In 1996, biotech seeds were introduced into the American farmers' workplace. These seeds, also called genetically modified organisms (GMO), genetically engineered (GE), transgenic, recombinant and other names that indicate that the seeds have been modified in a laboratory, quickly became a profit center for the companies.
The big prize for the biotech industry, however, is appropriation of genetic material. Claiming ownership over genetic structures is, indeed, the major goal of the "Life Sciences" industry. When you read that the FDA has tentatively approved cloned animals as food animals, read the news as another step in the corporate plan to take ownership over new life forms. These food animals will not ever benefit family farmers. Indeed, at thousands of dollars per animal, they will forever be the property of investors and corporations.
For a peek at what's to come in the animal industry, let's review the history of biotech seeds:
Patenting the genetic structure of seeds is sometimes called the privatization of seeds. Seeds are the most basic part of the world food chain. All over the world, saving the best seeds for re-planting has helped farmers and communities develop varieties best suited for their own particular ecosystems. These seeds would be proven to grow best in certain soils or under certain weather conditions -- extreme heat, cold, drought, etc. -- of the area.
Like the breeding of superior animals, seed production was a matter of community pride as well as survival. Early American farmers shared their best seeds with their neighbors because wind carries pollen for miles and they wanted the crops that cross-pollinated with their own to be the best possible. There are ancient Sanskrit writings that counsel that to not save seeds is a sin, and it has puzzled some relief workers (not farmers) that famine-struck farmers will often starve rather than eating the seeds they have saved for next year's harvest.
To close observers, watching the development of seed patents has been like standing on shore watching a ship head for a dangerous reef. We yell and jump around but terrible things have happened. As the ship hit the rocks, farmers have banded with environmentalists to ask for two things: (1) That industry test the new crops before unleashing them on the world; (2) That polluters, including those that allow biotech pollen to ruin traditional crops, pay to clean up after themselves.
Because industry has not followed these two principles, thousands of strains of corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and canola have been replaced by a few patented strains developed by company chemists. These biotech seeds have cross-pollinated with traditional crops so that there are few original seed genetic pools left. This has reduced the biodiversity of crop genetics.
From the beginning, the biotech industry has promised benefits but never delivered. In mid-Missouri, with Monsanto headquarters just a few counties to our east, near St. Louis, it was easy for biotech promoters to get their message out. Yearly public meetings sponsored by the University of Missouri Extension in every county have featured seed salespersons and scientists from the university's Life Sciences department. Within the first year of introduction of the patented biotech seeds, established Missouri companies that cleaned seeds for replanting found that their business had gone to zero. Thus, farmers were no longer saving the best seeds from their own fields to re-plant.
Thanks to patenting and the promises of better yields and less work, industry has taken over the canola, corn, cotton and soybean seed businesses. Farmers that have tried to save their own seeds are at risk for lawsuits. If the seeds farmers harvested and saved are found to have patented gene structures in them, the farmer may be sued for gene-theft. As of Jan. 1, 2005, according to a study by the Center for Food Safety, "Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers in 25 states that involve 147 farmers and 39 small businesses or farm companies. Monsanto has set aside an annual budget of $10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers."
Vandana Shiva tells the story about India, which made treaty agreements in 1998 to "open its seed sector" to Cargill, Monsanto and Syngenta. As a result, farmers that had saved seeds all their lives were forced to buy seed, and to go into debt to cover this new cost. When their cotton crops failed, the Indian farmers were unable to pay their debts. A pattern of farmer suicides emerged. In 2004, 16,000 farmers committed suicide in India.
The failure to provide benefits has led American farmers to refuse to plant biotech wheat (North Dakota) and rice (Missouri). If biotech firms were operating in a free-market economy, those seed patents would be failing. However, because there is government money available to patenting companies, the work to create new "Frankenseeds" continues. This further exacerbates the farmer's situation: Their own tax money is being used to put them out of business.
Like genetically engineered seeds, no consumers have asked for cloned animals. The new animals offer no advantages over naturally-bred animals on family farms. What they're good for, according to what we've seen so far, is patenting life and creating profit for a major corporation.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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