The rest of the story


The newest tool for corporate domination of agriculture -- to the detriment of farmers and consumers -- is biotechnology. It "will make the Industrial Revolution pale by comparison," Austen Cargill, top scientist at Minneapolis-based Cargill, Inc., told the New York Times. The fact is that we are probably eating gene altered food every day.

Biotechnology is the primary driving force behind the mergers, acquisitions and research and development investment by huge multinationals which are morphing the agricultural chemical and seed industries into the pharmaceutical industry. For example, Monsanto, formerly considered an agricultural chemical company, has transformed itself into a biotechnology company through acquisitions of companies such as Calgene (FlavrSavr tomato), Holdens Foundation Seeds and a 40 percent stake in DeKalb Seed Company. Other examples of morphing biotech monoliths are DuPont -- the chemical company that has acquired a 20 percent stake in Pioneer HiBred International -- Dow Chemical, Novartis AG, and Rhone Poulenc. In fact, the Biotechnology Industry Association has 750 members, and poses a formidable lobbying force on Capitol Hill.

Agricultural biotechnology companies have made huge inroads into the marketplace for their GMO (genetically modified organisms) products. The New York Times recently reported that Monsanto expects U.S. farmers to plant 20 million acres of its Roundup Ready soybeans -- up from 9 million acres in 1997. Monsanto is introducing Roundup Ready corn in 1998 and expects 600,000 acres to be planted in the U.S. Additionally, the company predicts that 40 percent of the U.S. cotton crop will be planted to some type of GMO cotton seed. Bt corn (GMO corn which contains a gene from the bacteria, Bacillus thuringus) is also in widespread use due to its ability to actually produce a pesticide which kills the European corn borer, a common crop pest. Crop producers in other countries are also jumping on the bandwagon including those in Argentina and South Africa.

The unfortunate fact is that farmers are enriching and legitimizing the biotech companies through purchases of these GMO products. This is big money for several reasons: (1) the tremendous volume of seed sold; (2) the price of the seed is high; (3) an additional "technology fee" is paid over and above the price of the many seeds; and (4) additional herbicide is sold to apply to herbicide resistant plants. These herbicides include Roundup, Atrazine and Buctril.

The biotechnology revolution will drive more farmers off the land due to increasing failure of family farm-based production agriculture. The reason is that farmers are enticed by industry hucksterism to operate highly capitalized operations. The capital-intensive nature of production is possible only through debt acquisition requiring a stream of payments back to the lender to service the debt. Commodity price risk and production risk are taken on entirely by the producer. Low commodity price years, such as this year, render farmers unable to service the debt and they are driven off the land. Biotechnology accelerates this trend.

The federal government is actively promoting biotechnology through corporate welfare programs, advocacy and refusals to regulate. The USDA has taken steps to streamline the commercialization process for GMO crops with the result being an absence of supervision of private field tests and a total reliance on industry data regarding safety. The FDA has bowed to corporate pressure in refusing to require the labeling of food containing GMO products despite the fact that public health is threatened by carcinogenic, allergenic or toxic substances which may be unintended consequences of gene adulteration.

Aside from the agricultural structure issue, biotechnology poses large potential public health and environmental threats. This threat was spelled out as early as 1984, when then-Representative Albert Gore's Science and Technology subcommittee's report, "Environmental Implications of Genetic Engineering," discussed the likelihood of "low probability, high consequence" events that could cause genuine peril to health and the environment.

One example of how the public health is threatened is by the increased chemical residue caused by the increased ability to spray crops with toxic herbicides. For example, Rhône Poulenc developed a bromoxynil resistant cotton. Bromoxynil (sold under the trade name Buctril) kills weeds and also damages non-GMO cotton. The chemical is a recognized carcinogen and developmental toxin for humans. Rhône Poulenc's GMO cotton provides herbicide resistance allowing increased application of this toxin to cotton fields. The chemical leaves a dangerous residue in fields at harvest. Luckily, the EPA has recently denied Rhône Poulenc's petition to extend the use of the herbicide last December due to the hazardous amounts of residue left by the herbicide treatment.

Recent research from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Harvard School of Public Health, and McGill University in Montreal shows that Monsanto's bovine growth hormone (BGH), the controversial GMO product administered to cows to increase milk production, may cause cancer of the breast, colon and prostate in humans. The milk from BGH treated cows contains increased levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). IGF-1 is closely linked to cancer in humans. Dr. Samuel Epstein at the University of Illinois at Chicago stated, "In short, with the active complicity of the FDA, the entire nation is currently being subjected to an experiment involving large-scale adulteration of an age-old dietary staple by a poorly characterized and unlabeled biotechnology product (BGH). Disturbingly, this experiment benefits only a very small segment of the agrichemical industry while providing no matching benefits to consumers."

Genetic or biological pollution -- migration of altered genetics into other plant varieties or species -- is also a proven hazard, despite the denials of industry. There are many past instances of negative impacts to the environment when man introduces non-native species into an ecosystem. GMO crops -- in contrast -- introduce non-native genetics into an ecosystem. Danish scientists have shown that genes from transgenic oilseed rape (canola) move quickly into weedy populations in two generations. The herbicide tolerant genetics were transferred to the weeds thereby creating resistant "superweeds".

Bt cotton produces a pesticide which kills certain insect pests. Unfortunately, the insects develop resistance to the Bt toxin relatively quickly. The EPA currently requires that certain refuges of non-Bt cotton be planted to dilute any genetic resistance of insects. However, a recent study shows that the resistant "superbugs" can develop much more quickly than previously thought. Thus, some groups are calling on the EPA to increase the acreage required to be planted to non-Bt cotton to prevent or slow the development of resistant "superbugs."

In spite of these risks, the USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service and the FDA are lobbying international organizations to deprive consumers of information that the food they eat is genetically altered. For example, the Codex Alimentarius commission of the international Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization has a committee on food labeling which meets periodically in Ottawa to develop international labeling standards. The USDA and FDA have been at odds with citizen groups in pressing the Codex commission to determine that no labeling of GMO is "scientifically justified".

The biotechnology revolution is accelerating the demise of the family farm and depriving consumers of the right to intelligently choose their food. The long-term carcinogenic, allergenic and environmental consequences of GMO products must be determined before multinational profiteering is allowed unconstrained. The "precautionary principle" needs to be applied to the commercialization of GMO products. In other words, the high risks of this technology justify the approach that the industry should bear the burden of proof of safety -- the public should not have the burden to prove lack of safety.

Family farmers need to opt for a profitable, low-input model of production agriculture which provides healthy and nutritious food to the public while allowing farmers to continue as stewards of the land. The public must be protected from unintended health consequences of genetic adulteration. The environment should not be subjected to "gene pollution" or increased application of herbicides for corporate profit. Lastly, the public is entitled to the proper labeling of GMO food so they can choose to buy naturally produced products as opposed to the products of agri-biotechnology.

The Gene Exchange, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), provides very good ongoing information as to the commercialization and patenting of new biotech products as well as the newest research relating to problems caused by GMO species. The UCS website is at

Michael Stumo is a former farmer now practicing law in Connecticut on sustainable food industry issues. He can be reached at P.O. Box 761, Winsted, CT 06098 or email

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