If you want to know what's in your food, shout louder

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The Independent Online
With the election finally laid to rest, it's time to return to fundamentals. Like food. Food is art, education, entertainment, the best way to get to know people and places. I love to eat - in fact, I live to eat - which is why one of the most appalling excrescences of futurism that I can think of is the industrialisation of the food chain. It's not just the factory farming of animals breeding the BSE nightmare, or the steady concentration of power in the hands of a few multinational distributors. It's also the divorce of foodstuffs from the cycles of nature. At some point during 1997 you will probably eat genetically engineered or "transgenic" food.

At the moment, it's the transgenic soya beans developed by the American company Monsanto that are the testing ground. In the US these beans are mixed with ordinary soya beans and included in up to 60 per cent of all the processed foods that contain some soya-based ingredient. Monsanto insists its beans are perfectly safe so it is opposed to "genetically altered" labelling. The way things are shaping up in Europe, it looks like Monsanto will win on the labelling issue here as well, which makes a complete mockery of the 85 per cent of European citizens who claim they want to know if their food has been genetically modified.

The prediction for the immediate future is that almost all mass-produced food staples will be subjected to some kind of genetic hocus-pocus, unless we all kick up a fuss, or unless there is some biological disaster. Inevitably, Monsanto and fans claim such a thing can't happen.

HERE'S another horror story. It takes place in North Carolina. The Body Shop's US headquarters are there, close to a town called Raleigh and the Neuse River. For the past few summers millions of fish have been dying downriver. Dozens of people who fish or swim in the Neuse have been falling ill. And all of them, fish and people, have been pocked with red sores, the tell-tale sign of a microscopic marine organism called Pfiesteria piscida, literally "fish killer".

It was identified and named in the early Nineties by Dr JoAnn Burkholder, an assistant professor of aquatic botany at the University of North Carolina. She and her assistant Howard Glasgow discovered a primitive organism that could shape-shift into at least 19 forms, including alga, amoeba and the vile little flesh eater that was killing fish and infecting people.

Then, in the course of their research, Burkholder and Glasgow fell ill with a mysterious Alzheimer's-like neurological disorder. When they stayed away from the lab, they started to get better. So doctors were eventually able to track the illness back to the pfiesteria. But how and why had this lethal alga appeared so quickly?

A little contextualising on Burkholder's part offered a solution. Pfiesteria was discovered at the same time as North Carolina's industrial hog farms kicked into high gear in the early Nineties. In an area that is home to under a million people, these businesses have been dumping untreated waste equivalent to that produced by 15 million people into rivers that are already overloaded with nutrients such as farm fertiliser and human sewage. Pig waste has tipped the scales, stimulating the evolution of the previously unrecognised organism. The official response has been depressingly familiar. Not wanting to put a spanner in the works of the lucrative tourist industry, local officials downplay the dangers. Local politics is in the pocket of the wealthy pig industry. And, even with evidence to hand, scientific experts shrink from making the obvious connections because their universities rely on pig farmers for generous endowments.

Meanwhile, JoAnn Burkholder is worried that pfiesteria will spread to coastal waters and wipe out fishing grounds. Maybe she needn't worry about the fish. Further research has established that nothing makes the little horrors friskier than human blood. It will be another long hot summer in North Carolina. Needless to say, I won't be swimming.

WITH the US Food and Drug Administration in mind, I have a new hero. On 19 May, Dr Stanislaw Burzynski will face charges in America on 42 criminal counts of transporting an illegal drug across state lines. The drug - antineoplaston - is Burzynski's own formula, which he has used in the successful treatment of hundreds of terminally ill cancer patients. The "crime" with which he is charged is shipping antineoplaston to patients who live outside Texas, his home state.

His accuser is the FDA whose chief enforcement officer, Robert Spillar, seems obsessed with prosecuting Dr Burzynski and his patients, to the bafflement of just about everyone who knows the case. It flies in the face of reason, especially since experts at the National Cancer Institute have confirmed that antineoplaston is effective even against the most aggressive malignancies. And yet it goes on, with Spillar displaying an extraordinary callousness in denying treatment to patients who have been responding well to antineoplaston. Their sole "crime" is that they don't happen to live in Texas, where the drug is sanctioned for legal usage.

Why is this happening? The INI Free Press, an alternative media monitor that has been following Dr Burzynski's case, claims the cancer industry is America's second largest, and goes on to suggest that the FDA may be protecting the very vested interests of the pharmaceutical giants. One "multinational drug tycoon" is quoted as saying, "If you don't have $300m, you don't prove a new cancer drug to the FDA."

So a distinct pattern emerges: as the FDA is giving immediate approval for clinical trials on a new drug from one of the big guys (using one of the same acids found in antineoplaston), it is also setting the court date for the little guy's criminal trial. Stanislaw Burzynski came of age fighting totalitarianism in Poland, dreaming of freedom in America. The irony of his situation won't be lost on him.