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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 12-Nov-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 17

Wordcount: 847

You want pesticides with that? Why less means more

Elizabeth Farrelly

I think of architects as a kind of pioneer species. This is most obvious in the residential partygame Postcode Pursuit, when architects’ colonisation of a neighbourhood signifies that it is now five years from the coffeehouses; 10 years, max, from being fashionable. But it’s also true of taste.

For at least a century architects have known the near-impossibility of finding anything plain – the undecorated cup, unfigured stone, unpatterned fabric, unseriffed typeface. And they’ve long faced the paradoxical fact that the plain objet, which should cost less, is always at least double the one with the placcy ballerina on top. This, one fondly imagines, is the truth behind the minimalist dictum, less is more.

I know, the term was actually coined by neither Mies van der Rohe nor Bucky Fuller, although both leaned heavily upon it, but by Robert Browning, ventriloquising the Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto in his rather turgid 1855 poem of that name. But what’s interesting, and why less is more became the motto of the 20th century, is the way it puts a strong moral undertow beneath an essentially aesthetic wave.

Many people this century regard minimalism as a mere “matter of taste”, implying that taste, being strictly aesthetic, has zero moral weight. But even taste carries a moral germ, as our standard usages of “good” taste and “bad” taste betray. So it may be entirely proper that minimalism, as a moral taste, now applies to food.

We’ve had slow food, organic food, local food, all appealing at least as strongly to our moral tastebuds as our hedonic ones. And all more expensive than the run-of-the-mill versions, which the food-scientists have tortured by microscope and Bunsen burner into rotless submission. Now there’s “true food”.

True food, simply, is GE-free, food in whose production genetic engineering plays no part. It sounds simple but it is hard to achieve, and harder to prove.

Greenpeace Australia launched its first True Food Guide in 2002, but each year it gets bigger and more pointed. Designed to out the gene-splicers, the Guide comprises two lists: one of companies that actively exclude GE from their foods and one of those that don’t. Absent effective government, this is food vigilantism – like pedophile vigilantism, only intelligent.

Hearteningly, the Good list is a lot longer than the Bad. Goodies include Nestle, Edmonds, Dick Smith, VB and (whew!) Cascade, while the “may contain” bad-list include Bourneville Cocoa, Leggo’s pasta, Bakers Delight, Naytura (Woolworths) and Bundaberg Rum. The baddies also include all cottonseed oil, all imported soy, corn, canola and vegetable oil.

Of course, you probably already avoid canola because of its links to macular degeneration. But soy, most of it genetically engineered, is in maybe 60 per cent of all processed food, often camouflaged as lecithin, just as GE corn often appears as maltodextrin.

What’s wrong with it? No one really knows, although a number of allergy specialists believe there are links between GE soy and chronic allergy. But it’s about the right to know and why, if genetic engineering is so harmless, food manufacturers are so eager to hide it in their products.

But look at it this way. In Africa, proponents argue that GE is necessary to enhance yields and end starvation. Here, however, there’s no pretence that it’s about the consumer. Here, where we planted our first GE cotton and canola last year (so it is already contaminating other plants), it’s mainly about selling herbicide.

The GE scene in Australia is controlled by three agrochemical giants – Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta. Monsanto (the company that made Agent Orange, working in Australia through the sinisterly named Nufarm) sells GE soy, corn, cotton and canola that are “Roundup ready”. These are engineered to resist the pesticide that kills pretty much every living plant except the GE stuff which (good heavens!) it just happens to have in its top pocket, under patent, and which, being sterile, must be repurchased every year.

That might simply be clever marketing, but it means that, quite apart from the unknown toxicities of the gene-splicing itself, and quite apart from the emergence of Roundup-resistant “superweeds”, requiring higher and higher herbicidal doses, GE food, or GE-fed food (which in Australia is not required to be labelled) – can be counted on to contain high levels of pesticides.

To what extent Roundup (or glyphosate) may harm humans is still unknown – although some studies indicate endocrine disruption and embryo death. In two recent legal cases in California, however, hailed as victories for local organic farmers, the courts found the state had acted illegally in deregulating GE sugar beet and alfalfa, failing to consider wind-borne gene transmission to other crops or “the cumulative effects of increased glyphosate”.

Behind all this though is the simplicity question: why is it so hard to keep things clean and plain?

Even the answer’s not simple. We can’t just accept that nature knows best – unless we accept polio and diphtheria with it. But the author Michael Pollan’s advice strikes me as sensible: shop only around the edges of the supermarket, avoid anything made in a lab and never, ever eat anything that won’t rot.


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