Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture: Myth Five

The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture: Myth Five
By The Editors, Fatal Harvest.


The loss of diversity

A seldom-mentioned impact of industrial agriculture is that it deprives consumers of real choice by favoring only a few varieties of crops that allow efficient harvesting, processing, and packaging. Consider the apple. It is true that without industrial processes we might not be able to eat a "fresh" Red Delicious apple 365 days a year. However, we would be able to enjoy many of the thousands of varieties grown in this country during the last century that have now all but disappeared. Because of the industrial agriculture system, the majority of those varieties are extinct today; two varieties alone account for more than 50 percent of the current apple market. Similarly, in 2000, 73 percent of all the lettuce grown in the United States was iceberg. This relatively bland variety is often the only choice consumers have. Meanwhile, we have lost hundreds of varieties of lettuce with flavors ranging from bitter to sweet and colors from dark purple to light green. The monoculture of industrial agriculture has similarly reduced the natural diversity of nearly every major food crop in terms of varieties grown, color, size, and flavor.

By growing all of our crops in monocultures, industrial agriculture not only limits what we can eat today, but also reduces the choices of future generations. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates more than three-quarters of agricultural genetic diversity was lost in this past century. As agribusiness utilizes only high-yield, high-profit varieties, we fail to save the seed stock of thousands of other varieties. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) conducted a study of seed stock readily available in 1903 versus the inventory of the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory (NSSL) in 1983. RAFI found an astounding decline in diversity: we have lost nearly 93 percent of lettuce, over 96 percent of sweet corn, about 91 percent of field corn, more than 95 percent of tomato, and almost 98 percent of asparagus varieties. This represents not only an environmental disaster but also a staggering reduction in food choices available to us and future generations.

Unlabeled and untested

Even as we are robbed of our right to choose many desirable, diverse foods, we are also deprived of the right to reject those we do not wish to eat. Food labels often do not provide enough information to allow consumers to know what is in our food and how and where it is produced. The government, bending under pressure from agribusiness, has never required labels that inform consumers about the pesticides and other chemicals used on crops or the residues still left on those foods at time of purchase. Similarly there is no mandatory labeling of the geographic origin of foods, despite the wishes of a growing number of consumers who prefer to choose local produce.

The use of potentially hazardous nuclear and genetic technologies on foods is also hidden from consumers. While a major consumer lobbying effort forced the government to mandate labeling of irradiated whole foods, similarly "nuked" processed foods are not labeled. Food processors and distributors are now fighting to repeal the label requirement for irradiated whole foods. In a similar vein, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), under pressure from the biotechnology industry, has decided not to require genetically engineered foods to be independently safety tested or labeled. This decision represents a particularly egregious affront to food choice, as up to 60 percent of processed foods already have some genetically engineered ingredients that many consumers would like to avoid. The FDA's no labeling and no testing policy was made even though the agency was aware that the genetic engineering of foods can make safe foods toxic, create new allergens, lower food nutrition, and create antibiotic resistance.

Agribusiness not only uses its political muscle to prevent food labeling, it also has pushed through laws to stop critics from getting important information about foods to consumers. The industry has pressured 13 states to pass "food disparagement" legislation -- laws that can be used against those trying to expose any of the harmful effects of the industrial food system. While many believe these laws are clearly unconstitutional, until they are struck down, they serve to intimidate people and groups who want to provide truthful information on food safety. These laws also may stop potential whistle-blowers from coming forward with crucial information that the public needs to make informed food choices.

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