Position:Control of food information

In the Information Age, it is getting harder and harder to get information about what we eat. In one writer's mind, eating well is only possible if the public demands to know and choose.

Food is power. Those who control a society's food supply can (and in all probability will) control that society. Just consider Joseph's meteoric rise from slave and prison guard to Egypt's second-in-command when he interpreted the Pharaoh's bad dreams to mean that Egypt needed to set up carryover stocks as a safeguard against famine. The surest way to control the food supply is to control information about it, and the most troubling trend in the politics of food today is the growing amount of control over food information exerted by a shrinking number of people. The negative effects of this information bottleneck are perhaps most apparent in food production and food access, affecting not only farmers and those who suffer chronic hunger, but all of us.

The nucleus of food information is the seed: the DNA coiled in a crop seed is a unique pattern, proven to yield palatable, nutritious food for humans. The Supreme Court established a novel precedent in 1971 by granting a patent for a genetically engineered (GE) Pseudomonas bacteria to Anand Mohan Chakravarty, an employee of General Electric. This was the first time a patent had been granted for a life form. Since then, agribusiness companies have rushed to patent newly developed seeds and biological controls for diseases and pests. The seed patent is an excellent technique for restricting the flow of information. Rather than seeds being available to anyone who can collect them after a harvest, suddenly they become available only to those who can afford to pay the patent owner for their future use.

This legalizes "biopiracy," to use the term Vandana Shiva popularized, in which genetic resources developed over centuries by indigenous people are extracted and patented by companies, which then sell the seed back to its original developers and prevent them from using it without payment. An attempt about a decade ago by two researchers from Colorado State University to patent a variety of quinoa they had collected in the Andes was thwarted, but other patent applications on entire land races (traditional varieties) or specific characteristics of crop plants have been granted. For example, Kenneth Hibberd and his colleagues were granted patents in 1985 to over 260 aspects of a line of maize, which means that no one else may develop these characteristics. These patents on intellectual property rights allow researchers and companies to privatize and profit from resources vital to human survival, which previously have been in the public domain.

Information restrictions have tremendous effects on what we eat, how it is grown, and which resources are used in its production. Sometimes information is withheld from the public intentionally in order to maintain or increase profit levels. For example, biotechnology promoters argue that labels saying GE on foods containing genes from other organisms are unnecessary or actually injurious, because they fool consumers into thinking there is a difference in these foods. But if there is no difference, what is the justification for patenting these crops? Such legerdemain by corporate spokespeople and public officials does not assuage public concerns about unforeseen health and environmental problems that might ensue from use of biotechnology.

Information or disinformation?

Similarly, the World Trade Organization has ruled against country of origin labels because they imply differences in the produce so labeled. Yet, to many people, a piece of fruit produced under a repressive regime is significantly different from one produced using fair trade practices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's attempt to slide GE products, sewage sludge, and irradiation into the proposed national organic standards backfired due to widespread protest for the same reason--these...

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