RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Industrial Ag Chips Away at Democracy

On Tuesday, March 4, 2014, the comment period closed on a USDA regulation on co-existence of non-GMO crops with GMO crops. This “co-existence” would mean that if a GMO crop pollutes a non-GMO crop, it’s up to the polluted-upon to defend him/herself. That is, confusingly, against any other areas of law. Up until now, the trespasser is responsible, not the trespassed-upon.

A week later, comments closed on approval of 2,4D-resistant crops. Those would be crops that can resist applications of 2,4D, a powerful poison that kills weeds but also damages human health. Monsanto and Dow Chemical, in a unique relationship, are asking for that approval because Monsanto’s go-to herbicide, Roundup, has lost its power to kill weeds. In fact, the new, resistant weeds, are super tough. Their stalks can go through tractor tires and completely wreck a $500,000 combine as it makes its harvest.

Both these comment periods were important because the organic industry is under threat. Shiploads of organic grains are being refused by buyers because of pollution from neighboring GMO crops. Years of organic certification are endangered.

Little by little, bit by bit, industrial row-crop agriculture has been able to chip away at democracy in the United States. Their tools have been financial — the promise of high-paying jobs to political appointees and elected officials — and legal, with carefully planned wins in court that have built a nearly impermeable fortress for their products. And, with those financial and legal tools, you can add the most important tool of all: confusion, for both regulators and consumers.

Confusion has been the most vital of all the strategies of big row-crop ag. It comes to us today in the form of “we feed the world” messages that mask the fact that big ag doesn’t grow food except maybe a little high-fructose corn syrup. They grow, instead, soybeans for biodiesel and corn for ethanol.

And their claims of higher yields and less chemical use, picked up by the likes of the Gates foundation for export into Africa, have also come under attack. In a 2009 report, “Failure to Yield,” by Union of Concerned Scientists expert Doug Gurian-Sherman, the conclusion was, “Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase US crop yields.” As for chemical use, really, wasn’t increasing chemical use the point? Why would Monsanto want to sell LESS chemicals? Anyway, Food and Water Watch has produced a good report, full of graphs and charts, to demonstrate how chemical use has gone up as more GMOs are planted. That report was convincing enough to be picked up by Forbes, the pro-business website.

Confusion is a mighty tool. For the first patenting of the first GMO soybean, which involved inserting a petunia and a bacteria gene into the normal soybean DNA, the 1990s argument by patent lawyers went something like, “these are different…they resist an herbicide … they deserve to be patented” while, at the same time, the argument to the FDA was, “these are the same as ordinary soybeans … they don’t need special testing … they’re just like any others.”

Looking back in case law, GMO patenting followed a direct line that protected original plant hybridizing, but GMOs are not the same as hybrids. Hybrids are crosses of different strains of the same plant; hybridizers hope that crossing a red petunia and a frilly petunia cross will yield a frilly, red petunia.

But distinctions like the difference between a hybrid and GMOs are lost on lawmakers. By 2001, the Supreme Court was ruling in J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int’l, Inc. that ANY seed could be patented. And, in 2012, that decision was affirmed in the Bowman case. With each affirmation in case law, it becomes harder to fix the problem.

It’s been plant generations since the first soybeans. Today’s beans and corn have genes that have been “stacked” so that they resist not one but two herbicides—like Roundup and dicamba. In corn, they might not only resist herbicides but also kill rootworms and/or corn borers. These stacked varieties can cross with other varieties, yielding even more strange combinations. And we’ll be feeding them to our kids, or our kids’ pet hamsters, without safety testing.

Yet, the FDA is still pretending that these inserted genes are normal and safe. And consumers, the most victimized and most confused, still believe that the FDA is testing new products and protecting us.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to fight back. One is to find a farmer and ask him/her how s/he grows food. It’s April, and Farmers’ Markets are opening again, so farmers will be easier to find than last month. Another is, if you absolutely, positively cannot find someone to look in the eye, is to buy food labeled “USDA organic” or “GMO-free.”

The government isn’t going to do this for us. We need to fight confusion on our own.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2014

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