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Dems’ Eco-Views II: Frankenlabels and the Precautionary Principle


Good news: both Sen. Clinton and Sen Obama support labelling Frankenfoods. Why care? Well, all of us in the US – and everyone in our families and communities – are human lab rats in a giant experiment. American adults and American children are the first test subjects in world history to be eating Frankenfoods.

Not so good news: both Senator Clinton and Sen. Obama have a long way to go on the Precautionary Principle, although Senator Obama has a small lead on the issue.

Good eco-news doesn’t come along every post, so let’s open that treat first.

As we’ve discussed, Frankenfoods are plants and animals created in labs by forcing wholly alien species’ DNA into the species of plants and animals we rely on for food. With so many other pollutants in our food, why care about alien species’ DNA? I mean, pollen is basically just plant semen, and every spring the whole biosphere gets alien pollen sprayed all over the place.

Who knew hay fever was so kinky?

Anyway, the flowering plants we know and love and plant and fawn over – and sneeze over – have been painting the globe with plant semen for about 130 million years. Yet like college students, just because the flowering plants play catch with a whole lotta their friends’ DNA, they don’t play catch with all the other plants’ DNA. Instead, the flowering plants negotiate through the Plant Kingdom’s annual pollen keggers very carefully. They don’t fall for the first bit of pollen to float by – rather, the flowering plants carefully select pollen partners who are from the same neck of the evolutionary woods: the same species, a closely related species, or closely related genera. I want a pollen just like the pollen that fertilized dear old mom. And depsite their pollen parties, the flowering plants don’t play any DNA catch with fish or other animals.

We humans have been playing matchmaker among plants in the same neck of the evolutionary woods for thousands of years. Over the last decades, we humans have used various sources of radiation and a few chemicals to heat up the plants’ pollen swapping parties, but the swapping was still confined to closely related plants. And the plants used ther own natural mechanisms to combine their close relatives’ DNA into their own DNA, otherwise known as their genome.

The matchmaking techniques above are broadly considered conventional plant breeding. The results of these conventional plant breeding techniques may be new to us, but they are made up from the genetic material of a single species or – a most – of closely related species or genera (a group of closely related species is called a genus; plural form: genera).

Frankenplants are the artifical creatures of genetic engineering, which is used to force the DNA from other organisms (distantly related plants; animals; fungi; bacteria) into familar plants to produce mutant offspring. Over and over, these brand-new Frankencrops turn out to be toxic to animals. Since we’re animals, that’s bad news.

Unlike chemical pollutants, the Frankengenes forced into our familar food crops can manufacture themselves outside the lab. And they do – everytime their "home" Frankencrop reproduces. The Frankengenes are copied along with the rest of the DNA from the Frankenplant into Frankenpollen that contaminates non-GMO plants, resulting in genetic pollution: the spread of Frankengenes through our familar food crops.

So – you don’t wanna eat Frankenfoods? Tough beans – if you live in the US. In the US, BigIndustrialFood successfully fought off Federal legislation that would allow us to know if a product contained GMO crops. Why would BigIndustrialFood fight labelling Frankenfood labelling? Well, around the world, consumers don’t want to buy Frankenfoods ‘caus ethey don’t want to eat them. In EU nations that mandate Frankenlabels, foods made with GMO ingredients are impossible to sell. US consumers don’t want Frankenfoods either.

Despite the fact we don’t want the toxic crap, 70 percent of the processed foods in US supermarkets contain Frankencrops. The same GMO labelling that EU consumers rely upon to avoid Frankenfoods would allow US consumers to opt out.

Mandatory Frankenlabelling in US foods allows Amercians to stop being lab rats in the vast experiment with our diet – and our families – which is GMO agriculture. Fortunately, both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton support Frankenlabelling.

And just in time, too. Even our pathetically compromised FDA/USDA are supposed to be aware of new Frankencrops (although now that both agencies are controlled by Big Pharma/Big Ag/Big Mutant, they usually just roll over and let the new Frankencrops out of the labs and into our fields – and our kids). Yet as the sharp-eyed Tom Philpott over at Grist noted, Forbes magazine reports farmers in India are rasing Frankseeds for planting in the US – for Frankencrops even the FDA hasn’t approved.

Of course, while we’re waiting for mandatory Frankenlabels, we US consumers (and those who eat food products exported from the US) can choose foods labelled organic; US organic standards exclude GMO ingredients.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to the market to read – I’d rather spend my reading time on something else. The fact we all need to scrutinize labels just to minimize the amount of toxic crap we bring home to eat is an eaxmple of externalization. The Mutant Ag/Industrial Food megacorps force their products onto the market, and externalize onto us the burden of avoiding Frankefoods – as well as the burden of Frankenfoods’ toxicity.

In a bizzare perversion of fairness, the Fraknenfoods are treated as innocent util proven toxic. We humans are treated as lab rats: when enough of us sicken and die from toxic substances already on the market, we than have to fight epic battles with some megacorp to force the toxin off the market – and out of our bodies.

This is called the "body-count" principle. We the victims have to prove the toxic substance harmed us before we can be free of the substance.

The precautionary principle restores rights to the living. The precautionary principle basically requires the manufacturers of the new substance – including Frankenfoods – to bear the burden of proof:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

I contacted both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama’s camapigns to ask about both Dem candidates’ position on the PP:

As part of a series comparing Sen Obama’s and Sen Clinton’s respective legislative histories and campaign platforms on these issues, I’m writing about toxic substance regulation, with specific attention to the candidates’ advocacy of the precautionary principle as the basis for toxic substance regulation in the US.

Though both campaigns ‘net media contacts made themselves available, Sen Obama’s policy office never provided any meaningful answer. Sen Obama’s policy office did not provide a direct answer to the precautionary principle question, but did provide the Senator’s previous answer to a queston about toxics:

Q: Despite years of debate and scientific effort, only a tiny fraction of the approximately 75,000 chemicals in commercial production have been subjected to even rudimentary toxicity testing. Children up to age six are most at risk because their vital organs and immune system are still developing and because they depend more heavily on their environments than adults do.

How will existing regulations be bolstered to limit children’s exposures to industrial toxins in our environment? Do you support adopting Europe’s REACH here in the U.S.?

A: First, I will ensure that current law is enforced to meet its original intent. The Bush administration has weakly interpreted too many laws, including the Clean Air Act, to provide protections to corporate interests, and that trend will end in my administration.

Second, I will build on my leadership in the U.S. Senate to ban lead in children’s products and work to identify gaps in our regulatory process for other toxins that adversely affect children. I think that Europe’s REACH program is innovative and I look forward to working with chemical safety experts in my administration to determine how well REACH is being implemented, and what aspects of the approach would be beneficial for the United States to adopt.

OK – Clinton punted on the PP. Obama’s answer is encouraging, yet disappointing.

What is REACH?

The strongest promise of REACH is its potential to identify and phase out the most hazardous chemicals by requiring their substitution with safer alternatives wherever possible (“substitution principle”).This solution-oriented requirement would offer a precautionary approach to protect our health and environment. It would replace the current system which is based on establishing “safe” levels of chemical exposure. Attempts to establish safe exposure levels and effect thresholds are flawed by the impossibility of determining the consequences of long-term exposure to low levels of hazardous chemicals, singly and, especially, in combination. The urgency for change is driven by the growing evidence of contamination of the population at large, in which the blood of unborn children may already contain as many as 100 man-made industrial chemicals.

Specifically, REACH is intended to:
-fill the gaps in our knowledge of the hazards of chemicals
-only allow chemicals onto the market if specific safety data on them are made available (principle of ‘no data – no market’)
-detect, limit and when needed replace hazardous substances with safer alternatives (‘substitution principle’)
– transfer the burden of proving that chemicals are not dangerous away from the public authorities and onto chemical manufacturers, so that the latter will have to prove the safety of their products (‘reversing the burden of proof’)
– ensure that there is adequate information on all chemicals and that this information is communicated to all who come into contact with the chemicals from users to final consumers (‘right to know’)
– remove competitive disadvantages from tested new substances as compared to untested existing substances

So what’s not to like? Well, we still don’t know where Senator Obama stands on the Precautionary Principle, though we know he likes REACH. We still don’t know whether (if elected) Senator Obama will end the "body-count" system and protect us by placing the burden of proof on manufacturers, rather than on our families and our funerals. And – most important of all – we still don’t know how Sen Obama (if elected) would choose his experts and advisers on eco-issues.

If elected, will he choose advisers from Big Ag/ Big Pharma / Big Vat? Or will he step outside the Beltway feeding trough to choose experts with a track record of protecting people, rather than products?

[photo credit: pelikanol]

[Sen Obama’s Frankenlabelling statement: h/t Grist]

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Kirk Murphy

Kirk Murphy

terrestrial obligate aerobe with endoskeleton (bony) and bilateral symmetry.

chordate, bipedal, warm-blooded, mammalian, placental (origin), opposable thumbs.

not (yet) extinct.

indigenous habitat: California Live Oak.

current habitat: Central California Coast (most northerly aspect).... 'northwest of the new world, east of the sea'

potential habitats: all potential habitats critically endangered (due to global climate change).

ailurophilic - hence allergic rhinitic.