Month: May 1999

Bio Degradable

In the wake of last week’s BIO ’99 conference in Seattle, and the hugely successful counter-conference BioDevastation ’99, the Seattle Times printed a smug editorial that concluded with the following quote: “The only thing to be feared from biotechnology is irrational fear of its global health and economic benefits.” Obviously, Times editorialists snapped up a few glossy brochures tossed around at Bio ’99 and ignored the real story. With a little less schmoozing and a little more homework, they might have found some information to challenge agribusiness propaganda.

Take, for instance, efforts by the Brazilian soya-growing state of Rio Grande do Sul to sue Monsanto’s Brazilian affiliate, Monsoy, for illegally planting genetically-engineered soya. Are the Brazilians reacting irrationally and fearfully against “global health and economic benefits?” No. The top five agricultural corporations in the world control the entire market in genetically-engineered crops. Clearly, Brazilian farmers are simply reacting in their own best interests and against the massive “economic benefits” that Monsanto will reap (at the expense of Brazilian farmers) with its Terminator seed technology. Meanwhile, Monsanto has purchased major stakes in large, national seed companies in both Brazil and India, in an effort to force its way into the market.

Andrew Simms, author of a Christian Aid report on genetic engineering in developing countries, reminds us: “Today 70 percent of GM [genetically modified] crops are engineered not to improve their food value but to make them dependent on the seed companies’ own-brand agrochemicals. They maximize profit and market share for the parent company, while tying farmers into tight contracts.”

It’s these restrictions on poor farmers in developing countries that should be at the heart of any discussion about the use of genetically-engineered crops. Proponents of GM crops don’t want you to hear what aid organizations that spend all of their time and resources dealing with issues of hunger and food distribution in the Third World have to say about Terminator seed technology. In the Christian Aid report, issued two weeks ago, this group stated unequivocally that GM crops will not end world hunger–in fact, they will do just the opposite: “GM crops are…creating classic preconditions for hunger and famine. A food supply based on too few varieties of patented crops is the worst option for food security. More dependence and marginalisation loom for the poorest.”

The report gives other details absent from Monsanto press releases. For example, 80 percent of current crops in developing countries are grown from saved seeds; Monsanto’s Terminator technology (and others like it) would eliminate this practice by making crops grown with their GM seeds sterile. Each day 800 million people go hungry worldwide because of lack of access to land and lack of money to buy imported food or food grown locally on large plantation farms. Research in India has shown that land reform–returning land to poor, displaced farmers–in combination with simple irrigation techniques can boost overall crop yields by 50%, compared to Monsanto’s boast of a 10% increase using GM seeds. There’s simply no comparison.

And when biochemical work is used for true humanitarian purposes, it’s often dumped by the wayside for lack of profit potential. Take, for example, the work being done in our own backyard at the University of Washington by professor Mary Lidstrom. She’s working on ways to make “bioplastics” from bacteria. Certain “friendly bacteria,” such as the bacteria that grows methanol, make plastic naturally inside their own cells. These plastics are believed to be truly biodegradable. Lidstrom is looking for a way to cheaply grow these plastics in the lab, but she has no hope that U.S. chemical corporations will want this technology. For one thing, bioplastics will always be more expensive to produce than synthesizing plastic in the old way, which produces dioxin and consumes massive amounts of energy. Instead, she’s looking toward European markets, where regulations require a certain percentage of plastic containers to be truly biodegradable. No such regulations exist here in the U.S. With the World Trade Organization hammering away at such environmental regulations worldwide, Mary Lidstrom could soon be out of job (right now she subsists on grants from the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health).

To close our eyes to such problems is immoral. To ignore the following news is simply suicidal. Last week the journal Nature reported that Cornell University entomologist John Losey had discovered that pollen from genetically-engineered corn kills monarch butterflies. The strain, called Bt corn, is made by Novartis AG, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, and, yes, Monsanto. Approved by the FDA in 1996, it now grows in about 25% of all U.S. cornfields. While Losey and proponents of GM crops were quick to downplay the results, none of them mentioned the real threat posed by Bt corn to an ever-dwindling number of pollinating insects, which are vital to U.S. agriculture. Said Val Giddings, VP of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (hosts of Seattle’s BIO ’99): “Whatever the threat to monarch butterflies that is posed by Bt corn pollen, we know it’s less than the threat of drifting pesticide sprays.” Actually, they don’t know that. Experiments like Losey’s have been few and far between. And this particular experiment shows that drifting pollen can, in fact, do the same type of damage as drifting pesticide sprays.

In fact, there are organic farming practices that don’t utilize pesticides in any form. The risk of pesticides drifting from fields planted with organic corn is zero. Of course, organic farming provides zero “economic benefit” to companies like Monsanto and Novartis.

Sources: “GM crops ‘will not end world hunger'” by John Vidal and “Big corporations tighten grip on world food supply” by Andrew Simms, Manchester Guardian Weekly, 5/16/99; “Making Plastics Naturally,” UW Vistas (UW alumni and donor newsletter), Spring ’99; and “Genetically altered corn can be fatal for monarch butterflies,” by David Kinney, AP, reprinted in Seattle P-I, 5/20/99.

ETS! Farmer’s Almanac

A Dad and His Guns

Only one things shocks me about the latest high school gun massacre: it happened in a suburb. I’m always expecting it to happen at a rural school. I remember two little thugs I grew up with–Bobby (whose role models–his older brothers–were all car thieves), and Kevin, a greasy, obnoxious bully. Bobby was obsessed with World War II paraphernalia and history; it didn’t take me long to figure out that he was a neo-Nazi–right down to his leather jacket and black, lace-up boots. He was known for picking fights with jocks and taking out their knees with his steel-toed boots.

Kevin, who had a habit of staring creepily at the girl seated next to him in class and trying to punch her when no one was looking, was finally expelled after knifing another (male) student in gym class. These two boys were from “good” families–both had fathers who worked at Boeing, and their mothers stayed at home to provide the requisite “nurturing.” Neither father kept guns in the house.

They weren’t farmers, that’s for sure.

We had all kinds of guns: shotguns, rifles, antiques, guns made by my grandfather, pistols, revolvers, you name it. Once you get far enough out in the middle of nowhere, there isn’t much fun left, except getting drunk and cleaning your guns. ‘Cept maybe getting drunk and shooting your guns. You can fill up a lot of shotgun shells on a slow afternoon.

I remember the first and only time Dad took me out to shoot guns (urban folks call this “target practice”). I was about nine years old. Mom had gone on a weekend trip with her sisters. I’m sure Dad thought that taking us shooting was the best way to bond with his two youngest children. He looked us up and down and said, “Well, I guess you’re tall enough now.”

Then he sat us down at the kitchen table and we made targets. First, he took out white notebook paper and a couple of black felt tip markers. On each sheet of paper he drew one big circle, eight inches in diameter, then told us to fill it in to make an enormous black dot. Soon the markers ran dry, and Dad told us to get our crayons. Damn, but those crayons made darker, shinier circles than the markers did.

Then he found an old cardboard box and flattened it, and taped one of the sheets of notebook paper on it. That was the target. We were set.

We dressed warm and went on a hike across the valley to the woods. Dad had a favorite spot for his targets: the tall stump of an old cedar tree on the edge of the woods. He took the hammer out of his belt and nailed the cardboard target to the stump. Then he slung the rifles onto his shoulder and paced a ways from the target, with me and my little brother jogging at his heels.

Now, you have to understand something: all of my mother’s family is nearsighted. Back in the days when I was going to school, the school nurses were supposed to come around once each year and do on-the-spot eye tests and hearing tests on the students. Somehow I either missed the tests or the nurses forgot to test me. Maybe because I was so shy, I could become invisible at will. Or maybe the tired nurse simply interpreted my whispered “I don’t know” as “I, N, O” and checked off the box for 20/20 just so she could finish her shift. Anyway, I couldn’t see worth a damn, but nobody had noticed yet.

…Until that shooting day. Dad kept walking away from the target. Once in a while he would stop and turn around, peering at something–I couldn’t tell what–then turn back around and walk some more. I asked my brother “What’s he looking at?”

“The target, stupid,” he hissed.

Suddenly Dad stopped. “This is far enough! Come here, Sam.”

I stood next to him. This was wonderful. Dad usually never paid any attention to me, unless he wanted another cup of coffee. I stared up at him like a puppy.

He lowered the .22 caliber gun into my hands and showed me how to hold it, then told me how to aim and pull the trigger. He said, “Okay, now, look at the dot and line it up between the two prongs of the sight.”

This was confusing. “What dot?” I waved the gun around. He grabbed the barrel of the gun and steadied it. “On the target!”

“I can’t see the dot!” I moved the gun up, down, left, right. Dad pushed my little brother out of the way and grasped the gun again.

“Okay, then, just aim at the target. Can you see the cardboard?”

“No,” I whimpered.

Impatience crept into his voice. “Then just aim at the stump!”

“What stump?” I pointed up into the trees. I could just make out a dark green blur on the horizon.

Dad towered over me, and I became a little afraid. He pointed down the length of the barrel. “It’s right there!”

“Where?”

“Just shoot the damn gun!” he shouted and I jumped. My fingers squeezed out two scattered shots.

“That’s enough!” his voice quivered and he grabbed the gun away.

Later that week Mom took me to the optometrist. But Dad never took me shooting again. Not that I miss it. I just wonder sometimes if Dylan Klebold and Kevin Harris once sat at their kitchen tables making targets with crayons and notebook paper when they were nine years old. It’s possible.

Salmon in Seattle?

Local politicians moaned and groaned when Chinook salmon joined the list of endangered species earlier this year. Amid complaints about federal regulations cramping our style and Gov. Gary Locke’s inadequate salmon budget proposals, local residents and environmentalists are discovering that the City of Seattle’s waterways are in need of a lot of work to make them salmon-friendly.

Unsurprisingly, much of the problem lies with the city’s inability (or unwillingness) to cope with development. Take, for example, Carkeek Park in Northwest Seattle. The park and its streams have been the focus of years of hard work by local residents (including schoolchildren) to restore salmon habitat in Piper’s Creek and Venema Creek. Yet this past winter, raw sewage overflowed from two manholes and a nearby sewer main nine times and spewed geysers of raw sewage on the park’s main roadway, ripping out new trails and fouling Piper’s and Venema Creeks. In January the county’s environmental lab measured fecal coliform bacteria levels in the creeks at 37,000 organisms per 100 ml.; 50 organisms per 100 ml. is considered a public health risk. The Health Department closed the park to visitors on Feb. 25.

In anger, the local residents have asked the Dept. of Design, Construction and Land Use to place a moratorium on new construction in Northwest Seattle–at least until the city and county increase wastewater capacity. The city has proposed shifting the local neighborhood’s wastewater load into a larger main pipe and replacing some side sewers, but residents view this as only a temporary solution. They would like a complete overhaul of the area’s aging sewer system, a change in the way sewage is pumped through the system (currently sewage is allowed to flow downhill to Carkeek, then pumped back uphill to the Westpoint treatment station), and the construction of the third sewage plant in the North Seattle area. The King County Council is still debating where to site the new plant; as recently as a few months ago, some city and county engineers were still arguing that a third plant wasn’t needed, and that we should just skip secondary sewage treatment and dump the raw sewage directly into the Sound.

It will take a city council vote to stop construction in Northwest Seattle. A county council vote will determine where to locate the new sewage treatment plant. In the meantime, local residents near Carkeek Park will have to hope that something gets done before next winter’s heavy rainfall.

Another waterway in danger is the Thornton Creek in Northeast Seattle. Like the Carkeek Park streams, Thornton Creek has been the loving focus of local residents attempting to restore fish habitat and wildlife to the city. In spite of years of effort, the south fork of Thornton Creek remains buried under the asphalt of Northgate Mall’s south parking lot; many Thornton Creek supporters have long wanted to “daylight” the creek and restore its ability to support Chinook salmon, which is native to the creek. But new plans to expand Northgate Mall include building an underground parking garage on the south parking lot site, which would mean digging up the creek and redirecting the flow. The mall owner, Simon Properties of Indianapolis, has resisted suggestions to bring the creek back to the surface. Their only concession to Thornton Creek residents has been to propose constructing a retention pond for runoff water from the construction site; unfortunately, the pond’s too small to hold all of the water from the entire 67-acre development.

In the meantime, according to a Seattle Press article, SPU employees have found Cutthroat trout and small Coho and Chinook smolts in the lower branch of Thornton Creek near Meadowbrook Playfield. In spite of physical barriers (including a three-foot waterfall under Lake City Way), a state biologist claims to have found a “fairly good” population of Cutthroat trout just upstream of 15th Avenue NE. Thornton Creek’s ability to support salmon habitat is clear. What’s missing is the political will to require developers to help restore the creek to its natural state, and to commit local governments to spend money removing or mitigating physical barriers like the culvert under Lake City Way.

Lastly, one of the main waterways for salmon to enter the city is through the ship canal into Lake Union. Pollution levels in Lake Union and Lake Washington, combined with the physical barrier of the Ballard Locks, have long kept most salmon out of this waterway. In the last 20 years, Metro and the Seattle Public Utilities constructed sewage treatment plants to provide both primary and secondary sewage treatment; this significantly improved water quality. But the Ballard Locks are still an insurmountable barrier. Here’s why: for a waterway like the ship canal to support salmon migration, it needs to have an average yearly temperature of about 60 degrees. But the Locks, in combination with the Cedar River dam far upstream, have reduced and slowed the flow of water through the lakes and the canal. This has made the water temperature in the canal increase to an average of 70 degrees. Warmer temperatures also rob the water of oxygen content. This is the same problem that has killed Chinook and Sockeye salmon runs in heavily-damned rivers like the Elwha and the Snake. What’s great for shipping and pleasure boats is not so great for salmon.

These are real, concrete issues that need to be addressed in the debate over how to bring salmon back to our region. Unfortunately, state politicians do little more than wring their hands and propose more tax breaks to logging industries, while local politicians refuse to do anything that might hamper “growth.” What they really mean is “growth” of their campaign funds–not of fish habitat, of course.

Sources: “Broadview Tells City To Stop Building and Fix Sewage Problem,” “Can Thornton Creek be Exhumed and Revived,” and “The Health of Lake Union,” The Seattle Press, April 21-May 4, 1999.

What You Eat

Right now you could be eating foods that contain altered genetic material and not even know it. How does that make you feel? You should be scared. Here are several reasons why:

Specialists on the British government’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) have reported concerns about genetically-altered plants containing a gene resistant to antibiotics. Such genes are widely used by biotech companies because they “allow scientists to move other genes around.” An antibiotic resistant gene known as AAD is already being used in genetically-altered maize and cotton. The main problem is this: when the corn and cotton are processed, cells are broken open and disperse their genetic material into the environment, often through dust that people breathe. A similar process may occur in the human digestive tract. A significant portion of the human population carry bacteria that are “adept at taking up DNA from the environment and expressing it.” One of these bacteria is meningitis, a deadly disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord. It’s not difficult to see the consequences if an antibiotic resistant strain of meningitis or a related disease emerges.

In an article published in the April 22 edition of Nature, some proponents of genetically-modified plants propose caution and better controls in trials of such plants, including a “gene register” to track which genes are being introduced into plants for human and animal consumption. Their concern is that unexpected changes in these plants “could cause allergic or toxic reactions in humans. Or that viral vectors used to change the plant’s genes may cause human disease.”

Ben Mifflin, a former director of the Institute of Arable Crops in the U.K., says that under current monitoring standards “unanticipated health impact of such foods would need to be a ‘monumental disaster’ to be detectable.” Another critic, Suzanne Wuerthle of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says: “It took us 60 years to realize that DDT might have oestrogenic activities and affect humans, but we are now being asked to believe that everything is OK with (genetically modified) foods because we haven’t seen any dead bodies yet.”

Efforts by U.K. scientists to ban genetically-modified plants that contain antibiotic-resistant genes have been overruled by the European Commission, although they said that there was “room for improvement” in governmental policy on genetically-altered plants. Private industry, however, has taken the matter into its own hands. After a poll showing that four out of five customers don’t want genetically-altered foods and won’t buy them, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, TESCO, decided to ban the sale of such foods in its store brand products. It joins four other supermarket chains who’ve banned such foods: Sainsbury’s, Asda, Safeway, and Iceland. These companies have their work cut out for them; many components of pre-packaged foods already have ingredients from genetically-altered plants (especially soybeans) and have no labels to designate which ones do. So far, two food producers and packagers, Van den Bergh Foods and Birds Eye Wall’s, have said they would avoid using genetically altered plant products whenever possible.

In the meantime, protesters against genetically-altered plants and food products have won a couple of conspicuous victories.

In Britain in late March, two women accused of destroying a genetically-altered corn crop at Hood Barton farm near Dartington, Devon, were set free after the prosecutor offered no evidence against them. The women were awarded court costs and the charges against them were dropped. The crop was being grown by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany on behalf of Advanta at a Ministry of Agriculture site.

On April 20, a High Court judge refused Monsanto’s application for a permanent ban on British protesters who uprooted plants at a farm in Oxfordshire last year. The judge ruled against Monsanto, because he believed the protesters could defend their actions; he ordered a full hearing to decide the matter. Kathryn Tulip, one of the defenders, said: “Now the matter will have to go to a full trial and we will be able to call expert witnesses to show that what we did was justifiable in order to protect public health and the environment.”

In mid-April the British government was forced to announce the dismissal of eleven members of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment after critics from several NGOs showed that all eleven members of the panel had received funding from companies developing genetically-altered plants. According to U.K. Environment Minister Michael Meacher, every single application for genetically-altered seed trials in the U.K.–160 in all–had been approved by the committee.

While activists in the U.K. have been on top of this issue from the start, protests have occurred in other countries across Europe, in Brazil, and in India, where farmers’ associations have uprooted and burned Monsanto’s field trials of genetically-modified cotton.

Next week the issue will be coming home to Seattle, when biotech salespeople, executives, and scientists blow into town on May 15-20 for the Biotech ’99 Convention to be held at the Convention Center in downtown Seattle. A group of local folks calling themselves the Concerned Citizens Action Network (CCAN) will be holding a Truth or Biotechnology Rally and March starting at noon on May 18th at 8th and Pike outside of the Convention Center. If you care about what you eat, you should be there to support them. (CCAN can be reached at 206-632-1656, waal@seanet.com, or www.aa.net/~paik/BioTech.)

Another important event next week is the Biodevastation 3 grassroots conference and teach-in, sponsored by the Edmonds Institute and the Washington Biotechnology Action Council. It’s scheduled for May 19-20 at Plymouth Congregational Church at 6th & University in downtown Seattle. Speakers at the conference include: Brian Tokar (contributor to Z Magazine), Brewster and Cathleen Kneen (Co-Editors of The Ram’s Horn, a very fine Canadian publication that critiques the agricultural industry), Phil Bereano (activist professor, expert in genetic discrimination), and Ronnie Cummins and Edward Hammond of the Indigenous Peoples Coalition Against Biopiracy (Hammond is also an investigator/discover of genetic terminator and traitor technologies). The event is free, but you should contact the Edmonds Institute to pre-register at beb@igc.org or 425-775-5383.

Sources: “Meningitis fear over GM food,” BBC, 4/26/99; “Genetically modified crops worry some scientists,” Reuters Health, 4/22/99; “Tesco bans GM food in own brands,” Telegraph (U.K.), 4/28/99; “GM Food Raid Case Dropped,” Press Association Limited, 3/29/99; “GM crops: Protest ‘justifiable to protect health,'” BBC, 4/20/99; and “Genetically-Modified Food Committee Faces Revamp,” Press Association Limited, 4/12/99.

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