Genetic Engineering

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As follow up on Michael Pollan's hunting experience excerpt, here is a sampling of an interview of Mr. Pollan, conducted about a year ago, including this astute observation about how the DLC and the Clinton Democrats sold out the country's health in the name of profits and/or lobbyist dollars:

TomDispatch - Tomgram: Following the Food Chain with Michael Pollan: Look at an issue I know something about, genetic engineering. Why was its introduction into our food supply not a contested fight in America?

Over labeling that would say that the food was genetically engineered?

About labeling, but also, before that, about whether we should even approve this technology. The reason there was not a fight is because both political parties were on board for it. The Republicans were predictably pro-business and anti-regulation. And the Democrats had allied themselves with the biotechnology industry, had picked it as one of the growth industries in the early 1990s. Also, the biotech industry, in the person of Robert Shapiro, the president of Monsanto, was very close to Clinton and his administration.

The key moment, when the rules and regulations were being decided for the industry, came at the end of the first Bush administration and the beginning of the first Clinton administration. Both parties agreed that the industry should proceed with as little regulation as possible. The result was that biotech was introduced with no political debate and remarkably little journalistic attention.

The larger meaning here is that mainstream journalists simply cannot talk about things that the two parties agree on; this is the black hole of American politics. Genetically modified crops were in the black hole until the Europeans reacted so strongly against them; then we began to have a little bit of politics around the issue, but still not very much. The things journalists should pay attention to are the issues the political leadership agrees on, rather than to their supposed antagonisms.

I think some liberals have forgotten what a schmuck Clinton actually was - he was very much a Rockefeller Democrat, and only was subsequently lionized because of the monica harmonica thing.

Read more of Michael Pollan's interview here

One other tidbit:

Consider the fact that some of the best journalism in the last year has come from comedians. I'm thinking of Jon Stewart, who has done some excellent journalism on the Daily Show. He looks at what powerful people say and then juxtaposes it to their previous statements. When Dick Cheney says something like, “I never claimed that Hussein was directly behind 9/11,” the mainstream press lets that stand.

Jon Stewart finds the videotape that contradicts the statement and juxtaposes it with the denial, exposing Cheney as having lied. That's powerful and objective journalism. I've asked network TV producers, “Why don't you do that sort of thing?” and they say: “We can't. It's considered too political.” But why is it regarded as political to simply put one fact next to another fact?

oh, ok, I forgot the corn part of the article:

It appears I have a kind of corn obsession. I'm like that character in Middlemarch, Professor Causabon, who thought he had the key to the universe, the key to all mythologies. In corn, I think I've found the key to the American food chain.

How so?

If you look at a fast-food meal, a McDonald's meal, virtually all the carbon in it -- and what we eat is mostly carbon -- comes from corn. A Chicken McNugget is corn upon corn upon corn, beginning with corn-fed chicken all the way through the obscure food additives and the corn starch that holds it together. All the meat at McDonald's is really corn. Chickens have become machines for converting two pounds of corn into one pound of chicken. The beef, too, is from cattle fed corn on feedlots. The main ingredient in the soda is corn -- high-fructose corn syrup. Go down the list. Even the dressing on the new salads at McDonald's is full of corn.

I recently spent some time on an Iowa corn farm. These cornfields are basically providing the building blocks for the fast-food nation. In my new book, I want to show people how this process works, and how this monoculture in the field leads to a different kind of monoculture on the plate.

What does this do to the land?

Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you. When you're growing corn in that kind of intensive monoculture, it requires more pesticide and more fertilizer than any other crop. It's very hard on the land. You need to put down immense amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, the run-off of which is a pollutant. The farmers I was visiting were putting down 200 pounds per acre, in the full knowledge that corn could only use maybe 100 or 125 pounds per acre; they considered it crop insurance to put on an extra 75 to 100 pounds.

Where does that extra nitrogen go?

It goes into the roadside ditches and, in the case of the farms I visited, drains into the Raccoon River, which empties into the Des Moines River. The city of Des Moines has a big problem with nitrogen pollution. In the spring, the city issues “blue baby alerts,” telling mothers not to let their children use the tap water because of the nitrates in it. The Des Moines River eventually finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where the excess nitrogen has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey.

What is a dead zone?

It's a place where the nitrogen has stimulated such growth of algae and phytoplankton that it starves that area of oxygen, and fish cannot live in it. The dead zone hasn't gotten much attention, compared to carbon pollution; but, in terms of the sheer scale of human interference in one of the crucial natural cycles, it's arguably even more dramatic. Fully half of the terrestrial nitrogen in the world today is manmade, from fertilizers.

Our dependence on corn for a “cheap meal” is a fundamental absurdity. Seventy percent of the grain we grow in this country goes to feed livestock. Most of this livestock is cattle, which are uniquely suited to eating grass, not corn. To help them tolerate corn, we have to pump antibiotics into the cattle; and because the corn diet leads to pathogens, we then need to irradiate their meat to make it safe to eat. Feeding so much corn to cattle thus creates new and entirely preventable public health problems.

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel--it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn. What that means is that one of the things we're defending in the Persian Gulf is the cornfields and the Big Mac. Another cost is the subsidies: For corn alone, it's four or five billion dollars a year in public money to support the corn farmers that make possible our cheap hamburger. Then you've got the problem of obesity because these cheap calories happen to be some of the most fattening.

We're paying for a 99-cent burger in our health-care bills, in our environmental cleanup bills, in our military budget, and in the disappearance of the family farm. So it really isn't cheap at all.

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1 Comment

Genetic manipulation of food stuffs is a hot topic here. The two largest political parties are generally in favour and everyone else against and as a result they had to back down - but only because of the awareness created by earlier food disasters such as BSE. That combined with the European directives mean that all food containing or possibly containing genetically modified ingredients has to be labelled so and if it is anywhere on the packet that people actually notice then they will tend not to. Two supermarket chains specifically market their own brand goods as being GM free. But then there are a fair few food practices - such as the use of steroids on cattle (I think) - that are illegal here and that come up regularly in trade disputes when the US wants the EU to accept imports of food that would be illegal here - usually when the EU complains about the US tarrifs on steel.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on March 26, 2006 8:22 PM.

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