Florida’s Unnatural: Transgenic Orange Juice, Citrus Greening, and the Tyranny of Corporate Consensus

Citrus GreeningOver the weekend of January 18th-19th, various organs of Florida’s Halifax Media Group ran an editorial touting genetic engineering as the only viable solution to the citrus-greening epidemic that threatens Florida’s orange growers with economic disaster. Rich in unacknowledged ironies, the editorial attempted to establish a new standard for sensible opinion, dismissing consumer “fears” about genetically modified (GM) foods as irrational while feigning concern for the creeping corporate control of the food supply exemplified by Monsanto. This pro-GM tightrope act, based on the untenable assumption that Monsanto’s power can somehow be constrained during an expansion of the very field it dominates, followed closely on the heels of a syndicated article in our local Halifax property, the Leesburg Daily Commercial, which opposed the labeling of GM foods as “natural” but saw no need for consumers to be informed of the presence of GM ingredients. Since it is the general labeling of GM foods that consumers most want and industry most fears, the form of anti-corporate resistance being offered by the Halifax Group amounts to nothing more than patronizing tokenism.

Very clearly, in the opinion of the media corporations that tell us what to think, consumers in our putatively free market are entitled only to those protections and disclosures that pose no meaningful danger to the profitability of the agribusiness corporations that decide what we will eat. To a degree that should offend those conservative columnists who tell us that the marketplace presents a cornucopia of wondrous choices, it is clear that the sheep are being herded by a well-coordinated pack of dogs. The salient question now is what might be possible if the sheep – who handily outnumber the dogs and can pack quite a punch when they kick with all their weight – respond to these snarls and nips with mass resistance. Whenever the corporate media derides the fears of American consumers, it implicitly expresses the fears of American corporations that their dominance is not guaranteed. And in this particular arena, that is one fear that is entirely rational.

It’s Not Plagiarism When You Copy A Family Member

[Note: Readers outside Lake and Sumter County may wish to skip this particular section.]

Before we dissect the substance of the Halifax editorial, special mention must be made of the company’s attitude toward intellectual integrity. While the editorial itself is essentially a synopsis of a July New York Times article by Amy Harmon (which itself reads like an industry brochure aimed at middle-school children) and gave appropriate attribution thereto, the various members of the Halifax Group who used this editorial obviously considered themselves under no obligation to credit the writer of their in-house GM propaganda. The longest version of the editorial appears in the Lakeland Ledger, suggesting that this paper was the original source. Shorter versions, essentially identical except for changes to the names of local citrus-related towns in their respective areas, appeared in the Ocala Star Banner and in the Leesburg Daily Commercial.

There have been a few superficial changes at the Daily Commercial since the corporate reshuffle that brought it within the Halifax fold, but it would appear that the new editorial team is only slightly more concerned about plagiarism than their predecessors. Thus, the newspaper that once presented the work of Scripps Howard columnist Dale McFeatters as its own likewise published this pro-GM editorial under the heading, “Our Voice” and neglected to inform its readers that their voice only spoke two or three words. Perhaps the assumption being made here is that people who don’t need to be informed that they are eating genetically modified foods don’t need to know that they are reading a locally modified article. In a country where slight modifications to foods created by Mother Nature may be patented for profit, it follows that a slightly tweaked article may be sold to subscribers as an original creation.

What Water Shortage?

One of the most glaring ironies of the Daily Commercial‘s sudden interest in the orange industry is its complete failure to acknowledge the contribution that citrus irrigation and chemical application make to the water crisis the newspaper has recently adopted as a major issue. Although nowhere near as profligate as the beef industry, growing oranges to produce orange juice is a horribly inefficient use of water. It takes 170 liters of water to produce a single glass of orange juice. Central Florida residents offended by the proposed expansion of groundwater mining by the Niagara Bottling company need to pay more attention to the excuse being proffered by the company that Niagara’s withdrawals are trivial compared to those of other users. This line of argumentation – “we’re not really bad if you look at what other people are doing” – would not carry much weight as a criminal defense in most courts of law, but seems to have impressed the staff of the St. John’s River Water Management District, who have recommended approval of Niagara’s expanded permit for 20 years. Offensive as this logic might be, the District actually has a point. A bottling company based in California that exports Florida water to other states presents a far smaller threat to the Floridan Aquifer than local citrus companies exporting orange juice. If we are going to take our water issue seriously, we can not continue to give a free pass to the established players who happen to be among the biggest users of a fragile, finite resource. Talking about the $9 billion the orange industry contributes to the state’s economy without mentioning the cost it imposes on all the state’s residents is an intellectual failure far more serious than mere plagiarism.

The Corporate Dogs Learn A New Trick

Even harder to swallow than the Daily Commercial‘s selective blindness on the water issue is its extraordinary hypocrisy in deploying the latest assault against those Americans who worry that GM foods are likely to be harmful. The argument that anti-GMO activists are obstructing the beneficial progress of science is not new, as we showcased in our examination of the biotech industry’s attacks against such GM-labeling advocates as Canadian teenager Rachel Parent. But the Halifax editorial published by the Daily Commercial sought to discredit GM opponents with a particularly pernicious ad hominem attack:

[B]iotechnology offers hope in feeding a growing population grappling with climate change. Yet some liberal groups working to address climate change are opposed to GMOs, spreading the same kind of misinformation employed by climate-change deniers. [Emphasis added.]

This is a bit rich, coming from a newspaper that religiously prints every single syndicated column from Fox News pundit Cal Thomas, one of the most rabid climate-change deniers currently serving the oil and gas industry. If the Leesburg Daily Commercial would care to desist from spreading Cal Thomas’s misinformation about climate change, this illustrious Florida institution could possibly be taken seriously. Unfortunately, even in the absence of such brazen hypocrisy (which they would attempt to hide behind the cowardly shield of plausible deniability, claiming that the views of the columnists they choose to print do not reflect their own), we are left with the misinformation of the GM industry itself.

The pitch that genetic engineering will solve the world’s food-supply problems not only encourages us to accept the inevitability of huge increases in the human population – an acceptance that dooms the ecosystem to collapse – but has been proven false in the real world that exists beyond the control of corporate spinmeisters. As Anna Lappe, daughter of Francis Moore Lappe (author of the brilliantly prescient Diet for a Small Planet), has explained, the industry’s favorite talking point has been contradicted by 20 years of experience. GM foods have  been all about enriching the corporations that created them, not about feeding hungry people. The industry has focused overwhelmingly on fodder crops designed to be used in conjunction with proprietary pesticides and then fed to animals consumed by affluent westerners. In the developing world, farmers have been made more dependent on expensive inputs while seeing crop yields become less reliable as undesirable pest resistance traits thwart the claims of the GM salesmen and require the use of more, not less, pesticide. Meanwhile, methods that Lappe describes as agroecological have been providing better results, increasing farmers’ incomes while working in harmony with local environments. Readers of American corporate media will learn little about such methods because they offer such meager returns to the agribusiness conglomerates trying to foist industrial monocultures on an unwilling world.

Debunking the Debunkers

Similarly, the assertion in the Halifax editorial that studies finding health risks in GMOs have been debunked is itself a shocking piece of misinformation, made no less reprehensible by its prominence in the New York Times article used for support. Tom Philpott, who is not entirely hostile to the use of GM technology to combat citrus greening, agreed with food critic Michael Pollan that the Times article contained too many industry talking points:

[…] Harmon declares that “dozens of long-term animal feeding studies had concluded that existing G.M.O.s were as safe as other crops, and the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization and others had issued statements to the same effect,” echoing an often-repeated industry claim.

But as the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doug Gurian-Sherman, who worked as a scientist assessing biotech risk at the Environmental Protection Agency, has shown, the situation is a bit more complicated than that. He writes: “No long-term safety tests in animals are required by any regulatory agency. In some circumstances, 90-day, so-called sub-chronic tests may be required in Europe. But 90 days is far short of the one to two years that usually satisfy long-term safety test requirements.”

And the World Health Organization has this to say: “Individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

If anything, Philpott’s rebuttal of the Times is far too mild, for it completely fails to mention the dirty tricks deployed by the GM industry’s titans – who enjoy a frightening level of support from all levels of government – in silencing their critics. And when credible writers like Philpott make this mistake, it is hardly surprising to find the local level of corporate media following suit.

Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini

Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini. (Image links to Dr. Seralini’s website, where his critics are answered.)

Thus, while the Halifax editorial displayed awareness of the Supreme Court’s ghastly pro-industry decision in Monsanto v. Bowman, it undermined its claim to be concerned about Bowman‘s implications by unquestioningly repeating the pro-industry assertion that “opponents of GMOs” have cited “erroneous claims such as a thoroughly debunked study that a diet of GMO corn caused tumors in rats.” As the industry watchdog GM Watch uncovered in an interview with Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with the Consumers’ Union, this “debunking” itself needs to be debunked. The study in question, by the French scientist, Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini, has been assailed by the GM industry on the grounds that it employed an invalid methodology. But Seralini used exactly the same methodology that Monsanto itself had used eight years earlier. The only difference was that Monsanto’s study, which – surprise, surprise – showed no problems, ran for only 90 days, while Seralini’s study ran for a far more meaningful two years. In fact, the European Union felt Seralini’s work was important enough to spend 3 million euros duplicating it on a larger scale. Hansen argues convincingly that the decision by the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology to retract Seralini’s paper is an act of censorship at the behest of the biotech industry, and notes that studies conducted by scientists with no ties to the industry are dramatically more likely to find problems with GMOs.

Playing God in the Bible Belt

When the Leesburg Daily Commercial and other Halifax properties urge the citrus industry to “do a better job educating the public about genetically engineered crops,” they are asking orange growers to disrespect the legitimate concerns of consumers, conceal the GM industry’s extraordinary subversion of sound ecological science in the pursuit of profit, and turn 180-degrees away from years of selling Florida orange juice as a quintessentially natural product. All those millions of dollars spent on television commercials showing sunshine as the primary ingredient of the state’s most famous product (and making no mention of pesticides, insecticides, or poorly paid migrant farm workers) have laid down formidable psychological obstacles to the widespread acceptance of transgenic juice. Growers bemoaning the GMO fears of consumers are contending with a problem partly of their own creation. Perhaps they should stop trying to solve it.

For the proposition that genetic engineering will save Florida’s citrus industry is far more dubious than the Halifax propagandists would have us believe. As the history of BT cotton in India demonstrated, the promised miracle can easily degenerate into a new complex of problems. Pest resistance, as Philpott explains, is a moving target:

[T]he Candidatus Liberibacter bacteria has proven to be a tenacious pathogen, and while the GM trees that Harmon writes about [in the New York Times] are working in research plots, none is at the stage where it has proven to flourish in the field at large scale.

And as Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook told me, the threat of resistance is real. “There’s no reason to believe that a gene that’s turned on all the time in the plant is going to last any longer than a typical chemical [pesticide] solution in terms of the evolution of resistance,” he said. Bacterial pathogens often develop resistance to pesticides in three to five years, he added.

Although you won’t hear about it from the Halifax Media Group, there is another solution to the citrus-greening problem that does not entail Frankenstein fruit. Citrus grower Maury Boyd, drawing upon his training in horticulture, decided to try combating the disease by supplying his trees with the nutrients they were unable to obtain once their phloem (the equivalent of blood vessels) was compromised. Boyd’s combination of insecticides, immunological support, and micronutrient sprays worked so well that University of Florida professor Robert Rouse found Boyd’s yields to be higher with greening than they were before the disease hit. Use of insecticides has been a boon to the chemical companies and may be contributing to bee colony collapse disorder, but Boyd’s method has been successfully implemented by organic growers who use natural methods to fight the aphids that act as the disease vector. Largely as a result of Boyd’s work, and thanks to robust market prices, growing oranges remains a profitable business, as the planting of new groves in Lake County attests. But while many small- and medium-sized growers have embraced the Boyd Method, the largest corporate players in the industry – U.S. Sugar and Florida’s Natural – have been among its greatest detractors.

Of course, the ultimate irony in this corporate march toward a transgenic future is the willing embrace of human arrogance in a state whose motto is In God We Trust. Since the Leesburg Daily Commercial has been at pains to remind us every Thanksgiving that we must, above all else, be thankful that we are children of God, its odd new veneration for human cleverness presents a most uncomfortable dilemma. What are God-fearing Christians supposed to say at the breakfast table when starting the day with a pitcher of transgenic orange juice? Should they thank the Lord for making man smart enough to improve upon his creations by importing a gene from a virus into a fruit tree? When they breathe the sweet air along U.S. 27, should they give thanks to the scientists who corrected God’s failure to anticipate the citrus-greening epidemic, or should they worry that the disease represents a triumph for the devil? What does all of this mean for the notion of divine omniscience and omnipotence?

What it means is patently obvious: God is no more of a barrier to profit-seeking behavior than the long-term health of the world around us. We trust that all Halifax Media properties will remind their readers next Thanksgiving to give thanks for corporate capitalism. Such an exhortation would be far more consistent with their reporting on every other day of the year.

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