ORGANICS GO MAINSTREAMHelke Ferrie July 1, 2003
Consumer Demand for Natural Foods on the Rise — as Biotech Fights for Survival
The theme of this year’s Annual Organic Conference held in January 2003 was appropriately titled “Organic Goes Mainstream.” Attended by about 1,700 people, it took place at Guelph University, one of the important centres in the current Food War. As the conference proved, our local organic movement is in excellent health and the interactions between Mother Nature and biotechnology are becoming increasingly interesting.
This year’s Organic Conference began with a delicious all-organic dinner sponsored by retailers of organic foods. Listening at the dinner table to farmers from all over Canada discussing their daily rebellion against industrialized uniformity, coupled with a determination to serve Nature’s intent, I felt as if Dan Needles’ “Letter from Wingfield Farm” had come to life. In those plays, Walt Wingfield, a Bay Street broker turned farmer, struggles to resolve the conflict between Money and Nature. But now life is outdoing fiction.
Wingfield would be astounded to learn that on October 21 last year Debra Boyle, the president of the Organic Trade Association and CEO of Pro Organics, Canada’s largest organic fresh foods distributor, was asked to open the trading of the NASDAQ stock market in New York’s Time Square to celebrate the new laws governing organic food production and to salute organic food as today’s commercial wunderkind, growing at 25% annually. (Industrial food revenues grow only 1 to 2% annually.) By the end of this year, the organic food industry will be worth US$25 billion, while annual genetically engineered crops are at US $ 4.5 billion world-wide. Data published in BioDemocracy News (www.organicconsumers.org) show that by 2020 most food sold in Europe and North America will be organic.
NUTRITIONAL MEDICINE CURES DISEASE
The keynote address at the Organic Conference was given by Dr. Thomas Cowan of the Weston Price Foundation from New Hampshire. Weston Price is the father of modern nutritional medicine. His research was the first effort in the history of medicine to show how food determines health in teeth, bones, organs, growth and reproduction. This research has grown enormously and become highly politicized because the principles of nutritional health are fundamentally incompatible with industrial intensive agriculture, the fast-food industry and refined foods — all of which are the source of chronic disease.
Dr. Cowan’s work as a physician is dedicated to the principle of non-violence which he extends in a startling and insightful manner to humans and viruses alike. He stated that a physician’s oath, “first do no harm,” is incompatible with the war metaphors governing medicine and food economics. Instead, if soil quality is protected from intensive, aggressive industrial farming, and if the natural requirements of plants and animals are met, then the entire food chain functions in such a way as to promote health.
Disease in soil translates into disease everywhere, Dr. Cowan pointed out, as does a diseased cow whose milk and meat people consume. As for bacteria, viruses and parasites, they also are part of the great scheme of things and not inherently dangerous or useful. It has been said that there is no such thing as dirt, but that dirt is definable as matter in the wrong place. Similarly, the agents of illness are the result of imbalances primarily due to an exploitive approach to Nature.
Examples of imbalance as the consequence of violence are candida albicans, a fungus normally present in our gut, which in the presence of a refined diet invades all bodily systems causing illness. Similarly, assaults on our immune systems through pesticides and toxic drugs can turn harmless viruses into deadly ones, and overuse of antibiotics promotes the evolution of unbeatable bacteria. These situations then result in a veritable arms’ race with increasingly more toxic drugs being administered.
Dr. Cowan provided several astounding case histories of thyroid disease, insulin-dependent diabetes and cancer which he successfully treated with individualized diets to re-establish systemic balance by using required nutrients and avoiding anti-nutrients. His motto is: “Don’t treat illness, but cure everything.”
Dr. Cowan described astounding supportive research results. Animals fed a diet equivalent in nutritional value to the one most North Americans obtain from standard industrial agriculture and processed food (SAD = Standard American Diet), caused bad teeth in the first generation, general reduction in bone density by the second, cancer and endocrine disorders by the third, and behavioural and brain problems by the fourth generation. But when those damaged fourth-generation animals were fed a nutritionally optimal diet, the DNA was miraculously able to respond and slowly (very slowly) repair this entire cascade of degeneration. It took seven (!) generations before a fully healthy litter of animals was once again born.
The horror of these experiments is, as Dr. Cowan pointed out, that they provide a perfect snap-shot of the current state of human health brought about by the disregard for Nature’s demands. The wonder of these findings is that Nature appears to have a clear idea of what a healthy and functional cat, cow, or human is and will return patiently, over several generations, to the original “model” whose integrity was violated by human greed and stupidity.
Dr. Cowan’s identification of the violence inherent in industrial agriculture and biotechnology’s illusions of power is right on point when considering new scary developments. Biotech company Morphotek of Pennsylvania has developed a technique called “morphogenics” which uses human colon cancer cells in order to speed up the evolutionary process in food crop plants, as reported by Friends of the Earth last November. Those mad scientists seem not to lose any sleep over how those cancer genes and their protein off-shoots are going to effect our metabolism and the food chain. Even if no disease is caused directly, indirectly such a violent speeding-up of plant evolution is likely to result in impairing its nutrient up-take, providing us with more dead food — as if we didn’t have enough of that already.
We already know from research into salmon forced to grow larger than Nature intended, through the introduction of certain human genes, that such animals become unnatural predators, have less essential fatty acids in their meat, and become susceptible to new diseases. The UK’s Independent reported on March 30 this year that the only natural pesticide, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), has been so aggressively overused that the pests it controlled have evolved enzyme defenses enabling them to feed and thrive on Bt instead. Scientists specializing in this area were predicting exactly this irreversible disaster, but the biotech industry and the EPA ignored them (Nature, March 6, 2003).
Einstein’s quip comes to mind: “The universe and human stupidity are infinite, and I am not sure about the former.”
This violent economic philosophy justifies pouring annually 4.1 billion pounds of pesticides over the earth (at a profit of $45 billion US). Its effects show up in health statistics such as the Ontario study published last October in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. It reported that farm women are nine times more likely to develop breast cancer due to their continual exposure to the whole toxic soup of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and antibiotic growth promoters — all known carcinogens. Similarly, fish in the Great Lakes suffer at epidemic rates from liver cancers. The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in its October 15, 2002, issue listed the ten foods most contaminated with pesticides, warning us not to eat them: peanuts, cucumbers, meat loaf, popcorn, spinach, radishes, cantaloupe, butter, bananas, and squash. Worst of all are strawberries.
It is true that we live longer, but it is also true that the populations of our industrialized world have evolved chronic diseases which were rare a few centuries ago and are completely unknown in the five million year old archaeological record of human evolution.
GLOBAL SHIFT TO ORGANICS
The shift from exploitative violence to an attitude of cooperation with nature was explored in many workshops at the Organic Conference. These dealt with topics ranging from the restoration of soil health, to animal husbandry that does not speed up and unnaturally force livestock growth with carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting antibiotics that make them and us sick, to the revival of traditional plant and animal varieties to boost genetic variety and restore soil health. Heritage breeds in both plants and animals are hardier, adapted to non-intensive systems, do not require artificial fertilizers, still have natural resistance to disease, and are adapted over thousands of years to local climates.
Sweden has given industry five years to show which of their 2,500 chemicals in agricultural use are actually safe. It is no longer up to the public to prove that these chemicals are harmful. In Canada chemicals are still innocent until proven guilty, but our new federal Pest Control Products Act at least made a few baby steps in the same direction by making industry accountable for all sources of pesticide exposure and requiring assessments of cumulative effects. The European Union has now banned the use of growth promoting antibiotics and reduced their use for disease control — indeed by 50% between 1997 and 1999. In January The Ontario Farmer distributed a special magazine insert providing information on how to control weeds the old fashioned way: through crop rotation, as the Old Testament asserted was God’s will.
President Bush put a gag order on the Environmental Protection Agency’s alarming report, earlier this year, showing that U.S.-grown lettuce has 30 times the allowable limit of toxins on them, including rocket fuel. But Germany and the Netherlands have started the first organic fast food chain called “Real Mealz.”
The sheer volume of useful information is encouraging and cannot be downplayed. For example, the U.S. National Institutes of Health journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, published a huge study last October showing the staggering difference in health and intelligence between children fed organic food and those who eat the organophosphate-laced supermarket stuff.
THE POLITICS OF FOOD
The agriculture department at the University of Guelph is heavily supported by the biotech industries, but is also the academic home of feisty Professor Ann Clark, one of the world’s leading experts on that industry’s record of unnatural acts against nature and consumers. Her web site (www.plant.uoguelph.ca/research/homepages/eclark/) provides access to all that disturbing, rigorous international science about biotechnology that Health Canada works so hard to conceal from Canadians. Fun can be had comparing the facts on her site with that of her biotechnology-supporting colleagues’ site (www.foodsafetynetwork.ca) — a name as oxymoronic as Health Canada itself because the really important information is lacking.
During a panel discussion the question arose as to who is going to feed the world. Professor Clark answered that the question assumes that there is somebody “who can make a hell of a lot of money by controlling the world’s food supply.” The real question should be, she suggested, “Why isn’t the world feeding itself now?” She stressed that whatever the answer to that question may be, “it will have nothing to do with genetics.” The inequality in access to food is not due to insufficient genetic engineering to force nature to produce more. Nature can produce all we need even now. Hunger has to do with exploitative economic policies, transportation and communication problems, wars, centralization of power, and the like.
The solution is not to give even more power to that small group of about 1,000 billionaires and their few hundred trans-national corporations “who are poisoning our planet and undermining democracy” (BioDemocracy, Feb. 2003; also read the transcript of the CBC Ideas program of Sept. 17/18, 2002 in which Stephen Lewis of the United Nations provides a world-wide overview which reads like an answer to Ann Clark’s provocative counter-question).
Clark observed that we “need to stop governments from collegially assuming that whatever business thinks is good for it, is also good for the environment and our health.” Indeed, the most astounding fact is our government rules consistently against the known will of the people. Canada is determined to make us the world leaders in biotechnology and sinks $700 million annually into supporting this type of agricultural research — without a single study ever having been done on its safety or even efficacy! Survey after survey has shown that Canadians want mandatory food labeling to identify genetically engineered foods and be free to avoid them, but the government ignores this.
The recently released federal report entitled Improving the Regulation of Genetically Modified Foods and Other Novel Foods in Canada, demands that the precautionary principle be implemented at once (as in Sweden and the EU), but then ruins its integrity by stating that “mandatory labeling would be problematic because of the cost to industry and potential conflicts would arise in international trade agreements.” Well how about that? Has anybody ever thought that those trade agreements should be scrapped and that our freedom to choose what we eat takes precedence over those poor billionaires’ interests?
In Europe the will of the people is not being ignored and GMO foods are not allowed. The U.S.’s saber rattling and threats to sue for profit losses caused a fabulous row and the E.U.’s Development Commissioner P. Neilson observed: “If the Americans stop lying about us, we will stop telling the truth about them.” The U.S. has reason to fear great economic losses. The world won’t buy their transgenic stuff. Monsanto laid off 700 scientists last year. Since January 2001 GMO related stock has fallen by 50%, as more and more countries refuse it. China, long an enthusiastic supporter of GMOs, last June published in its English language China Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist party, an article by Greanpeace on the ecological risks of transgenic crops. Nature observed (March 13, 2003) that that this was almost like asking Amnesty International to write on China’s human rights record. China fears losing the European market and has had nasty experiences with the ecological effects of transgenic crops.
For us the Food War is moving into high gear as the majority of Canadian farmers (www.saskorganic.com) are in the process of launching a class action to stop biotech companies from introducing transgenic wheat and ruining wheat ecology and the export market. Also, the case of Saskatchewan’s organic farmer, Percy Schmeiser has been accepted by the Supreme Court. Monsanto claimed that he used their transgenic seeds illegally. He didn’t. It blew over from some other fields. Our Supreme Court has a good track record for setting the government’s corporate sell-out policies straight.
This decision could open up Canada for a non-violent economic food policy whose benefits would be felt very quickly in reduced health care costs as water, soil, and nutritional value in our daily food return to nature.
• M. N. Cohen, Health and the Rise of Civilization, Yale University Press, 1989
• R. Cummins, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defence Guide for Consumers, Marlow & Co., 2000
• S. Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, 2nd ed., New Trends, 1999 (one of the best cookbooks ever)
• M. Lappe, M.D., Evolutionary Medicine, Sierra Club Books, 1994
• M. Nestle, Food Politics, University of California Press, 2002
• W. Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 50th anniversary ed., Keats, 1989
• K. Sullivan, Organic Living in 10 Simple Lessons, Barron’s, 2001
• Greenpeace, How to Avoid Genetically Engineered Foods, download at www.greenpeace.ca/shoppersguide/browse.php
• On food safety see www.ewg.org
• For organic food delivery services: www.liferesearchuniversal.com/caorganics.html
• For tapes of the January 2003 Guelph conference call Audio Archives at (905) 889-6555
• CBC Ideas transcripts, call (416) 205-6010