1998 Teach In

Winter 1998-1999

Tokar and Lawn on Tape
What You Can Do About Genetic Engineering in Our Food System

“Never before have the results of new scientific discoveries been so heavily promoted and so rapidly rushed to market. Never before has the course of basic scientific research been so thoroughly and single-minded­ly driven by commer­cial considerations.”

– Brian Tokar

When, last December, MOFGA, CLEAN: Maine, and the Green Party successfully opposed registration of genetically engineered field corn in Maine, Jon Olson of the Maine Farm Bureau wrote a strongly worded letter to the Board of Pesticides Control. Olson likened opponents of biotech to those misguided people who opposed egg incubators in the 1880s, and to those who questioned the merits of pasteurized milk in the 1890s. He cited with approval a study that predicted that “within five years nearly 100 percent of all U.S. farm acreage could be planted in genetically engineered crops.” Olson argued that Maine farmers needed biotech products to remain competitive. Soon after that Commissioner of Agriculture Ed McLaughlin similarly predicted that in not too many years, “75%” of crops in Maine would be genetically engineered.

These statements by leaders of Maine agriculture took MOFGA by surprise and led to the focus of MOFGA’s 4th annual Public Policy Teach-In at the Common Ground Country Fair in September. Entitled “Biotech on the Farm: Risky Business,” the teach-in was attended by more than 120 fairgoers. Sharon Tisher, MOFGA Board member and Public Policy Committee chair, opened the teach-in and introduced guest speaker Brian Tokar. Tisher noted that Olson’s and McLaughlin’s comments unqualifiedly embracing a biotech revolution in crop economics seemed to MOFGA to be “plunging headlong into a deep tunnel, without headlights, road maps, or that all-important canary-in-a-coal-mine to test whether the air is lethal to breathe.” She asked, “Where is the judicial, conservative approach, taking the time to consider the long term consequences, both ecological and economic, of these technologies?”

Brian Tokar, a faculty member of Goddard College and the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, has published and spoken nationally and internationally on the subject of green politics and biotechnology. A graduate with degrees in biology and physics from MIT and a Masters degree in biophysics from Harvard, Tokar’s most recent book is entitled Earth For Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash (Boston: South End Press, 1997). Tokar emphasized both economic and ecological concerns about the biotech revolution. Biotech is “a way for a few companies to consolidate control over worldwide food production,” warned Tokar, noting that in recent years biotech colossus Monsanto has merged with or bought out six previously independent major seed companies, and that nationwide 15% of corn seed, 33% of soybeans, and 85% of cotton seed is now genetically engineered. In fact, it is increasingly difficult for consumers to escape genetically engineered foods in their diets. Estimates are that 60% of processed foods in the United States contain genetically engineered ingredients. Monsanto has “pulled all stops” to convince farmers to go along with the new technologies, including lawsuits against small dairy farmers who want to state that they don’t use recombinant bovine growth hormone on their herds. [Maine’s Kate’s Homemade Butter, which bravely proclaims that it does not use rBGH, has so far escaped Monsanto’s heavy hand.] Tokar mocked the sincerity of corporations that claim their most widely marketed genetically engineered products — plants designed to be resistant to specific herbicides — are intended to help the farmer useless herbicide. “When over half of these companies’ income comes from sales of pesticides, I don’t think very many people believe them.” A new and threatening development, particularly for impoverished third world farmers, is the “terminator technology,” designed to genetically alter plants to render later generations sterile, and hence deprive farmers of their centuries old traditions of seedsaving.

The good news, Tokar noted, is that public concern and activism is on a steady upward curve. In Europe, activists are uprooting genetically engineered crops, and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture is “traveling all over the continent threatening trade wars” over restrictions on American exports of genetically engineered crops. Greenpeace International, the International Center for Technology Assessment, and an international group of organic certifiers and organic farmers (including Maine’s Jim and Megan Gerritsen) have a pending rulemaking petition before the EPA calling for pulling the registration of all genetically engineered plant pesticides incorporating Bt. Tokar heralded the decision of the Maine Board of Pesticides Control last December not to license Bt corn, because no need for the product in Maine was shown, and because the crop may increase resistance to Bt sprays. “Few state regulators are even discussing these issues, and decisions like these are only made when there is tremendous public pressure.” Consumer organizations have sued the FDA to force it to require labeling of genetically engineered foods, and an “incredibly inspiring” national conference in St. Louis, a few miles from Monsanto’s international headquarters, issued a “Biodevastation Declaration” calling for the banning of genetically engineered foods. [After the Fair, on October 15, as part of the “Global Days of Action” against genetically engineered foods, over 2,500 signatures gathered at the Fair by CLEAN: Maine on behalf of New England Resistance Against Genetic Engineering (”RAGE”) were presented to the EPA in Boston].

CR Lawn, founder and President of FEDCO Seeds, brought concerns about biotech home to all Maine farmers and gardeners. Lawn observed that the battle against wholesale conversion to biotech in farming is plagued by a “problem of scale.” There is a “huge, almost incomprehensible quantity of money” being spent on biotech; for example, the world’s largest agrichemical corporation, Novartis, has announced it is planning to spend $600 million on bio­tech research in the next 10 years. “Approximately 10 companies control 30% of the worldwide seed trade; this will probably be down to five or six companies in two or three years…This is all about control of the world’s food supply,” Lawn commented, noting that two or three hundred years ago, there were no seed companies; the first seed company started in the 1700s.

Although FEDCO sells no genetically engineered plant products or seeds, many companies that FEDCO obtains seed from are now involved in genetically engineering other seed varieties, since the rash of seed company acquisitions and mergers . If FEDCO boycotted any company that was involved in genetic engineering, “three-quarters of what we sell would be gone.” FEDCO, through nurturing its own network of small farm producers of open pollinated seeds, is committed to a “long term process” of separation from corporations immersed in genetic engineering: “I’m uncomfortable being in bed with Novartis, but we’re not going to be able to get a divorce right away.” Lawn advised that products in the FEDCO catalog that do not come from companies involved in genetic engineering are organically grown Maine seeds, those identified as having been grown without fertilizers or pesticides, and most of the open pollinated varieties.

– Sharon Tisher


Tokar and Lawn on Tape

Brian Tokar, a social ecologist from Goddard College, and CR Lawn of Fedco Seeds, spoke about “Agricultural Biotechnology: Risky Business” at the Common Ground Country Fair in September. You can order a copy of the talk from Radio Free Maine, “The C-Span of the Left,” at PO Box 2705, Augusta, ME 04338. Audio tapes cost $10.50; VHS videos are $19.00. Checks or money orders should be made payable to Roger Leisner. A catalog listing other productions of interest to social activists will be sent with the order. To request a catalog without an order, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope (75 cents postage) to Leisner.


What You Can Do About Genetic Engineering in Our Food System

Be An Informed Consumer

Contact the following email address for information on processed and whole foods that are genetically engineered: [email protected]. Check out the USA Pure Food Campaign website at www.purefood.org. The PFC is a global clearinghouse for information and grassroots technical assistance concerning sustainable agriculture, organic food, factory farming, food safety, genetic engineering, and life form patenting.

Let MOFGA Know You’re Concerned

We haven’t heard the last of Bt genetically engineered corn in Maine. Right after the registration denial last year, the Cooperative Extension went to work to field test the corn in Maine, to see if it produced a better yield. The results aren’t reported yet, but Novartis and DeKalb will likely be back with another pitch this year. If you’d be interested in attending a hearing or writing about your concerns, contact Sharon Tisher at 581-3158, or sharon_tisher@ umenfa.maine.edu.

Keep Vocal

As MOFGA member and former state legislator Conrad Heeschen pointed out at the teach-in, our legislators can be responsive if they know your concerns. Though the legislators have twice rejected bills to require labeling of genetically engineered foods, they need to know that this issue is still alive and kicking. Keep the food industry aware of your concerns as well. McCain Foods, Maine’s largest potato processor, recently reported to the BPC that it would like to use genetically engineered potatoes in its products, but thus far has avoided it because of concerns about the public reaction.

Join New England Activists

For information about upcoming activities of New England Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, contact Nancy Oden, 207-434-6228; [email protected], www.cleanmaine.org.


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