A small number of special corporate interests control our food supply and the Washington decision makers that regulate it. For example, just four firms process 80 percent of the beef sold in U.S. supermarkets. This market power serves to feed Big Food's ability to influence policy, and we are losing our farming backbone because of it. Thanks to consolidation, big meat companies like Cargill or Tyson can set unfair prices for livestock, cheating small and medium farmers out of money they need to cover their costs. These companies get away with it because farmers often don't have anywhere else to sell their products. This trend toward consolidation is examined at length in my new book, Foodopoly: The Battle over the Future of Food and Farming in America.
Yet consolidated agribusiness is just one winner in the Foodopoly. Another is the biotechnology industry, which is currently working both to approve genetically engineered (GE) salmon and to stifle popular efforts to label it. In just 15 years, U.S. cultivation of GE crops grew from only 7 percent of soybean acres and 1 percent of corn acres in 1996 to 94 percent of soybean and 88 percent of corn acres in 2011. This radical shift happened because public policy has been for sale across five presidential administrations that deregulated and allowed several mergers and acquisitions to take place in the industry, which profited from the discoveries of taxpayer-funded scientific research.
Now,the biotech industry is eager to get you to start eating genetically engineered salmon — whether you want to or not, and thanks to their influence in Washington, they're getting help from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
You need only look at recent headlines to see that on the Friday before Christmas, when most people's attention was turned to the holidays, the FDA made a decisive step toward approving genetically engineered salmon — which would be the first genetically altered animal to enter the food supply.
GE salmon is important to the industry because, once approved, it will open up the floodgates for more genetically engineered animals to reach the market, even when consumers don't want them — polls consistently show that people are concerned about genetically altered foods, and overwhelmingly, people believe they should be labeled.
A biotech company called AquaBounty developed GE salmon, and its very survival hinges on the product being approved. The company has invested millions of dollars into its product, while posting zero sales for years. Mysteriously, an investment fund whose largest shareholder was the former finance minister of Georgia, Kakha Bendukidze (renowned for his deregulation of food safety in the former Soviet republic), bought up around half of AquaBounty's stock in 2011, keeping the company afloat. Yet it was still on the verge of bankruptcy as recently as one month ago, when a well-connected biotech company called Intrexon swooped in to buy out Bendukidze and provide new capital. The former head of Monsanto and a former vice president from Pfizer and McDonald's run Intrexon, and its senior vice president and animal science head is Thomas Kasser, a 20-year veteran from Monsanto, where he worked on recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a highly controversial drug that was used to increase milk production, mostly by factory farms.
Kasser boasts his experience guiding Monsanto products through the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, the same agency reviewing GE salmon. (The FDA chose to regulate GE salmon as it would regulate a veterinary drug, not a food — even though consumers could end up eating it.) Clearly, the agency is not comprehensively examining many critical dimensions surrounding the food safety of GE salmon as an actual food product for human consumption.
But like dairy products from cows treated with rBGH,GE salmon exhibit high levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (or IGF-1), a growth hormone that has been linked to a variety of cancers in humans. GE salmon express 40 percent higher rates of the hormone than non-GE salmon, suggesting a significant risk to consumers. The American Cancer Society acknowledges the link between IGF-1 and cancer, but has stated that more independent science is needed before any conclusions can be made about the safety of products like rBGH.
The influence of the biotech industry over the FDA is well documented by the revolving door of industry executives that have taken the reigns at the agency (Michael Taylor, currently a lead official at the FDA, is a prime example; he was previously a VP at Monsanto). It's more than enough, apparently, to overcome scientific dissention from other agencies in the administration. Emails that my organization, Food & Water Watch, obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disclosed what their scientists really thought of GE salmon. One staffer there, in an email questioning the company's claim that GE fish escapes wouldn't be harmful to wild fish populations, noted that "Especially pointing out that there is no data to support the claims of low survival in the event of escape, which I agree with you all is a big concern....Maybe they [the FDA] should watch Jurassic Park."
Why was the federal government reviewing the company's own claims so closely? Because there have been no independent studies done on the fish. The FDA has allowed the company to conduct a handful of studies on a handful of fish to demonstrate that GE salmon is safe for human consumption. Despite the lack of independent safety data, the FDA seems intent on approving the fish.
It's not a surprise, really, since in the Foodopoly, policy is driven by what a handful of corporate-backed interests want — not what's in the public interest. That's why we must act to take back our food system. It won't be enough just to vote with our forks, either: it's time to put major pressure on our federal elected officials to be accountable to food safety for consumers — not the bottom lines of a few influential power players. Check out Foodopoly.org to learn more about how to start.
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Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, a DC-based watchdog organization focused on corporate and government accountability relating to food, water, and fishing. She has worked and written extensively on food, water, energy, and environmental issues at the national, state, and local levels. She owns a working farm in The Plains, Virginia.
Books mentioned in this post
Wenonah Hauter is the author of Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America