“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
n 1937, when Roosevelt wrote to all US governors imploring them to oversee the implementation of the Uniform Soil Conservation Law, America was in the throes of the Dust Bowl. Overfarming, and its destruction of arable soil, created a chain reaction. Dust would blow from ruined farmland onto neighboring farms, ruining their soil, and so on.
Today, American agriculture relies on biotechnology. Many staple crops are predominantly genetically modified. Eighty-eight percent of corn, 93% of soy, 90% of canola, 90% of sugar beets, 94% of cottonseed, and 75% of Hawaiian papaya are genetically modified, and GM alfalfa was recently deregulated. Monsanto owns 90% of the world’s GMO seeds, and most GMOs are Roundup Ready, designed to resist Monsanto’s signature herbicide.
Could Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready GMOs ever repeat the kind of environmental damage the Dust Bowl wrought? A studypublished in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry says GMOs are safe, concluding that “As few as one copy of RR corn genome or one copy of RR soybean genome was detected in the soil DNA extract.” The study was conducted at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Incidentally, Monsanto’s own website lists two Monsanto facilities in Guelph, Ontario. According to Google maps,Monsanto’s “Eastern Business Office” is a 15-minute drive from the university, and its “Soybean Research Facility” is a 5-minute walk. A recent report in the Guelph Mercury reveals that Monsanto and 4 other seed companies “collectively spent just over $780,000 on U of G research last year, most in the area of crop protection.” It’s a safe bet someone from Monsanto has taken that walk.
Monsanto has monopolized agricultural science, as described in Part 2: Corrupt to the Core. According toReuters, in February, 2009, 26 leading academic entomologists (insect scientists) complained to the EPA that Monsanto has made it impossible to do research on its products, saying, “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology.” One scientist said, “It would be nice to have independently verifiable information going into EPA’s decision-making beyond just what the company provides.”
We don’t ‘know’ what Monsanto is doing to the soil. Given Monsanto’s history, as described in Part 1: Sowing Dependence, this is terrifying. But independent researchers are discovering alarming evidence of the effects of Monsanto products on the environment.
The key ingredient in Roundup herbicide is glyphosate. A report by thePesticide Action Network UK lists “Independent research findings” that differ from “Monsanto’s claims.” The report finds that glyphosate is toxic to agriculturally beneficial soil organisms. It can linger in soil and sediment and can inhibit normal chemical production in plants for months. It has been found in crops up to a year after application. It can spread, reach lower soil layers and be “carried by soil particles suspended in run off.” This chemical isabsorbed by plant root systems where it squeezes enzymes, blocking the production of amino acids and protein synthesis. It kills plants systemically by depriving their cells of nutrients andblocking their immune response to pathogens. One expert says, “When you spray glyphosate on a plant, it’s like giving it AIDS.” What could large quantities of this botanical AIDS do to America’s soil and plant life?
Glyphosate dominates the herbicide market. In 2007, US farmers used 185 million pounds of glyphosate, double the amount used 6 years earlier. A Chemical Watch Factsheet says, “Data show that glyphosate use has skyrocketed to more than double the amount used five years ago, with 57 million pounds of glyphosate applied to corn fields in 2010 compared to 23 million pounds in 2005 and 4.4 million in 2000.”
This historically unprecedented explosion of a single herbicidal chemical has resulted in “superweeds,” or weeds resistant to glyphosate, evolving on farms across the United States. Mother Jonesdescribes them as ‘stampeding’ through the Midwest. Indeed, a study by Stratus Agri-marketing Inc. showed that between 2010 and 2012, the area infested with superweeds nearly doubled from 32.6 to 61.2 million acres. The study says that glyphosate-resistance is expanding into new weed species and that nearly half of all US farms have superweeds. Some states, especially in the South, are overwhelmed by superweeds. In Georgia, 92% of farms have superweeds. Across the US, farmers have responded to this mushrooming problem by dumping more Roundup and mixing Roundup with other chemicals. Nonetheless, Monsanto claims that using Roundup “on Roundup Ready crops has allowed farmers to … decrease the overall use of herbicides.”
The problem with this situation is that it could be creating a potentially catastrophic feedback loop. Roundup Ready GMO crops are supposed to resist the highly toxic effects of Roundup. But research done outside of Monsanto’s clique questions whether the GMOs resist Roundup at any volume, or whether the cycle of spraying more Roundup, creating more superweeds, spraying more Roundup, etc. could saturate the soil, killing off important micro-nutrients, and saturating crops with a level of Roundup that Roundup Ready GMOs can’t completely resist, making them susceptible to plant diseases. Given the lack of oversight explained in Part 2 of our series, if GMO crops were contracting plant diseases that weren’t readily visible, who would even know?
A report published in the European Journal of Agronomy explores this possibility. It says it is “highly probable” that “Roundup Ready® crops are vulnerable to glyphosate toxicity under at least some conditions. One such condition could arise when the level of glyphosate exceeds the ability of the transgenic enzyme to tolerate it…” Another condition could be if the “transgene fails” to mimic the original gene the way it is intended to if the plant is damaged. “Both of these scenarios are possible and, if they develop, it is very likely they would enhance the vulnerability of Roundup Ready® plants to fungal diseases following Roundup application.” The report adds that temporary spikes in “fungal pathogens” have been observed following application of glyphosate and that this could potentially cause root rot in GMO crops.
Reuters says entomologists are finding that GMO corn engineered to resist rootworms harvested in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and South Dakota showed “damage and disease.” Other scientists “say there are indications of increased root fungal disease as well as nutrient deficiencies in Roundup Ready crops. They say manganese deficiency in soybeans in particular appears to be an issue in key farming areas that include Indiana, Michigan, Kansas and Wisconsin.” Another scientist says glyphosate appears to affect microbes associated with the growth of plant roots.
Advocates have done what they can to alert the USDA to the observed increase in soil degradation and plant disease. According to Grist, The USDA’s research arm, NIFA, is run by Roger Beachy, “a man with long-time links to the ag-biotech industry and an openly hostile attitude toward organic farming.” Under his guidance, the NIFA’sresponse to these kinds of alarming findings has been “subdued.”
Apart from ensuring regulators’ indifference, Monsanto forces its products onto America’s farms through cynical manipulation of patents, farmers’ contracts, seed monopolization and seed propagation. In the documentary,Seeds of Death, Daniel Ravicher, Executive Director of the Public Patent Foundation, says that although Monsanto tells the USDA and FDA that its GMOs are no different from natural food, it tells the Patent Office, “‘We’ve invented something brand new. It’s radically different and it’s so inventive we deserve not just one patent, we deserve entire portfolios of dozens and dozens of patents.’”
These patents, combined with Monsanto’s farmer contracts, lock farmers into using ever more Monsanto GMO crops and herbicide. A Western Organization Resource Councils Factsheet explains how Monsanto’s contracts describe an almost feudalistic relationship between Monsanto, or its proxy seed companies, and the farmer. The factsheet says a farmer accepts the terms of the contract simply by opening a bag of Monsanto seed. The farmer waives all Privacy Act rights, and agrees to allow Monsanto full access to their records. Monsanto will only honor its obligations if the farmer uses Monsanto seeds and herbicides together. The farmer cannot save or share any seeds. The farmer assumes all liability, Monsanto assumes none. Monsanto will pursue damages and fees in any violation of the contract. Monsanto arbitrates any disputes, the contract has no time limit, and does not expire even if a farmer discontinues using Monsanto products.
Monsanto has gobbled up dozens of seed companies, running a virtual seed monopoly in many agricultural areas of the country. The patents, contracts and seed monopolization ensnare farmers as consumers of Monsanto’s agricultural monopoly. In the documentary, GM Crops Farmer to Farmer, Michael Hart, UK farmer and international family farming advocate, interviews several farmers across the US. In North Dakota, he talks to Rodney Nelson, who says he tried to grow organic soybeans to export to Japan. Nelson bought conventional seeds, but they were increasingly contaminated with GMO seeds. He says about 50% of his loads were being rejected because of contamination. He couldn’t buy seeds without contamination and the seed companies told him that contamination was inevitable. He says, “We didn’t have any choice but to go back and start planting Roundup Ready crops. There was no choice.” He also says that for farmers who use GM crops, Monsanto has a “rewards program” that insures damaged seeds will be replaced at a discount. If farmers use conventional seeds, then they’re on their own. “They’re forcing you to use their chemical,” he concludes.
In Nebraska, Corky Jones sprays a cocktail of several herbicides several times to kill his weeds. Referring to Monsanto’s claim that a single pass of Roundup kills all weeds, Jones says, “We’ve heard the ‘single pass’ for so long. Well, you won’t hear that from an actual producing farmer. He knows by now that that’s a fallacy.” Hart asks him why American farmers don’t go back to conventional seeds. Jones says the seed company only supports GM crops. Hart asks, “so it’s availability that’s the issue?” Jones replies, “That is right. That is right.”
Hart speaks to a farmer who chooses not to reveal his location or identity. The anonymous farmer says that glyphosate is marketed at a low price, and then once everyone is using is, the price goes up “once they’ve got everybody trapped.” He says the same thing happened with corn seed, and the price tripled in 2 years. “Once this all happened, all research and technology on any other herbicides just completely came to a halt. So if the system gets to the point where it’s at now and if it continues to deteriorate, where it doesn’t control the problem weeds that we have, there hasn’t been any new research and development hardly done on any new products in ten years. We don’t have any alternatives, other than to put on more glyphosate.”
Hart asks the anonymous farmer whether he would suggest to UK and European farmers to start using GMO crops. He says, “I would not. For the first few years, it’ll be cheap and economical, and once everybody has switched to it, you’ll lose your choices, you’ll no longer have a choice to raise conventional products, and you’ll get yourself into a trap where you’re paying royalty fees to companies that own traits and chemicals and they’ll continue to raise those fees every year. Even if you didn’t buy glyphosate-tolerant canola, somebody spilled some on the road, or it cross-pollinated and you’ll end up with some in your field and they’ll own that and you won’t be able to keep seeds back any longer.” Michael Hart says farmers could then possibly end up in court. He replies, “Not possibly. You’ll end up in court.”
Ravicher says that Monsanto has brought 140 lawsuits against farmers, including “those farmers who wanted nothing to do with Monsanto’s genetically modified seed.” The documentary Food Inc. explains how Indiana seed-cleaner Moe Parr was sued by Monsanto, he says, “on the basis that I’m ‘encouraging the farmer to break the patent law’ by cleaning their own seed.” Another anonymous farmer says he settled out of court because he couldn’t afford the legal costs of fighting Monsanto, which were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Troy Roush, Vice President of American Corn Growers Association says that Monsanto sends investigators around the country, looking for people either saving seeds or growing GMO crops on their land, whether they knew it or not, to sue them.
Roush also explains that “public plant breeding is a thing of the past. There virtually are no public seeds anymore.” The reason that public seeds are disappearing is that Monsanto has monopolized seeds and the land-grant colleges that used to breed crops as a public service. In the documentary, Seeds of Death, Mark Dunau, owner of Mountain Dell Farm in New York, says that GMOs “have completely blown out conventional breeding in our land-grant colleges. And we only in this country have 10% of the vegetable seeds that were available to our forebears 100 years ago. Our seed stock is going down the toilet and we can’t even use our land-grant colleges to breed in the standard way because there’s no money for it. And that is a huge, huge, huge threat to the future of agriculture, to lose the skill of breeding standard, which is, in fact, what all that food you see on your grocery shelves. All those vegetables came from thousands of years of farmers sharing their seeds.”
Another aspect of Monsanto’s strategy, whether by design or by accident, is how its seeds spread. Monsanto was reported to have “pulled the plug” on GMO wheat in 2004. The wheat was never approved for commercial use, but was recently found growing in Oregon fields nearly a decade later. In GM Crops Farmer to Farmer, Todd Leake in North Dakota says it’s becoming impossible to grow only organic crops. He says that no matter how much you try to segregate GMO and conventional crops, it’s impossible to prevent cross-pollination. In cases where patented seed contamination goes to court, the burden of proof is always on the farmer, not on Monsanto. Monsanto has recently won an important case against a farmer who accidentally used Monsanto seed, and won another case in which organic farmers sued Monsanto for contaminating their organic crops with GMO crops. Collectively, the American justice system has determined that when it benefits Monsanto, seed contamination is allowed and when it doesn’t benefit Monsanto, contamination is illegal.
Monsanto claims that its products improve farm yield. But a major study by the Union of Concerned Scientists entitled Failure to Yield demonstrates that 20 years of GMO farming have resulted in no significant change in farming yield. Monsanto has no real interest in improving yield, in saving farmers time, labor or money, in feeding the world or advancing scientific progress, as it claims. Monsanto’s only interest is in profit.
In pursuit of profit, the MONSANTOpoly traps farmers into frighteningly lopsided contracts. It uses patent law and the courts to sue any farmers that don’t do what Monsanto wants. Monsanto monopolizes seeds, seed research and seed production, leaving farmers no choice but to use Monsanto products. Even when farmers try to avoid GMOs, contamination can force farmers into using Monsanto products, or force them out of business. This system has created an overreliance on a single chemical product. Glyphosate is creating a rash of superweeds across America. In turn, farmers have little choice but to dump more glyphosate. Evidence shows that this is sickening crops and destroying the nutrients in the soil. Monsanto is threatening American agriculture with a chemical Dust Bowl.
Next up, Part 4: Harvesting Disease will explore what happens when Monsanto products work their way from the crops up the food chain and into your body…..To Follow
by Marc Belisle | Staff Writer | The Everlasting GOP Stoppers
MONSANTOpoly, Part 2: Corrupt to the Core
by Marc Belisle
“Follow the money.”
– ‘Deep Throat,’ All the President’s Men
Bush Sr. kept his word to help out Monsanto as described in Part 1: Sowing Dependence. In 1992, he deployed Vice President Dan Quayle to announce that the US government’s policy on genetically modified foods is that they are no different from other foods and don’t require any special regulation or even labeling. Americans have been buying foods genetically modified by Monsanto ever since, whether they realize it or not.
Americans also may not realize that they have a government politically modified by Monsanto, through the revolving door. The threshold between Monsanto’s management, legal and communications teams and the federal government, particularly regulatory agencies, is less of a secret passage and more of an industrial cargo bay. Since Reagan, dozens of top Monsanto people have held important positions in every administration, particularly in the FDA, USDA and EPA, but also in Justice, Energy, Commerce, Labor, Defense, Homeland Security, the FBI, international trade negotiation delegations, and White House advisory roles, and many have gone back and forth.
One of the key players who revolves around and around is Michael R. Taylor. According to The Huffington Post, Taylor wrote the policy that Dan Quayle announced in 1992. Anarticle, posted privately whose author claims it was published in The Ecologist but was removed after Monsanto threatened The Ecologist, disclosed the now publically available information that Taylor worked for ten years as a corporate attorney for King & Spalding, a firm advising Monsanto. There, he wrote a report on ways Monsanto could skirt laws to use Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) without having to label the milk. In 1991, he left the law firm to work in the FDA as Deputy Commissioner for Policy. In the documentary Genetic Roulette, Public Interest Attorney Steven M. Druker and author Jeffrey M. Smith claim that after a lawsuit forced the release of 44,000 secret internal FDA memos, it became apparent that while Taylor helmed FDA policy, the FDA hid its own scientific findings on the potential dangers of BGH and other GMOs, overruled its scientists, claimed that “scientific consensus” supported BGH when the opposite was true, and approved BGH to be marketed without labeling, circumventing the FDA’s normal testing regime. Meanwhile, BGH was being banned in Canada, Japan, Australia and all EU countries. According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, BGH is linked to colon, prostate and breast cancer.
Taylor wasn’t the only Monsanto hand on the FDA’s deck while BGH was being approved. According to Think Progress, “The hormone was approved in the US after Monsanto employee Margaret Miller oversaw a report on its safety, took a job at the FDA, and promptly approved her own report. Another Monsanto lobbyist, Islam Siddiqui, later wrote the USDA’s organic food standards, allowing irradiated and genetically modified foods to label themselves as organic.”
Taylor continues to switch public and private hats to this day. From 1994 to 1996, Taylor was Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA. From 1996 to 2000, Taylor worked as Monsanto’s Vice President for Public Policy. In 2009, President Obama returned him to the FDA as a senior advisor, and in 2010, he wasappointed Deputy Commissioner for Foods.
Monsanto’s response to critics’ charges that it has undue influence on the government is that they “ignore the simple truth that people regularly change jobs to find positions that match their experience, skills and interests.” This is true enough, but most people applying for a job couldn’t write in their cover letter: “I worked for you a few years back. While I was there, I advocated for an uncritical blanket approval of a biologically unprecedented change to the food chain. In my current job, I implemented that change, which I understand has been quite a boon for your stock shares. I hope you remember me.”
The overall effect of the revolving door has been to intimidate and sideline those within government outside of Monsanto’s fold who favor a methodical approach to biotechnology. In the documentary, “The World According to Monsanto,” Dan Glickman, Bill Clinton’s Agriculture Secretary from 1995-2000, says,
“In the early years that I was involved in the regulation of biotechnology … there was a general feeling in agribusiness and inside our government in the US if you weren’t marching lockstep forward in favor of rapid approvals of biotech products, rapid approvals of GMO crops, then somehow you were anti-science and anti-progress. I think there were a lot of folks in industrial agriculture who didn’t want as much analysis as probably we should have had because they had made a huge amount of investments in the product. … I had a lot of pressure on me not to push the issue too far. But I would say even when I opened my mouth in the Clinton Administration I got slapped around a little bit by not only the industry but also some of the people even in the Administration. In fact, I made a speech once … saying we needed to more thoughtfully think through the regulatory issues on GMOs and I had some people within the Clinton Administration, particularly in the US Trade area that were very upset with me. They said, ‘how could you in Agriculture be questioning our regulatory regime?’”
The huge amount of investments Glickman refers to have certainly paid off. Monsanto is ranked 206th on the Fortune 500 list. Its profits last year were over $2 billion, more than a 14% increase in a year, so it has plenty of money to diversify its investments into things like a big chunk of Congress. In 2012, Monsanto made contributionsranging from $1,000 to $13,000 to 61 House candidates ad 27 Senate candidates. The total contributions were $384,500. However, if donations to and from PACs and other proxies are included, donations may be over $1 million. Eight legislators own stock in Monsanto and two are former Monsanto advisors. Additionally, in the decade from 2002 to 2012, Monsanto spent $52.5 million on lobbying.
Monsanto’s investment in Congress matured this March when, without any hearings, Congress passed a bill to prevent a government shutdown that included an unrelated rider. The NY Daily News explains that the rider
“would seem to place the commercial concerns of Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified crops and seeds, above the authority of U.S. judicial system.
In effect, the provision, which opponents call the Monsanto Protection Act, would limit the ability of judges to stop Monsanto or the farmers it sells genetically modified seeds from growing or harvesting those crops even if courts find evidence of potential health risks.”
Imagine if Congress passed an “Auto Protection Act” stipulating that courts couldn’t stop manufacturers from selling cars even if they were shown to have faulty brakes. According to Mother Jones, the bill was written by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo), who happens to be one of the largest recipients of Monsanto donations. A 2006 report by Public Citizen says Blunt is “a legislative leader who not only has surrendered his office to the imperative of moneyed interests, but who has also done so with disturbing zeal and efficiency.”
SCOTUS Justice Clarence Thomas
Since you can’t rely on Congress or the White House, if you have a problem with Monsanto, you’ll have to take them all the way to the Supreme Court. There, your case will likely be decided by former Monsanto lawyer and Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, who, in 2010, penned the majority opinion inMonsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, a key case that allowed Monsanto to prevent its individual farmers from saving their own seeds. In the same case, future Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan inexplicably advocated on behalf of Monsanto in her capacity as Solicitor General, even though the government was not a defendant in the case. Thomas has joined the majority in finding for Monsanto in at least two other cases.
Through contributions, lobbying and aggressive staffing rotations in both parties and all three branches, Monsanto keeps the federal government in check and holds it in balance. But that’s not the limit of Monsanto’s power. Monsanto has also cultivated a great deal of influence over universities. A report published in Salon shows that in universities with agriculture departments around the country, Monsanto funds research, funds professorships, donates to schools, and also has revolving door influence in university hierarchy, just as it does in the federal government. For example, the report states that South Dakota State’s president is on Monsanto’s board of directors. Professors and students outside of the Monsanto sphere are sidelined just as Secretary Glickman was in the Clinton Administration. In the report, one anonymous PhD student at a land-grant university was told more than once that she should study something Monsanto would fund. She wanted to research organic agriculture in farmers markets. Her academic adviser told her that her “best bet was to write a grant for Monsanto or the Department of Homeland Security to fund my research on why farmer’s markets were stocked with ‘black market vegetables’ that ‘are a bioterrorism threat waiting to happen.’”
The Salon report describes a peer-reviewed study that found that corporate-funded nutrition research is 4-8 times more likely to reach conclusions favorable to the funder. And the Salon report cites evidence that any scientist who reaches conclusions Monsanto doesn’t like can expect to be told to find new funding. In Genetic Roulette, authorEric Holt-Giminez argues that Monsanto uses its influence to deny tenure to professors critical of GMOs, and scientist Elaine Ingham describes how after speaking to the UN about dangers posed by GMOs, she was told that if she wasn’t “heart and soul into this technology” then she “didn’t belong at Oregon State University.” She claims that Monsanto seeks to shred the credibility and reputation of any scientist who criticizes GMOs.
But research on GMOs is extremely difficult to even begin in the first place. According to Jeremy Bloom, Monsanto systematically blocks funding for research on its crops and denies the use of any of its seeds for research purposes. The government doesn’t do much research on the risks of GMO crops either. According to Dean DellaPenna in National Geographic, “only one percent of USDA biotech research money goes to risk assessment.”
Monsanto also allegedly has critical news reports removed from mainstream media. According to a report,corroborated by Jeffrey Smith in the Huffington Post, a team of investigative journalists, Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, working for a Fox News station in Florida had just completed filming an expose on the dangers posed by BGH. Just before the report was to air, a Monsanto lawyer in New York faxed a letter warning of “dire consequences for Fox News” if the report aired. Akre claims that Fox was worried about getting sued and losing advertising. Wilson claims that his manager asked him if he’d ever tell anyone if the story was pulled. He says management told them to make certain changes to the report in accordance with the way the lawyers wanted it written, regardless of what their research showed. Wilson says he refused to make the changes. The management threatened to fire him, and he threatened to report them to the FCC. Wilson says that management then offered him hush money. Akre says, “He was going to offer us the rest of our year’s salary if we agreed not to talk about what Monsanto had done, to not talk about the Fox corporate response in suppressing the story, and to not talk about the story, not talk about BGH, again, anywhere.” They refused the money and were told to rewrite the story with the lawyers present. Akre says the lawyers replaced words like “cancer” with phrases like “human health implications.” Akre says anything critical of Monsanto was either removed or minimized. The reporters claim they were made to rewrite the piece 83 times. They believed the lawyers were stalling for a window in their contracts. Then Fox announced the journalists were fired. The journalists took Fox to court and were initially granted whistleblower status, but on appeal they lost this status and ultimately lost their legal case on the grounds that falsifying news reports is not against the law.
Monsanto’s influence is astounding. The corporation wields political, financial, legal and communications power, along with donations, creative staffing, alleged threats, intimidation and bribery, and alleged censorship to great effect. The evidence shows that, ultimately, Monsanto’s business interests were not simply deregulated. Since the Reagan Administration, Monsanto has built its own regime of strict regulation over government, academia and media, to ensure that they serve its corporate interests, or are neutralized. In every relevant sphere of society, critics allege that Monsanto infiltrates institutions, sidelines those outside of its circle, rams through its agenda, blocks research and undermines critical inquiry of its products and actions, threatens its critics and silences dissent. One reason the Monsantopoly must stack the deck in its favor so thoroughly is because of what would happen if well-funded large-scale research informed the public of what Monsanto’s products do to the environment, farms and farmers.
Next up, Part 3: Seeds of Destruction will look at what Monsanto has done to America’s amber waves of grain.
Autonomy is Sown! A nutrition group from the “Escuela de Cultura Popular de los Martires de ’68” displays posters celebrating the autonomy of indigenous Zapatista communities for whom corn is an essential crop.
In front of the National Palace of Fine Parts a protestor declares “We are people of corn.”
A group of “youth in resistance” celebrate native corn with live Son Jarocho music and colorful cardboard corn.
Urban Farmers transported their crops via bike emphasizing the importance of sustainable agriculture without GMO seeds.
We will defend our corn!
The thousands of protesters marched down principal avenues in Mexico City to arrive at The Monument of the Revolution.
“Don’t allow your seeds and biodiversity to be reduced to a monoculture that will converted into merchandise administered by a monopoly.”
We are not your #$%$* science experiment. A genuine concern about the scientific effects of GMO crops was a common thread in protesters signs.
“My pride is my roots, my corn.”
Protestors weren’t just saying “not in my backyard” but instead stating that they want Monsanto kicked off the planet.
Corn husks usually serve as wrappers for one of Mexican‘s most popular street foods, tamales. In the anti-Monsanto march husks served as adornment for all kinds of costumes.
“We want a Mexico free of GMO food. Leave Monsanto!”
Protesters sport corn husks to emphasize the importance of native corn for the Mexican diet.
The protest against Monsanto was truly inter-generational with whole families participating from the youngest members to the oldest. “Did you know that the ‘gringa’ Transnational company Monsanto will be able to freely operate in Mexico? Look at how their seeds have affected lab rats. How will they affect us?”
A group of enthusiastic dancers stripped down to the basics – corn. Jubilantly celebrating the crop they took to the street in front of the Alameda.
This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.
“…business is business! And business must grow, regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.”– Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
In India, a cotton farmer drinks a liter of pesticide, killing himself to escape the ruinous combination of his debts and a poor yield. In America, a pediatrician observes improvement in the symptoms of autistic children when they stick to a purely organic diet. In France, farmers burn fields of genetically modified crops. In Paraguay, a politician tells the media that Monsanto was behind the ouster of a democratically elected president. On May 25, 2013, the mainstream media generally ignores millions of protesters in hundreds of cities across the globe rallying against Monsanto and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). All of these seemingly disparate events flow from a single source: the business model of one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most aggressive corporations on the planet.
Monsanto is a virtual monopoly that exploits various business, legal, communications and political techniques to control its business environment and to force dependency on its main products, Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready GMOs. I will analyze this Monsantopoly over the course of this five part series. In Part 1: Sowing Dependence, I will demonstrate how the company’s strategy is evidenced by its development and history. Part 2: Corrupt to the Core will show that Monsanto shuts down normal oversight, regulation and criticism by cultivating vast influence over every branch of the government, academia and the media. In Part 3: Seeds of Destruction, I will explore the effects of Monsanto’s products on the environment. Part 4: Harvesting Disease, will display scientific evidence of the threats posed by Monsanto’s products to various species up and down the food chain, particularly humans. In Part 5: Rounding Up Globalism, Democracy and You, I will discuss Monsanto’s influence around the world, how various countries have responded to Monsanto and GMOs, and what you can do as a citizen and a consumer.
The story of Monsanto begins in the auto industry. In the early 20th Century, Henry Ford defined contemporary industrialism. In the business model of Fordism, the company automates production, mass-produces a reliable, standardized product and pays its workers a living wage, enough that they can afford to buy the product. Beginning in the 1920s, this model was challenged and eventually eclipsed by a different business model developed by General Motors Corporation (GM). GM President Alfred P. Sloan believed that the corporation’s goal should not be a cycle of production-wage-consumption, as Ford had built. The corporation’s goal should be very simple: profit. The business model of Sloanism relied on planned obsolescence, evolving fashion, and a product line for “every purse and purpose.” GM hooked the consumer to regularly purchasing an ever-changing product.
As documented by Peter Drucker in his 1973 book Management: Tasks,
Responsibilities, Practices, GM built on this strategy by teaming up with Standard Oil of New Jersey to launch a joint venture: Ethyl Corporation, which produced leaded gasoline to cure the ‘knocking sound’ made by GM cars. In this way, although GM was not a chemical company, it made money on both its cars and the gas that consumers poured into them. Drucker notes that “GM, in effect, made money on almost every gallon of gasoline sold anyplace by anyone.”
Here in Washington, D.C., I sat down with business historian Alan Loeb, who told me, “Professor Drucker pointed out that GM’s strategy for marketing tetra ethyl lead – the lead additive GM developed for use in gasoline – set the product up so its consumer would be dependent on it, and that by doing this GM and its partners made money not only on the sale of cars GM built but on the sale of leaded gasoline to every car on the road. In the end, between this strategic innovation and the chemical discovery, it was the strategy that was the more valuable. Charles Thomas and Carroll Hochwalt, two chemists at GM who worked on developing the lead additive, left to set up their own lab and ultimately ended up as President and Vice-President of Monsanto, respectively, where the same strategy then appeared in its agriculture business. In a sense, Monsanto inherited the strategic innovation developed first at GM.”
People who were instrumental in developing the business model of Sloanism, and the strategy of locking the consumer into dependency on products that require each other, migrated from GM to the top of Monsanto. One can easily see similarity between the GM cars and leaded gasoline of nearly a century ago and Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready GMOs of today. Throughout its history, Monsanto has developed chemical products which have eventually become controversial or been banned, including DDT, Agent Orange, Bovine Growth Hormone, and PCBs. DDT was used for decades as an insecticide even though its effect on humans was not well understood. Monsanto insisted it was safe, but it was revealed to be highly toxic and was banned. Agent Orange is a highly destructive defoliant, most famous for being used extensively in Vietnam. Decades later, it continues to cause health problems, birth defects and ongoing soil damage. Bovine Growth Hormone was designed to spur cows’ milk production. It caused painful udder inflammations and infections which got into milk. PCBs are a highly toxic chemical used as a coolant. Documents demonstrate that Monsanto knew of the threat posed by PCBs for many years and sought to cover up the danger it posed, while continuing to expose people and the environment to the chemical. Many people have had serious health problems in the town of Anniston, Alabama, where Monsanto dumped PCB waste.
Recently, Monsanto has formed a partnership with a pharmaceutical company. If Monsanto’s history and the GM model are any indication, could it be that Monsanto’s business strategy going forward is to profit from creating reliance on products that make people sick and reliance on the drugs used to treat their illnesses?
Apart from aggressive marketing of shady chemicals, its government relations have played an enormous role in its development. Monsanto President Charles Thomas was tapped to run the Dayton Project, part of the Manhattan Project, which designed the triggering mechanism for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. This project, along with Monsanto’s marketing of DDT during WWII and Agent Orange during Vietnam, reveal another facet of Monsanto’s business strategy: develop government dependency on Monsanto in wartime. This also creates the norm that the government clears red tape for Monsanto’s business. Even during peacetime, this norm sticks.
Monsanto has demonstrated an interest in avoiding regulation since its founding, when, in 1926, it incorporated its own town, Monsanto, Illinois. Monsanto set up shop in its eponymous town at a time when businesses were largely regulated locally.
And it was through deregulation that Monsanto entered a new phase of its history in the 1980s. The Reagan Administration sought to clear away regulations like health and environmental safety testing that they claimed hindered big business’ growth. In one telling vignette, Vice President George H. W. Bush visited a Monsanto laboratory in 1987. Footage of the visit shows someone from Monsanto pointing at a GMO crop and saying the USDA was testing the crop. He said he wasn’t complaining about the USDA, but he then joked that if they had to wait until September for approval, he might say something different. He then laughs with Bush Sr., who replies, “call me, we’re in the ‘de-reg’ business.”
Part 2 tomorrow
Studies are showing that Bt toxins found in Monsanto crops are harmful to mammalian blood by damaging red blood cells and more. RBC’s are responsible for delivering oxygen to the body tissues through blood flow.
Bacillus thuringensis (Bt) is a bacterium commonly used as a biological pesticide. It is a microorganism that produces toxic chemicals. It occurs naturally in the environment, and is usually isolated from soil, insects and plant surfaces. Prior to this study, Bt was thought to be toxic only to insects, but recent studies are proving otherwise.
Dr. Mezzomo and his team of Scientists from the Department of Genetics and Morphology and the Institute of Biological Sciences, at University of Brasilia recently published a study that involved Bacillus thuringensis (Bt toxin) and its effects on mammalian blood. According to the study, the “Cry” toxins that are found in Monsanto’s GMO crops like corn and soy, are much more toxic to mammals than previously thought. The study was published in the Journal of Hematology and Thromboembolic Diseases(1).
We do not support animal testing, and think it is unnecessary. It should really be a no brainer that GMO crops cause significant damage to human health. Studies that don’t require animal testing have already proven the dangers of GMO consumption. This study unfortunately required the use of Swiss Albino Mice if Bt was to be properly examined. At the same time, most of us know that the existence of GMOs is completely unnecessary.
Advances in genetic engineering promise the expression of multiple Cry toxins in Bt-plants, known as gene pyramiding. Therefore, studies on non-target species are requirements of international protocols to verify the adverse effects of these toxins, ensuring human and environmental biosafety.
Due to its growing use in agricultural activities, Bt presence hasalready been detected in different environmental compartments such as soil and water. Consequently, the bioavailability of Cry proteins has increased, and for biosafety reasons their adverse effects might be studied, mainly for non-target organisms. Studies are therefore needed to evaluate Bt toxicity to non-target organisms; the persistence of Bt toxin and its stability in aquatic environments; and the risks to humans and animals exposed to potentially toxic levels of Bt through their diet.(1)
Thus, we aimed to evaluate, in Swiss albino mice, the hematotoxicity and genotoxicity of four Bt spore-crystals…
Scientists tested levels ranging from 27 mg to 270 mg over a seven day period, it was remarkably evident that the Cry toxins were hemotoxic, even at the lowest doses administered. Hemotoxins destroy red blood cells, disrupt blood clotting and cause organ degeneration and tissue damage.
The number of RBC’s, (red blood cells) as well as their size, were significantly reduced, and so were the levels of hemoglobin for oxygen to attach to. Every factor regarding RBC’s indicated some level of damage for all levels of toxin administered and across all cry proteins. The tests clearly demonstrated that Cry proteins resulting from the Bt toxin were cytotoxic (quality of being toxic to cells) to bone marrow cells. Studies contiually show that these proteins kill blood cells bytargeting the cell membranes of RBC’s.
Cry1Ab (the protein produced in common Bt corn and soy) induced microcytic hypochromic anemia in mice, even at the lowest tested dose of 27 mg/Kg, and this toxin has been detected in blood of non-pregnant women, pregnant women and their fetuses in Canada, supposedly exposed through diet . These data, as well as increased bioavailability of these MCA in the environment, reinforce the need for more research, especially given that little is known about spore crystals’ adverse effects on non-target species (1)
Dr. Mezzomo and his team are not the only group of scientists to discover the harmful effects of Bt toxins. Professor Joe Cummins, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario has also studied it (2)(3)(4). He concluded that that there is sufficient evidence that the Bt toxin will impact directly on human health through damaging the ileum, which is the final section of the small intestine that is responsible for the absorption of vitamin B12. He also points out that the Bt cry toxin gene has not been proven to be the same as the natural bacterial gene. As mentioned in the first paragraph, it occurs naturally in the environment, usually isolated from soil, insects and plant surfaces.
It seems that everyday brings forth new information regarding GMO’s. We have so much evidence that points to just how harmful these foods are, yet they continue to be mass produced and the corporations that develop them are constantly protected. The truth still remains, you still have a choice as to what you put into your body. I encourage everybody reading this to further their research, most ‘industries’ we have on the planet today really aren’t necessary, we are just made to believe that they are.
A farmer fills his planters with seed corn using a leading Monsanto brand.
Oops. The World Food Prize committee’s got a bit of egg on its face—genetically engineered egg. They just awarded the World Food Prize to three scientists, including one from Syngenta and one from Monsanto, who invented genetic engineering because, they say, the technology increases crop yields and decreases pesticide use. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Monsanto and Syngenta are major sponsors of the World Food Prize, along with a third biotech giant, Dupont Pioneer.)
Monsanto makes the same case on its website, saying, “Since the advent of biotechnology, there have been a number of claims from anti-biotechnology activists that genetically modified (GM) crops don’t increase yields. Some have claimed that GM crops actually have lower yields than non-GM crops… GM crops generally have higher yields due to both breeding and biotechnology.”
Heinemann, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and director of the Center for Integrated Research in Biosafety, says he first began looking into the matter after he heard a remark made by Paul Collier in 2010. Both Heinemann and Collier, an Oxford economics professor and author of the bestselling book The Bottom Billion, were speaking at a conference in Zurich.
Collier “made the offhand remark during his talk that because Europe has shunned GMOs [genetically modified organisms], it’s lost productivity compared to the US,” Heinemann recalls. “That seemed odd to me. So while he was talking, I went to the FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organization] database and I had a look at yields for corn. And over the short term, from 1995 to 2010, the US and Western Europe were neck and neck, there was no difference at all. So his assertion that lack of GMOs was causing Europe to fall behind didn’t seem true.”
Heinemann attempted to ask Collier for the source of his facts through the conference’s Internet-mediated audience Q&A system, but he never got an answer. He continued poking around for data and stumbled upon what he calls “the textbook example of the problems that come from a low genetic diversity in agriculture” – the 1970 Southern corn leaf blight epidemic.
“Really what happened by 1970 was that upwards of 85 percent of the corn grown in the US was almost genetically identical,” explains Heinemann. “The US is the world’s biggest producer of corn and both geographically and in quantity, so when you cover that much land with a crop of such a low genetic diversity, you’re simply asking for it to fail… In 1970 a previously unknown pathogen hit the US corn crop and the US almost lost the entire crop. It was a major crisis of the day. The only thing that saved the corn crop was that the weather changed in 1971 and that weather change wasn’t as favorable to the pathogen, so it gave farmers and breeders and extra year to swap over the corn germplasm to a variety that wasn’t as vulnerable.”
All told, the epidemic cost an estimated five trillion kilocalories in lost food energy, making it “many times larger than the Irish potato famine,” said Heinemann.
“Now that was in a day where biofuels were not being made from corn. So there was no competition for those food calories… Fast-forward to the drought of 2012. How many food calories were lost because of it? In kilocalories, it’s 89 trillion just from the drought. That’s just from an annual variation due to weather… The U.S. is the biggest producer and exporter of corn.”
When the U.S. corn crop fails, the entire world feels the pain.
Given the stakes, Heinemann decided to look at the productivity and sustainability of the U.S. agricultural system. And when examining sustainability, he means it in a very literal sense: can this system be sustained over time? Is U.S. agriculture resilient or is it highly susceptible to variations in weather, pests or other stressors?
Instead of examining North America alone, he chose to measure it against Western Europe. Therefore, he is able to measure not just whether North American agriculture improved over time, but whether or not it improved more or less than a similar region. Agriculture on both sides of the Atlantic is fairly similar, with the major exception the adoption of GE crops.
Both the U.S. and Canada were early adopters, whereas Western Europe did not adopt GE crops. The study compared crops that are common to both regions: corn and wheat in the U.S. and Western Europe, and canola in Canada and Western Europe. Almost all of the corn and canola grown in North America is genetically modified, whereas no GE wheat is grown in either region studied. Therefore, the study could isolate whether any increases in yields were thanks to genetic engineering or simply due to conventional crop breeding.
Even in genetically engineered plants, most of the genes in the plant come from conventional breeding. Think about the new sheep genetically engineered by scientists in Uruguay to – no joke – glow in the dark. Its DNA contains genes that tell its cells to make wool, hooves, four legs, a head, and everything else that makes it a sheep. Only a few genes – the ones that make the sheep glow in the dark – were inserted via genetic engineering. If the sheep happens to have the best wool for making sweaters or it produces the best milk for making cheese, that’s due to conventional breeding and not genetic engineering.
The same is true for crops. One or more genetically engineered traits can be added to any variety of corn, soybeans, or canola. Most of those crops’ traits come from conventional breeding. If a GE crop does particularly well or particularly poorly, the success or failure could be due to the genes inserted via genetic engineering… or it could be due to all of its other conventionally bred genes.
Heinemann’s group found that between 1985 and 2010, Western Europe has experienced yield gains at a faster rate than North America for all three crops measured. That means that the U.S., which grows mostly GE corn, and Canada, which grows mostly GE canola, are not doing as well as Europe, which grows non-GE corn and canola. The increases in corn yields in the U.S. have remained relatively consistent both before and after the introduction of GE corn. Furthermore, Western Europe is experiencing faster yield gains than America for non-GE wheat.
What does this mean? “There’s no evidence that [GE crops] have given us higher yields,” says Heinemann. “The evidence points exclusively to breeding as the input that has increased yields over time. And there is evidence that it is constraining yields in the North American agroecosystem.” He offers two potential reasons why. First, he says, “By making the germplasm so much narrower, the average yield goes down because the low yields are so low.”
In other words, the lack of biodiversity among major crops today results in bigger losses during bad years.
Companies that make GE crops benefit from a relatively new law, passed in 1994, allowing for much stricter intellectual property rights on seeds. Previously, a company had the rights to sell its seed. A farmer could buy that seed and cross it with other seeds to produce locally adapted varieties. He or she could then save and replant those varieties. Now, the company can patent the genes inside the plant. It doesn’t matter if a farmer breeds Monsanto’s corn with a local variety and produces a brand new type of corn. If the resulting seeds have Monsanto’s patented gene in them, then Monsanto owns them. The farmer cannot save his own seeds.
This means that seed companies now control the amount of biodiversity available to farmers. And the number of varieties they sell has been going down. For example, the study found that in 2005, farmers could choose from nearly 9,000 different varieties of corn. The majority (57 percent) were GE, but farmers still had over 3,000 non-GE varieties to pick from. By 2010, GE options had slightly expanded, but non-GE options plummeted by two thirds. Similar reductions in varieties sold were seen in soybeans and cotton, too. By 2010, only 17 percent of corn varieties, 10 percent of soybean varieties, and 15 percent of cotton varieties available in seed catalogues were non-GE.
But these numbers make the U.S. seed supply look more biodiverse than it actually is. Within all of those thousands of corn varieties sold, one single variety, Reed Yellow Dent, makes up 47 percent of the gene pool used to create hybrid varieties. All in all, corn germplasm comes from just seven founding inbred lines. More than a third come from one of those seven, a line called B73.
With farmers in nearly every state planting such genetically similar corn, farmers experience booms and busts together. Farmers in Mexico, the birthplace of corn, plant a fantastic variety of corn. The plants differ in color, height, ear size, drought tolerance, maturity time, and more. If bad weather shows up late in the season, the early maturing varieties still provided a harvest. If it’s dry, the drought tolerant varieties survive. If a new disease shows up, some of the corn is bound to have some resistance to it whereas other varieties will be more susceptible to it. Biodiversity acts almost like an insurance system.
Planting genetically identical crops results in the opposite. It’s like betting all of your money on one lottery number. And when U.S. corn farmers lose the lottery, they all lose together so the national yield plummets.
Second, Heinemann adds, “Another possibility is that it’s not genetic engineering per se but it’s the innovation policy through which genetic engineering is successful that is causing the U.S. agroecosystem to invest in the wrong things. So the innovation strategy gives signals to the industry to produce things that can be controlled by strict property rights instruments, but these things are not contributing to sustainable agriculture. The problem is that the biotechnologies that the US is invested in are limiting the sustainability and productivity of the agroecosystem.” (Heinemann means “biotechnologies” in a very broad sense, as in any technology humans use in agriculture, even something as simple as using mulch or composting.)
“Western Europe has gone for a different kind of innovation strategy,” he continues. “Because Europe has had to innovate without using genetic engineering,” due to its laws that do not allow GE crops, “it does so in a way that rewards the plants. They’re getting greater yield and using less pesticide to do it. But the way the US is innovating, it’s penalizing all plants whether they are genetically engineered or not.”
Yep, that’s right. In addition to increasing crop yields faster, European nations have also reduced pesticides more than we have.
“The US and US industry have been crowing about the reduction in chemical insecticide use with the introduction of Bt crops [GE crops that produce their own pesticide],” says Heinemann. “And at face value, that’s true. They’ve gone to about 85 percent of the levels that they used in the pre-GE era. But what they don’t tell you is that France went down to 12 percent of its previous levels. France is the fourth biggest exporter of corn in the world, one of the biggest exporters of wheat, and it’s only 11 percent of the size of the U.S.
“So here is a major agroecosystem growing the same things as the US, corn and wheat, and it’s reduced chemical insecticide use to 12% of 1995 levels. This is what a modern agroecosystem can do. What the US has done is invented a way to use comparatively more insecticide.” Comparatively more than what? “More than it should be!” exclaims Heinemann. “It should be down to 12% too!”
Will the biotech companies ever give up on trying to sell Europe their genetically modified crops? Their latest PR man is the UK’s Minister for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Owen Paterson. His website (very bland and uninformative apart from his list of engagements) says he is “a passionate supporter of localism, free enterprise and less interference in people’s lives”. But he also loudly supports Monsanto et al, and wants all of Europe to grow and eat GM foods. I would say that thoroughly destroys any localism, interferes in the most basic way with our lives, and any enterprise is freely handed to big corporations that already have far too much power over people.
Paterson has had environmentalists tearing their hair out since he became Minister. As I wrote in Unnatural England, he’s promoted the destruction of buzzards and supports the killing of badgers. He’s also greatly in favour of fracking for shale gas regardless of the damage it would do. His statements on environmental matters display strongly-held views that are disastrous for the environment but kind to big business. To that end he will only look at the facts as presented by companies such as Monsanto.
He failed to persuade Europe that neonicitinoid pesticides (as produced by Monsanto et al) are good for bees; he said that the scientific evidence linking the decline in bee numbers to neonicotinoids was faulty; and that Europe should see the results of Defra’s own field trials. The UK Parliament’s environmental audit committee said the government was relying on ‘fundamentally flawed’ studies to push its case for preventing the Europe-wide precautionary ban of these pesticides. It turned out these studies were not peer-reviewed or published in any reputable scientific journal, merely published on Defra’s own website – for which the EU Commission critisised the British government.
Paterson’s online information is remarkably devoid of detail: he went to school and university; his family had a background of farming and leather; he went into the leather business; he is married, with children; he became an MP, and so on. No business interests or links of any kind are listed yet he is acting as cheerleader for the GM companies. And he made a small Freudian slip during his speech. He used the word ‘we’, as in “We have not come up with any evidence of human health being threatened by these products.” Just what Monsanto and Syngenta say.
On more than one occasion he has tried to persuade the public that we should all accept a diet of GM food and we stubbornly refuse to be converted. But his speech last week on the wonders of GM crops topped them all. He said he was ‘certain’ that GM crops are safer than conventional varieties because “These products go through the most rigorous system. It is extraordinarily closely regulated…” Do I hear hollow laughter from all those independent researchers into GM foods?
He went on: “…you have the biggest field trial in human history when you think of the colossal volume of GM material that has been eaten in all those countries growing GM food.” Sorry, Mr Paterson, but the biggest field trial in human history took place over millennia when the world was growing and eating organic food. And perhaps he hadn’t read, or was ignoring, the very recent Friends of the Earth Europe-wide study that found weedkiller residues in over 40% of human urine samples (glyphosate, the biggest producer of which is Monsanto).
Mistake after mistake was recited as fact, and faithfully reported by most of the rightwing media – except for the Daily Mail. Normally great supporters of all things Conservative, the Mail pulled his speech to pieces.
One of his most outrageous claims was this: “Over the last 15 years… every attempt to deploy Golden Rice (modified to boost Vitamin A) has been thwarted and in that time seven million children have gone blind or died.” The Mail struck that down with this riposte: “Earlier this year, the International Rice Research Institute, which is working on the Golden Rice project, denied reports that it was available for commercial planting, saying it has yet to pass safety tests or prove it could reduce vitamin A deficiency.”
The Channel4’s FactCheck Blog had this to say: “(Paterson) can’t claim that by not providing the rice the blindness and deaths have occurred, as we don’t know what would have happened had the rice been provided.” Health experts say the problem is a lack of Vitamin A, not Golden Rice – a problem solved by educating mothers how to feed their children on easily available foods containing Vitamin A.
Paterson claimed GM food was safer; “There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health.” The Mail pointed out that: “In May 2011, independent doctors in Canada reported that toxins implanted into GM crops to kill pests were reaching the bloodstreams of women and unborn babies.”
Paterson claimed that GM was good for the environment. He said: “There is a very strong environmental case for GM. We can farm more efficiently, using new technology and using less land. It gives a wonderful opportunity to free up land for wilderness and forestry.” And presumeably for pheasant shoots as well, that being another of Paterson’s passions.
He said there is no evidence of GM crops harming the environment but ignored, among other problems, ‘superweeds’ that are resistant to the herbicides designed to kill them. Farmers across North America could have told him. Farmers could tell him too of the dangers of feeding GM to their animals, but as the biotech companies dismiss such evidence, so too will their mouthpiece. The Mail said the evidence showed real damage to the environment. Following GM crop trials in the UK, where fields had been heavily sprayed with a powerful weedkiller, the result was that it not only wiped out weeds, but also wild plants and insects.
He insisted that GM crops produce higher yields than conventional crops. He could ask Indian cotton farmers, the ones that haven’t committed suicide that is, after seeing their livelihoods ruined. And the Mail pointed out that recently published research showed that “increases in crop yields have been much greater in countries which have not adopted GM.”
When asked by the Daily Mail he said (with some hesitation) that he would be happy to feed a GM tomato to his family, not that one tomato shared between his wife and three children would go that far. But when the Mail contacted 17 government ministers, none of them would own to being comfortable with GM food. They also found that all the restaurants in the Houses of Parliament have had a ‘no GM food’ policy for quite some years. Customer choice rules, even in Westminster, despite government ministers wanting the public to eat the foods they refuse to.
This constant dishonest pressure on the public from people like Paterson to accept something they do not want must stop. It is dishonest because their ‘facts’ are at the least unproven, and at worst, untrue. Nor do they really care about feeding the world. If they did, they’d stop the waste of so much food and ensure people had equal access to what the earth can provide. This is all about giving the biotech companies control over the world’s food.
Why do I personally care so much about stopping GM food? I live in a rural area of great natural beauty. There is a strong organic presence here, in local growers, producers and shops. The village is full of gardeners. We grow our own vegetables and fruit. And we love our environment. My own garden is full of weeds. I call them wild flowers. They plant themselves, helped by the birds. They grow happily among the ‘cultivated’ plants and they provide a rich environment for bees and all the other pollinating insects. I don’t want this rich celebration of natural life turned into the kind of wasteland that comes from growing GM crops and the accompanying heavy use of pesticides and herbicides.
This garden, this land, is my home. I value every tiny flower and fly. This is their home too, and they are important. If I’m honest, I have to admit they have a more important place in the cycle of natural life than I or any human does. If anything has to disappear from this beloved countryside, it should be Owen Paterson.
Lesley is a lover of animals, campaigns and writes on war/peace, climate change and the environment. She is the former editor of Abolish War. Read other articles by Lesley.
A 2009 WikiLeaks cable from the US embassy in the Holy See reports that “Vatican officials remain largely supportive of genetically modified crops as a vehicle for protecting the environment while feeding the hungry, but – at least for now – are unwilling to challenge bishops who disagree”.
That the primary purpose of GMOs is not in fact to safeguard the environment is suggested by, inter alia, a 2012 study by Washington State University research professor Dr Charles Benbrook, who found that the proliferation of such crops has caused an increase in the use of hazardous pesticides in the US.
As for the claim that GMOs are a proper antidote to the problem of global hunger, it’s worth reviewing renowned environmental activist Vandana Shiva‘s observation that “[o]ne billion people are without food because industrial monocultures robbed them of their livelihoods in agriculture and their food entitlements”.
The following sound bite from Shiva’s appearance last year on the BBC’s HARDtalk meanwhile obliterates the notion of any positive correlation between the GMO industry and human wellbeing:
“We see the consequences of [seed patenting] in India, where, since the big companies came in and took over the seed supply – especially in cotton – we have had 270,000 farmer suicides, most of them driven by debt and the debt caused by high-cost nonrenewable seeds.”
GMOs find god
In a nod to the existence of less-than-cheery visions of the biotech scene, the US embassy cable notes that Monsignor James Reinert of the Vatican Council of Justice and Peace has tempered a reportedly general ecclesiastical consensus on the need for GMOs with one caveat:
“The Vatican cannot force all bishops to endorse biotechnology, he said, particularly if their opposition has to do with concerns over protecting profits of large corporations who hold the patents for the crops, versus feeding the hungry.”
Undeterred, the US ambassador concludes the cable with a pledge to “continue to lobby the Vatican to speak up in favor of GMOs, in the hope that a louder voice in Rome will encourage individual Church leaders elsewhere to reconsider their critical views”.
Nothing like a bit of diplomatic pressure to ease the travails of US-based biotech firms. So much for the separation of corporation and state.
To be sure, the US embassy is not the only source of encouragement when it comes to sanctification of GMOs by the Holy See. In a March 2013 article in USAToday – which at first glance appears to be a fine work of satire – New Jersey biotech farmer John Rigolizzo, Jr pronounces the Vatican at the “vanguard of science and technology” based on a 2009 statement by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences affirming a “moral imperative to make the benefits of genetically engineered technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations”.
After reviewing his own credentials as a Catholic, Rigolizzo touts GM crops as “miraculous” and “a blessing” and expresses his hope that the newly appointed Pope Francis will share the Vatican’s established “humane vision – and that Europe and the rest of the world [will] join biotechnology’s growing flock”.
Working in the new pope’s favour, presumably, is that he is “not only a man of faith, but also science – a chemist, by training”, and that he hails from Argentina, “whose farmers rely heavily on GM crops”.
Dealing with the devil?
What, then, has holy science offered the homeland of Pope Francis? Some clues appear in “Argentina’s Bad Seeds”, an Al Jazeera documentary coincidentally released on the same day as Rigolizzo’s epistle.
Filmmaker Glenn Ellis outlines Argentina’s conversion into a genetically-modified “soy republic”, a process that has produced a “dirty war in the north of the country where campesinos are being driven off their land, and sometimes killed, to make way for soya plantations”.
The majority of the seeds are manufactured by US-based Monsanto and are marketed as Roundup Ready – Roundup being Monsanto’s signature glyphosate-based herbicide. That human beings might not be similarly “Roundup Ready” is suggested in Ellis’ summary of the film:
“… [D]octors and scientists claim that babies are being born with crippling birth malformations and that in recent years the incidence of childhood cancer has soared. It is a phenomenon, they say, that has coincided with the introduction of Monsanto’s seed.”
Of course, the 2009 US embassy cable approvingly remarks that “[t]he Vatican’s own scientific academy has stated that there is no evidence GMOs are harmful, and that they could indeed be part of addressing global food security”, while Rigolizzo swoons over the Vatican’s “advanced and charitable view of how to defeat hunger and malnutrition”.
Such arguments become even more ludicrous when we consider the rampant absorption of farmland by GM crops for the production of biofuels rather than food.
Ultimately, any effort to cast the GMO industry in a humane light amounts to nothing less than sacrilege.
Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Salon, The Baffler, Al Akhbar English
Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez
Monsanto has been under fire lately, and things aren’t much different in Puerto Rico. The biotech giant is being criticized for refusing to testify at a government hearing regarding the sale on the island of their own genetically-modified seeds.
The website Corpwatch cites a recent article from the commonwealth’s Spanish-language El Nuevo Dia newspaper in which Monsanto is reported to have shut-down requests to send a representative to an upcoming GMO hearing.
The hearing, a meeting of the Puerto Rican Senate Agriculture Committee, involved the potential creation of a “Seed Board” and certification and licensing system that would regulate the development and sale of seeds on the island.
According to Corpwatch, Monsanto spokesperson Eric Torres-Collazo told the committee that “Monsanto does not produce, sell (or) offer… basic or certified seed with the purpose of planting in Puerto Rico.” That hasn’t satisfied the committee members, though, since Monsanto does indeed engage in some sort of GMO operations on the island.
“Among Monsanto’s arguments for refusing to offer testimony to the Puerto Rican senate committee is that it doesn’t grow GMO agricultural products for consumption on the island,” wrote Mark Karlin for Truth-Out, “it just creates the Frankenstein seeds there through research.”
Corpwatch, a blog specializing in corporate accountability, added that Monsanto’s operations in Puerto Rico, while not involving the planting of GMO seeds, are indeed extensive and not without controversy.
“Monsanto has also been embroiled in a legal controversy over the fact it plants crops on 1,500 acres, despite the fact that Puerto Rico’s 1952 constitution prohibits agricultural landholdings larger than 500 acres,” Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero wrote for Corpwatch this week. Meanwhile, he continued, “[l]ocal media reports have pointed out the irony that despite the fact that Monsanto is in apparent violation of the Puerto Rico constitution, it has received $4.9 million in subsidies from the local Agriculture Department to help it cover payroll expenses from 2006 to 2013.”
Senator Ramón Ruiz-Nieves, a member of the Popular Democratic Party and the chair of the Agricultural Committee, told reporters that he will ask Monsanto again to weigh in on an upcoming seed hearing. The full Senate Health Committee is slated to go over the creation of the potential Seed Board later this year.
According to the investigative journalism site Counterpunch, no state in the US aside from Hawaii has had as many GM crop experiments-per-mile than Puerto Rico as of 2005. “Puerto Rico attracts agricultural biotechnology companies because of the tropical climate that permits up to four harvests yearly and the willingness of the government to fast-track permits,” Counterpunch quoted Margarita Irizarry and José Rodríguez Orengo of the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus. “Furthermore, the opposition to GM foods is almost non-existent on the island and no particular environmental group is protesting the presence of Dow, Syngenta Seeds, Pioneer HiBred, Mycogen Seeds, Rice Tech, AgReliant Genetics, Bayer Croposcience and Monsanto.”
Monsanto has come under increased scrutiny as of late for its questionable farming and litigation practices that have been condemned by organic farmers across the globe. International protests against the GMO giant occurred last month in six continents across the globe, including one in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A new study, yet to receive any media attention, reveals the “leukemogenic” properties of the Bt toxin biopesticides engineered into the vast majority of GMO food crops already within the US food supply.
Last September, the causal link between cancer and genetically modified food was confirmed in a French study, the first independent long-term animal feeding study of its kind. The disturbing details can be found here: New Study Finds GM Corn and Roundup Causes Cancer In Rats
Now, a new study published in the Journal of Hematology & Thromboembolic Diseases indicates that the biopesticides engineered into GM crops known as Bacillus Thuringensis (Bt) or Cry-toxins, may also contribute to blood abnormalities from anemia to hematological malignancies (blood cancers) such as leukemia.[i]
A group of scientists from the Department of Genetics and Morphology, Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Brasilia, Brasilia/DF, Brazil set out to test the purported human and environmental biosafety of GM crops, looking particularly at the role that the Bt toxin found within virtually all GM food crops plays on non-target or non-insect animal species.
The research was spurned by the Brazilian Collegiate Board of Directors of the National Sanitary Surveillance Agency (ANVISA), who advocated in 2005 for evaluations of toxicity and pathogenicity of microbiological control agents such as Bt, given that little is known about their toxicological potential in non-target organisms, including humans.
While Bacillus Thurigensis spore-crystals have been used since the late 1960′s in agriculture as a foliar insecticide, it was only after the advent of recombinant DNA biotechnology that these toxin-producing genes (known as delta endotoxins) were first inserted into the plants themselves and released into commercial production in the mid-90′s, making their presence in the US food supply and the bodies of exposed populations ubiquitous.
What the new study revealed is that various binary combinations and doses of Bt toxins target mammalian cells, particularly the erythroid (red blood cell) lineage, resulting in white and red blood cell changes indicative of significant damage. Some of these adverse changes included anemia, and suppression of bone marrow proliferation and abnormal lymphocyte changes consistent with some types of leukemia.
The researchers also found that one of the prevailing myths about the selective toxicity of Bt to insects, the target species, no longer holds true:
It has been reported that Cry toxins exert their toxicity when activated at alkaline pH of the digestive tract of susceptible larvae, and, because the physiology of the mammalian digestive system does not allow their activation, and no known specific receptors in mammalian intestinal cells have been reported, the toxicity these MCAs to mammals would negligible [8,22,23]. However, our study demonstrated that Bt spore-crystals genetically modified to express individually Cry1Aa, Cry1Ab, Cry1Ac or Cry2A induced hematotoxicity, particularly to the erythroid lineage. This finding corroborates literature that demonstrated that alkali-solubilized Bt spore-crystals caused in vitro hemolysis in cell lines of rat, mouse, sheep, horse, and human erythrocytes and suggested that the plasma membrane of susceptible cells (erythrocytes, in this case) may be the primary target for these toxins 
The study also found:
1) That Cry toxins are capable of exerting their adverse effects when suspended in distilled water, not requiring alkalinization via insect physiology to become activated as formerly believed.
2) That a dose of Cry1Ab as low as 27 mg/kg, their lowest tested dose, was capable of inducing hypochromic anemia in mice – the very toxin has been detected in blood of non-pregnant women, pregnant women and their fetuses in Canada, supposedly exposed through diet.
3) Whereas past reports have found that Bt toxins are generally nontoxic and do not bioaccumulate in fatty tissue or persist in the environment, the new study demonstrated that all Cry toxins tested had a more pronounced effect from 72 hours of exposure onwards, indicating the opposite is true.
The authors noted their results “demonstrate leukemogenic activity for other spore-crystals not yet reported in the literature.”
[R]esults showed that the Bt spore-crystals genetically modified to express individually Cry1Aa, Cry1Ab, Cry1Ac or Cry2A can cause some hematological risks to vertebrates,increasing their toxic effects with long-term exposure. Taking into account the increased risk of human and animal exposures to significant levels of these toxins, especially through diet, our results suggest that further studies are required to clarify the mechanism involved in the hematotoxicity found in mice, and to establish the toxicological risks to non-target organisms, especially mammals, before concluding that these microbiological control agents are safe for mammals.
Did you get that? Their conclusion is that it is premature to consider GM toxins to be safe in mammals. Billions have already been exposed to Bt toxins, in combination with glyphosate-based herbicide formulations such as Roundup, and yet, most biotech research scientists and industry regulators still claim they are unequivocally safe. This has much to do with the well-known relationship that biotech corporations like Monsanto have with so-called ‘check book’ science firms who are basically paid to obfuscate adverse health outcomes of their products, such as the GMO-Cancer link. [also see: Monsanto-Funded Science Denies Emerging Roundup Cancer Link]
Consider also that the question of combined toxicity of Cry toxins and glyphosate-based residues within plants have not been sufficiently explored, and that glyphosate exposure has already been linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma and hairy cell leukemia in the biomedical literature.[ii]
The reality is that we no longer have time to wait around for additional research to accumulate on the adverse health effects of GMOs, especially considering the biotech industry has far more capital to infuse into their own faux research on the topic.
Some, in fact, argue that we should not be waiting around for the corrupt legislative process to compel manufacturers to label GMOs, rather, we should be fighting to BAN THEM NOW, advocating for the precautionary principle before its too late.
In the meantime, you can join the growing movement to March Against Monsanto, occurring world wide on May 25th, as a way of expressing your desire for real change, as well as vote with your forks, the only immediately effective tool we have against biological and environmental gene-ocide articulated by the dominant GMO-based food system.
Additional important research resources on GreenMedInfo.com
Surprise! Monsanto-Funded Research Finds Their Products Safe
Health Guide: GMO Research
[i] Bélin Poletto Mezzomo, Ana Luisa Miranda-Vilela, Ingrid de Souza Freire, Lilian Carla Pereira Barbosa, Flávia Arruda Portilho. Hematotoxicity of Bacillus thuringiensis as Spore-crystal Strains Cry1Aa, Cry1Ab, Cry1Ac or Cry2Aa in Swiss Albino Mice. Journal of Hematology and Thromboembolic Diseases. 2013
[ii] Lennart Hardell, Mikael Eriksson, Marie Nordstrom. Exposure to pesticides as risk factor for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and hairy cell leukemia: pooled analysis of two Swedish case-control studies. Leuk Lymphoma. 2002 May;43(5):1043-9. PMID: 12148884
Historians may look back and write about how willing we are to sacrifice our children and jeopardize future generations with a massive experiment that is based on false promises and flawed science just to benefit the bottom line of a commercial enterprise.” So said Don Huber in referring to the use of glyphosate and genetically modified crops. Huber was speaking at Organic Connections conference in Regina, Canada, late 2012.
Huber is an emeritus professor in plant pathology at Purdue University in the US and has worked with the Department of Homeland Security to reduce the impact of plant disease outbreaks. His words are well worth bearing in mind given that a new study commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe (FoE) and GM Freeze has found that people in 18 countries across Europe have been found to have traces of glyphosate in their urine (1).
Friends of the Earth Europe commissioned laboratory tests on urine samples from volunteers in 18 countries across Europe and found that on average 44 percent of samples contained glyphosate. The proportion of positive samples varied between countries, with Malta, Germany, the UK and Poland having the most positive tests, and lower levels detected in Macedonia and Switzerland. All the volunteers who provided samples live in cities, and none had handled or used glyphosate products in the run-up to the tests.
The Influence of the Biotech Sector on Safety and Regulation
Although ‘weedkiller in urine’ sounds alarming, Tom Sanders, head of the nutritional sciences research division at King’s College London, says the levels found are unlikely to be of any significance to health because they are 300 times lower than the level which might cause concern. Alison Haughton, head of the Pollination Ecology Group at Rothamsted Research, said that if FoE and GM Freeze want their work to have scientific credibility and provide a genuine contribution to the debate on pesticide residues, they should submit their work for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Valid points, you might think. But FoE believes that there is sufficient evidence to suggest environmental and health impacts from glyphosate warrant concern. It wants to know how the glyphosate found in human urine samples has entered the body, what the impacts of persistent exposure to low levels of glyphosate might be and what happens to the glyphosate that remains in the body. New research published in the journal Entropy sheds disturbing light on such concerns (discussed later in this article).
In 2011, Earth Open Source said that official approval of glyphosate had been rash, problematic and deeply flawed. A comprehensive review of existing data released in June 2011 by Earth Open Source suggested that industry regulators in Europe had known for years that glyphosate causes birth defects in the embryos of laboratory animals. Questions were raised about the role of the powerful agro-industry in rigging data pertaining to product safety and its undue influence on regulatory bodies (2).
In the same vein, FoE says there is currently very little testing for glyphosate by public authorities, despite its widespread use, and authorities in Europe do not test for glyphosate in humans and tests on food are infrequent. Glyphosate was approved for EU-wide use in 2002, but FoE argues that the European regulatory agencies did not carry out their own safety testing, relying instead on data provided by the manufacturers.
Of course there are certain scientists (usually with links to the agro-industry) who always seem to be strident in calling for peer-reviewed evidence when people are critical of the biotech sector, but then rubbish it and smear or intimidate the scientists involved when that occurs, as has been the case with Dr Arsad Pusztai in the UK or Professor Seralini in France. It is therefore quite revealing that most of the data pertaining to glyphosate safety came from industry studies, not from peer-reviewed science, and the original data are not available for independent scrutiny.
With references to a raft of peer-reviewed studies, FoE also brings attention to the often disturbing health and environmental dangers and impacts of glyphosate-based herbicides throughout the world (1). The FoE study also highlights concerns around the increasing levels of exposure to glyphosate-based weed killers, particularly as the use of glyphosate is predicted to rise further if more genetically modified (GM) crops are grown. It is after all good for business. And the biggest producer of glyphosate is Monsanto, which sells it under the brand name ‘Roundup’.
“The figures don’t lie; GMOs drive glyphosate sales.” (3)
Despite its widespread use, there is currently little monitoring of glyphosate in food, water or the wider environment. The FoE commissioned study is the first time monitoring has been carried out across Europe for the presence of the weed killer in human bodies. FoE Europe’s spokesperson Adrian Bebb argues that there is a serious lack of action by public authorities and indicates that this weed killer is being widely overused.
This certainly needs to be addressed not least because the prediction concerning increasing exposure to glyphosate is not without substance. The introduction of Roundup Ready crops has already resulted in an increase of glyphosate use. Using official US government data, Dr Charles Benbrook, research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, states that since 1996 the glysophate rate of application per crop year has tripled on cotton farms, doubled in the case of soybeans and risen 39 percent on corn (4). The average annual increase in the pounds of glyphosate applied to cotton, soybeans, and corn has been 18.2 percent, 9.8 percent, and 4.3 percent, respectively, since herbicide tolerant crops were introduced.
Glyphosate is used on many genetically modified crops. 14 new GM crops designed to be cultivated with glyphosate are currently waiting for approval to be grown in Europe. Approval of these crops would inevitably lead to a further increase of glysphosate spraying. In the US, biotech crops, including corn, soybeans, canola and sugarbeets, are planted on millions of acres annually.
Evidence suggests that Roundup could be linked to a range of health problems and diseases, including Parkinson’s, infertility and cancers, according to a new peer-reviewed report, published recently in the scientific journal Entropy (5). The study also concluded that residues of glyphosate have been found in food.
These residues enhance the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and toxins in the environment to disrupt normal body functions and induce disease, according to the report, authored by Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Anthony Samsel, a science consultant. The study says that negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.
In 2010, the provincial government of Chaco province in Argentina issued a report on health statistics from the town La Leonesa. The report showed that from 2000 to 2009, following the expansion of genetically-modified soy and rice crops in the region (and the use of glyphosate), the childhood cancer rate tripled in La Leonesa and the rate of birth defects increased nearly fourfold over the entire province (6).
Professor Huber also notes the health risks associated with the (increasing) use of glyphosate. He says a number of plant pathogens are emerging, which when consumed could impact human health. Based on research that he alludes to (he refuses to make his research public or identify his fellow researchers, who he claims could suffer substantial professional backlash from academic employers who received research funding from the biotechnology industry), Huber notes that the use of glyphosate changes the soil ecology, killing many bacteria, while giving other bacteria a competitive advantage. This makes plants highly susceptible to soil borne diseases. At the same time, glyphosate has a negative effect on a number of beneficial soil organisms (7).
Huber’s concerns about the impact of long term use of glyphosate on soil sterility are similar to concerns expressed by Elaine Ingham, a soil ecologist with the Rodale Institute, and also research carried out in by Navdanya in India (8).
As for GM crops, Huber says they have lower water use efficiency, tend to be nutrient deficient, have increased bud and fruit abortion and are predisposed to infectious diseases and insect damage. He suggests that Roundup Ready crops, treated with glyphosate, have higher levels of mycotoxins and lower nutrient levels than conventional crops.
“… you could say that what you’re doing with glyphosate is you’re giving the plant a bad case of AIDS. You’ve shut down the immune system or the defense system.” Professor Ron Huber (7)
He concludes that, when consumed, the GM crops were more likely to cause disease, infertility, birth defects, cancer and allergic reactions than conventional crops.
Huber claims that consumption of food or feed that was genetically modified could bring the altered genes in contact with the microbes in the guts of the livestock or people who eat them. He feels this increases diseases, such as celiac disease, allergies, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, gluten intolerance, irritable bowel disease, miscarriage, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome.
While none of these findings conclusively prove that plant (or animal) diseases are caused by the glyphosate, Huber feels safety evaluations have been inadequate, suggesting that previous (GM sector) research was substandard and extremely misleading in its interpretation of results – or worse.
With some hugely powerful players involved here, many of whom have successfully infiltrated important government and official bodies (9), much of the science and the ensuing debate surrounding glyphosate is being manipulated and hijacked by vested interests for commercial gain.
“… publishing in this area can also be difficult. I know from the International Symposium on Glyphosate that they had to find a journal publisher outside this country (the US) to publish the research data and symposium proceedings. It’s pretty hard to get it published in the States. There are also some hazards to publishing if you’re a young researcher doing research that runs counter to the current popular concepts. A lot of research on safety of genetic engineering is done outside of this country because it’s difficult to gain access to the materials, or the statements you have to sign to have access to those materials stating that you won’t publish without permission of the supplier. I think the 26 entomologists who sent their letter to EPA in 2009 stated it aptly when they said that objective data wasn’t available to the EPA because the materials haven’t been available to them or that they’re denied the opportunity to publish their data.” Professor Ron Huber (7)
The most hated company in the world right now isn’t a member of Big Oil. It’s not a shady Internet company or a bailed-out megabank. Populist discontent toward dirty energy, high-tech snoops, and greedy bankers has occasionally been fierce, but it’s never been laser-focused like the outrage that drew an estimated (by the organizers) 2 million protesters to anti-Monsanto rallies in more than 50 countries at the end of May.
Think about that. If those numbers are accurate, a single private company drew almost as many protesters in a single day as the worldwide Occupy movement at its peak. Monsanto didn’t even have to bankrupt any economies or leech billions of dollars off taxpayers. All it took was three little letters: GMO.
What is GMO?
You probably know something about GMOs, which stands for genetically modified organisms, since it’s as closely associated with Monsanto as “IRS” is with taxes. The popular definition of a GMO is (according to Wikipedia) “an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.” If you want to get pedantic about this definition, humankind has been genetically modifying organisms ever since the first nomads settled down to grow crops, since virtually nothing we eat today is the same exact plant or animal (or Twinkie) it was 10,000 years ago. But that’s not why everyone’s afraid of Monsanto. Monsanto is scary because — in the eyes of detractors — it’s compressing 10,000 years of genetic adaptations into 10 years of mad science.
The history of commercialized GMO foods as we now know them began just two decades ago, with an “enhanced” tomato that was so unprofitable to produce that its developer wound up selling itself to Monsanto. Since then, other developments have embedded GMOs into a rather substantial part of the world’s food supply.
Source : ISAAA Brief on Global Status of Commercialized Biotech Crops, 2012.
Total global cropland, by comparison, amounts to roughly 1.5 billion hectares, so GMOs now take up more than 11% of all cropland in the world. ISAAA — the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a pro-GMO nonprofit supported in part by Monsanto’s funding — says that GMOs have made 100-fold gains in terms of planted cropland since 1996. The United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India comprise the lion’s share of GMO cropland, as more than 152 million of the world’s 170 million GMO hectares are found in those five countries.
All of this adds up to big business. The six largest seed-and-weed companies — which typically pair specially engineered seeds with herbicides that often eliminate any plants not attuned to their unique chemical structure — accounted for close to $50 billion in global sales across their various product lines in 2009, the last year for which complete data was available:
Seed + Trait Sales
Global Seed Market Share
Global Agrochemical Market Share
Total Agro-Tech R&D Spending
Fear of a mod planet
A quick search of “GMO” will turn up all sorts of scaremonger websites, with all sorts of frightening claims that when you eat a Monsanto-developed crop, you’re consigning yourself to a short, sickly life of gastrointestinal (or just general) agony. Cancer, allergic reactions, liver problems, sterility, and even the unnatural modification of your genes — these are just the claims I found on the website of the Institute for Responsible Technology, which purports to be a leading anti-GMO advocacy group. I won’t go into some of the anti-Monsanto conspiracy theories you’ll find bandied about on less reputable corners of the Internet.
It may not be easy to debunk all of these claims, but thanks to extensive national medical records, we can at least see how close to the mark they may strike. Since America was the earliest adopter of GMO foodstuffs, and is now the world’s predominant grower and consumer of GMO crops, it should be experiencing the worst of the purported GMO health problems.
Are we more cancerous today than we were in 1996? Actually, not by a long shot:
The results are even more pronounced when focusing on cancers of the stomach, colon, and rectum, which all show a persistent and significant downtrend throughout the entire tracked period across race and gender divisions. If we’re eating ourselves to death, shouldn’t our digestive systems be the most damaged by these Frankenfoods? Cancer statistics don’t back up anti-GMO claims at all, and with more than 16 years in the food supply, you’d expect there to be a statistically significant change. The one statistically significant spike on these graphs, occurring around 1990, is often blamed on the Chernobyl disaster.
There has been an increase in death rates from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis in recent years, by about one person per 100,000 from 1999 to 2010 — but keep in mind that these liver problems are typically alcohol-related. Simply noting a slight statistical uptick isn’t enough to blame on modified crops. People might just be binge-drinking more.
Food allergies, however, might be a different story:
The little disclaimer at the bottom reads “statistically significant trend,” and the prevalence of food allergies among children increased by 18% from 1997 to 2007. That’s rather notable. The average number of food-allergy-related hospital visits per year also spiked toward the end of the tracking period, from only 2,600 per year in 2000 to more than 9,500 in 2006. On its own, this may not be enough to blame on GMOs — except for soy, none of the foodstuffs on the CDC’s list of common food allergens is a known GMO crop (although wheat appears headed in that direction). The body may react to one type of food by increasing its reaction severity to other types, but the interplay between these factors is complex and not easily reduced to a simple cause-and-effect relationship.
Other noted health problems — here I refer to a long essay by Earth Open Source, no more an impartial observer than the ISAAA (impartiality is all but impossible to come by in the GMO debate) — include toxin contamination from the overuse of herbicides on GMOs modified for herbicide resistance, stomach lesions, and adverse immune reactions in mice, liver and kidney abnormalities in rats … well, it goes on like this. You can read about the effects in detail at this link, beginning on page 37 (PDF opens in new window). If you can name an ailment, there’s probably a study somewhere that has traced its cause to GMOs. Yet the world continues to live longer. U.S. life expectancy has increased from 76 years in 1996 to 78.6 years in 2011, and global life expectancy has increased from 66.4 to nearly 69 years in the same time period. If we’re less healthy, we sure are coping with it more effectively.
There has to be a reason farmers keep using GMOs. The most obvious would be that the end product — that is, the stuff you eventually eat — would yield more per planting (that is, per acre), which should result in lower costs at the consumer level. To the extent that this is true, it can’t be credited to the adoption of GMO seed, as yield improvements and price declines began long before Monsanto got into the seed business:
Soybean yields haven’t grown quite as impressively but have still doubled on a per-acre basis over the same time frame. Cotton yields have also soared over the past several decades. GMO crops had nothing to do with it — old-fashioned hybridization, improved production techniques and infrastructures, and the spread of these two important developments around the world created a modern agricultural revolution after the Second World War. GMO crops might be in the process of extending that revolution today, but they may not. Few processes are so simple that a simple tweaking of one element can completely explain a change in another.
GMOs can’t claim to have reduced crop costs through efficiency gains, either. Since commercial introduction in 1996, two of the three major crops planted have nearly doubled in price:
Ultimately, this is probably good for farmers, but bad for everyone else. Not only are you buying Frankenfoods that will wreck your health, but you’re also paying twice as much for the privilege. Agriculture can be so cruel. (Yes, that was tongue-in-cheek.)
Monsanto itself claims that GMOs benefit farmers through increased yield, greater insect and disease protection, and drought and heat resistance. The modified crops also conserve the soil, minimize the use of herbicides, and reduce the energy used in the growing process.
I’ve already shown that yields have been increasing for decades, so Monsanto is at best merely continuing a long-running trend, and at worst piggybacking on other improvements to make disingenuous claims. Herbicides and fertilizers have shipped in more than 35% greater quantities this year over the volumes seen in 1996. Fertilizer, as you might expect, is one significant part of increasing crop yields. Since fertilizers are quite energy-intensive to make (many are derived from natural gas) and can be damaging to soil quality over time, this one factor tends to disprove a number of Monsanto’s claims:
The increased use of herbicide designed to work with GMOs (and vice versa) appears to be creating strains of “superweeds” that actively resist the chemicals. Nature tends not to sit idly by while scientists try to pound it into submission. The long-term consequences of an arms race between chemical-cum-GMO producers and the invasive species they want to push out of farm fields could very possibly result in damages beyond the circumstantial ones I’ve already highlighted.
The only real claim that I can’t disprove (or at least weigh down with caveats) is that of drought and heat resistance, mostly because it’s not easy to find data on the claim in either direction. Reducing water use is no small feat in a world quite obviously enduring a period of abnormal heat and drought. However, this alone can’t answer for the fact that something should be done about widespread droughts beyond the creation of GMOs that drink just a little bit less water — particularly if these GMOs result in the indirect use of more water by herbicide-resistant weeds.
How do you solve a problem like Monsanto?
It’s tempting to reduce complex issues into outraged sound bites, like “GMOs are killing people!” or “GMOs are feeding the world!” The truth, as always, isn’t quite so easy.
The threat of tainted food — whether by chemicals or through genetic manipulation — is a cause that arouses outrage at a pitch few other causes will ever muster. The threat of a shadowy corporation with its fingers buried in the heart of our food supply only heightens this outrage, and Monsanto’s heavy-handed efforts at control have done nothing to soften its public image. However, the science of GMOs has been carried out in a highly ideological way on both sides, which doesn’t help when all you want is the truth.
It seems that GMOs will inevitably become a larger part of our food supply, because the corporate motivator in the United States has proved to be stronger than the citizen motivator in recent years. A few protests won’t change that. It will take concerted, long-running national efforts to change diets and attitudes before Monsanto and its peers are forced to loosen their grip on American farmlands. If you choose to be one of the people on the vanguard of that effort, make sure that you understand the science as it is, and not as you’d like it to be.
Are we less healthy today than we were two decades ago? It’s possible, even though most of the statistics don’t show that. Is it all Monsanto’s fault? Probably not.
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The article Why Is Monsanto the Most Hated Company in the World? originally appeared on Fool.com.