The Future of Food


Posted to on August 23, 2005


Scheduled for theatrical release at NYC's Film Forum on September 14, "The Future of Food" documents the rise of genetic modification in the food industry. While it is a much more sober and a much more informative work than "Roger and Me," both films are focused on corporate villains: General Motors in one case and Monsanto in the other. Rather than relying on a jocular narrator like Moore, "The Future of Food" calls upon some of the most respected authorities in the field. One of them is Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a Berkeley professor who won a tenure battle after criticizing the university's ties to the biotechnology industry. While this case did not receive the same media attention as moves against Ward Churchill or the Middle Eastern Languages and Culture Department at Columbia University, the stakes were just as high if not higher.


Besides interviewing scientists and policy experts, it also allows farmers themselves to speak out against Monsanto. When Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser's field was accidentally strewn with patented Monsanto canola seeds, he was sued by the multinational corporation for stealing intellectual property as if he were downloading music from Kazaa! When Monsanto offered to settle out of court with Schmeiser, he decided to fight them. Unfortunately, the Canadian Supreme Court decided in Monsanto's favor since all branches of government tend to be favorable to giant corporations.


The film gives one example after another of how elected politicians serve on the board of Monsanto and related companies. It also documents the incestuous relationship between their high-level employees and federal agencies meant to regulate them. It is not unusual for some top manager of Monsanto to take a job with the FDA, which is analogous to an Exxon executive going to work for the EPA. Politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have been co-opted as shills for biotechnology. In 1997, Mickey Kantor, Clinton's Secretary of Commerce, joined the Monsanto board where William Ruckelshaus, Nixon's EPA director, already sat. One wonders why the property-owning class bothers with the pretense of democracy at this point. It would be far more honest if the government was simply made up of CEO's selected at random from Fortune 100 companies.


The notion that living organisms can be patented defies logic and common sense. As one expert witness points out, it is one thing to patent a tennis racket and another to patent a gene. The ultimate outcome might be control over life itself. If a gene can be patented, then every place it appears--including the human body--would come under the jurisdiction of the law, just as the errant seeds that found their way into Schmeiser's field.


The film provides a detailed history of how this state of affairs came to be. The first bid to patent a living organism occurred in 1978 when a scientist developed a genetically modified microbe that could absorb oil, a means of controlling spills. This opened the door for Monsanto and other corporations to follow suit. As the film points out, this was never voted on. In effect, genetically modified crops began to dominate the American rural economy and the retail marketplace no matter what the public desired. In 1980, there were zero acres of cultivated GM seeds. Today there are 100 million.


And when the public began to react against this coup, agribusiness figured out ways to maintain its grip on the system. In Oregon, a ballot referendum would have made it mandatory for food labels to disclose whether an ingredient was genetically modified. Big corporations poured millions into an effort to defeat the measure on the basis that it smacked of "government interference."


The ultimate ambition of companies like Monsanto is to force "Terminator technology" on the world's farmers. This involves genetic modification to a seed so that subsequent generations will be sterile. This goes against the grain (pun intended) of traditional farming in which seeds are recycled based on their intrinsic value. Percy Schmeiser recoiled at the idea that he would be prevented from using such seeds in the future, since he and his family had considered this the business of the farmer himself and not some greedy corporation.


One of the more poignant sections of the film details the onslaught of American agribusiness on traditional corn-growing practices in Mexico, which date back to the Aztec era. There are over 100 types of corn now being cultivated by Mexican farmers. In certain areas known as "land race" fields, Mexican corn has evolved into new "races" that often incorporate resistance to diseases as well as the taste that is preferred by Mexicans themselves. When doing field research on one of these fields, Ignacio Chapela detected contamination by North American GM corn that had cross-fertilized local corn. Despite government legislation against the import of such grain, it is entirely possible that food handouts from the United States targeted to the poor in the Mexican countryside might have contained GM seeds that were planted unsuspectingly.


Free market dogma would posit the eventual victory of the GM juggernaut on the basis of cost-effectiveness. Why fret over the ostensibly outmoded practices of Mexican farmers, no matter their environmental sustainability, when U.S. corn and wheat can be bought at much cheaper prices. In a world dominated by Adam Smith's formulae, it might appear difficult to counter this argument. However, it is a bogus argument. The plain truth is that U.S. corn and wheat enjoy government subsidies. The film makes clear that farmers would realize a net loss if they did not receive a subsidy. The real profit is not in farming, which accounts for a dime out of a $1.50 loaf of bread, but in the wholesaling and retailing ends.


GM food, which is the logical end result of the Green Revolution, has been touted as a solution to world hunger. If it is not economically feasible, then perhaps the only excuse for it is that it can feed the needy. Jeffrey Sachs, who strikes poses as the best friend that hungry Africans ever had, has said:


"Scientific advances again offer great hope. Biotechnology could mobilise genetic engineering to breed hardier plants that are more resistant to drought and less sensitive to pests. Such genetic engineering is stymied at every point, however. It is met with doubts in the rich countries (where people do not have to worry about their next meal); it requires a new scientific and policy framework in the poor countries; and it must somehow generate market incentives for the big life-sciences firms to turn their research towards tropical foodstuffs, in co-operation with tropical research centres. Calestous Juma, one of the world's authorities on biotechnology in Africa, stresses that there are dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of underused foodstuffs that are well adapted to the tropics and could be improved through directed biotechnology research. Such R&D is now all but lacking in the poorest countries."


Contrary to Jeffrey Sachs, the real answer to world hunger is production for human need rather than profit. Corporations such as Monsanto exist for one reason alone and that is to generate profits. The attraction of GM is not that it is beneficial, but that it lends itself to corporate control just like any commodity. Once the world's food is produced on the basis of patent, it will become possible to exert monopoly control. To ensure that this goal is met, it is necessary to destroy all resistance, from anti-WTO protestors to solid citizens like Percy Schmeiser, whose only sin was trying to carry on with family traditions.


Future of Food website: