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June 1, 2006


Students get a glimpse into the corporate-controlled food system by
looking at the politics of food

[Rachel's introduction: After several days of discussion, the 11th-
grade global studies class decided to follow the "precautionary
principle," which guides policy in many European nations, and
institute a worldwide moratorium on genetically modified (GM) foods
until they could be proven safe, and to require labeling of any GM
foods that were approved for consumption. Furthermore, the summit
voted to take away the right of any person or corporation to patent

By Tim Swinehart

"Got milk? Want strong bones? Drink milk. Want healthy teeth? Drink
milk. Want big muscles? Drink milk."

"The glass of milk looks nice and cold and refreshing. If I had a
warm, homemade chocolate chip cookie, it would make my day. They go
perfect together."

Ari and Colin could have been writing radio spots for the Oregon
Dairyman's Association, but instead they were writing about the glass
of milk I had set out moments earlier in the middle of the classroom.
My instructions to the students were simple: "Describe the glass of
milk sitting before you. What does it make you think of? Does it bring
back memories? Do you have any questions about the milk? An ode to

From the front row, Carl said, "Mmmmm... I'm thirsty. Can I drink it?"

"Why don't you wait until the end of the period and then I'll check
back with you on that, Carl," I responded.

We had spent the last couple weeks discussing the politics of food in
my untracked 11th grade global studies classes. And while students --
mostly working class and European American -- were beginning to show
signs of an increased awareness about the implications of their own
food choices, I wanted to find an issue that they would be sure to
relate to on a personal level. One of my goals in designing a unit
about food was to give students the opportunity to make some intimate
connections between the social and cultural politics of globalization
and the choices we make as individual consumers and as a society as a
whole. A central organizing theme of the unit was choice, which we
examined from multiple perspectives: How much choice do you have about
the food that you eat? Do these choices matter? Does knowledge about
the source/history of our food affect our ability to make true choices
about our food? How does corporate control of the global food supply
affect our choices and the choices of people around the world?

I wanted to encourage my students to continue asking critical
questions about the social and environmental issues surrounding food,
even outside the confines of the classroom. I wanted to develop a
lesson that would stick with them when they grabbed their afternoon
snack or sat down for their next meal, something they might even feel
compelled to tell their friends or family about.

Milk turned out to have the sort of appeal I was looking for. For
almost all my students, milk embodies a sort of wholesome, pure
"goodness," an image propped up by millions of dollars of advertising
targeted especially toward children. My students had been ingrained
with the message that "milk does a body good" for most of their lives
and had been persuaded by parents, teachers, celebrities, and
cafeteria workers to include milk as a healthy part of their day. But
I believe that my students, along with the vast majority of the
American public, hasn't been getting the whole story about milk. I
wanted to introduce them to the idea that corporate interests --
oftentimes at odds with their own personal health -- hid behind the
image of purity and health.

Growth Hormones and Milk

I wanted to help my students reexamine the images of purity and health
that milk evoked by presenting them with some unsettling information
about the Monsanto corporation's artificial growth hormone, rBGH.
Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH -- also known as Bovine
Somatrotropin, bST, or rBST) is a genetically engineered version of
the growth hormone naturally produced by cows, and was approved by the
federal Food and Drug Administra-tion (FDA) in 1993 for the purpose of
increasing a cow's milk production by an estimated 5 to 15 percent.
Monsanto markets rBGH, under the trade name Posilac, as a way "for
dairy farmers to produce more milk with fewer cows, thereby providing
dairy farmers with additional economic security" (see But with an increased risk of health problems
for cows stressed from producing milk at unnaturally enhanced levels
including more udder infections and reproductive problems -- critics
argue that the only true economic security resulting from the sale of
Posilac (rBGH) is the $300-500 million a year that Monsanto makes from
the product.

The human health risks posed by rBGH-treated milk have been an issue
of intense controversy since rBGH was introduced more than a decade
ago. Monsanto and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say that milk
and meat from cows supplemented with bST are safe. On the other hand,
a number of peer-reviewed studies, most notably those of University of
Illinois School of Public Health Professor Samuel Epstein, MD, have
shown that rBGH-treated milk contains higher than normal levels of
Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). Although IGF-1 is a naturally
occurring hormone-protein in cows and humans, when increased above
normal levels it has been linked to an increased risk of breast,
prostate, and colon cancers. Monsanto itself, in 1993, admitted that
rBGH milk often contains higher levels of IGF-1. The uncertainty
surrounding these health risks has led citizens and governments in
Canada, all 25 countries of the European Union, Australia, New
Zealand, and Japan to ban rBGH.

The continued use of rBGH in the United States points to the political
influence of large corporations on the FDA's regulatory process. When,
in 1994, concerned dairy retailers responded to the introduction of
rBGH with labels indicating untreated milk as "rBGH free," the FDA
argued that there was no "significant" difference between rBGH-treated
milk and ordinary milk and warned retailers that such labels were
illegal. The FDA has since changed its position and now allows
producers to label rBGH-free milk. Paul Kingsnorth, writing in The
Ecologist magazine, offers one explanation for the FDA's protection of
rBGH: "The FDA official responsible for developing this labeling
policy was one Michael R. Taylor. Before moving to the FDA, he was a
partner in the law firm that represented Monsanto as it applied for
FDA approval for Posilac. He has since moved back to work for
Monsanto." Not an isolated incident, this example illustrates what
critics often refer to as the "revolving door" between U.S.
biotechnology corporations and the government agencies responsible for
regulating biotech products and the safety of the nation's food.

The story of rBGH in the United States encapsulates many of the worst
elements of today's corporate-controlled, industrial food system.
Despite the illusion of choice created by the thousands of items
available at the supermarket, consumers have little knowledge about
where food comes from and how it is produced. By uncovering the story
behind rBGH, I hoped students would begin asking questions about the
ways corporate consolidation and control of the world's food supply
has drastically limited the real choices and knowledge we have as food

To familiarize ourselves with Mon-santo's point of view, we spent a
day in the computer lab exploring the corporation's website
( I asked students to look for arguments made in
favor of biotechnology and genetically modified foods: Why does
Monsanto argue that these technologies are important? What benefits do
they offer to humans and the environment? Some students were impressed
with a genetically engineered soybean designed to reduce trans fats in
processed food, others mentioned drought-resistant crops that require
less water.

Drew, however, was skeptical of the language Monsanto used to describe
its research and products. "Why don't they ever use the terms
'genetically modified' or 'genetically engineered' and always use
'biotechnology product' instead? I find it ironic that Monsanto's
'pledge' is to uphold integrity in all that they do, even though
genetically modified foods threaten the integrity of people and the

The Corporation

Carl's request to drink the milk we had used as a writing prompt made
a nice segue into showing students a short clip about rBGH from the
documentary film The Corporation (from 29:15 to 32:30 on the DVD). As
we viewed the clip, which includes powerful images of cows with
swollen udders and compelling testimony from Dr. Samuel Epstein that
links rBGH to cancer, students reacted. "Is that a real cow?" "Gross!"
"Is that in our milk?" and "That's messed up, dude!" came from various
corners of the room. But while sick cows and potential cancers risks
are important, I was hoping to impress upon students how the risks of
rBGH have been ignored and hidden from public knowledge by Monsanto
and by those who license its use at the FDA.

I showed the clip from The Corporation as a pre-reading strategy for
Paul Kingsnorth's article "Bovine Growth Hormones." The article is
technical and can be a difficult read for some students, so I hoped to
encourage their interest and give students a purpose for reading
before I passed it out. I asked students to list questions or concerns
as I paused the DVD. I was encouraged by their curiosity: "Do hormones
get into the milk and how do they affect us?" "Is there pus in our
milk?" "Is milk truly healthy for us?" "Why is rBGH necessary, if we
already have too much milk?" "If they knew that the drug made cows
sick, why do they still use it?" "What can we do about it?"

Then I passed out highlighters and told students to choose five
questions from our list and to read "Bovine Growth Hormones" with
those five questions in mind, highlighting as they come across
important information. The article is quite comprehensive, and
students were able to find answers to the majority of their questions,
including everyone's favorite: "Is there pus in our milk?" Truth be
told, all milk, including organic milk, has small amounts of somatic
cells or "pus" in it, but the FDA has strict quality standards for the
somatic cell count (SCC) above which milk may not be sold to
consumers. What students learn from the article -- and what Monsanto's
warning label accompanying all Posilac reads -- is that cows treated
with rBGH are more likely to produce milk with increased SCCs due to
the heightened risk for udder infections.

With the information from the website, film, and article to draw from,
I wanted to give students another chance to respond to the glass of
milk still sitting at the center of the room. I asked them each to
draw a line under their initial descriptions and to write a second
response: "Do you feel any differently about the glass of milk?"

Ari had initially extolled the many health virtues of milk but now
seemed equally concerned about possible health risks: "Apparently, I
get calcium, pus, and an increased risk of uterine, breast, and
various kinds of cancers. Now, when I look at that glass half full of
milk, I see cancer in a glass with a thin layer of pus as a topping.
Now I don't think I can look at milk in the same way."

Ari's comment brings up a legitimate concern that by teaching students
about rBGH, I am scaring them away from milk and toward less
attractive alternatives, including soda. Such risks were a constant
source of concern while teaching students about the myriad problems
associated with industrially produced foods. After learning about the
health and environmental risks of pesticides, herbicides, hormones,
and genetically modified food, I had more than one student ask in
exasperation: "But Mr. Swinehart, what can I eat?"

We are fortunate in Portland, Ore., to have a vibrant local food
system that makes healthy, safe, and affordable food readily
available. Several Portland-area dairies, including Sunshine,
Alpenrose, and the nation's second largest producer of natural chunk
cheese, Tillamook, have all committed to producing only rBGH-free milk
products. Because these are not organic dairies, their rBGH-free milk
tends to be less expensive and a more reasonable alternative for
students than certified "organic" milk. Dairies in many other parts of
the country have made similar pledges (see for an
interactive map to find rBGH-free products in your area). Being able
to recommend these local dairies not only presented students with a
viable alternative to giving up milk completely, but also gave them a
chance to apply their knowledge of controversial rBGH labeling during
the next trip to the grocery store.

Compared to Ari, Eron wasn't too worried about rBGH's health risks,
but did express a willingness to rethink his decisions as a consumer:
"I still love milk and will drink it, but maybe I will make a change
and buy organic milk instead so that I don't get all of the health
risks. It seems this might benefit me the most and I will be happy
about the choices I made." Of course, many students will choose to
continue drinking milk regardless of where it comes from or what it
has in it, but their knowledge of rBGH and the corporate politics
behind unlabeled milk cartons, makes this a considerably more informed
choice than most U.S. consumers have.

Eron's comment also raises one of my primary concerns in trying to
teach students about the global politics of food. I was confident
going into the unit that students would react strongly to issues
surrounding the health of animals and their own personal health, but
my goals for the unit were larger than this. While I was encouraged to
see Eron thinking about the effects of rBGH on his own personal
health, I also wanted students to make broader connections to ways the
corporate control of the food system takes knowledge and power out of
the hands of small food producers and consumers around the world. Do
some countries and corporations benefit more from a global industrial
food system than others? Do the environmental costs of this same food
system pose a substantially greater risk for the world's poor, who
still depend on a direct connection to the earth for their means of

Patents on Life?

Since students' comments during the milk lesson seemed to focus on
personal choices, I realized that we needed to broaden our focus from
the politics of health surrounding rBGH to include an exploration of
how a global food system, increasingly controlled by a few
multinational agribusiness corporations, is affecting lives and
cultures around the world. I wanted students to look at how
corporations are changing the nature of food. Through the science of
genetic engineering, biotechnology companies are experimenting with
the biological foundations of what is arguably the world's most
important life form: the seed. Biotech companies tend to downplay the
revolutionary nature of this new science by suggesting that humans
have influenced plant genetics, through selective breeding and
hybridization, since the dawn of agriculture.

But because genetic engineering allows for the DNA of one organism,
including animal and virus DNA, to be placed in a completely unrelated
plant species, it crosses natural barriers that were never breached by
traditional plant breeding. Without adequate testing or knowledge of
long-term consequences, genetically modified (GM) crops are now grown
around the world, posing what many argue is a serious threat to global
food security. Through the natural and highly uncontrollable process
of cross-pollination, GM crops have the potential to contaminate the
genetic code of the traditional crops that have provided people with
food for thousands of years.

It is not, however, just the seed itself that is changed through the
process of genetic engineering, but the very idea of the seed is
transformed as well. By altering the DNA of traditional seeds, biotech
companies are able to claim the new seed as an "invention" and secure
their right to ownership through the legal system of patents. Global
production of biotech crops and the number of corporate-owned patents
on seed have increased dramatically over the last two decades.
Monsanto alone owns more than 11,000 seed patents.

To help students grapple with the international politics of seed
patenting and GM foods, I designed a role play that would encourage
them to confront the often unequal effects of the global food system
and the global economy in which it operates. I set up the role play as
a special meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the primary
governing body for international trade law. I asked students to debate
how GM foods should be regulated internationally by taking on the
following roles: farmers from India, U.S. Trade representatives,
European Union commissioners, U.S. consumers, Greenpeace, and
Monsanto. I asked them to reconsider WTO rules that set U.S. patent
law as the de facto international standard for determining who has
"ownership" of certain foods. In the introduction to the role play
handout, I explained the following:

You are delegates to a special summit of the World Trade Organization
(WTO). This meeting has been called to debate genetic engineering and
patenting of foods. Due to worldwide resistance to genetically
modified (GM) foods and the patenting of seeds, the WTO has been
forced to reconsider its position on patents and the rights of
multinational corporations to trade GM foods and seeds....

Your task for this summit is to determine to what extent GM foods
deserve regulation, who should be responsible for any regulations that
are necessary, and what these rules should look like.

This "special" meeting included voices that would never be heard at
the actual, much-more-exclusive meetings of the WTO, but I wanted
students to make their decisions in the role play based on a fuller
representation of international perspectives.

To encourage students to begin thinking about the issues at stake in
the role play, I asked them to write interior monologues -- statements
where they imagined details about family, background, hopes, dreams,
and fears, all from the perspective of their roles. I wanted to give
students the opportunity to create personal connections to the
characters they would embody during the role play, while also engaging
with the critical issues surrounding GM foods and seed patenting.

Julia's monologue from the perspective of an Indian Farmer was
particularly insightful:

I don't have the heart to tell my mother about TRIPS (Trade Related
Intellectual Property Rights), because I don't think her body could
handle the stress. TRIPS is an agreement of the World Trade
Organization, an organization I could have cared less about until a
few years ago. TRIPS requires member countries to protect patents on
all kinds of life. This means that if someone was to put a patent on
the type of rice that I am growing, I would be unable to grow and sell
my crop without a payment to the patent holder. In addition, I
wouldn't be able to save my seeds from one year to another --
every generation in my family has done as far back as anyone can
remember.... By saving our seed, we become acquainted with every plant
on our field. I know that some of the seeds that I have stored away
date back to my father's time. When I plant my saved seed, I plant not
only rice, but my heritage.

Of course, not all my students displayed such a sophisticated
understanding of something as abstract and complex as international
patent law. Looking back on it, I may have taken on a little too much
with the content of the role play. Many students struggled to
understand exactly how the specific concerns of their characters
should translate to recommendations at the WTO meeting. There were
times when I felt ill-prepared to answer students' questions about the
international debate surrounding genetically modified foods or the
current status of WTO trade laws. I found myself struggling to stay a
step ahead of them. But when it came time to discuss the issues at our
meeting, I was encouraged by the students' ability to not only
articulate the perspective of their own roles, but to ask the sort of
questions of one another that showed a solid grasp of the various
concerns represented around the room.

Will, speaking as the U.S. trade representative, said:

It's our belief that the companies that create GM foods are the most
capable of testing them for safety. Companies like Monsanto spend
millions of dollars each year on research, so they have an expertise
that an international testing body wouldn't. And as far as saying that
people may have allergic reactions to GM foods -- well, we just don't
feel that this is a sufficient reason for banning them completely. I
mean, look at how many people are allergic to peanuts, but we don't
ban peanut butter, do we?

Amber chimed in as the Monsanto representative:

Yeah, if you think about it, it's in our interest to produce safe
foods. I mean, we want people to keep eating them, right? And I'd like
to remind you that the FDA fully approves all of the GMOs that are
used in food in the United States.

Colin, representing Greenpeace, said:

But isn't it true that there are some GMOs that are not approved for
use in food for humans? Mix-ups occur. How can we be sure what we are
eating? If GM foods aren't labeled, how can consumers protect

And Julia, as an Indian farmer, said:

It's not just allergies that we're worried about. There are countries
in Africa that have refused GM food from the United States because
they are afraid that it will mix with native crops and contaminate
them. Farmers from my country are worried about the same thing. You
tell us that these things are safe, but you're the same people that
made Agent Orange into a pesticide to use on food. How can we trust

Although we finished the role play with a long list of ideas for how
it could be improved next time, the discussion showed me that my
students were leaving with an understanding of the politics of food.
They had gained knowledge of the issues of GM foods and patenting and
how they can play out on a global scale, privileging a few powerful
agribusiness corporations at the expense of the world's food consumers
and small, local farmers.

After several days of discussion, the class decided to follow the
"precautionary principle," which guides policy in many European
nations, and institute a worldwide moratorium on GM foods until they
could be proven safe, and to require labeling of any GM foods that
were approved for consumption. Furthermore, the summit voted to take
away the right of any person or corporation to patent food.

Of course, in the real world, the voices of traditional Indian farmers
are not heard in the same conference room as those representing the
world's largest corporations. Furthermore, the WTO is not likely to
institute a ban on GMOs or radically reform patent laws any time in
the near future. In this respect, the role play failed to result in
any truly practical solutions to the problems facing farmers and
consumers of food around the world. Part of me worries that this does
a disservice to students. But after spending close to a month studying
the crises of our global food system, I believe that I would be doing
students a greater disservice if I didn't prompt them to consider what
a more equitable and sustainable food economy could look like.

When starting the unit several weeks earlier, most students had been
unable to see beyond how the choices we make about food affect
anything other than personal health. The milk lesson was intended as
a hook to reach students through their concerns about personal health
with the hope of transforming this concern into a broader appreciation
for our fundamental right to know and control where our food comes
from and how it is produced. The current state of the industrial food
economy, as Julia wrote in her final paper, "results in a public
denied of their right to knowledge and proper choices about their
food." Changing this economy will require the sort of resistance
embodied in the role play by the farmers of India and the advocacy of
groups like Greenpeace.

One of my greatest hopes in teaching students about food is to foster
an understanding of the important role food plays in today's global
economy and the even more important role it will play in creating more
local, more democratic, and more sustainable economies of the future.

Tim Swinehart ( was a student teacher at
Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., when he taught this unit. He
currently teaches at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash. In
2002, Swinehart and his wife, Emily Lethenstrom, founded the Flagstaff
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project in Arizona.

Additional Teaching Resources
"Just a Cup of Coffee?" by Alan Thein Durning. A short piece available
in Rethinking Globalization that encourages students to think about
the long, complex path our food follows before getting to us and the
environmental costs along the way.

The True Cost of Food. An entertaining short (15 min.) cartoon
produced by the Sierra Club (available at that
presents the hidden social and environmental costs of factory-farmed,
industrialy produced food.

Resources for Teaching About rBGH and Genetically Modified Food
Physicians for Social Responsibility, Oregon chapter "Monsanto vs. the
Monsanto's Posilac (rBST/rBGH) Homepage Center
for Food Safety Organic Consumers

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