Rural Routes/Margot Ford McMillen

Where's Press On GM Crops?

You know American media is failing you when a Google search reveals that none are following major food stories -- specifically, the impact of genetically modified crop production on the food supply. Okay, okay -- that's not the only way our media is failing. But today, in this column, that's the example.

On May 22, the London Independent broke a story claiming Monsanto has been testing GM organisms on rats. The story included this tantalizing piece: "... secret research carried out by Monsanto shows that rats fed the modified corn had smaller kidneys and variations in the composition of their blood."

This little bombshell follows other infrequent hints from the UK that all is not right with the industry that produces "modified" crops. Research in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1998 revealed that GMO potatoes changed the number of white blood cells in rats and the formation of red blood cells. Clearly, these experiments may be pointing to research that's a matter of life or death.

At present, GMO ingredients have inundated the US so that consumers may eat GMOs with every meal. They can feed their newborns GMO-laced soy formula, move into GMO-laced cereals and soda pop, and celebrate every holiday with GMO-ridden ice cream. And, finally, if we don't specify otherwise in our living wills, that stuff they squish into our feeding tubes at the last will be filled with GMO corn and soy products.

But, instead of following the story, the press is embracing Monsanto's spin. In fact, this fall, the formerly distinguished PBS will put forth a series funded by Monsanto.

Once you begin following food and agriculture stories, you can see how the corporations spin the news. Here in Mid-Missouri, on the heels of a defeat in the legislature, the major hog producers are supplying footage to the TV news to show how gaily the industry gets along in the counties where hogs are most numerous.

At the same time, it's gotten to the point that a critical mass of people understand the principles of sustainability, which is everything the Big Pigs and Big Biotechs are not. Sustainable agriculture follows three rules: Products are sold in the local community rather than being shipped out; inputs like fertilizer and seed are produced in the local community; and the producer makes enough money to support family, workers and community -- that is, enough to stay in business.

And there's a posse of academic organizers putting the actions into words. Sociologists. Nutritionists. Urban planners. Conferences and meetings in every state are dedicated to talking about what farmers should do. And at every conference, two questions bubble to the surface within the first hour and linger until the closing session: First, how can the farmer prosper, especially at a time when the corporates bring the world's food to our grocery stores at prices that undercut American production? And second, how can people be educated to buy good food, especially at a time when tasty, cheap, bulky, fatty, salty, sugary, industrially-extruded foods are so readily available?

The money question has been with farmers since the industrial revolution. During the first populist uprising, in the late 1800s, the railroads and banks were the robber barons. Transportation and credit were the farmers' lifeblood, but farmers built their coalition with labor and got some restrictions on the bad boys. Of course, in those days, farmers and labor made up the majority of people. Today, farmers are less than 2% of the population. Labor, with 66% of the population according to the Census Bureau, has only 8-13% of workers in unions.

In the meantime, CEOs at industrial transporters and banks have formed coalitions with processors and retailers. This "vertical integration" means that when, say, a meat packer gets to looking too much like a monopoly in meat production, they move into transportation or animal ownership rather than taking over more packers.

If agriculture and the food system are to become sustainable, we need partners to create the change. We need an educated consumer base.

The sustainable farmer sells directly to the public, cutting out transporter, packer and grocer. We keep our prices low because we know how little the big boys charge, but at the same time, our consumers often agree to pay more because we're presenting them with customized services and products rather than the mass-marketed items they get at the store.

What we lack is the forum for education. Consumers have to know how to use our products, for example, and where to get them. And that has everything to do with the media.

You know there won't be any changes when the food section of your favorite magazine, newspaper or TV show runs recipes that depend on industrially-created ingredients that aren't raised or produced locally. And you know there won't be change when, like PBS, the media align themselves with commercial interests like Monsanto, Tyson and Wal-Mart.

It is, then, up to consumers to educate each other. This summer, support your local farmers by learning how to prepare and preserve the things that grow in your neighborhood. Take a friend or a relative or your Sunday School class to the local farmers' market. Help someone cook or preserve something. Donate money to a community garden or a pro-sustainability political campaign. Plant one crop -- a watermelon in the flower bed or a tomato in a pot -- and show someone else how to do what you've done.

Our actions toward sustainability are vital. Meaning, it may be a matter of life or death.

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

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