Genetic Engineering


Fitz

Monsanto
claims that genetic engineering is necessary to feed the world’s 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 gene’s 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 world’s 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
Monsanto’s 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 country’s 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 world’s 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 Tyson’s chicken farms in
Arkansas and vertically integrated (from semen to cellophane) hog production,
which eliminated half of Missouri’s family hog farms between 1994 and 1997.

U.S. corn, soy,
and cotton growers find that using Monsanto’s GE seeds requires their pledging
to use Monsanto’s 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 Monsanto’s 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 world’s 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 world’s 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, Monsanto’s 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 Monsanto’s 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.