As we watch millions of Tunisians, Egyptians, and Yemenis organize and challenge their respective dictators, many of us will be thankful that such oppression and turmoil don’t exist in our country. Yet the Department of Agriculture’s decision on Thursday to approve the planting of genetically modified alfalfa should give us all reason to question the state of our democracy as well.
Genetically modified alfalfa doesn’t sound as important as “the economy,” “healthcare,” or “jobs.” Yet our fourth largest crop, a major feed for dairy cows, has a direct impact on the quality of our milk. By allowing Monsanto to freely modify something so crucial, but so unfamiliar, the Department of Agriculture is facilitating the quiet modification of the American diet without popular consent or notice. More importantly, the company receiving free reign over our food supply is a predatory one, one that collaborates with cigarette companies, makes bestselling pesticides like Roundup—which the alfalfa is bred to resist—and runs small organic farmers out of business by suing them for using patented GM seeds that entered their fields on the wind.
But the greater danger isn’t posed to dairy consumers, or even to organic farmers whose fields face contamination. Free societies are built on the awareness of an informed public that has the power to exercise free choice. Genetically modified foods are, by their very nature, against the idea of free choice. They are engineered to replicate a chosen result in our food, regardless of the will of nature, farmers, or consumers, who are all forced to take submissive roles in the food chain. And so, in endorsing the planting of GM alfalfa, the Department of Agriculture has endorsed the denial of free choice on several levels, the least of which is the disregard for public participation during the process.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters that “the decision reached [Thursday] is a reflection of our commitment to choice and trust.”
The problem is, he’s right.
In fact, as long as our federal government permits one company to disseminate a product that assumes the role of the public, we are enjoying a fictional quality of life that’s fundamentally worse than that experienced under any dictator. The evil of authoritarian regimes in other countries comes from the publicity of their restrictions on information and choice; the people in those countries are mostly aware of their oppression. In the United States, we’ve incubated a model of corporate influence so veiled that anyone who doesn’t commit their life to investigation even knows their democratic privileges are being muzzled or that their everyday diet is being chemically altered. It’s one thing to outwardly discourage the public from rebelling, but it’s much more criminal to craft a business plan that keeps the public from knowing there’s a reason to rebel, and to build a product into that plan that prevents objection, should the public ever come to its senses.
A true democracy would assign certain people to understand these details and defend the public interest. Yet it’s difficult to expect protection when the people in those positions, like Michael Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, in charge of food labeling and food safety, are former Monsanto executives. But there is one last line of defense that we should all expect the best from.
President Obama devoted several minutes of his State of the Union address to outlining why we need to become more innovative in technology, science, and industry to keep up with China and India. Monsanto’s genetically engineered foods are an ample example of the direction of biotech innovation in this country. We as a people should be more concerned with reinventing our relationship to our government and focus instead on catching up to the proud, insistent spirit of the Tunisians, Egyptians and Yemenis who have remembered that their countries wouldn’t exist without them, who have remembered their duty to hold their government accountable in no passive way. Unless we do the same, and refuse to be part of focus groups we did not sign up for, our democracy will follow the course of another Monsanto product, the so-called Terminator gene, which kills plants after one growing season, without producing additional seed. The worst part is, we might not notice the difference.
KHRISTOPHER FLACK is a freelance writer and Farm-to-School Coordinator in northern Vermont. He manages Green Mountain Farm Direct, a regional food distributor focusing on locally grown foods.