RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen

The Farmer in the Deal

All those who think biotechnology is the answer to feeding the future human billions, raise your hands.

OK. You, there, in the back of the room. This column's for you.

Apparently you've been reading the dis-information campaign that's being conducted by the university hacks and industry flaks writing letters-to-the-editor for the Wall Street Journal. Let me point it out: These guys have an agenda, and it's not feeding the masses. Feeding the masses is spin. You know, like when the deodorant company says you'll get a boyfriend if you wear their brand? Or the politicians say, "Define sex." It's like that. There's a real definition, and they know it, but they're not telling.

And in that spirit, let's pause for a real definition:

"Genetic engineering involves taking a gene from one species and splicing it into another to transfer a desired trait. This could not occur in nature where the transfer of genetic traits is limited by the natural barriers that exist between different species and in this way genetic engineering is completely new and incomparable to traditional animal and plant breeding techniques. Genetic engineering is also called biotechnology. Another name for genetically engineered crops is genetically modified organisms (GMOs)." (From Luke Anderson's Genetic Engineering, published by Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction, Vermont.)

In other words, GMOs aren't anything Luther Burbank, crossing tall peas with short peas, would have created. GMO creators put fish genes into tomatoes so they would ship better and bacteria genes into potatoes so the potatoes are permeated with their own pesticide, then the GMO creators patent the result and charge farmers for the new combinations. And the GMO pollen infects any nearby farmer's old species so that, in just one season, all the old, home-grown, free species are wiped out.

The truth is that biotech -- aka genetic engineering or GMO -- is about profit. Corporation profit. Now a group of farmers has called Wall Street's GMO bluff.

The farmers' class action suit against Monsanto and other "Life Sciences" companies was filed December 14, 1999, in U.S. District Court. Six families from Indiana, Iowa and the country of France have joined in the suit. They claim that Monsanto and seed companies DuPont, Novartis and Pioneer have conspired to monopolize the seed industry, developing GMO seeds that add nothing to the farmer's ability to feed the world.

Yields are down or neutral, consumer acceptance is down or neutral, and -- guess what! -- the only winner in the game has been the companies that hold the patents. What's more, the patents aren't designed to make better food. One patent -- the Roundup-Ready modification -- has always been for the sole purpose of selling Roundup herbicide, the patent being held by Monsanto. Get it?

The farmers' suit further claims that Monsanto rushed the products to market without adequate safety testing for risks to human health and the environment. That's a no-brainer. After Bt-corn seeds, with the ability to produce their own pesticide, had been planted all over the Corn Belt, someone figured out that as well as killing a corn pest larva, they kill all butterfly larva that comes in their contact.

And the farmers claim that they've lost markets. Well, yeah, another no-brainer. Consumers are going to wonder whether or not to eat stuff that's never been on the planet before. Unless, of course, consumers aren't told that what they're eating has been genetically modified. After all, our corn chips and taco shells look the same as always, and our salad dressing, ice cream, and everything else with soybeans in it tastes the same as always. So who's gonna know?

Fortunately for American consumers, some groups did think there was a difference. The protest started in Japan, where soybeans are a big protein staple. Pretty soon, European consumers started questioning the safety of GMO foods. And now, the worries have spread to our own technology-loving nation.

After all, technology boosted by petrochemicals gave us doubled yields during World War II. Hybrid seeds -- created by crossing one kind of plant with a relative of the another breed, like crossing tall peas with short peas or a poodle with a cocker spaniel -- has given new vigor to some inbred crops and animal breeds.

And all the other things we love are a product of science and technology -- our computers, our Silverados, and even our beloved antique Allis-Chalmers tractors. We're so accustomed to trusting science and technology that it's taken a long time for the questions to surface.

But the farmers have always had questions about biotech. Good questions. And that's the most troubling part of this problem. The farmers' questions have been trivialized by the big seed companies and the universities, meaning that the bond of trust between those who give farmers information and the information-seekers has been corrupted by Industry.

Here's my personal story: On January 29, 1998, the University of Missouri Extension Service (slogan: Knowledge Working for Missourians) sponsored in my county the 74th Callaway County Soils and Crops Conference. In a session called "Herbicide Biotechnology Panel: Roundup Ready Soybeans and Liberty Link Corn," we received information on Roundup-Ready soybeans from a sales rep from Monsanto.

At first, the sales rep tried to answer questions from the farmers present. Wouldn't weeds develop resistance? What about the extra expense of buying seed every year and applying big doses of herbicide? What is the longterm effect on land? The sales rep gave her reassurances, but after a few challenges she gave up and used the time to run through a prepared sales pitch with overhead transparencies. That's it. That was our extension-sponsored program on biotech.

Farmers are professionals who need to hear both sides. There was, even then, research to disagree with the evidence promoted by Monsanto. There were questions from consumers and from marketing people. But the Extension Agents sat in the audience, their heads bowed, silent. They let us down.

It's become a commonplace situation in this country that the information people are corrupted by business interests. Look at our news media for an example. Time-Warner Brothers? Don't make me laugh.

And the regulators break down, so that the next joke becomes anti-trust regulations, environmental regulations, labor safety regulations, public health regulations and so forth.

Finally, there are the courts. And this is what the farmers' suit is all about. Follow it closely, Dear Reader, your future as an eater depends on the outcome.

McMillen farms and teaches in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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