Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Crêpes w/ a Side of Monsanto

Pushing the stroller with an increasingly curious infant, who from time to time made a point to explore the breaks in the concrete slab walkway, I busied myself sorting through material on modern healthcare, biotechnology in agriculture and, of all things, quantum physics. Having watched seven documentaries and read excerpts from books and numerous online articles over the course of two weeks, I was unequivocally overwhelmed with names, numbers and images of the Golden Spiral. 

Equally burdened by a long break in blogging, I looked forward to resuming the nightly habit, for my imaginary readers counted on new revelations of a Russian homemaker. Unable to discriminate among equally important and intriguing topics, I decided to start with the very first film I watched one of last week's chilly winter afternoons: The World According to Monsanto. Its director, Marie Monique Robin, a renowned TV journalist and documentary filmmaker from France, conducted simple yet extensive research on the multinational giant Monsanto. Her findings- the result of months of travel, interviews and basic Internet search- revealed decades of unethical operations and rogue products approved and injected into agriculture by the very government agencies charged with ensuring food safety and sustainable farming practices.

Marcus on an afternoon stroll around the neighbourhood
Although few days passed since my original introduction to the documentary, I felt the need to re-watch it making notes along the way. Anticipating a long night of research on the subject, I envisioned a plate of Russian-style crêpes with beef-and-vegetable filling strategically positioned between myself and VAIO the laptop, facilitating active learning and effortless writing. Luckily, Marcus cooperated and once fed and changed after a crisp winter stroll, he quieted down for a well-deserved nap, allowing me to get started on the culinary process. The topic of genetic engineering high on my list of self-assigned study material, I savoured combining three sorts of home-made organic flour with free-range eggs, wild honey, organic milk, unfiltered sea salt and natural grape seed oil.

In the face of today's apathetic attitude towards food, there is something comforting in cooking from scratch using whole local ingredients, knowing full well that the power to combat depraved corporatism resides within us. As I proceeded to pour my first crêpe, I thought of dozens of people I came across in my search for the truth, who made it their lives' mission to expose greed and corruption within government agencies and corporations and spur the collective movement towards positive change. Professional careers and personal sanity at stake, they worked towards greater public awareness on the subject, eventually reaching my news section on Facebook.

Pan-fried Russian-style crêpes (блины)
Indeed, the company did not appear on my radar until a highly publicized- at least, in social media- March Against Monsanto in May of this year, where according to organizers, two million protesters around the world took it to the streets to condemn genetic engineering of food and rising herbicide and pesticide use. Far from the only sinner- Monsanto is a part of the Big 6 cartel of chemical companies- it seems to have received the most negative publicity, and rightfully so. Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world, in control of approximately one quarter of the global seed market and 90 per cent of corn, soybeans, cotton and canola grown the U.S. 

Since the introduction of the first GM crop in Canada in 1994, Health Canada managed to approve dozens of transgenic food varieties, but only four, including corn, canola, soybeans and sugar beets, are grown and sold within the country's borders. However, despite the twenty-year history of GE crops in this country, an average Canadian remains under-equipped to carry a discussion on the topic or make informed decisions at the local grocery store.

And that would have been the case with rBGH, had Health Canada approved it for use in Canadian cattle or had the American public remained unaware of its dangers to the animals and humans. Shamefully, my initial introduction to rBGH took place less than a month ago at a speaking event on November, 24, 2013, where two scientists, Thierry Vrain and Shiv Chopra, presented their knowledge on stage in Genetically Engineered Foods and Human Health, which I blogged about in The Lecture Hall: GE Foods & Human Health the following night.

Crêpes precooked, stuffed with beef-and-vegetable filling and fastened with toothpicks
While Dr. Thierry Vrain presented a compelling string of facts on the process of genetic engineering and the nature of Monsanto's best-selling herbicide, RoundUp, Dr. Shiv Chopra, employed by Health Canada in the period from 1969 to 2004, unveiled years of unsubstantiated decisions of the government agency to approve numerous drugs, despite Chopra's and other in-house scientists' repeated warnings on their lack of effectiveness and safety. One of such drugs was rBST (recombinant Bovine Somatotropin) or rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone), as presented for approval by its manufacturers, Eli Lilly and Monsanto. Injected into cows, claimed the producers, it would increase milk production dramatically; however, the application lacked one important element: a scientific study with data supporting either of the companies' claims.

Dr. Chopra's immediate concern about the proposed drug was followed by tremendous pressure from his superiors and the manufacturers themselves to recommend the approval. However, the efforts backfired, leading instead to a public testimony of Dr. Chopra and two of his colleagues before the Senate Committee on Agriculture in 1998, where several of the drug's side effects came to light. At the same hearing, Dr. Margaret Hayden- a colleague of Dr. Chopra's- revealed Monsanto's attempt to bribe her and her superior in exchange for an approval of their own brand of rBST, Posilac. As a result, the drug was banned in Canada.

Initially in the U.S., Monsanto succeeded and received the FDA's approval, despite their own scientists' opposition. One of them, Dr. Richard Burroughs, involved in the review of rBGH from 1985 to 1988, when he was dismissed without cause, spoke repeatedly on its harmful effects on both animals and humans, citing increased incidents of mastitis in cows, a higher use of antibiotics to treat it, and raised levels of pus and IGF-I or insulin-like growth factor in cow's milk. Having faced at least the same amount of pressure to approve the drug despite its safety concerns, Dr. Burroughs blew the whistle of his own in 1990. The approval eventually came through in 1993, but the incredible amount of negative publicity and the consumers' strong opposition to tainted milk led to numerous grocery stores like Safeway and Wal-Mart banning it from their lines of products. Today, 75 per cent of all of the U.S. milk remains rBGH-free.

Heirloom Tomatoes

Piece by piece, smoothed with organic sour cream and adorned by a few wedges of fragrant heirloom tomatoes, my stuffed crêpes melted away by the minute. Having served a wonderful purpose of keeping me sane throughout the daunting task of describing Monsanto's shenanigans, they were no more until the new opportunity to sweeten their eater's sorrow...

Cited Sources:
The World According to Monsanto by Marie Monique Robin
The Big Six: A Profile of Corporate Power in Seeds, Agrochemicals and Biotech by Hope Shand

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