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"Safety" and "choice" are words often used in discussion of biotechnology, but both are traps to be avoided. Back in the middle ages-the middle of the last decade, that is, when rBGH was being promoted as the wonder drug for dairy cows-the drug's pushers, led by Monsanto, had planned on confining the debate to a matter of the technical "safety" of the drug for cows and humans. They knew that if they could define the discourse in this way, the debate could go on, and on, and on…while they went ahead with their marketing plans.
The rule change that industry wants, and which it is quietly getting, is a radical redefinition of "burden of proof." Instead of the manufacturer having to prove to the public authorities that their product is safe, it is rapidly becoming the rule that it is the responsibility of the regulator to prove that a product is harmful in order to deny approval or licensing. Harm, however, is much more difficult to actually prove, in the current ideology of "science," than no harm. For example, the manufacturers of rBGH and their scientists, such as Dale Bauman at Cornell, simply pointed to the absence of "catastrophic effects" on the health of cows as proof of the drug's safety. Similarly, there are any number of agricultural chemicals that cannot be clinically proven to be specifically harmful but for which anecdotal evidence indicates a level of probable harm that is quite unacceptable, as with endocrine disruptors.
...so that Monsanto need never take responsibility for the failure or consequences of its products.
Instead of requiring the proponent of a "novel food" to show that it is "substantially equivalent" to a traditional or already recognized food, the regulators, if the biotech industry gets its way, will have to prove that the "novel food" is "substantially different" and therefore will not be approved or will require labeling. For the manufacturer of genetically altered foods, the reversal of the burden of proof from having to prove safety to demonstrating the absence of harm also makes it possible to transfer liability from itself or its agents to the regulatory agency. If the regulatory agency does not find the genetically engineered (GE) food harmful or unsafe-which might mean the impossible task of identifying previously unidentified and unknown allergens or toxins-then a person affected by eating the food in question cannot hold the manufacturer liable. This will protect corporate profits, but not public health.
In the case of rBGH, Monsanto wanted us to believe that the only issues were safety and efficacy. If there were any deleterious consequences for the cows who were injected, or if the drug did not force the cow to give as much milk as Monsanto claimed it would, then the problems were not those of the drug or its manufacturer, but the result of poor management by the farmer; a clever shifting of the burden of proof so that Monsanto need never take responsibility for the failure or consequences of its products. We have seen this with cotton, canola and corn, where any problems are the fault of bad management, the weather, or unusual pest conditions.
In Canada we chose to fight rBGH on the larger issues of animal welfare, long-term human health problems, effect on the structure of the dairy industry, and the essential immorality of pushing drugs. The drug has not been approved for use in Canada.
Labeling is a necessary and useful tool for public education and action.
Another problem with the "safety" debate is that it can absorb any amount of energy without ever being decided. Meanwhile all the larger and more holistic issues get ignored, questions such as, Why is this product being produced in the first place? What will its environmental effect be? What are the likely consequences of the production of the crop or food on the structure of society and the distribution of wealth and power? How else could the purported purpose of the product be achieved?
The second issue is the "right to know" or the "right to choose." While I recognize that American individualism likes to argue in terms of "rights," I think that this is a bad way to frame the real issue, which is one of social responsibility.
What is at issue is my responsibility to think and act ethically and holistically, that is, socially. I cannot do this, and I cannot exercise my responsibility to society and ecology, if the implications of my choices are hidden from me. This is the real significance of labeling. We should not argue for the labeling of either organic or genetically altered foods simply on the grounds of an abstract right to choose, or even right to know, even if my preference is for my own good health. If I argue for this kind of "choice," then I am not challenging the production and marketing of genetically engineered foods, but simply saying that I want the choice, personally, to avoid them. There is no inherent social consequence of my choice; it is simply my individual choice.
Yet we must demand comprehensive labeling if we object to GE foods on ecological, ethical and social grounds and wish to act in a socially responsible way. Labeling is a necessary and useful tool for public education and action.
...what companies like Monsanto want is protection from the public.
The argument we should be using is that if genetic engineering is so good, then the products of GE ought to be prominently labeled and priced at a premium. When their manufacturers argue against labeling, then I have to get suspicious of what they are trying to hide!
When they say that they cannot label because it is not possible to segregate GE crops and foods, we simply have to say that they are lying. The very same companies are producing crops, genetically engineered and no-GE, such as canola, corn and soy with special characteristics that require segregation from beginning to end. In addition, the farmer gets a premium for growing and segregating such "Identity Preserved" crops.
On the labeling issue, the biotech promoters are up to the same trick as they are with the food safety issue. They are trying to reverse the burden of proof. What they want is the right to conceal, while putting the burden of labeling on the public. So now Monsanto is saying that they are all for labeling-if it is required by the regulators in the interest of public health and safety.
"Crop protection," "technology protection" (the Terminator), "consumer protection" -- to listen to the chemical-biotech industry they are in the protection racket. Pay them enough and they will provide all the protection you and your food need. Or they might even leave you alone. But who asked for their protection, or their products, in the first place?
Actually, what companies like Monsanto want is protection from the public. Shifting the burden of proof is a clever way of trying to achieve this.
Brewster Kneen is author of "Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology," to be published by New Society Publishers, Spring, 1999.