In the wake of last week’s BIO ’99 conference in Seattle, and the hugely successful counter-conference BioDevastation ’99, the Seattle Times printed a smug editorial that concluded with the following quote: “The only thing to be feared from biotechnology is irrational fear of its global health and economic benefits.” Obviously, Times editorialists snapped up a few glossy brochures tossed around at Bio ’99 and ignored the real story. With a little less schmoozing and a little more homework, they might have found some information to challenge agribusiness propaganda.
Take, for instance, efforts by the Brazilian soya-growing state of Rio Grande do Sul to sue Monsanto’s Brazilian affiliate, Monsoy, for illegally planting genetically-engineered soya. Are the Brazilians reacting irrationally and fearfully against “global health and economic benefits?” No. The top five agricultural corporations in the world control the entire market in genetically-engineered crops. Clearly, Brazilian farmers are simply reacting in their own best interests and against the massive “economic benefits” that Monsanto will reap (at the expense of Brazilian farmers) with its Terminator seed technology. Meanwhile, Monsanto has purchased major stakes in large, national seed companies in both Brazil and India, in an effort to force its way into the market.
Andrew Simms, author of a Christian Aid report on genetic engineering in developing countries, reminds us: “Today 70 percent of GM [genetically modified] crops are engineered not to improve their food value but to make them dependent on the seed companies’ own-brand agrochemicals. They maximize profit and market share for the parent company, while tying farmers into tight contracts.”
It’s these restrictions on poor farmers in developing countries that should be at the heart of any discussion about the use of genetically-engineered crops. Proponents of GM crops don’t want you to hear what aid organizations that spend all of their time and resources dealing with issues of hunger and food distribution in the Third World have to say about Terminator seed technology. In the Christian Aid report, issued two weeks ago, this group stated unequivocally that GM crops will not end world hunger–in fact, they will do just the opposite: “GM crops are…creating classic preconditions for hunger and famine. A food supply based on too few varieties of patented crops is the worst option for food security. More dependence and marginalisation loom for the poorest.”
The report gives other details absent from Monsanto press releases. For example, 80 percent of current crops in developing countries are grown from saved seeds; Monsanto’s Terminator technology (and others like it) would eliminate this practice by making crops grown with their GM seeds sterile. Each day 800 million people go hungry worldwide because of lack of access to land and lack of money to buy imported food or food grown locally on large plantation farms. Research in India has shown that land reform–returning land to poor, displaced farmers–in combination with simple irrigation techniques can boost overall crop yields by 50%, compared to Monsanto’s boast of a 10% increase using GM seeds. There’s simply no comparison.
And when biochemical work is used for true humanitarian purposes, it’s often dumped by the wayside for lack of profit potential. Take, for example, the work being done in our own backyard at the University of Washington by professor Mary Lidstrom. She’s working on ways to make “bioplastics” from bacteria. Certain “friendly bacteria,” such as the bacteria that grows methanol, make plastic naturally inside their own cells. These plastics are believed to be truly biodegradable. Lidstrom is looking for a way to cheaply grow these plastics in the lab, but she has no hope that U.S. chemical corporations will want this technology. For one thing, bioplastics will always be more expensive to produce than synthesizing plastic in the old way, which produces dioxin and consumes massive amounts of energy. Instead, she’s looking toward European markets, where regulations require a certain percentage of plastic containers to be truly biodegradable. No such regulations exist here in the U.S. With the World Trade Organization hammering away at such environmental regulations worldwide, Mary Lidstrom could soon be out of job (right now she subsists on grants from the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health).
To close our eyes to such problems is immoral. To ignore the following news is simply suicidal. Last week the journal Nature reported that Cornell University entomologist John Losey had discovered that pollen from genetically-engineered corn kills monarch butterflies. The strain, called Bt corn, is made by Novartis AG, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, and, yes, Monsanto. Approved by the FDA in 1996, it now grows in about 25% of all U.S. cornfields. While Losey and proponents of GM crops were quick to downplay the results, none of them mentioned the real threat posed by Bt corn to an ever-dwindling number of pollinating insects, which are vital to U.S. agriculture. Said Val Giddings, VP of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (hosts of Seattle’s BIO ’99): “Whatever the threat to monarch butterflies that is posed by Bt corn pollen, we know it’s less than the threat of drifting pesticide sprays.” Actually, they don’t know that. Experiments like Losey’s have been few and far between. And this particular experiment shows that drifting pollen can, in fact, do the same type of damage as drifting pesticide sprays.
In fact, there are organic farming practices that don’t utilize pesticides in any form. The risk of pesticides drifting from fields planted with organic corn is zero. Of course, organic farming provides zero “economic benefit” to companies like Monsanto and Novartis.
Sources: “GM crops ‘will not end world hunger'” by John Vidal and “Big corporations tighten grip on world food supply” by Andrew Simms, Manchester Guardian Weekly, 5/16/99; “Making Plastics Naturally,” UW Vistas (UW alumni and donor newsletter), Spring ’99; and “Genetically altered corn can be fatal for monarch butterflies,” by David Kinney, AP, reprinted in Seattle P-I, 5/20/99.