Phil Bereano, professor emeritus of technical communication at the University of Washington, is an expert on the ethical and social aspects of technology, and co-founder of AGRA-Watch, which opposes the Gates Foundation’s work on genetically engineered crops in Africa.
Q: Why do you support labeling of genetically engineered foods?
A: I favor labeling because, as a consumer and an activist, I want to know what I’m eating. I know GE foods are not adequately tested and assessed for safety and health, and there are valid studies raising concerns about their safety.
Q: What do you hope labeling would accomplish?
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A: Labeling will accomplish empowerment of consumers to decide what they want to put in their bodies — parallel to a woman’s right to control her body. It’s an issue of human autonomy.
The second thing is, frankly, if the companies really want to stand behind what they are doing, it may require them or the government to do adequate testing.
And if Washington state passes labeling, I think there’s a good chance other states will pass it and eventually there will be federal labeling of GE foods.
Q: Who benefits from GE crops currently on the market?
A: The only people who have really benefited have been the agrochemical companies. Farmers in some instances may have benefited, but in the long run it’s not clear at all because of the increase in pest resistance and the resulting need to apply other chemicals.
Risks and benefits usually fall on different segments of society. In this case, the risk of harm would impact the environment and the people who are eating the food. Consumers haven’t benefited at all. The benefits flow to Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont, etc.
Q: Crops like Golden Rice, genetically engineered to produce beta carotene, are promoted to help address blindness from vitamin A deficiency and other health and nutritional problems in the developing world. What role do you see for genetic engineering in the developing world?
A: Essentially none. Golden Rice has been promised now for 20 years. It still doesn’t exist as a commercial product.
You don’t need genetic engineering to combat vitamin A-deficiency blindness. The Philippines has a successful program of nutritional supplements and fortification of flour, the same way we have done with vitamin D and white bread for a long time.
It is fallacious to think we need a high-tech approach in order to deal with these nutritional problems. They are issues of poverty, power, economics and politics — often stemming from the globalization of agriculture.
Q: Industrial agriculture was the norm in the U.S. even before the introduction of genetically engineered crops. So why are GE critics concerned with corporate control of the food supply?
A: Genetic engineering has been accompanied by unprecedented consolidation in the seed industry, especially by Monsanto. The “technology contracts” that the industry requires farmers to sign mean that control over seeds moves from farmers to corporations with very different objectives. Finally, changes in patent law for GE, as compared with hybrids, have allowed stronger monopolies over seeds than were possible before.
Q: What do you consider the most important factors for voters to weigh as they decide how to vote on I-522?
A:The most important factor, I would say, is human autonomy — both in the sense of controlling what you put in your body and also asking: Why should these large, multinational corporations be having so much influence on our politics and our well-being?
A lot of the discussion is around safety. But kosher meat is labeled, even though it has nothing to do with safety and health. People want to know what they’re eating. They may want to know for religious reasons, they may want to know for health reasons, they may want to know for political reasons, they may want to know for economic reasons. All of those reasons are valid.
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