By MICHAEL STUMO
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
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 http://www.ucs.org.
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 email@example.com.
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