RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Baby Steps, but Steps Nonetheless

Congratulations, Dear Consumers. And keep up the good work. Two months ago it seemed impossible, but last week McDonald's told its suppliers "no more biotech French fries."

So whether you marched in Washington D.C., dressed like a butterfly in Seattle, made a phone call to your local Mickey-D's, wrote a letter to the editor, or just told your friends about genetically-modified foods, you, Dear Consumer, have accomplished something amazing.

Baby steps. Baby steps. The potatoes in question -- Monsanto's -- were one of the first GMO experiments. In 1999 only about 50,000 acres of a million potato acres were devoted to these "NewLeaf" spuds.

Like other GMO crops, "NewLeaf" had an unnatural gene added to the natural mix. In this case, a gene from a bacteria called Bacillus thuriengesis (aka Bt) was added, enabling the potato to make its own insecticide against Colorado Potato Beetle, a major pest.

The trouble is, the insecticide also killed all sorts of other non-pest critters, including the larva of the Monarch butterfly and other butterflies. Besides that, the Bt-potato had never been tested on consumers. Does it harm us to eat pesticides that kill beetles and butterflies? We have no clue. The scientists were only paid to invent the plant, not to see if it hurt anything.

Other food processors have announced they won't use GMO spuds. Frito-Lay, Pringles, Burger King and other fast food stores have told suppliers not to plant biotech. Hardee's is dragging its feet. Stay tuned.

Processors continue to use other biotech plants, but the French fry ban proves that consumers have power.

Bt has been implanted in a half dozen other veggies. Another favorite genetic modification is producing a "Roundup-Ready" crop, with a gene that protects plants from death by Monsanto's Roundup. A farmer can drive a sprayer across the field, dousing it with Roundup and killing all the weeds, but leaving the soybeans green and healthy.

It will be extremely difficult to convince food processors to reject all biotech crops, but we can do it. An estimated 60 percent of last year's soybean crop was genetically modified. Consumer resistance has sent that acreage downwards, and there will be far fewer biotech sales in 2000. Soybeans are used in thousands of processed foods, from pizza to ice cream to mayonnaise to salad dressing to chicken pot pies. Baby steps. Baby steps.

Of course, we don't have to eat processed foods at all. We can put our money where our mouth is and buy from local farmers. That action turns baby steps into giant steps, and it's much easier now, during Farmer's Market season.

As Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota might say, "keep on marching, keep on speaking, keep on writing, keep on voting, keep on working." Even when it's inconvenient.

I'm the first to admit that I avoid the inconvenient. In fact, I'm quite a scrooge when it comes to my free time. It's not that I'm worn out or even particularly busy; it's just that life goes by so fast.

So when my neighbor Lewis called and asked if I'd help kick off his run at the Democratic nomination for state legislator, I felt a little resentment. Lewis is a farmer, and he wanted his fundraiser to feature local food. Would I call some of our food circle members and get them to help?

Our food circle networks with farmers to help them connect directly with consumers who want to buy food directly from the farm. This gives the farmer a better income, and consumers get fresh food treated the way they want. Meat without hormones or antibiotics. Produce from a few miles away, not from a continent away.

"I'll be tied up with this all day," I told my husband. "Why can't he just hire a caterer like the other politicians do?"

"You don't have to do it," said my husband. But he knew I was already committed. The chance to get publicity for our local farmers was too much temptation. A politician who cares?

My fellow food circle members were way less selfish than I. "This is what we've wanted," said Bryce, "a candidate who's not bought out by the corporations." He was already imagining Lewis's name next to the Ralph Nader sign in his front yard.

Working at the fundraiser wasn't convenient for any of us. Bryce and Jenny were in the middle of tree-planting. DeLisa had been selling spinach at the Farmer's Market and making deliveries all day. Linda had been teaching, and the kids she brought along really wanted to be some place else.

Still, on the evening of the fundraiser, there were a half dozen of us in the meeting hall kitchen slicing locally-raised hams, putting the meat on locally-baked buns, setting out dishes of Julie's special pepper jelly and honey, and brewing mint tea. The food wasn't all local -- we used vegetable trays from a grocery store because the local veggies weren't ready -- but the message was clear.

There were daffodils from our backyards on every table, and a local band, led by Lewis's brother, playing music you might call "country rock." The place was jammed with neighbors and county politicians shaking hands, little kids running around, grandmas in wheelchairs.

Lewis gave a speech, and, yes, it was heartwarming and corny and rousing and all of that. He joked that he wanted to supplement his farm income, and it was either driving a truck or running for office, and that to drive a truck you have to take a test. Then he got serious.

He told about growing up within five miles of the farm where he lives now. He told how his mom struggled to get by, his dad battled with TB, and how the government helped them through some rough times. He said governments can help people, and he wants to be a part of that.

He asked me to say a few words, so I talked about the food, how Lewis didn't want to serve food from overseas to his supporters, how we were so proud to help out.

Lewis has good ideas, but has he got a chance of winning the nomination? Darned if I know. Everyone around here is crazy about him, but he'll have to win the other parts of our very large county, and the county seat. The outgoing legislator is big-business-minded, and it looks like she's tapped someone else.

But, you know what? There are a couple of months before the election, and a lot can happen. If you doubt that we have power, think about Mickey D's French fries.

Baby steps. Baby steps.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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