Table of Contents...
A California County Moves to Ban Genetically Engineered Crops
Santa Cruz county (California) supervisors on June 20 unanimously
adopted on "first reading" a "precautionary moratorium" on the use of
genetically-engineered crops anywhere in the county. You can listen to
the June 20 supervisors' meeting here and read a hefty set of
background documents here. The "precautionary moratorium" ordinance
is scheduled for a final vote by county supervisors in August. Some
other Calfornia counties favor genetically-modified crops.
In England, a Conservative Platform Will Include Precaution
In England, environmental advisor Zac Goldsmith plans to press four
themes in drafting the new conservative platform on green issues:
energy efficiency; local food; less dependence on foreign oil; and the
precautionary principle. He believes these are pragmatic goals, which
fit right in with Conservative Party values.
U.S. Department of Defense Adopts Precaution (Sort of)
In some sense, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has taken a
precautionary stance toward wind turbines that may interfere with
aviation radar. Precaution helps you protect the things you care
about, and if protecting aviation radar is your goal, precaution can
help you achieve it. Of course fully precautionary action would start
with a public process for deciding goals and examining all reasonable
alternatives for achieving them, so the DoD stance on wind turbines is
not precautionary in the classic meaning of the term.
11th Grade Class Studies Milk, Decides to Ban Gene Modifications
After several days of discussion, the 11th-grade global studies
class decided to follow the "precautionary principle," which guides
policy in many European nations, and institute a worldwide moratorium
on genetically modified (GM) foods until they could be proven safe,
and to require labeling of any GM foods that were approved for
consumption. Furthermore, the summit voted to take away the right of
any person or corporation to patent food.
From: Capital Press Agriculture Weekly (Salem, Oregon), Jun. 16, 2006
SANTA CRUZ NEXT TO CONSIDER GMO BAN
By Ali Bay
Santa Cruz is set to become the fourth California county to ban the
planting and production of genetically modified crops.
Last week the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to develop
an ordinance placing a "precautionary" moratorium on genetically
modified organisms until there is better regulatory oversight, health
testing, labeling requirements and safeguards in place to prevent GMOs
from contaminating other crops.
Although no genetically engineered crops are currently grown in the
county, the ordinance, which will be considered on June 20, concludes
a 10-month effort by the county to study the technology.
A genetic engineering subcommittee, comprised of supervisor
appointees, prepared an extensive report outlining the group's
"critical issues of concern" for genetically engineered foods. The
report cites inadequate regulations of genetically engineered crops,
lack of studies on the health effects of GE foods, absence of labeling
requirements and adequate safeguards to prevent contamination of other
"For organic farmers I see (the moratorium) as a victory because they
will not need to be worried about contamination of their crops through
drift or the mixing up of seeds," said Peggy Miars, executive director
of the Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers. "Non-
organic farmers who do not want GE cross pollination are in the boat."
Miars said she was amazed at the reaction supervisors gave after
reading the subcommittee's report. They called the conclusions in the
58-page report "frightening" and "shocking."
Although the ordinance has yet to draw any criticism at the Board of
Supervisors meetings, some local farmers and several minority
subcommittee members who helped prepare the county report don't
believe a moratorium is necessary.
"I don't feel it's necessary to call a moratorium on something that is
not happening in the county at this time," said Steve Bontadelli, a
Santa Cruz brussel sprouts grower and subcommittee member. "I kind of
felt that it was a premature reaction to something we may or may not
even be facing."
Still Bontadelli and others who wrote a minority report do agree with
the subcommittee's basic findings that the technology should be
labeled and other safeguards should be in place to help prevent
"There need to be methods, procedures and protocols in place to
prevent that from happening," Bontadelli said.
Three other California counties, Mendocino, Trinity and Marin, have
also passed anti-GMO ordinances, either by a local government
initiative or public vote.
But according to ucbiotech.org, a statewide biotechnology workgroup
associated with the University of California's Division of
Agricultural and Natural Resources, more than a dozen counties across
the state have either rejected similar ordinances or passed pro-GMO
Voters in Humboldt, Sonoma, Butte and San Luis Obispo counties
rejected ballot measures that would have banned the technology, while
more than 10 counties, many in the Central Valley, have passed
measures that support genetic engineering.
State lawmakers have also jumped into the mix, last year attempting to
pass legislation that would give the state stronger authority to
regulate seeds, effectively voiding the county bans of genetically
Senate Bill 1056, written by state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, didn't
make its way out of the Legislature last year, but is expected to be
heard again this month by the Assembly Agriculture Committee.
Organizations that have fought the county bans believe farmers and
consumers should have the right to reap the possible benefits of
genetically modified crops.
"More than 70 percent of the processed foods at grocery stores today
have benefited from a science that improves food quality and offers
the promise of medical solutions to life threatening diseases," said
Marko Mlikotin, spokesman for the California Healthy Foods Coalition.
"This is why voters in many counties oppose biotech crops bans. Family
farmers should not be denied access to a science that improves the
quality of life for their consumers."
In Santa Cruz, a moratorium would give consumers a choice to decide
what they want to eat, Miars said, adding that the ban would be
eliminated once labeling and other protections are in place.
"All the consumers I've heard from are supportive, are behind this,"
she said. "People want to have a choice and that's fine. But if you're
going to be selling GE crop, I would say label it so people know and
they have a choice."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Ali Bay is based in
Sacramento. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2006 Capital Press
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From: Ode Magazine, Jun. 16, 2006
THE RISE OF A POLITICAL PARADOX BRINGS HOPE FOR THE WORLD
By Jay Walljasper and Ode Magazine
Modern politics is notorious for the way it creates strange new
meanings for familiar words. "National security," for instance, now
means attacking distant countries. "Choice," in American electoral
debates, is a secret code for abortion, and "family" signifies fierce
opposition to gay rights. "Us," in the minds of some European
political candidates, refers exclusively to white people.
But the word that has undergone the most dramatic transformation at
the hands of politicians is "conservative." It once clearly described
a political philosophy devoted to preserving tradition. But powerful
leaders around the world now use the term to justify a complete
reordering of society according to the wishes of global corporations
and radical free-market economists. The merit of these policies is
open to discussion, but it seems obvious that this kind of political
agenda is anything but conservative.
"It's no accident that 'conservative' and 'conservation' are almost
the same word," notes American environmentalist philosopher Bill
McKibben. "But what we call conservative today has been captured by
something else -- the idea that we need economic growth at all costs.
That can be ruinous to our environment and our communities." That's
the great irony of politics today: The very idea of conservation --
conserving the environment, natural resources, energy, a sense of
community or anything else -- is considered unnecessary, or even a
dangerous obstacle to economic progress, by most so-called
Conservatives. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney summed up the
prevailing right-wing view when he said, "Conservation may be a sign
of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis... for a sound,
comprehensive energy policy."
This is what makes the recent turn of events in British politics so
fascinating. The Conservative Party, which earned the undying wrath of
environmentalists when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, is now
trumpeting green issues in an effort to unseat the ruling Labour
Party. The new Conservative leader, David Cameron, who assumed power
last fall, quotes Gandhi in urging people "to become the change we
want to see in the world." He can be seen riding his bike all over
London and plans to add solar panels and a wind turbine to his home in
the fashionable Notting Hill neighbourhood. He's gone so far as to
question the dominance of corporate power in the UK, declaring in a
recent newspaper ad, "We should not just stand up for big business but
to big business."
While this might sound like some sort of political gimmick, there are
signs that Cameron is sincere about pioneering a new brand of "green"
conservativism -- which could become as globally influential as
Thatcher's free-market policies were in the 1980s. If the environment
ceases to become a divisive issue among parties of the left, right and
centre around the world, we will see a new flowering of green
In a bold stroke, Cameron enlisted Bob Geldof, rock star and prominent
anti-poverty advocate, as an advisor on global affairs, and Zac
Goldsmith, editor of the The Ecologist magazine, as an environmental
The Ecologist has been uncompromising in its opposition to corporate
globalization, agribusiness, free trade, genetically modified food and
big supermarkets -- hardly the resume of an up-and-coming player in
the Conservative Party. Yet Goldsmith is helping direct a team of
party leaders over the next 18 months in creating a new green vision
for Conservatives. He's even been approved by party officials to run
for parliament. "If you would have predicted this four or five years
ago," Goldsmith admits. "I would have been really surprised."
"There are big changes going on about the environment in this country
right now," he explains. "Politics is just now catching up. Fifteen
years ago Prince Charles was laughed at when he talked about organic
food. Now you have half the people in this country buying organic food
for their children. Businesses like [the huge retailer] Marks &
Spencer are really raising the bar on the issues we're covering in The
Ecologist. Very detailed market research is telling them this is what
Goldsmith plans to press four themes in drafting the new conservative
platform on green issues: energy efficiency; local food; less
dependence on foreign oil; and the precautionary principle, which
states that a new technology or product cannot be introduced until
it's been proven safe. He believes these are pragmatic goals, which
fit right in with Conservative Party values. "They don't require us to
live like monks. They don't require huge increases in taxes." Peter
Ainsworth, the Conservative's new shadow environment minister, vows to
address the issue of climate change with policies that conserve energy
and promote alternative power sources like solar, wind and wave power.
(He hedges on nuclear.) "I do not believe that saving the planet is
incompatible with economic progress," he states. "There are huge
commercial opportunities for British companies in these new green
industries. We are in danger of missing out on the opportunities."
John Vidal, who has monitored green politics for many years as
environmental editor of Britain's centre-left Guardian newspaper,
notes that, "When you're not in power, it's easy to be green. But the
Conservatives do have a very, very good environmental team. What
happens when they come up against the party's business interests?
We'll have to wait and see."
Vidal is quick to add that they've already accomplished a lot. "It's
wonderful the effect they're having on the Labour government. They're
forcing the government to put more into renewable energy and many
Like Goldsmith, he sees a new wave of green consciousness sweeping
Britain, and feels "that business has grabbed this wave more than
government. Businesses are really coming up with new initiatives. It's
quite amazing." That helps explain the unusual phenomenon of a
conservative party trying to outflank left and centre parties on
Germany is another place where conservative leaders are rethinking
their views on ecological issues. Newly elected chancellor Angela
Merkel from the conservative Christian Democrat party has not
overturned some of the significant environmental policies enacted by
the previous Social Democrat/Green Party coalition although she
campaigned against the measures. "The Christian Democrats had attacked
head-on government supports for renewable energy and attacked head-on
the eco-tax [which imposed a levy on some sources of pollution],"
notes Wolfgang Sachs, a leading German environmental thinker and
researcher. "But now there's a consensus that you need to support the
environment and renewable energy. The Christian Democrats understand
Sachs points out that as a conservative party, Christian Democrats
historically were dedicated to preserving family, community and the
natural landscape in the face of technological and economic change.
(Indeed, Bavaria, the heartland of German conservatism, claims to have
established the world's first government ministry of environmental
protection.) But today, Sachs believes, "the Green Party is the
contemporary expression of that kind of conservative politics." He
notes that recent elections in the German state of Baden- Wurttemberg
nearly produced an unprecedented governing alliance between Christian
Democrats and Greens. But efforts to forge a coalition of old- and
new-style "conservatives" failed in the end, because of pressure from
loyal activists in both camps who distrusted the other party. "It's a
bit of a pity," Sachs remarks. "I think it could have been a trial run
This green wave among conservative politicians has yet to cross the
Atlantic. Canada's newly elected Conservative Party prime minister
Stephen Harper campaigned against the country's continued
participation in the Kyoto agreement on global climate change, and
U.S. president George W. Bush has opposed nearly every environmental
initiative that has come his way. But U.S. Senator John McCain -- who
many see as the Republican frontrunner for the 2008 election -- is
making global warming into a campaign issue although he hasn't
embraced most other green issues. Many evangelical Christians --
probably the most loyal Republican voters in recent elections -- are
also questioning the party's inaction on climate change. Eighty-six
leading evangelical leaders, including presidents of 39 Christian
colleges and best- selling author Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven
Life) signed a statement endorsing government action to establish
limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.
There are further stirrings that some rank-and-file conservative
voters may be thinking twice about the Republicans' stubborn
indifference to environmental issues. Rod Dreher, a former editor at
the right-wing magazine National Review and now an editorial writer at
the Dallas Morning News, says, "Environmental concerns are a family
value here in north Texas. The Republican leadership is all on board
with the agenda of cleaning up the air. They can see how much
pollution is costing us. One of them told me about how he went to his
granddaughter's soccer game, and half the kids had to run to the
sidelines to use their asthma inhalers."
Dreher chronicles the unlikely rise of a grassroots green conservative
movement in his book Crunchy Cons (Crown Forum, 2006). "Crunchy cons,"
according to Dreher, are self-avowed conservatives who have some
concerns in common with lefties, such as a suspicion of consumerism,
large corporations and TV, as well as an affinity for organic food,
animal rights, nature, historic preservation, small-is-beautiful
thinking and a clean environment. These people tend to be deeply
religious -- opposed to abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage
-- and firm in their belief that neither Republicans nor Democrats
speak for them.
"It's not easy being a green conservative," he writes, "but if we
conservatives want to be true to our principles, we have to move in
In their own way, the emergence of evangelical environmentalists and
crunchy cons in America could be as significant as the greening of
conservative parties in Europe. Political changes in the U.S. tend to
arise first in social movements (think of the civil rights,
environmental or anti-abortion movements) and only later get picked up
by political parties. The right wingers in Birkenstocks and soccer
granddads that Dreher writes about could lead to the greening of the
Republican Party, a large-scale defection to the Democrats or perhaps
a whole new political configuration. In any case, a growing force of
activists spanning the political spectrum (and the world) who are
working to clean up the environment means new hope for Mother Earth.
Copyright 2005 Planetsave Network
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From: USA Today, Jun. 8, 2006
WINDMILL PROJECTS STILLED FOR NOW
By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
Worries that giant electricity-producing windmills may interfere with
aviation radar have thrown several major wind-power projects into
disarray and threaten to derail a rapidly growing source of domestic
energy, industry advocates say.
In recent months, the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation
Administration have blocked or slowed several projects in Wisconsin,
Illinois and South Dakota. Their concern is that the windmill blades
could confuse a radar or obscure its view of aircraft.
Congress passed a law in January requiring the Defense Department to
study whether windmills interfere with radar. The military opposes any
windmill project in the path of long-range air defense radars until
that study is completed.
Laurie Jodziewicz, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy
Association (AWEA), says up to 15 projects are on hold after the FAA
notified the industry group this year that they would create a
That designation makes it difficult to obtain financing and insurance
for the projects, she says.
"It's very uncertain and very unclear why these things are happening
now when it never happened before," Jodziewicz says.
"It's just another example of the situation where in the United States
the renewable energy industry is always swimming upstream," says
Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, an advocacy
group. "There are all these unforeseen obstacles that come along and
slow things down."
The FAA and the military say they are not trying to halt construction
of windmill projects but must ensure that the generator farms don't
compromise aviation safety or national defense.
The main impetus for putting the projects on hold has come from the
military. FAA radars can easily distinguish aircraft from obstructions
such as windmills, but defense radars designed to spot airborne
intruders are more sensitive to interference.
"Until the potential effects can be quantified and possible mitigation
techniques developed, it is prudent to temporarily postpone wind
turbine construction in areas where the ability of these long-range
radars that protect our country might be compromised," Pentagon
spokeswoman Eileen Lainez says.
Wind power generates slightly less than 1% of electricity in this
country, but its share is growing rapidly, the AWEA says. Last year,
wind was the nation's second-largest source of new power generation,
after natural gas.
Lainez and FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown say their agencies are working
with wind farm developers to smooth the application process. Brown
cites the approval May 25 of a large project in Bloomington, Ill.,
that had been blocked.
Brown says the FAA has struggled to keep up with the influx of wind
farm applicants. The aviation agency, which must rule on each
windmill, received 4,343 applications last year, more than double the
1,982 it reviewed in 2004, Brown says. The agency expects as many as
10,000 this year.
The latest wind turbines stand several hundred feet high. Individual
blades are more than 100 feet long. In some cases, the windmills could
appear to be aircraft on radar screens or could create images that
make it harder to spot planes.
Methods to minimize interference are available. Moving a proposed
windmill, using computers to create smarter radars that ignore
windmills, and using "stealth" technology to make windmills invisible
to radar could solve the problem, Vickerman says.
The controversy over windmills in the upper Midwest follows a fight
over a huge proposed project off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Worried
about possible radar problems at that project, Sen. John Warner, R-
Va., inserted language into this year's Defense Authorization Act that
required the study.
Warner didn't intend to block projects before the study was completed,
says John Ullyot, a spokesman for the senator.
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From: Rethinking Schools Online, Jun. 1, 2006
GOT A LITTLE MORE THAN MILK?
Students get a glimpse into the corporate-controlled food system by
looking at the politics of food
By Tim Swinehart
"Got milk? Want strong bones? Drink milk. Want healthy teeth? Drink
milk. Want big muscles? Drink milk."
"The glass of milk looks nice and cold and refreshing. If I had a
warm, homemade chocolate chip cookie, it would make my day. They go
Ari and Colin could have been writing radio spots for the Oregon
Dairyman's Association, but instead they were writing about the glass
of milk I had set out moments earlier in the middle of the classroom.
My instructions to the students were simple: "Describe the glass of
milk sitting before you. What does it make you think of? Does it bring
back memories? Do you have any questions about the milk? An ode to
From the front row, Carl said, "Mmmmm... I'm thirsty. Can I drink it?"
"Why don't you wait until the end of the period and then I'll check
back with you on that, Carl," I responded.
We had spent the last couple weeks discussing the politics of food in
my untracked 11th grade global studies classes. And while students --
mostly working class and European American -- were beginning to show
signs of an increased awareness about the implications of their own
food choices, I wanted to find an issue that they would be sure to
relate to on a personal level. One of my goals in designing a unit
about food was to give students the opportunity to make some intimate
connections between the social and cultural politics of globalization
and the choices we make as individual consumers and as a society as a
whole. A central organizing theme of the unit was choice, which we
examined from multiple perspectives: How much choice do you have about
the food that you eat? Do these choices matter? Does knowledge about
the source/history of our food affect our ability to make true choices
about our food? How does corporate control of the global food supply
affect our choices and the choices of people around the world?
I wanted to encourage my students to continue asking critical
questions about the social and environmental issues surrounding food,
even outside the confines of the classroom. I wanted to develop a
lesson that would stick with them when they grabbed their afternoon
snack or sat down for their next meal, something they might even feel
compelled to tell their friends or family about.
Milk turned out to have the sort of appeal I was looking for. For
almost all my students, milk embodies a sort of wholesome, pure
"goodness," an image propped up by millions of dollars of advertising
targeted especially toward children. My students had been ingrained
with the message that "milk does a body good" for most of their lives
and had been persuaded by parents, teachers, celebrities, and
cafeteria workers to include milk as a healthy part of their day. But
I believe that my students, along with the vast majority of the
American public, hasn't been getting the whole story about milk. I
wanted to introduce them to the idea that corporate interests --
oftentimes at odds with their own personal health -- hid behind the
image of purity and health.
Growth Hormones and Milk
I wanted to help my students reexamine the images of purity and health
that milk evoked by presenting them with some unsettling information
about the Monsanto corporation's artificial growth hormone, rBGH.
Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH -- also known as Bovine
Somatrotropin, bST, or rBST) is a genetically engineered version of
the growth hormone naturally produced by cows, and was approved by the
federal Food and Drug Administra-tion (FDA) in 1993 for the purpose of
increasing a cow's milk production by an estimated 5 to 15 percent.
Monsanto markets rBGH, under the trade name Posilac, as a way "for
dairy farmers to produce more milk with fewer cows, thereby providing
dairy farmers with additional economic security" (see
www.monsantodairy.com). But with an increased risk of health problems
for cows stressed from producing milk at unnaturally enhanced levels
including more udder infections and reproductive problems -- critics
argue that the only true economic security resulting from the sale of
Posilac (rBGH) is the $300-500 million a year that Monsanto makes from
The human health risks posed by rBGH-treated milk have been an issue
of intense controversy since rBGH was introduced more than a decade
ago. Monsanto and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say that milk
and meat from cows supplemented with bST are safe. On the other hand,
a number of peer-reviewed studies, most notably those of University of
Illinois School of Public Health Professor Samuel Epstein, MD, have
shown that rBGH-treated milk contains higher than normal levels of
Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). Although IGF-1 is a naturally
occurring hormone-protein in cows and humans, when increased above
normal levels it has been linked to an increased risk of breast,
prostate, and colon cancers. Monsanto itself, in 1993, admitted that
rBGH milk often contains higher levels of IGF-1. The uncertainty
surrounding these health risks has led citizens and governments in
Canada, all 25 countries of the European Union, Australia, New
Zealand, and Japan to ban rBGH.
The continued use of rBGH in the United States points to the political
influence of large corporations on the FDA's regulatory process. When,
in 1994, concerned dairy retailers responded to the introduction of
rBGH with labels indicating untreated milk as "rBGH free," the FDA
argued that there was no "significant" difference between rBGH-treated
milk and ordinary milk and warned retailers that such labels were
illegal. The FDA has since changed its position and now allows
producers to label rBGH-free milk. Paul Kingsnorth, writing in The
Ecologist magazine, offers one explanation for the FDA's protection of
rBGH: "The FDA official responsible for developing this labeling
policy was one Michael R. Taylor. Before moving to the FDA, he was a
partner in the law firm that represented Monsanto as it applied for
FDA approval for Posilac. He has since moved back to work for
Monsanto." Not an isolated incident, this example illustrates what
critics often refer to as the "revolving door" between U.S.
biotechnology corporations and the government agencies responsible for
regulating biotech products and the safety of the nation's food.
The story of rBGH in the United States encapsulates many of the worst
elements of today's corporate-controlled, industrial food system.
Despite the illusion of choice created by the thousands of items
available at the supermarket, consumers have little knowledge about
where food comes from and how it is produced. By uncovering the story
behind rBGH, I hoped students would begin asking questions about the
ways corporate consolidation and control of the world's food supply
has drastically limited the real choices and knowledge we have as food
To familiarize ourselves with Mon-santo's point of view, we spent a
day in the computer lab exploring the corporation's website
(www.monsanto.com). I asked students to look for arguments made in
favor of biotechnology and genetically modified foods: Why does
Monsanto argue that these technologies are important? What benefits do
they offer to humans and the environment? Some students were impressed
with a genetically engineered soybean designed to reduce trans fats in
processed food, others mentioned drought-resistant crops that require
Drew, however, was skeptical of the language Monsanto used to describe
its research and products. "Why don't they ever use the terms
'genetically modified' or 'genetically engineered' and always use
'biotechnology product' instead? I find it ironic that Monsanto's
'pledge' is to uphold integrity in all that they do, even though
genetically modified foods threaten the integrity of people and the
Carl's request to drink the milk we had used as a writing prompt made
a nice segue into showing students a short clip about rBGH from the
documentary film The Corporation (from 29:15 to 32:30 on the DVD). As
we viewed the clip, which includes powerful images of cows with
swollen udders and compelling testimony from Dr. Samuel Epstein that
links rBGH to cancer, students reacted. "Is that a real cow?" "Gross!"
"Is that in our milk?" and "That's messed up, dude!" came from various
corners of the room. But while sick cows and potential cancers risks
are important, I was hoping to impress upon students how the risks of
rBGH have been ignored and hidden from public knowledge by Monsanto
and by those who license its use at the FDA.
I showed the clip from The Corporation as a pre-reading strategy for
Paul Kingsnorth's article "Bovine Growth Hormones." The article is
technical and can be a difficult read for some students, so I hoped to
encourage their interest and give students a purpose for reading
before I passed it out. I asked students to list questions or concerns
as I paused the DVD. I was encouraged by their curiosity: "Do hormones
get into the milk and how do they affect us?" "Is there pus in our
milk?" "Is milk truly healthy for us?" "Why is rBGH necessary, if we
already have too much milk?" "If they knew that the drug made cows
sick, why do they still use it?" "What can we do about it?"
Then I passed out highlighters and told students to choose five
questions from our list and to read "Bovine Growth Hormones" with
those five questions in mind, highlighting as they come across
important information. The article is quite comprehensive, and
students were able to find answers to the majority of their questions,
including everyone's favorite: "Is there pus in our milk?" Truth be
told, all milk, including organic milk, has small amounts of somatic
cells or "pus" in it, but the FDA has strict quality standards for the
somatic cell count (SCC) above which milk may not be sold to
consumers. What students learn from the article -- and what Monsanto's
warning label accompanying all Posilac reads -- is that cows treated
with rBGH are more likely to produce milk with increased SCCs due to
the heightened risk for udder infections.
With the information from the website, film, and article to draw from,
I wanted to give students another chance to respond to the glass of
milk still sitting at the center of the room. I asked them each to
draw a line under their initial descriptions and to write a second
response: "Do you feel any differently about the glass of milk?"
Ari had initially extolled the many health virtues of milk but now
seemed equally concerned about possible health risks: "Apparently, I
get calcium, pus, and an increased risk of uterine, breast, and
various kinds of cancers. Now, when I look at that glass half full of
milk, I see cancer in a glass with a thin layer of pus as a topping.
Now I don't think I can look at milk in the same way."
Ari's comment brings up a legitimate concern that by teaching students
about rBGH, I am scaring them away from milk and toward less
attractive alternatives, including soda. Such risks were a constant
source of concern while teaching students about the myriad problems
associated with industrially produced foods. After learning about the
health and environmental risks of pesticides, herbicides, hormones,
and genetically modified food, I had more than one student ask in
exasperation: "But Mr. Swinehart, what can I eat?"
We are fortunate in Portland, Ore., to have a vibrant local food
system that makes healthy, safe, and affordable food readily
available. Several Portland-area dairies, including Sunshine,
Alpenrose, and the nation's second largest producer of natural chunk
cheese, Tillamook, have all committed to producing only rBGH-free milk
products. Because these are not organic dairies, their rBGH-free milk
tends to be less expensive and a more reasonable alternative for
students than certified "organic" milk. Dairies in many other parts of
the country have made similar pledges (see
www.themeatrix.com/getinvolved/statepdfs/rbgh_list.html for an
interactive map to find rBGH-free products in your area). Being able
to recommend these local dairies not only presented students with a
viable alternative to giving up milk completely, but also gave them a
chance to apply their knowledge of controversial rBGH labeling during
the next trip to the grocery store.
Compared to Ari, Eron wasn't too worried about rBGH's health risks,
but did express a willingness to rethink his decisions as a consumer:
"I still love milk and will drink it, but maybe I will make a change
and buy organic milk instead so that I don't get all of the health
risks. It seems this might benefit me the most and I will be happy
about the choices I made." Of course, many students will choose to
continue drinking milk regardless of where it comes from or what it
has in it, but their knowledge of rBGH and the corporate politics
behind unlabeled milk cartons, makes this a considerably more informed
choice than most U.S. consumers have.
Eron's comment also raises one of my primary concerns in trying to
teach students about the global politics of food. I was confident
going into the unit that students would react strongly to issues
surrounding the health of animals and their own personal health, but
my goals for the unit were larger than this. While I was encouraged to
see Eron thinking about the effects of rBGH on his own personal
health, I also wanted students to make broader connections to ways the
corporate control of the food system takes knowledge and power out of
the hands of small food producers and consumers around the world. Do
some countries and corporations benefit more from a global industrial
food system than others? Do the environmental costs of this same food
system pose a substantially greater risk for the world's poor, who
still depend on a direct connection to the earth for their means of
Patents on Life?
Since students' comments during the milk lesson seemed to focus on
personal choices, I realized that we needed to broaden our focus from
the politics of health surrounding rBGH to include an exploration of
how a global food system, increasingly controlled by a few
multinational agribusiness corporations, is affecting lives and
cultures around the world. I wanted students to look at how
corporations are changing the nature of food. Through the science of
genetic engineering, biotechnology companies are experimenting with
the biological foundations of what is arguably the world's most
important life form: the seed. Biotech companies tend to downplay the
revolutionary nature of this new science by suggesting that humans
have influenced plant genetics, through selective breeding and
hybridization, since the dawn of agriculture.
But because genetic engineering allows for the DNA of one organism,
including animal and virus DNA, to be placed in a completely unrelated
plant species, it crosses natural barriers that were never breached by
traditional plant breeding. Without adequate testing or knowledge of
long-term consequences, genetically modified (GM) crops are now grown
around the world, posing what many argue is a serious threat to global
food security. Through the natural and highly uncontrollable process
of cross-pollination, GM crops have the potential to contaminate the
genetic code of the traditional crops that have provided people with
food for thousands of years.
It is not, however, just the seed itself that is changed through the
process of genetic engineering, but the very idea of the seed is
transformed as well. By altering the DNA of traditional seeds, biotech
companies are able to claim the new seed as an "invention" and secure
their right to ownership through the legal system of patents. Global
production of biotech crops and the number of corporate-owned patents
on seed have increased dramatically over the last two decades.
Monsanto alone owns more than 11,000 seed patents.
To help students grapple with the international politics of seed
patenting and GM foods, I designed a role play that would encourage
them to confront the often unequal effects of the global food system
and the global economy in which it operates. I set up the role play as
a special meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the primary
governing body for international trade law. I asked students to debate
how GM foods should be regulated internationally by taking on the
following roles: farmers from India, U.S. Trade representatives,
European Union commissioners, U.S. consumers, Greenpeace, and
Monsanto. I asked them to reconsider WTO rules that set U.S. patent
law as the de facto international standard for determining who has
"ownership" of certain foods. In the introduction to the role play
handout, I explained the following:
You are delegates to a special summit of the World Trade Organization
(WTO). This meeting has been called to debate genetic engineering and
patenting of foods. Due to worldwide resistance to genetically
modified (GM) foods and the patenting of seeds, the WTO has been
forced to reconsider its position on patents and the rights of
multinational corporations to trade GM foods and seeds....
Your task for this summit is to determine to what extent GM foods
deserve regulation, who should be responsible for any regulations that
are necessary, and what these rules should look like.
This "special" meeting included voices that would never be heard at
the actual, much-more-exclusive meetings of the WTO, but I wanted
students to make their decisions in the role play based on a fuller
representation of international perspectives.
To encourage students to begin thinking about the issues at stake in
the role play, I asked them to write interior monologues -- statements
where they imagined details about family, background, hopes, dreams,
and fears, all from the perspective of their roles. I wanted to give
students the opportunity to create personal connections to the
characters they would embody during the role play, while also engaging
with the critical issues surrounding GM foods and seed patenting.
Julia's monologue from the perspective of an Indian Farmer was
I don't have the heart to tell my mother about TRIPS (Trade Related
Intellectual Property Rights), because I don't think her body could
handle the stress. TRIPS is an agreement of the World Trade
Organization, an organization I could have cared less about until a
few years ago. TRIPS requires member countries to protect patents on
all kinds of life. This means that if someone was to put a patent on
the type of rice that I am growing, I would be unable to grow and sell
my crop without a payment to the patent holder. In addition, I
wouldn't be able to save my seeds from one year to another --
every generation in my family has done as far back as anyone can
remember.... By saving our seed, we become acquainted with every plant
on our field. I know that some of the seeds that I have stored away
date back to my father's time. When I plant my saved seed, I plant not
only rice, but my heritage.
Of course, not all my students displayed such a sophisticated
understanding of something as abstract and complex as international
patent law. Looking back on it, I may have taken on a little too much
with the content of the role play. Many students struggled to
understand exactly how the specific concerns of their characters
should translate to recommendations at the WTO meeting. There were
times when I felt ill-prepared to answer students' questions about the
international debate surrounding genetically modified foods or the
current status of WTO trade laws. I found myself struggling to stay a
step ahead of them. But when it came time to discuss the issues at our
meeting, I was encouraged by the students' ability to not only
articulate the perspective of their own roles, but to ask the sort of
questions of one another that showed a solid grasp of the various
concerns represented around the room.
Will, speaking as the U.S. trade representative, said:
It's our belief that the companies that create GM foods are the most
capable of testing them for safety. Companies like Monsanto spend
millions of dollars each year on research, so they have an expertise
that an international testing body wouldn't. And as far as saying that
people may have allergic reactions to GM foods -- well, we just don't
feel that this is a sufficient reason for banning them completely. I
mean, look at how many people are allergic to peanuts, but we don't
ban peanut butter, do we?
Amber chimed in as the Monsanto representative:
Yeah, if you think about it, it's in our interest to produce safe
foods. I mean, we want people to keep eating them, right? And I'd like
to remind you that the FDA fully approves all of the GMOs that are
used in food in the United States.
Colin, representing Greenpeace, said:
But isn't it true that there are some GMOs that are not approved for
use in food for humans? Mix-ups occur. How can we be sure what we are
eating? If GM foods aren't labeled, how can consumers protect
And Julia, as an Indian farmer, said:
It's not just allergies that we're worried about. There are countries
in Africa that have refused GM food from the United States because
they are afraid that it will mix with native crops and contaminate
them. Farmers from my country are worried about the same thing. You
tell us that these things are safe, but you're the same people that
made Agent Orange into a pesticide to use on food. How can we trust
Although we finished the role play with a long list of ideas for how
it could be improved next time, the discussion showed me that my
students were leaving with an understanding of the politics of food.
They had gained knowledge of the issues of GM foods and patenting and
how they can play out on a global scale, privileging a few powerful
agribusiness corporations at the expense of the world's food consumers
and small, local farmers.
After several days of discussion, the class decided to follow the
"precautionary principle," which guides policy in many European
nations, and institute a worldwide moratorium on GM foods until they
could be proven safe, and to require labeling of any GM foods that
were approved for consumption. Furthermore, the summit voted to take
away the right of any person or corporation to patent food.
Of course, in the real world, the voices of traditional Indian farmers
are not heard in the same conference room as those representing the
world's largest corporations. Furthermore, the WTO is not likely to
institute a ban on GMOs or radically reform patent laws any time in
the near future. In this respect, the role play failed to result in
any truly practical solutions to the problems facing farmers and
consumers of food around the world. Part of me worries that this does
a disservice to students. But after spending close to a month studying
the crises of our global food system, I believe that I would be doing
students a greater disservice if I didn't prompt them to consider what
a more equitable and sustainable food economy could look like.
When starting the unit several weeks earlier, most students had been
unable to see beyond how the choices we make about food affect
anything other than personal health. The milk lesson was intended as
a hook to reach students through their concerns about personal health
with the hope of transforming this concern into a broader appreciation
for our fundamental right to know and control where our food comes
from and how it is produced. The current state of the industrial food
economy, as Julia wrote in her final paper, "results in a public
denied of their right to knowledge and proper choices about their
food." Changing this economy will require the sort of resistance
embodied in the role play by the farmers of India and the advocacy of
groups like Greenpeace.
One of my greatest hopes in teaching students about food is to foster
an understanding of the important role food plays in today's global
economy and the even more important role it will play in creating more
local, more democratic, and more sustainable economies of the future.
Tim Swinehart (email@example.com) was a student teacher at
Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., when he taught this unit. He
currently teaches at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash. In
2002, Swinehart and his wife, Emily Lethenstrom, founded the Flagstaff
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project in Arizona.
Additional Teaching Resources
"Just a Cup of Coffee?" by Alan Thein Durning. A short piece available
in Rethinking Globalization that encourages students to think about
the long, complex path our food follows before getting to us and the
environmental costs along the way.
The True Cost of Food. An entertaining short (15 min.) cartoon
produced by the Sierra Club (available at www.truecostoffood.org) that
presents the hidden social and environmental costs of factory-farmed,
industrialy produced food.
Resources for Teaching About rBGH and Genetically Modified Food
Physicians for Social Responsibility, Oregon chapter
www.oregonpsr.org/programs/campaignSafeFood.html "Monsanto vs. the
Monsanto's Posilac (rBST/rBGH) Homepage www.monsantodairy.com Center
for Food Safety www.centerforfoodsafety.org Organic Consumers
Copyright 2002 Rethinking Schools * 1001 E. Keefe Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53212
* Phone(414) 964-9646, or (800) 669-4192,
FAX: (414) 964-7220 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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