Even in a weekend of political explosions from the National Equality March, my "urban gardening" theme is relevant. How do I connect my Victory Garden with the marchers in D.C.? Many of them will surely be munching on fast food to stay alive, and the fries on their plates are not likely made from genetically modified potatoes. The humble spud has been the focus of a huge battle.
In 1998 Monsanto did a study on its own GM variety -- and learned that lab rats fed on these potatoes sustained a lot of organ damage. Around 19 percent of the rats died. The FDA approved the potato anyway. Monsanto suppressed the study for many years. But McDonald's refused to buy the transgenic tuber, saying that their customers were uneasy about GM fries. Other fast-food chains followed suit. So the GM potato market went bust overnight. But now it's recovering, with Simplot, the Idaho potato company, and several others aiming to GM the huge global potato market.
Meanwhile in my garden, I'm harvesting my little crop of organic non-GM potatoes. Why the prejudice against GM? Because I'm one of those Americans who is uneasy about eating this much-ballyhooed and little-tested stuff.
It's really a healthcare issue. Since our government is always ready to bend over the desk for corporate lobbies, it started opening the U.S. marketplace to GM foods in the 1970s. While Republican administrations have been GM boosters, the Clinton administration also did its part with GM-corporate-friendly regulations. Today I hear little controversy about GM foods from either party. As yet, the Obama administration hasn't taken sides.
Little research has been done on how GM foods can affect human health. It's the same pattern that we've seen with inadequately tested drugs rushed to market by the FDA, only to be withdrawn because of problems. And there is another danger. Genetically modified plant DNA can leap to non-GM varieties and pollute them genetically. This happens through the natural process of pollination by wind or insects -- something that we can't control once these plants are out there in the fields.
With these genetic genies out of the bottle, nobody really knows what the bottom line will be in 10 years, or 100 years.
Blessings and Curses
What does "genetically modified" mean in foods? Scientists have learned how to alter the natural chain of DNA in some vegetable plant or fruit tree. They do this by inserting a gene or genes from some other organism -- one that confers a new characteristic. So far, most modifications are in plants. But the food industry is working on GM animals, notably pork.
What's the goal? GM tomatoes may be as tasteless as their non-GM cousins, but they take longer to go soft after harvest. GM soybeans can resist the heavy use of herbicides. GM papayas resist a particular virus that targets that plant. GM potatoes are intended to be keep longer in storage, and be resistant to the notorious potato blight that made such a mark in history.
In principle, as a ranch girl, I know this is a great idea. Insect pests and diseases destroy a significant percentage of the world's food supply every year.
But there's a "but." Our government is always happy to throw new health ideas at us without sufficient testing beforehand. Like with the H1N1 vaccine, which is being rushed to market and made mandatory for all U.S. residents. Unfortunately there are concerns that the vaccine hasn't been put through the full rigor of years of clinical trials to establish a horizon of possible harmful side effects.)
Every now and then, modern agriculture comes up with a big new idea that is touted as a blessing, but turns out to be a curse. Classic example: DDT, the first synthetic pesticide. It was introduced during World War II to combat malaria-carrying mosquitoes and insects that damage crop production. Monsanto and 15 other companies started manufacturing DDT in 1944. Since pesticides are made from petrochemicals, this meant that the oil industry got its foot in the food door.
Just 20 years later, in the 1960s, it was recognized that the chemical was a major pollutant that affects human health, wildlife and the environment. Insects were becoming genetically resistant to DDT as well. By the 1970s, in spite of fierce lobbying by Monsanto and others in the pesticide industry, countries (including the U.S.) were outlawing DDT use. It is now banned worldwide, except for certain limited uses.
Undaunted, the petrochemical industry came up with the "green revolution." This was the introduction of new high-yield varieties of cereal crops. They came as a package -- which also included newer and supposedly safer pesticides, as well as herbicides, new irrigation techniques, and chemical fertilizers. These fertilizers are also made from (you guessed it) petrochemicals. "The green revolution" was going to feed the whole world -- and make agribusiness richer than ever. Even home gardeners were encouraged to use the new tech.
But the "revolution" turned out to be problematical. Monsanto and other corporations went into developing countries and sweet-talked farmers into trading their traditional methods for the new package. But for a low-income farmer, acquiring the new MO usually meant going into debt -- resulting in farmer bankruptcies, even suicides, that began to unravel ruralo societies -- as in India, where it is now a political concern. Add the growing scarcity of water all over the world, and the rising cost of water. Intensive use of chemical fertilizers can have long-term negative effects on soil fertility, as some farmers began to notice.
By the 1980s, some commercial American farmers were so alarmed at what they saw happening to their land that they switched to sustainable/organic farming. Banks, ever the allies of big business, tried to stem the revolt for a time, by denying loans to farmers who switched. But it didn't work -- organic produce is now capturing a growing market share in the mainstream.
Today genetically modified foods are the latest new thing. Once again the Wizards of Ag are hidden in that little emerald-green booth, working those levers to make thunder and lightning and booming voices -- hoping to convince us that they have all the answers.
How People Feel About GM
But GM foods can't be considered "organic." Polls show that around 50 percent of Americans worry about GM foods, and pass on anything labeled "GM." But they don't worry enough to march in the streets and protest. In spite of the potato fiasco, most of the staples that form the basis of American diet are now heavily GMed. Nearly 90 percent of the soybean product eaten in the U.S. is GM, along with 83 percent of the cottonseed oil, and 60 percent of the field corn (which goes into products like corn oil). Not to mention growing percentages of GM in sugar cane, sugar beets, canola, rice. GM peanuts are on the way. GM wheat is still problematical, but they're working on it.
Europeans cherish their traditional cuisines and hold onto what's "traditionally natural" in agriculture, so they were noisier in their resistance to GM foods. They coined the term "Frankenfoods" and even marched in protest. Unfortunately the European Union is finally bending to agribusiness pressure and allowing more GM on the markets there.
Resistance to GM has built in Asia as well -- Japan, for instance, and Thailand, which rejected the new so-called "golden rice." This variety has been GMed with daffodil DNA, which supposedly increases Vitamin A and prevents blindness in children. Critics say that the rice's benefit hasn't been proven.
But in Africa, with its frequent famines and chronic malnutrition for many millions of people, there is keen interest in the promise of bumper GM food crops. This is detailed in a recent documentary screened on Link TV, called "Earth Report: The High Tech Harvest." So if President Obama wants to stay friendly with Africa, he will likely be friendly to GM food tech.
What One Person Can Do
Since home gardeners can't produce everything they eat from their own property, it's impossible to avoid eating this stuff altogether. It relentlessly spills into our kitchens in the form of processed foods -- everything from tortilla chips to mayonnaise and margarine.
But I'm sure going to avoid eating as much of it as I can. This will mean collecting "heirloom" seed varieties that are certifiable as non-GM. And hopefully, my garden's location in central L.A. means that it won't be affected too much by pollen drift from outlying agricultural areas in the Valley, where some commercial farmers may be growing GM crops.
As yet, I don't grow enough potatoes to fill an entire root cellar, the way we did on the ranch when I was a kid. During World War II, my dad sold beef to the Army, but he grew potatoes on the side, as a cash crop. Some were eaten by our family and the men working on the ranch -- that root cellar got us through the winter. The surplus got sold to local produce stores. (This was before the advent of the supermarket!)
But my own potatoes do last for several meals, and they taste darn good. They're about 3-4 inches in diamater -- not the giant size of their supermarket brethren, which are pumped by chemical fertilizer. They started with a couple of forgotten Russets that sprouted in a corner of my refrigerator. Since I hate to waste anything, I carefully cut the tubers into hunks, each hunk with a sprout on it, and popped them in the dirt. They grew and flourished.
But next year I'm going back to a type that I grew a few years ago -- the purple Peruvian potato. Potatoes have skins of many colors -- brown, yellow, red, blue and purple. With the purples, even the flesh can be that color. With their unique nutty flavor, they're now a favorite at gourmet and new-cuisine restaurants.
Historians agree that potatoes were first cultivated in South America, possibly as long ago as 10,000 years. They thrived even in the high Andes, in rocky terraces and poor soil still cultivated by the Indians who live there today. From there, potatoes emigrated, and botanists developed them into thousands of varieties. They are grown almost everywhere now -- the world's biggest potato producer is China. So the purples did well in my container garden -- they thought they were still living in the Andes, so their leafy tops cascaded over the sides of the container and flowered beautifully.
I'd love to get my hands on a new Hungarian variety of purple, that has the organic farming industry buzzing with excitement. It's said to be naturally resistant to that notorious blight that left some of my Irish ancestors dying of famine in 1845, when Ireland's entire potato crop went into meltdown. Natural mutations like this, that happen as a result of a food plant's interactions with its environment, are among the safest and best genetic modifications, in my opinion.
I'm in good health for a person my age, and almost never get colds or flu. I attribute my health, in part, to this fact: I started out in life weeding an organic Victory Garden in the 1940s, and eating what it grew. And ever since the 1980s, wherever I've lived, I've had a small garden, and have been eating at least small amounts of home-grown produce and fruit.
So...'scuse me, but it's time to go finish harvesting my potatoes. I plan to eat some of them baked, with butter (no margarine), just to enjoy the taste. See y'all later.