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Centralizing food production
Monsanto claims that genetic engineering is necessary to feed the worlds growing population. But a growing coalition of environmentalists, farmers, and scientists is exposing this claim as a cover for grabbing control of world agriculture.
If genetic engineering (GE) proponents have their way, up to a billion poor farmers will be thrown off their land to make way for the greatest centralization of agricultural capital in human history. The best-known GE product is the tomato with a flounder gene for frost resistance. The term "genetic engineering," which refers to inserting a gene into an organism, implies a degree of precision far greater than science has. Genes are often "shot" into a cell, a method that could result in the genes being in a variety of locations, each with an unknown consequence for the new organism.
The international leader in GE, Monsanto, insists that whatever dangers the technology holds are minimal compared to the task of fighting hunger. Monsanto spokespeople aggressively argue that, since the population will double by 2030, we need to grow more food and, since more land is not available, increased yield from GE crops is essential. There are many reasons to be skeptical of the claim that agbiotech executives are rushing to GE out of concern for hunger.
First, population is not growing as fast as claimed. UN statistics project a growth of 1.2 billion by 2030, not the doubling of 1997 figures as Monsanto says. More important, it is absurd to propose that agricultural productivity can increase to any population level that could conceivably exist. Obviously, protecting a finite planet requires limits to growth. One of the basic facts of demographic changes is that births decrease as poverty decreases. If the worlds population continues to grow during the third millennium, it will be because of increases in economic disparities. Corporate executives show little interest in advocating policies to eliminate extremes of wealth and poverty.
It is easy to think that if people go hungry, then there must be a shortage of food. This is not the case. There is already enough food for everyone on the planet. People starve because food is produced for profit and does not reach people in desperate need but with little money. Ethiopia exported livestock feed to Europe at the same time its people were dying of famine in 1984. On the reverse side, Monsanto devoted enormous resources to developing recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), which it promised would increase milk production 10 to 15 percent. When rBGH was approved in 1994, the U.S. had a surplus of milk.
rBGH shows that need has little to do with an increase or decrease in the production of food. This is even truer with meat. Animal protein is extremely inefficient. The Corner House explains that, "An acre of cereal is estimated to produce 5 times more protein than an acre devoted to meat production; an acre of legumes (such as beans, peas, lentils) 10 times more; and of leafy vegetables, 15 times more."
In the U.S., 60 percent of corn and 90 to 95 percent of soybeans are used for livestock. The best way to reduce world hunger is shifting away from a meat-oriented diet. Instead of reducing starvation, GE is very likely to worsen it. Despite Monsantos rant that GE is necessary to boost agricultural yield, many studies show a decline in productivity from GE crops. In Against the Grain, a book Monsanto attempted to suppress, Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey show an 11.5 percent decrease in yield of GE soy test trials in Puerto Rico. Data from Arkansas shows lower yield for GE soy in 30 of 38 comparisons. Summarizing data after Roundup Ready soy had been used in 8 states, Charles Benbrook says the evidence is "overwhelming and indisputable" that GE soy has a 4 to 6 percent lower yield.
Benbrook concludes that U.S. farmers use GE soy because it allows greater herbicide use (eases weed control), even though it has greater cost and lower yield. In addition to reducing crop production, the use of GE varieties is likely to shift production away from staple food crops. Reporting from his studies of Brazilian agriculture, George Monbiot notes that 56 percent of farmers, with only 3 percent of the land, produce almost all of that countrys staple crops such as corn and beans. Big landowners tend to produce cash crops for export such as pineapples, flowers, tea, and cereals for animal food. The added costs of GE will increase the impoverishment of small farmers and thereby encourage concentration of land in the hands of those least interested in growing food for human consumption.
There is an extremely important aspect of food production which agribusiness does not publicize: it is possible to increase the amount of food grown and simultaneously decrease the food available for people to eat. This will occur if an increase in the amount of grain is based on a transfer of land usage from food-for-people (direct protein production) to food-for-animals (indirect protein production). It is very likely that use of GE seeds will strengthen this tendency. As the worlds well-to-do eat more meat, less vegetable protein will be available for the two-thirds of the world who have a primarily vegetarian diet.
GE seeds have nothing to do with solving world hunger and have everything to do with restructuring world agriculture. The plan of several multinationals seems to be to change the underdeveloped world to an "American model," where a few mega corporations decide what is grown and how it is grown. These corporations stand to make immense profits from the largest evacuation of people from the land, which has occurred, in human history. GE can be an important part of an economic restructuring based on international trade agreements which ease centralization of capital, reduction or elimination of "social wages" (citizenship rights such as education, medical care, and welfare), and the supremacy of intellectual capital (based on computer, chemical, and biological technologies).
The neoliberal revolution in agriculture aims for farms in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to become either huge rural land-factories or medium-large vassals of agro-chemical companies. The land-factories are prefigured in Tysons chicken farms in Arkansas and vertically integrated (from semen to cellophane) hog production, which eliminated half of Missouris family hog farms between 1994 and 1997.
U.S. corn, soy, and cotton growers find that using Monsantos GE seeds requires their pledging to use Monsantos chemicals and surrendering their right to save seed. In 1998, Monsanto made headlines for its aggressive prosecution of real and imagined "seed pirates" accused of the vicious crime of replanting seed from the previous harvest. Farmers buying Monsantos seed must grant the corporate overlord the right to venture onto their land to take samples for genetic testing.
Increases in the cost of farming drives small farmers into bankruptcy, forcing them to sell their farms. Many become day laborers on the land they once owned. It is well known that at least as many crops are lost to pests in the 1990s as in the 1930s, just before the widespread used of chemicals in agriculture began. While these products have failed to eliminate pests, they have been enormously successful in making farmers chemically dependent on corporations. Agro-chemicals have also allowed vast monocultures, meaning that farmers who grow acres and acres of the same crop can buy expensive equipment, which is unaffordable to those who do not expand their acreage. Another effect, which many farmers have only recently realized is that using farm chemicals with organochlorines increases their risk of cancer, reproductive disorders, and immunological system damage while it poisons groundwater, kills soil microorganisms, and leaves toxic residues on plants they grow.
The revolution of GE in agriculture promises to repeat on a grander scale the consequences of the chemical revolution: increased expenses, loss of small farms, and unknown damage to farmers, consumers, and ecosystems. That effects should be so similar is hardly surprising since Monsanto, the company that brought us many toxic pesticides, is now the worlds leader in GE technology. The connection is actually much stronger since Monsanto is one of several companies engineering plants to be resistant to chemicals they sell. GE may increase crop yield a little in some plants (apparently not soy) but the main reason that farmers choose GE varieties is that they allow greater pesticide usage. Two-thirds of GE crops have been altered for herbicide tolerance (not increased yield). Though this added expense would put some farmers over the financial edge and expose all of us to more toxic contamination, it is "terminator technology" which is the most foreboding. With a little help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Delta and Pine Land (recently acquired by Monsanto) devoted considerable energy to engineering a seed that would kill its own offspring. Second generation seeds from terminator plants will be sterile, forcing farmers to return to seed companies each year.
The terminator has the potential to be the most destructive of any GE product. Farmers do not merely save seeds for replanting. They continuously exchange seeds with other farmers and often crossbreed native seeds with commercial varieties to develop stronger strains that are adapted to local conditions. The terminator would put an end to this. It would halt the ancient practice of farmers protecting native crops and put the worlds food supply at the mercy of a few mega-corporations seeking to dominate seeds, agro-chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.
Terminator technology may seem similar to hybrid plants, which were developed several decades ago. Hybrids also cannot be replanted successfully. Hybrids have not been developed for several crops, including soy, wheat, rice, and cotton. These are the likely targets of terminator technology. But there is an important difference between the two: hybridization was developed because of increased vigor and yields. Failure of the second generation to breed true was a side effect. The terminator has no agricultural benefit whatsoever. It was created purely for corporate profit.
The largest seed companies stand to increase their share of world seed production by using the terminator to foster relationships of dependency. There would then be tremendous pressure for each of the few remaining seed companies to engineer crops which could be planted and harvested similarly and result in a "uniform product." Though such crops may be resistant to known diseases, they may not be resistant to newly evolving diseases. The process of developing species in a laboratory halts the co-evolution of crops and predators, increasing the chances for emergence of a super-destructive crop predator.
Agribusiness would like us to believe that GE technology is too scientific to design a crop that would fail. Despite assurances of its "superiority" over conventional varieties, Monsantos engineered Bollgaard cotton led to massive losses in Texas during 1996 and the U.S. Southeast in 1997. If one of the seed companies manages to corner the world market and reduce biodiversity of a food staple, crop failure could lead to a serious food shortage.
Far from reducing the danger of hunger, corporate controlled GE raises the specter of world famine. It is unknown if the first major catastrophe of GE will be famine, destruction of ecosystems, or the evolution of super-bugs and super-weeds.
Organic farmers have already watched GE undermine natural methods of pest control. Some plants engineered to kill pests also harm beneficial insects (which eat pests or help pollinate) including ladybugs, lacewings, and monarch butterflies. These could be the tip of the iceberg. By killing soil microorganisms, use of agro-chemicals leaves farmers with little choice but to use more chemicals to accomplish what soil previously did itself. Similarly, biotechnology forebodes the destruction of natural ecosystem protection of plants, making farmers even more dependent on chemical and hi-tech options.
Organic farmers have long used natural Bt sprays to combat the European Corn Borer (ECB). Topical spraying has typically been limited to times of outbreaks. In organic spray form, Bt only becomes activated in the gut of the insect. By isolating the Bt gene and inserting it into plant embryos, manufacturers ensure that every cell of the plant has the Bt gene in its activated form. This dramatically speeds up evolution of the pest to be resistant to Bt. New Bt-resistant bugs are expected to arrive by 2002 or 2003. This is the prototype of how GE technology can result in the evolution of "super-bugs" which leaves farmers helpless and vulnerable to promises of yet a new technological fix.
"Super-weeds" could pose a particular danger to farmers in the Southern hemisphere. Agricultural crops come from plants whose breeding began hundreds or thousands of years ago. Many domestic crops have "weedy" relatives with which they can still cross-pollinate. Thus, a gene that confers resistance to herbicides can pass into the genetic structure of a weed that grows nearby. The result would be a chemically-resistant "super-weed." This is not too much of a problem for countries in the Northern hemisphere because so many crops originated in the Southern hemisphere. (An exception is canola, which has wild mustard relatives in the North.) But GE varieties destined for use in the South could well pass herbicide-resistant genes to weeds. The result would be fields that are overgrown by weeds that cannot be controlled. Slogans such as "No Patents on Life" "Ban GE Food" and "Terminate the Terminator" are capturing the hearts of millions. Farmers have burned Monsanto test fields in India, and, in Bangladesh, forced it to withdraw micro-credit schemes designed to addict them to the new technology.
From 1997 through 1999 Europe saw an explosion in awareness of the health dangers of "Frankenfood" and threats to ecosystems posed by GE. Fields of test GE crops have been pulled up, farmers have demonstrated with environmentalists, and consumers have not been hoodwinked by Monsantos million pound pro-GE advertising campaign.
Suffering from more extensive agribusiness influence on the media, Americans are less aware of the issues. But a large majority tells pollsters they want GE food to be labeled. The Green Party of St. Louis/Gateway Green Alliance coined the term "Biodevastation" to describe the threat to ecology and human society posed by genetic engineering in agriculture. Three international Biodevastation Gatherings have linked U.S. voices of criticism with those from around the world.
The reorganization of world agriculture is neither a done deal nor destined to fail. Agribusiness has huge financial resources, close ties to government, and the backing of several international trade agreements. At the same time, awareness of dangers posed by GE expands daily. The outcome will depend on whether alliances can deepen and expand widely enough to halt the impending agricultural revolution. Z
Don Fitz is a member of the Green Party of St. Louis/Gateway Green Alliance, The Greens/Green Party U.S.A, and the Industrial Workers of the World. He is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought.