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October, 2002, Volume 10 Nr. 2, Issue 110

LOOK WHAT THEY'VE DONE
TO MY FOOD MA
by Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

My father, Jan, who passed away in 1985, was a picky eater.  Coming from Rumania in Eastern Europe, there must have been events that affected his relationship with food.  Some of them were cultural.  Corn was for pigs.  Beans, especially baked beans, kidney beans, and other such similarly shaped legumes were, let us put it mildly, incorrectly shaped -- similarly endowed to other farm substances making them more likely to be cleaned up than eaten.  Those anomalies aside, food at home was quite good.  My mother, Stanislawa, also from Rumania, was cooked all the Eastern European dishes.  By the time I got to college, my friends and their friends and girlfriends knew which household to visit for the holidays.  The cheese, and potato-onion filled pierogi flowed like water.  When my immigrant mother discovered a new dish in the New World as it was called, she made her own version of it.  To this day, I haven't quite tasted anything like her Polish-Rumanian-American version of Sicilian pizza. 

She just didn't make one pie.  She made enough for company when none was expected.   There were always neighbors in the Polish barrio of Jersey City to pass on the leftovers.  Stanislawa wasn't obsessed with cooking.  She just did it well and liked to share it: golembki (stuffed cabbage), chrusczyki (Polish jazzy sugared pastry), bright red beet borsch with potatoes (and a clear vegetarian version for me with potatoes and mushrooms), babka (sweet bread), etc.

My parents seldom went to restaurants.  In fact, I can only remember one time when they did so -- that being at a Polish camp in the northwest section of New Jersey near the state's largest man-made body of water, Budd Lake.  I remember my mother critiquing the food which was rather good.   As the conversation drifted more nourishment-profound, my father made a statement that has stuck with me over the decades,

In Europe as you pass by the restaurants the smell of food makes you want to go inside and eat.  In the United States as you pass by a restaurant, the smells make you ill.

One of the popular U.S. dishes that Stanislawa could not understand was steak.  She could not fathom why anyone would want to eat beef as is, and rare at that.  Her version of cooking was more than charbroiling a slab of meat for one minute on a side.  So, she preferred snitzels that required more than basic cooking talent to prepare correctly.  Since there was more time for leisure and cooking in my childhood household, there was ample opportunity to savor and enjoy the home cooked meals. 

Age?

Now that I'm 53 years old, I'm trying to resolve an issue  that I have with food -- none of it seems to taste as good as it used to.   What's worse, much of it just looks reasonable  but tastes bad.  I've wondered whether my taste buds have lost their ability to taste food.  Have my olfactory senses degraded with time to such an extent that food is unappealing?  What could it be?  It certainly has little to do with appetite, as confirmed by being overweight.  And, there are those special and occasional occurrences where meals are just splendid, to be savored and enjoyed slowly. 

In 1972, when I was discharged from active duty with the U.S. Navy, I lived in Jersey City NJ, then a town of 250,000 people.  I could jump in my car and traverse the suicidal Pulaski Skyway to Newark where in minutes I could be at the freight railroad yards and the ever-abundant farmers market stands.  There was fresh produce everywhere.  We'd buy hundreds of cucumbers and turn them into Polish half-soured, perfectly spiced, garlic pickles by the barrel full (using steam cleaned wooden beer barrels).  Those were pickles.  The cucumbers arrived from the farms without shellac, paraffin wax and more recently candelilla wax.  We modern Americans shouldn't worry as the U.S. Government assures us that,

...approved waxes are safe to eat. Waxes are indigestible, which means they go through the body without breaking down or being absorbed.

Waxes by themselves do not control decay; rather, they may be combined with some chemicals to prevent the growth of mold. The safety and use of these substances are strictly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. (aboutproduce.com)

Doesn't it make your taste buds jump for health and nutritional joy when shopping for cucumbers today?  What other vegetables and fruits at the supermarket are so endowed?

The Produce Marketing Association tells us that coated produce will have a nearby sign stating as much:

Coated with food-grade vegetable-, petroleum-, beeswax-, and/or shellac-based wax or resin, to maintain freshness." None of these coatings is animal-based, and they all come from natural sources, generally from plants, food-grade petroleum products (like petroleum jelly used as a lip moisturizer), or insects (similar to honey from bees).

Yummy.  Food-grade petroleum products.  And to increase the appetizing potential of waxed food,

Waxes may turn white on the surface of fruits or vegetables if they have been subjected to excessive heat and/or moisture. This whitening is safe and is similar to that of a candy bar that has been in the freezer.

I'm beginning to suspect that age and olfactory performance have little to do with how food, especially produce, tastes today.

Recent Experience

Food shopping at the local Price Chopper, I brought home a suspicious bunch of identical looking tomatoes --  tomatoes that looked uniformly red on the outside with very bright green vines.  Slicing the tomato revealed and very unpleasant blackish ooze, something akin to the black water off Florida this summer of unknown origin.  All the tomatoes in the bunch were similar.  Not on my sandwich, I thought. 

Today, unlike 20 years ago when coating vegetables was already becoming very common, we have the phenomenon of genetically engineered food.   Rick Chames of EarthSave, Boston, in a piece entitled, "Genetically Altered Food: Myths and Realities", writes:

Contrary to its proponents' sweet-sounding words, genetic engineering is a form of plant breeding radically different from anything that humans have ever practiced in our history....There has already been at least one known health disaster regarding genetically altered products. In 1989 the Japanese company Showa Denko marketed a GA version of the supplement L-tryptophan. After the release an estimated 5000 people suffered from an outbreak of Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome (EMS). It was initially reported that 37 people died, and 1500 were left with permanent disabilities

Food technologists (Calgene, Inc.) developed the first genetically engineered tomato in May 1994.  Called the Flavr Savr, the tomato has genetic material inserted from a different species: a flounder!  This gross leap across phyla allows the tomato to be picked ripe off the vine without rotting rapidly.  It is interesting to note that this "fresh" tomato has never been produced nor sold in the European Union.  The rotting problem was solved

by inserting a reversed copy--an "antisense" gene of the gene that encodes the enzyme that results in tomato spoilage. This suppresses the enzyme that results in rotting, allowing the tomato to stay ripe, but not rot, up to 10 days--plenty of time for shipping and sale. Refrigeration is not necessary. http://environment.about.com/library/weekly/blbiotech2e.htm

In order to make the GM tomato plant, less susceptible to frost dame, an anti-freeze gene from the flounder, a cold water fish, is removed and manipulated,  The gene is joined to a plasmid which then is used to produce a bacterium with the anti-freeze gene.  The recombinant bacterium is then allowed to grow and infect the tomato plants cells.   The anti-freeze plasmid gene then becomes part of the tomato cells which are then allowed to grow into plants.  Each of the genetically manipulated (GM) tomato genes contain the flounder antifreeze genes.  Bon appetite!  I wonder, should the tomato be labeled as "non-vegetarian"?  I can just see my mother cooking with a flounderized tomato.

Then there is the salt water tomato which grows in salty water without damage.  This tomato receives a gene from the Arabidopsis plant to make it salt water friendly.  It grows in water that is 50 times saltier than normal. 

There are many GM foods, they include: soy, potatoes, squash, beets.  Soy contains DNA from other nuts.   20-million people in the United States are allergic to fish and nuts.  Between tomatoes and soy, there is  big possibility of severe allergic reaction to these foods, sometimes referred to as Frankenfoods.  Tooker Gomberg writing in "Edmonton's Vue Magazine (Canada)" reports that Dr. Arpad Pusztai, one of the UK's highest-ranking researchers, claimed that laboratory rats suffered damage to their immune systems and vital organs after being fed GM potatoes."

Perhaps, the case against GM food can be summarized by Jo Hamilton, an activist with Genetix Snowball who symbolically removed GM crops from a test site in Oxfordshire, U.K.:

There are several issues. There are health and safety issues - the unknown effects of GM may produce novel toxins and allergens. Then there are environmental issues. GM crops will increase the use of pesticides and chemicals in the environment. Crops with insect resistance will affect insect populations, which will upset biodiversity and natural balance. And there is the danger of cross pollination of GM crops with other crops.

Then there is what I call ‘corporate capture of the food chain’. Companies have been merging so that everything, from the production of the seed to the selling of the product, is controlled by a single company. This means that we are going down the same highly intensive, industrial and commercial agricultural road and none of the alternatives are being investigated. These large biotech companies are being allowed to force their view of the future onto the world. (ViewNews) http://www.genetics.org.uk/news/news43/articlef.html

The Real Thing

Recently, the family brought home some non-GM Jersey beefsteak tomatoes.  None of them look alike and there were obvious imperfections, flaws, spots and sites of insect attack.  One bite into the tomato, however, one could admire with delicious eye closing taste sensation, the beauty in nature's bounty, one without the fishy intervention of human beings.  These are the tomatoes that made it into my mother's dishes, contribution to the perfection of my mother's Polish-Rumanian-American Sicilian pizza, tomato golembki (stuffed cabbage), BLT sandwiches, giant salads with homemade dressing, etc. -- the real thing.

I, at least, want a choice.  I want my food labeled so that I know whether it contains any recombinant DNA from other species.   Free marketeers often tout the benefits of  consumer choice.  I, the consumer, want that choice when it coomes to buying GM food products.  I can choose not to buy the GM tomato, nor any other vegetable or fruit that is a GMO.  GM labeling has not come to the United States. the way it has in the European Union because the GM corporations (Monsanto, Aventis, DuPont, Diatech, Innotech, Floranva, Zeneca, Paradigm Genetics, American Cyanamid, Dow, CibaGeigy, Novartis, Sygenta, etc.), who have not done any studies that can prove the GMOs are safe, know that people will reject them.  So much for truth and faith in the free market.  We are thus all guinea pigs in the great GM experiment, the consequences of which no-one can predict over the long term.

In the End and in the Sandwich

In the end and in the sandwich, I want the non-GMO, organic produce placed there by choice through full disclosure.  Perhaps, the satisfaction and psychological boost of knowing I am not eating a fish gene or some other cross species by-product in my sandwich, will enhance the experience.  At least, the food may taste more like I remember from my childhood.

Sampling of Worldwide GM foods
Source:
http://www.ourfood.com/Genetic_modification_food.html

Product Producer Modification or function
Germany
Novamyl Novo Nordisk anti-stale enzyme
Rapeseed PGS sterility/herbicide resistant
Tobacco Selta/Gauloise herbicide resistant
Salad Monsanto herbicide resistant
Corn Monsanto herbicide resistant
Great Britain
Tomato Calgene retarded ripening
Chymosin Gist Brocades enzyme for cheese production
Tomato pulp Zeneka retarded ripening
Soybean oil Monsanto herbicide resistant
Backery yeast Gistbrocades increased  fermentation
Netherlands
Xylanase Primalcol better cereal products
fluffier, fresher longer bread
Xylanase Quest(Unilever) better cereal products
fluffier, fresher longer bread
Novamyl Novo Nordisk better cereal products
fluffier, fresher longer bread
Amylopectin Ayebe starch component additive
Rapeseed oil PGS herbicide resistant
Lipase Unilever production of certain fatty acids
USA
Tomato Calgene retarded ripening
Tomato Monsanto retarded ripening
Tomato Zeneka retarded ripening
Tomato NDAPP retarded ripening
Cotton Monsanto resistance to insects
Soybean Monsanto herbicide resistant
Potatoes Monsanto resistance to insects

Much more than taste

The issue of "they" have done to my food, is more than just an issue of taste.  It's an issue of corporate control over and ownership of the food supply, one that has been commodified for profit through genetic manipulation.  This sounds very reminiscent of the Marxist critique of who should owns the means of (food) production.  One would be naive to believe that the likes of the GM corporations have altruism, that is feeding the world in order to provide universal sustenance, as being the raison d'Ítre for their existence.   Quite the contrary.  This process takes away the  local means of production.  The ability of farmers to replant crops from previous generation seeds ends.  It is then that the corporations have completed in making the masses   dependent upon the high tech patented and copyrighted terminated seeds.  If you can buy these proprietary seed, what do you do?  If think this scenario is alarmist, look around the planet and take witness.

As Dr. Vandana Shiva puts it, ""The deeper you can manipulate living structures the more you can control food and medicine." And, the more you control food and medicine, the more you control people.  That, of course, is the major objective.  Vandana Shiva makes the argument that patents on food based upon the "phenomenon of biopiracy" is the new colonialism of the 21st century.  She make a strong and convincing argument with Basmati rice.  For centuries this rice has been grown in India by local farmers, but now is a patented product define as an "invention" of the RiceTec corporation.   I no more want to see an opera in the Coke, Pepsi or McDonald's arena than I want to eat the stolen food of a RiceTec or Novartis.  It is hard to believe that in my lifetime, the world has reached the  point where natural seed preservation is the only way to protect the planet from the domination of patented plants.  Shiva calls this the "violation of ecosystem boundaries."

It's violating the ecosystem boundary. It is generating crops to be planted on millions of acres because there's no point in having patents on a particular Bt cotton if you are then only going to grow it in twenty acres where it suits that particularly variety. As a Monsanto you have to market around the world to maximize the return on your patents, your revenues etc. This means you have to grow it everywhere. You have to violate ecosystem boundaries.
http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/shiva.html

Bt cotton is cotton that have been genetically engineered to contain material from bacillus thuringenis.   "What the genetic engineers have done is to develop transgenic crops containing the insecticidal gene of Bt, so that the plant itself makes the protein necessary for protection against pests."  (The Hindu, Spet 2001.   http://www.organicconsumers.org/patent/cottonban091001.cfm

Coming to you soon -- on a plate

Be prepared.  The third generation of bio-engineered food is about wind up on your plate.  These are the so-called: nutraceuticals, bioreactors, "pharm crops" or "functional foods." 

Unlike the previous two generations, Generation Three aims to be consumer-friendly: GM agricultural plants and farm animals with augmented nutritional content, or that produce industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals in their tissues. Novel products now being developed include an antiviral tomato, rice that produces human proteins for drug production, chickens that produce pharmaceutical drugs in their eggs, cavity-fighting fruits, and slow-growing lawns, among others.
http://www.corpwatch.org/issues/PID.jsp?articleid=2228

While an ardent supporter of science, I am highly skeptical of profit-driven science.  Profit driven science is, well, for profit.  I reject the argument that this technology is necessary to feed an ever more populated and hungry planet.  The ability to presently feed the planet exists.  It is the lack of political will and the inability of orchestrating anything other then wealth-accumulating solutions that in the end, may lead to either a massive uprising of the people or a dynamic nature-based restructuring of the planet devoid of human content.  That might in the long run give it enough breathing space to pick up the evolutionary track -- a track, perhaps, on the road to creating a far more intelligent being than man.

© 2002 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, PhD

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