An Unknown Harvest 

The Future of Food

Local growers and consumers ask some bitter questions about the new generation of hi-tech foods


Josh Slotnick leans over intently after opening the window in his office at the University of Montana. He only has 20 minutes before his next class, but this subject is too important for him to dismiss. His words spill quickly.

"People have been breeding plants for as long as there have been people and plants," he says. "The big difference between genetically engineered crops and classically bred crops is that we don't know what we are getting into with genetically modified crops. We don't know if it's going to be poisonous or exude toxins from its roots or what.

"We shouldn't be playing with such a basic level of biology."

Slotnick, a faculty member with UM's Environmental Studies Program, has been teaching students to farm organically for the last three years on four acres of land near Fort Missoula. He hopes to instill in his students a sense of connection to the land and the food it provides. He worries, however, that the introduction by huge companies of genetically engineered foods in recent years has altered that connection.

"Genetic engineering exacerbates so many of our problems," he says. "They are treating the land like it's a raw material-like you might use it in a factory to produce food. And it's done for one reason and one reason only. To make a huge profit."

Farmers, both organic and conventional, have felt the immediate effects of this multibillion-dollar industry, one that's intent on altering seeds so that they might better resist disease, pests and herbicides. By just opening a seed catalogue, they can tell food production is changing.

Consumers can't.

No one is knocking on their door with information about genetic engineering. No one is slapping labels on genetically engineered food. No one is asking any questions.

Indeed, hardly any consumers know. In a small survey conducted by the Independent, a majority of shoppers at local grocery stores weren't aware that genetically engineered food existed. In fact, most of the respondents asked for more information from the surveyor.

Nevertheless, conventional farmers in Montana, just like farmers around the world, are sowing the seeds of genetically engineered foods. Organic farmers watch them cautiously. And consumers continue unknowingly to eat genetically modified foods.

Meanwhile, the companies that are now in control of the future of food continue to grow like weeds.

Consumers' Conundrum

For all of the questions genetic engineering has raised for farmers, consumers should ask the only one that really matters: Is genetically altered food bad for our health?

The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency both say no. But that decision is widely contested.

The EPA concluded, for example, that NewLeaf potatoes-genetically engineered potatoes that contain bacteria to kills pests-are safe for humans because mice have not exhibited any negative effects after eating pure forms of the bacteria. But a study conducted by Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Institute in Scotland offers the opposite conclusion-rats fed the genetically engineered potatoes suffered impaired organ development, including an enlarged thymus, an organ related to the immune system.

Butch Waddill works in the produce section at the Good Food Store, which has a policy of not selling genetically engineered foods. But he’s not ready to condemn them, citing their potential for feeding more people and aiding in cures for diseases such as cancer.

On American soil, a similar kind of skepticism has also taken root. The Consumer Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and testing organization, concluded that genetically engineered food can cause toxic effects, allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance, altered nutritional value and environmental risks.

"Some food producers claim that genetically engineered food is basically the same as conventionally produced food," write Jean Halloran and Michael Hansen of the New York-based institute. "But this is not the case; some individuals can have unpredictable, mild to severe allergic reactions; it can have unanticipated toxic effects; and it can change the nutrition in food."

Surely, such findings can be enough some to remember that, simply put, science is fallible. After all, the original "miracle cures" for pests included such highly toxic chemicals as DDT-chemicals that were used for years until their harmful effects were detected.

Now, consumers are placing their faith in government regulations to help protect their food. As one woman in a Missoula grocery store put it, she would happily buy genetically engineered food, since "they can't sell anything that would be harmful to us."

Little does she know that the companies that produce genetically engineered foods are, in fact, the same ones testing them. Only after their tests, in a voluntary consultation with the FDA, are the new foods reviewed.

The FDA doesn't even require labels for genetically engineered food. And unfortunately, grandma's fool-proof method to check for freshness won't work to check for genetic modifications.

For their part, supporters of genetic engineering argue that people are misinformed and tend to scare easily because they can't grasp the science behind gene modification.

"People don't understand that Mother Nature has been a genetic engineer for millions of years," says Dale Karr of Western Plant Breeders in Bozeman. "DNA is DNA whether it is in a plant or in a cow. The public shouldn't be afraid of something just because they don't know what's going on."

But that, critics respond, is exactly why so many consumers should be scared.

Harvesting the Profits

For most of the public, the advent of genetically engineered food slipped by quietly.

One could hear scarcely a murmur when genetically modified foods first appeared on supermarket shelves four years ago. Since then, genetically engineered crops and food have spread rapidly across the United States. In 1998, farmers in this country planted more than 50 million acres of genetically engineered corn, cotton, potatoes and soybeans. That same year, genetically engineered plants made up 32 percent of the soybean crop, 25 percent of the corn crop and 45 percent of the cotton crop in the United States.

In technical terms, a genetically modified organism is one that has been changed by the insertion of DNA, either from a foreign organism or the same organism. By transferring genes, genetic engineers create new characteristics that make a plant, say, resistant to diseases, herbicides or pests.

Kerry Wall MacLane, who inspects organic farms all over the country, thinks genetically-altered foods are a dangerous proposition. “Sure, we can get a slightly higher yield with synthetics, but at what price?” he says.

Leading the field of genetically engineered crops is Monsanto, based in St. Louis, Missouri, a corporation that has pursued the development, patents and licensing of genetically modified seeds for farmers.

Their most well-known modified crops are Roundup Ready soybeans, corn, cotton and canola, crops that are resistant to the herbicide Roundup. These Roundup-resistant strains allow farmers to spray the extremely effective chemical directly over their crops without harming the food itself. Other Monsanto crops include YieldGard corn, which is resistant to the European corn bore insect, and the NewLeaf potato, which is resistant to the Colorado potato beetle.

All of these new crops carry a higher price.

"It takes about ten years to bring one product to market," says Karen Marshall, public relations director for the agricultural sector of Monsanto. "We may go through thousands of plants until we find one that is good for commercial use. It's a long, involving process and the research is very expensive."

That means that farmers can't reap the benefits of new technology for nothing. Farmers pay for bags of Roundup Ready seeds, in addition to a so-called "technology fee." The fee is a way for the developers of the new crop variety to cash in on the technology, which Monsanto says will help feed the ever-increasing world population, while also protecting the environment with the use of fewer chemicals.

It is difficult to argue, though, that Monsanto and the other top seed companies are out to protect Mother Earth. As it is with any private company, they're out to make a buck. And as happens, top seed companies like Monsanto also happen to be chemical companies-a sideline business that's not at all at odds with selling seeds. For example, Monsanto, which produces Roundup Ready seeds, is also the same company that manufactures Roundup itself; developing strains of food that are resistant to its own herbicide allows farmers to use the plant-killing chemical more often and more freely.

Moreover, in five to ten years, Monsanto hopes to market another new technology, one that could ensure that farmers will get hooked on genetically engineered crops. Dubbed "terminator technology" by those fearful of its consequences, the new system essentially renders seeds sterile. A gene for a toxic protein inserted into the seeds allows the plant to mature, but it kills the new seeds that the plant carries. So a farmer could only harvest a crop once, from the seeds bought directly from the company that season. Saving and replanting terminator seeds would produce nothing more than a seed cemetery.

"People have a choice," says Doyle Karr, communications manager at Pioneer Hi- Bred International, another seed company engaged in genetic engineering. "If you want a top producing product that is going to do well, then are you going to pay for it?"

Fertile Fears

In sturdy overalls and a brown felt hat that blocks the sun from his eyes, Inspector Kerry Wall MacLane will sniff dirt and equipment, peek into sheds, walk through crops and examine paperwork on nearly 100 organic farms this summer.

When he inspects a farm for the organic certification industry, he ensures that, among other things, chemicals or toxic fertilizers did not wash, or "drift," from a neighbor's conventional farm.

For the first time this year, MacLane also needs to guarantee that organic farmers did not use genetically modified organisms-a task that he estimates will add a full hour to the inspection process at each farm. To be certified organic by any of the state or private certifying agencies, a farmer needs to meet specific standards, one of which includes the prohibition of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

UM faculty member Josh Slotnick inspects cabbage sprouts in the Garden City Harvest greenhouse at the Fort Missoula community gardens.

"It makes my job so much harder," he says, rubbing his light beard and taking off his hat. "Traditionally, I've had to look for chemical trespass-to see if wind, erosion or runoff is going to contaminate an organic farm. Now, I've got to figure out about genetic drift. Is the neighboring farm carrying GMO crops that could cross with an organic crop?"

Short of inspecting a neighbor's paperwork, MacLane won't know for sure if the conventional farmer next door planted genetically engineered crops. He can only require an ample buffer zone between the crops, a 25-foot perimeter area that the organic farmer must provide.

But organic farmers have more to fear than just the genes in a neighbor's crop. Genetic engineering is becoming so prevalent that farmers may eventually be hard-pressed to find reasonably priced seeds that aren't genetically modified.

Jon Tester, a state senator from Big Sandy, switched from conventional farming to organic farming in 1987, and since 1991 has been certified organic. His farm has grown about 320 acres in the last 12 years for a total of 1,700 acres. Even with so many acres, Tester worries about his neighbors' practices. "I'm an island surrounded by land," Tester says of his farm, which is encircled by land used solely for conventional farming.

"We have border strips," Tester says, referring to the edges of his land. "My border strips are alfalfa, which is sensitive to chemicals, so I can tell when I have a drift problem from the neighbors."

What Tester won't be able to tell is if he has a genetic drift problem. Wind and insects don't care if farmers plant border strips. If the wind is strong enough and the insects brave enough, genetically engineered crops could cross with their organic neighbors. If that occurs, Tester may end up sowing Roundup Ready or YieldGard seeds. And when terminator technology appears in several years, he may sow some suicidal seeds.

So, perhaps it's not surprising that organic farmers are concerned that their livelihood may be hindered by the droves of genetically engineered products. These same folks speculate that the future may hold only two kinds of food for Montanans' tables: genetically engineered and organic.

If that's true, consumers may want to start asking the important questions now-before their veggies give them allergies or their fruit lacks Vitamin C, as consumer groups fear they might. Or before prices rise to meet the higher cost of seeds and chemicals. The future of our food is now in the hands of American agribusiness. The only question left to ask is, should it be?

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