: $1 billion Percentage of Montana wheat grown for export: 85 Estimated percentage of foods on Montana grocery shelves that now contain genetically modified ingredients, according to Safe Food News: 60-70 Number of years spent by Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser developing his own strain of canola seeds naturally: 50 Percentage of his field Schmeiser says has been infiltrated by Monsanto’s lower-yielding genetically modified seeds blown off of passing trucks: 20 Amount of damages sought by Monsanto against Schmeiser for seed technology infringement: $300,000 Number of days the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested the bovine growth hormone rBGH before it was approved for sale to dairy farmers: 90 Number of rats the FDA tested using rBHG before its approval: 30 Number of people who died in 1989 after taking a specific brand of the amino acid tryptophan, which had been produced by a genetically engineered bacteria that also produced a highly toxic nerve poison: 37 Number of cases of partial paralysis that resulted: More than 1,500 Number of companies in 2000 whose shareholders filed resolutions calling for the labeling or a moratorium on genetically engineered products or ingredients, including Monsanto, Dow, Kellogg’s, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Campbells: 21 Cost of the public relations campaign launched in 2000 by the Council on Biotechnology Information, a coalition formed by Dow, Monsanto, Dupont and other genetic engineering companies to educate the public about the benefits of biotechnology: $50 million Number of dancing cows, chickens, potatoes, apples, dogs and housewives that appeared in a June 30,1947 pesticide advertisement in Time Magazine promoting “DDT is good for me!”: 6