In 1997, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was spraying weeds on his property with the herbicide Roundup when he discovered that some did not die. Monsanto, Roundup’s maker and owner of some 11,000 seed patents, concluded that Schmeiser’s plants were actually “Roundup Ready” canola, its own product. Soon Schmeiser, a lifelong seed developer, found himself the defendant in a lawsuit for patent infringement. It mattered not that Schmeiser never actively sought to use the seed—it likely blew onto his property from a strong wind or passing truck. Two courts sided with Monsanto, saying it didn’t matter how the cross-pollination occurred. The unlucky Saskatchewan man used up his retirement funds and had to destroy 50 years’ worth of personal seed development work because his seeds were corrupted with the Monsanto product.
According to The Future of Food, a 2004 documentary by Deborah Koons Garcia (wife of the late Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia), Schmeiser is not the only one to face the lawsuit-happy Monsanto attorneys. Some 9,000 letters, the movie claims, have been sent to farmers, offering them the choice to pay the company or meet it in court. These cases would appear to be just a tiny stumbling block to Monsanto’s relentless campaign to gobble up broad swaths of global agribusiness: by 2003, Koons reports, some 100 million acres of land in the United States were devoted to growing genetically manipulated, pesticide-resistant corn, canola, cotton and soybeans.
Focusing primarily on Monsanto, Garcia’s polemical documentary makes a provocative case that the competitive desire for low prices and high yields has wreaked havoc on the family farmer, rural communities and, most likely, our health.
Garcia takes compelling stories like Schmeiser’s, historical background and interviews with experts to demonstrate just how sinister genetic modification practices have become. Biotechnology use in the medical fields is closely monitored, and many life-saving products are developed in secure environments. Genetically modified plants, on the other hand, blow around and reproduce. DNA is manipulated, viruses and bacteria are inserted into plant cells, and weird hybrids of plant and animal species are invented.
It’s all in the name of creating a hardier specimen, but the long-term possibilities are troubling. Increased use of antibiotic matter contributes to drug resistance, making it difficult to treat some diseases. Allergic reactions are also possible: Garcia includes the story of Grace Booth, who suffered severe symptoms after eating taco shells containing Starlink, a corn product that was later banned. Although the Centers for Disease Control’s study of Starlink’s negative effects proved inconclusive, the researchers didn’t entirely discount the correlation between Starlink and the reported physical symptoms. Acknowledging the difficulties of detecting the allergen, the report called for more studies of the links between genetically modified foods and health effects on consumers before releasing the products into the marketplace.
Still, corporations and government, fearing future liability, continue to resist the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), despite widespread public support for the practice. All 15 countries in the European Union require labeling. Yet accountability in the industry, at least in this country, remains lax to this day.
Garcia’s doc is clearly provocative, but it suffers in some respects for a lack of opposing arguments. What we get instead are more opinions from experts who are knowledgeable but also closely mirror her strong viewpoint. The final minutes of the film focus on organic farming and sustainable agriculture, yet the film could do more to examine how these models might offer viable alternatives to the corporate-driven manipulation of foods.
Still, Garcia’s sources are certainly credible, and her alarming message is vital. One of her experts, Ignacio Chapela, an assistant professor at Berkeley in ecosystem sciences, observes that “This is probably the largest biological experiment humanity has ever entered into.” (In return, he has been attacked by the university and some of his scientific peers.) Most Americans standing in the grocery aisles probably aren’t aware of that experiment, yet it’s hard to believe that any of them actually want a part in the GMO revolution.
It’s easy to feel powerless next to the Monsantos of the world, and after watching Garcia’s doc, you may never look at an ear of corn the same way again. If you’d prefer a more upbeat way of saying the same thing, try this: the old-school produce at co-ops and farmers’ markets looks even more appealing after you’ve seen The Future of Food.