Big McDonald's Had a Farm

No one can escape the brave new world of food production: BSE, e-coli and genetic engineering are part of our daily lives. But while the flames subside from the corpses of the latest foot and mouth epidemic, media smoke seems to be shielding the reality behind the facts.

It is clear that factory farming deregulation, which greatly weakened hygiene and safety rules, and long-distance transport have all increased the risk of diseases spreading across continents. What is rarely stated, however, is why these changes have taken place.

The transition from local stores to global supermarkets has effectively pushed out smaller producers. Massive supermarket corporations only buy from the largest farmers (who, like the supermarkets themselves, employ the fewest staff possible). They simultaneously lobby to avoid regulatory burden, which leads to more animals being raised and transported in cruel, overcrowded factory conditions. Meanwhile, advertising smokescreens deceive consumers about the rules of provenance; for example, "Scottish beef" can come from animals pastured in Scotland for only two weeks.

The result is not cheaper food. Local independent producers often sell at prices far below the corporate chains, and that doesn't factor in the amount taxpayers spend on road building and maintenance, let alone the environmental damage caused by excess long distance food transport (between 1965 and 1998, the international trade in food tripled to 600 million metric tons). It certainly also doesn't factor in the cost to animals raised and transported in unspeakable conditions.

But it is the connection between factory farming and the genetic engineering (GE) of human foods that raises even more troubling questions. Transnational biotechnology corporations such as Monsanto and Novartis are becoming the patented "owners" of life -- specifically the Frankenstein variety created by splicing together non-related species and thus permanently altering genetic codes. Advertised as "life science" corporations that will eliminate world hunger and cure disease, Monsanto, Novartis and others are actually busy monopolizing the global market for seeds, foods and fibers while their political lobbying and business/farming practices wreak untold havoc.

The facts are startling. Most processed food contains GE ingredients, and biotechnology officials estimate that within five years 100 percent of the food and fiber in many countries will be genetically altered. In the USA alone, there are over 60 million acres of GE crops, and thanks to intense corporate lobbying and a docile FDA, 500,000 dairy cows are regularly injected with Monsanto's (rBGH). Banned in the EU and Canada -- in fact in every industrialized country other than the U.S. -- rBGH has been proven to lead to an increased risk of human cancer.

Showa Denka, Japan's third largest chemical company, released a genetically engineered dietary supplement (L-tryptophan), which went on to kill 37 people and affect more than 5,000 people internationally. The recent recall of StarLink genetically engineered foods (following severe allergic reactions) has produced demands for international mandatory food labeling, something fiercely opposed by GE corporations.

Not only our health is at risk -- the future of farming and the sustainability of the environment are also both up for grabs. GE farms typically use just as many pesticides as do conventional farms, but unlike normal herbicides, the GE broad-spectrum variety is designed to kill literally everything green (everything except GE plants of course). Patents are given to re-engineered animals, the biological repercussions of which will take generations to decipher. In what can only be seen as a telling irony, the cloned sheep Dolly has been hidden away during the past months to shield her from the ravages of foot and mouth.

Then, of course, there is Monsanto's infamous Terminator Technology, which makes normal seeds infertile, thereby forcing farmers to buy increasingly expensive GE products. While Monsanto buckled to public pressure in 1999, pledging not to commercialize Terminator Technology, it raises eyebrows that there are still over 80 Terminator Technology patents pending. Even more ominous, the original Terminator Technology has recently been joined by Terminator 2, a gene-switching process which creates similarly infertile seeds. Makes Monsanto's pledge look a little suspect.

So what can be done to stop these dangerous trends? As consumers, we can buy locally and push for an end to factory farming. We can insist that all genetically engineered food, feed and fiber be labeled as such, and that proper regulatory restraints (such as the polluter-pay principle) be in place against corporate food processing. We can insist that patents not be given to those who would destroy biodiversity and we can demand that "Terminator" engineered seeds and technologies be permanently banned from international trade. We can inform ourselves about how corporate food production places profit before health, and then, quite literally, put our money where our mouth is.

Heather Wokusch is a freelance writer. She can be contacted at


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