Biotech's deal with the devil (24/5/2004)

"In the back of your mind you're always thinking, What if there really is a health problem with the beans? We have to hope the FDA gets it right, but they've gotten it wrong before. I don't know. I think we've made a bargain with the devil." - US farmer

Exerpts from an interesting American article. For the full text + graphics: http://www.mindfully.org/GE/2004/Feeding-Our-Playboy1jun04.htm

Feeding Our Deepest Fears
How Big Agriculture and the US Government Bungled the Biotech Revolution and Made a Deal With The Devil
DAN BAUM / Playboy 1jun04


for the full article http://www.mindfully.org/GE/2004/Feeding-Our-Playboy1jun04.htm

...aided by hardball U.S. trade representatives, greedy biotech companies have ignored important truths about the culture of food and have created a panicky backlash.

Forget the miracle crops for a moment. Not one of those tasty, vitamin-packed, drought-resistant, plow-obviating seeds exists outside the laboratory; they're all in the murky, bombast-laden realm of technological potential. For the moment genetically engineered crops fall almost entirely into two far less charismatic categories: those that resist certain bugs and those that let farmers use a single weed killer instead of. many.

That's because Monsanto isn't a seed company; its expertise is in making chemicals. Some 40 percent of its sales derives from a single product, Roundup, a wondrous weed killer introduced in 1974. Roundup was the first herbicide to kill almost every plant it touched, and it worked in a way that made it practically harmless to people and animals. (It interferes with an enzyme that plants have but that we and our livestock do not.) Farmers no longer had to buy and apply a complex cock-tail of expensive and dangerous chemicals on their land. In its early days Roundup was used primarily to eliminate vegetation in areas where farmers wanted to plant a new crop, an easy alternative to mowing and hoeing. But Roundup had one serious drawback-it was too effective for its own good. Farmers had to spray carefully; an unexpected change in wind direction could wipe out acres of apple trees. pumpkins or corn.


With Melchett in the lead, 28 activists were descending on fields belonging to a chemical company called Aventis, planning to mow down the of-fending crop, bag it and dump it at the Aventis office.

Twenty minutes into the operation, though, the crop's farmer showed up with his two brothers and a tractor of their own. "They went completely crazy," Melchett says.

"One of them tried to ram the press photographers with the tractor. Another went after our banner with a knife."

Norfolk County police eventually arrested the trespassers, but a funny thing happened at the trial.

The activists argued that they were ustified in destroying the crop to prevent it from doing greater harm to surrounding areas-and the defense succeeded beyond their dreams. Not only did the jurors quickly acquit all 28, they waited outside the courtroom afterward to hug and thank the Greenpeace raiders. "They said, 'You needn't have worried. There was no way we were going to convict you,"' Melchett recalls. "They'd supported us from the start."

During the past five years fear and hatred of genetic engineering has driven green outlaws to attack and destroy research sites from California to Maine and from Belgium to Scotland. In early September 2003, for example, an unknown number of people found their way to a hidden Monsanto-modified maize crop isolated in a forest in southern France and systematically destroyed it. A week later a mob descended on a Monsanto greenhouse in Bangalore, India and smashed it to shards. But the outlaw attacks are nothing compared with the peaceful victories. Last fall an estimated 35,000 people marched through the streets of Auckland to protest the New Zealand government's plan to lift a ban against genetically modified food, which it did in October. Last summe authorities in one of Italy's regional governments ordered almost 1,000 acres of corn destroyed because of suspicion that they contained genetically engineered plants, in violation of Italy's zero-tolerance policy.

Perhaps the most scathing wholesale rejection of genetically modified food has come from the European Union, whose countries import about $6.5 billion a year in American crops. Five years ago it placed a moratorium on approving new GMOs for import, practically slamming the door on some of America's biggest commodities. For the past two years it has been promising to lift the ban "soon"; rules for labeling and tracing genetically modified crops took effect in April. But the Bush administration, impatient and doubting, sued last year in the World Trade Organization to try to force the E.U.'s hand. The problem is, even if Bush wins, the decision won't make European consumers put the hated stuff in their mouths.

Given the attitude of the average European - 86 percent of Britons, for example, report being unhappy with the idea of eating genetically engineered food - labeling will amount to extending the ban. In October 2003 Monsanto threw in the towel, shutting down its European cereal business and giving up the attempt to market genetically modified wheat on the Continent.

Giovanni Anania, an economist at the University of Calabria in Italy and an expert in how cultural preferences translate into agricultural megabucks, marvels at the hubris of a company and a nation that "thought they could push this entire thing through without a serious confrontation with consumers. It's really amazing how Monsanto blew the communication."


As the bumper sticker says, shit happens. In 2000 a load of genetically modified StarLink corn that was approved only for animal feed ended up in Taco Bell taco shells, among other human food, touching off a massive recall and the destruction of hundreds of tons of corn. StarLink contained a protein-with the liltingly bucolic name Cry9C-that the EPA suspected might cause serious allergic reactions in humans. That nobody got sick was cold comfort to the critics of genetically modified food. What about next time? The law of unintended consequences, after all, has never been repealed. The national "grain stream" is so huge and moves so fast that biotech seeds cannot help mixing with conventional ones. Field trials have shown that genetically modified DNA can contaminate organic crops and even wild plants when pollen from biotech species is carried on the breeze.

And as though rising from a perfect nightmare for Monsanto and farmers, the few weeds that are resistant to Roundup are starting to take over in corn and soy-bean fields. Evidence is emerging that other weeds are developing tolerance to the herbicide too. About one weed a year shows resistance.

"Everybody predicted this," says Bill Johnson, a weed scientist at Purdue University. "But the way big business works, it's quarter-to-quarter profits."


Dale Whiteside, 73 years old and wizened by a lifetime of farming, is lying under a dump truck in the rain when I arrive at his impressive spread south of Chillicothe, Missouri. He's known as an unreconstructed advocate of the biotech revolution, and by God, he announces, emerging to shake hands, he is the real thing. "How in the world are we going to feed the population of the world if we stifle technology?" he asks as he leads me inside for coffee. A fourth-generation Missouri farmer, Whiteside was a Republican legislator in Jefferson City for nine years and remains an enthusiastic member of the Farm Bureau, the voice of Big Ag. As we sit in his elegant farmhouse, he offers that biotech opponents "can't get out of their shell. They're living in the past." As for conventional soybean farming, "there's no use to ride a dead horse any longer. It's not going to work."

But as Whiteside talks, a few doubts surface. He praises Europeans for having "an allegiance to their farmers that we don't have," which makes it possible for traditional family farms to survive. Though he defends biotech science, he's not a wholehearted booster of the business. "If you could trust the large corporations, there'd be nothing wrong with it," he says, letting his voice trail off, as though he is afraid to consider a world in which corporations aren't trustworthy. A shadow falls across his face. "The large corporations are gradually taking over agriculture," he says quietly.

...Now that species are intellectual property, the companies that invent them are as tough on piracy as the recording industry was on Napster. Monsanto has been particularly aggressive. Its rules require farmers to abandon the ancient practice of saving seed from one year's crop to plant the next. Instead they must buy new seed every year. Monsanto's huge legal department keeps an eye on every farmer, comparing seed purchases with the amount of Roundup a farmer buys, trying to ferret out discrepancies. They sometimes send inspectors to microsearch fields for unpaid-for proprietary DNA. Monsanto maintains a hotline, 800-ROUNDUP, to encourage farmers to rat one another out. The company has sued dozens of farmers suspected of saving seed.

Troy Roush, whose family has been farming in Indiana since 1832, started planting Roundup Ready soybeans in 1997 and loved the ease of weed control. In 2001 Monsanto wrongly sued him for saving seed—he suspects a neighbor falsely accused him—and by the time the company dropped the lawsuit, the fight had cost the Roush family $390,000 in lawyers' fees. The experience taught Roush how a seemingly useful technology can destroy the culture of farming.

"It lets you farm more acreage, so you have to farm more acreage-and that puts farmers at each other's throats," Roush says. "We used to help each other out, but now we're competitors for any land that becomes available. One of our neighbors got us to be 400 grand lighter, so the next time a farm comes up for sale, we can't compete."

Roush doubts his teenage daughters willgrow up to farm. "I've watched the guys farming 200 acres get forced out. I've watched the guys farming 500 acres get forced out. And now the guys with thousands of acres are getting forced out," Roush says. "Genetically modified crops are destroying the social fabric of our rural communities."

Monsanto's early successes with Roundup and Roundup Ready crops have narrowed farmers' options. Roundup has dominated agriculture for so long that basic research in other types of herbicides has withered. "As Roundup loses its effectiveness, there's nothing in the pipeline to replace it," says Purdue's Johnson. The same can be said for basic crop  research; it's now almost entirely geared toward genetically modified seed. "Until recently bakers could reasonably have  assumed that they would have the option...of buying biotech wheat or nonbiotech wheat," reads a position statement of the American Bakers Association. "Recent events have indicated that assumption may not be correct.... Bakers may not have the option of buying nonbiotech wheat."

Roush probably couldn't go back to conventional crops even if he could find good conventional seed; once Monsanto's DNA is in your field it's almost impossible to get it out. And with the corporate DNA police abroad in the land, farmers can't afford to take a chance. So it looks as though there's no turning back from a future in which Monsanto and a handful of other companies own the genetic building blocks of the world's food supply. "I'd put the genie back in the bottle in a heartbeat," says Roush.

Across the county from the Whiteside farm in Chillicothe, Doug Doughty parks the combine and leads me to the airy modern farmhouse he shares with his wife, his stepson and a regiment of dogs. Few farm families live on farm income alone...

Doughty's off-the-farm job is umpiring high school and college baseball games, calling balls and strikes with Show-Me State equanimity. I've asked him to tally the pros and cons of genetically modified crops, and he pauses, trying to be fair. "They are about a wash financially," he says finally, "but they've created all these other problems-Europe, the concentration of power in Monsanto's hands, not being able to save seed." He gazes at the television for a few minutes, at a Viagra ad with the sound off. "In the back of your mind you're always thinking, What if there really is a health problem with the beans? We have to hope the FDA gets it right, but they've gotten it wrong be-fore. I don't know. I think we've made a bargain with the devil." for the full article: http://www.mindfully.org/GE/2004/Feeding-Our-Playboy1jun04.htm  

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive