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By Umut Newbury
June 8, 2007

The mega-corporation, Monsanto, probably does not ring a bell in the minds of most American consumers. But it happens to be one of the main producers of the Vietnam Era’s infamous Agent Orange; the creator of farm and lawn pesticide Roundup; maker of cow growth hormone rBGH; and now the owner of more than 90 percent of all genetically engineered seed in the U.S. as well as some 11,000-plus genetically engineered seed patents across the globe.

The controversy over genetically engineered seeds and subsequently food, has been going on for quite some time and gets very little coverage in the mainstream media. So, what is an informed, concerned citizen to do to alert her fellow eaters? Deborah Koons Garcia, writer and director (also the wife of the late Jerry Garcia) decided to explore the whole issue in an 88-minute documentary titled, The Future of Food.

For those involved in some way or the other in the organic and local food movement, i.e. foodies, organic farmers and gardeners, Locavores and Localistas, Garcia’s 2004 film may seem elementary. But the average eater in the United States does not watch C-SPAN when Barbara Kingsolver is talking about her recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, chronicling her family’s efforts to live on food only raised in their county for a year, or when Link TV is airing interviews with Michael Pollan, author of An Omnivore’s Dilemma.

So, this film is really for that average food consumer, who still expects to spend no more than 11 cents on the dollar of her income on food. It’s for the shopper who’s still thinking there is nothing wrong with going with brands she knows at Safeway, Albertsons, Kroger, Target or Wal-Mart.

Garcia’s The Future of Food begins with a history of modern agriculture and how nitrogen-based chemicals started changing the face of the industry. After World War I, nitrogen bomb inspired DDT. By the middle of the 20th century “Green Revolution” started to take shape. The idea was to systemize agriculture to solve world hunger. Mechanizing agriculture led to the growth of monocultures, where only one crop is grown on extensive plots of land. Today, 90 percent of crops grown in the 19th century are no longer grown. In the 1970s, Monsanto created Roundup. Roundup is a pesticide that usually kills anything that is green. So for crops to grow where Roundup used, they need to be resistant to it. In 1978, came the first Supreme Court decision allowing patenting of life — a microbe that had been genetically engineered to eat oil. Prior to that, patenting a part of nature was unthinkable. But with the 1978 decision, the only requirement to owning a part of nature became that it was not patented before by someone else.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser has been saving and developing his seeds for decades. In 1997, he sprayed some of Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide at the edge of his canola fields. Some canola grew anyway and Monsanto claimed Schmeiser infringed on its patent rights. Rodney Nelson, a North Dakota farmer was also sued by Monsanto for patent infringement. Neither Nelson, nor Schmeiser tell Garcia that they had actively pursued planting Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds. The seeds had naturally drifted to their land with the power of wind. But Monsanto sued them and some 9,000 others. “They want to scare farmers into never saving seed again,” says Nelson. Schmeiser took the challenge and went to court: “People ask me why I didn’t settle. I said I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.” The judge ruled that it did not matter how Monsanto’s seed got to Schmeiser’s land. Even though he did not want Monsanto’s canola growing on his property, his plants became Monsanto’s property and by the rule of law, he had violated Monsanto’s patent rights.

Besides these heartbreaking interviews, The Future of Food also features some uncanny audio recordings from a 1975 molecular biologists’ conference, where some scientists asked for a moratorium on genetically engineered organisms until their health effects were determined. But the industry claimed that there was nothing new in this technology. Nothing new? One of the shining moments of Garcia’s film is when she illustrates graphically what it takes to insert a genetically engineered gene into a regular plant gene. It takes the likes of E.Coli bacteria and the cauliflower mosaic virus to break up the regular plant gene to make it possible to insert the genetically engineered cell into it. Ignacio Chapela, an ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley, calls it “the largest biological experiment ever.”

Garcia shows that companies like Monsanto are playing both sides of the fence in the genetically engineered seed/food debate. When it comes to regulation and safety questions, they claim these products are considered safe because they are not substantially different than regular food items. Yet, when it comes to seeking patents, they claim their products are unique and should only be owned by them.

The European Union has required the labeling of genetically engineered foods. But in the U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s bill to label these foods has still yet to pass. Without labeling, there is no way to trace the health effects of these foods on human beings. That’s because, as Garcia explains, a long list of government officials, starting with Dan Quayle in 1992, have been calling for zero regulation on these foods. The Future of Food lists a number of government officials who have been going through a revolving door – working for Monsanto, then working for the government. FDA’s Michael Taylor, EPA’s Linda Fisher and non other than former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman are only a few of the names. (Though Garcia’s editing team misspelled Veneman’s first name in one of the graphics.)

While the U.S. government saw no harm in GE foods, in 1998 even Mexico banned GE corn to protect its corn heritage. Unfortunately Berkeley ecologist Chapela tells Garcia the story of how he found traces of GE corn in land races in Oaxaca after the ban. In 2001, Chapela wrote a peer reviewed article about his findings in the journal Nature, but the magazine retracted the story shortly afterwards. This is perhaps one of the biggest strengths of Garcia’s film. In The Future of Food, she has not only interviewed highly credible sources such as Chuck Benbrook, the former agriculture board director for the National Academy of Sciences, and Fred Kirshenman, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, but also highly credible scientists such as Chapela whose names have been dragged through the mud for challenging the industry. She brings out his story as well as Dr. Arpad Puzstai’s, who was put on leave after his critical work about the genetic engineering industry.

So what does the future of our food look like? Eighty percent of all beef is produced by four companies. Ninety percent of all seed is owned by four companies. Soon, only six retail firms will control the distribution of the majority of food items. What nutritional value do GE foods offer humans? None, Garcia’s sources say. Only the promise of feeding a hungry world, yet somehow there are less small farmers across the globe. Then there are “terminator” seeds – Monsanto has at least 15 patents to those. They are the ones that a farmer can only grow for one year, because the seeds go sterile after that, which requires a small farmer to buy seed every year, instead of being able to save her own.

Sounds pretty bleak overall. Except, as Garcia points out, the consumer is still king. Every consumer votes with her dollar every time she shops. So, the good news is, increasingly more shoppers are making the right decisions. They are starting to steer their voting dollars away from the genetically engineered foods and giving them to organic food companies, local farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs.

Garcia’s message is simple: The future of food is in our hands. If we only venture out of conventional grocery stores and fast-food drive thrus and start looking for real food, we may have a chance.


Directed by Deborah Koons Garcia
2004 Lily Films
DVD available from

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