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Book Reviews

Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature
By Martin Teitel, Kimberly A Wilson; Foreword by Ralph Nader
Park Street Press, 1999
192 pp; $12.95 paperback
ISBN 0-89281-888-3
Order from Amazon

I have to confess to a certain childish giggly reaction to the concept of genetically engineered food -- a distinctly not-funny subject. Nonetheless, my thoughts drift to the tomatoes at the county fair that had grown in the shape of a hippopotamus, or resembled the face of Groucho Marx. And, I remember when Mr. Potatohead required a real potato into which you poked and stick the various pieces provided in the box. That potato was transformed!

Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature by Teitel and Wilson doesn't add o lot of new information to the increasingly alarming subject of what we eat. It does, however, do a great job of tying in all of the aspects of this complex subject. There are biological, health, social, cultural, spiritual, ethical, and economic (duh!) implications inherent in altering the very essence of the food we bring to our tables.

Teitel and Wilson make the complex and scientific world of the worldwide agro-factory farming of genetically altering food accessible to the reader. More importantly, to me the reader, the appendices are chock full of references to print and electronic resources. The sources they use for the information they convey is footnoted liberally and well--documented.

The most disturbing revelation in the book is the undeniable and clear picture of the extent to which the government's USDA, the FDA and EPA agencies are up to their bureaucratic necks in genetic engineering here and around the world. The exposure of links between governmental agencies and corporate America are not big news. Multi-national megacorporations such as Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Eli Lilly, Dekalb and others all wallow at the lobbying trough in Washington.

There is even a law in 13 states against "food disparagement". Remember Oprah end the Texas beef industry? Don't- bash your hash!! So much for the First Amendment

"In the planting of genetically changed crops around the world, the U.S. government has done just about everything it can to help except drive the tractor."-Bill Lambrecht, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The links are particularly chilling when the end result is what we chew up and swallow on a daily basis. Health issues such as allergy reactions, uninformed ingestion of growth hormones, the growing resistance of germs to antibiotics, cancer, mod-cow disease and other suspected environmentally and food induced illness are just the tip of the iceberg.

There is The Terminator. Originally dubbed "Control of Plant Gene Expression", terminator technology is a technique in which genetically altered plants are programmed to KILL their own seeds. Teitel and Wilson explain that any farmer who uses terminator seeds, knowingly or unknowingly, will be forced to buy new seeds for every planting. This will end the tradition of seed saving and create dependence on big seed companies.

Terminator technology was created jointly by the USDA and a Monsanto-acquired company, Delta 8 Pine Land. Together, the USDA and Delta & Pine land have a patent that "is so broad it allows terminator technology to be used in the plants and seeds of all crops."

Then there is gene jumping. Quoting from Environmental Nutrition: "Gene flow refers to the potential spread of newly inserted genes into related wild species. For instance, if insect resistance is engineered into a sunflower crop, those new sunflowers could reproduce with wild sunflowers to create sunflowers that are different from the original wild sunflowers. Eventually, we might completely lose the original sunflower gene pool."

So what? Juxtapose the power of gene jumping with a quote Teitel and Wilson use from Arnold Foudin, then Assistant Secretary of USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services: "Plants as delivery systems for vaccines and pharmaceuticals is where we are. We can't get blood from turnips, but we will be able to get blood protein in potatoes."

Since terminator seeds have to be soaked in tetracycline in order to activate them, what if the gene jumping results in widespread tetracycline resistance in people who ingest terminator seed gene jumping food?

It just goes on and on.

I adored Chapter 7, Crossing Swords from Angels, in which the genetically engineered food issue was placed in the spiritual context of the Judeo-Christian heritage in which we live.

My beloved father, an organic farmer before there was such a term, used to say: "There will be no good that comes of fooling around with them Sputniks. We mustn't tinker with what's been given us."

Apparently, tinker we must and we now abide tinkering with life itself. We leave the colonization of life in the hands of the profit-making trade-driven multinationals.

Teitel and Wilson end with a chapter on what we can do to change the course of genetically engineered food production. We all KNOW what we CAN do. But, will we do it? Are we willing to forego asparagus out-of-season? When we eat our newly declared medicinal soy products, do we care that the soybeans used in those products are likely genetically engineered? Do we really understand that the romance with the American farmer is over, finished, kaput? Do we get that what we take in to nourish our bodies is being altered without our consent, with little to no testing and without adequate labeling? Will we buy organic? Grow our own? Save seeds? Eat seasonally and low on the food chain? Link, activate, and make tough choices?

Has the horse already left the barn? Is it too late?

- Susan Abbott

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"Federal policy…has been to assure that "waste management problems shall not be deferred to other generations," and many environmental groups have shared the same view. Geological burial - at first glance anyway - looks like an ideal way to accomplish that since, after all, it "removes" the wastes from the environment and solves the problem once and for all. But in many ways entombment does just the opposite. It deliberately poisons a portion of the natural world for an endless stretch of time and in doing so it not only leaves future generations with thousands of tons of the most dangerous rubbish imaginable on their hands but makes it as difficult as the state of our technology permits for them to deal with it. We cannot promise our children - never mind those who will follow hundreds or thousands of years hence - that they will be safe from the wastes. And so long as that is so, we are not taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands."
Kai Erikson in
"Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds"
The New York Times Magazine
March 6, 1994.

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