Saturday, March 28, 2009

Starring Monsanto as the Big Bad Wolf!

This recent Slate article by James McWilliams posits that GMO and organic forces need not be at odds with each other, and that genetically modified crops could be good for the environment. I agree with his premise, but note the rampant use of the word "could" in his piece. The way things stand now, it's unlikely that these two entitites will be working together anytime soon. And here's why: The aims of the GMO behemoths like Monsanto and organic farmers are at odds with each other.

Monsanto's only goal is to make lots of money by any means possible. Of course, organic farmers want to make money, too, but their ethics underlie their efforts. Monsanto's genetic modifications solve short-term problems by making their seeds resistant to drought and to pesticides like Roundupwhich is sold by Monsanto, of course. McWilliams doesn't mention the problematic notion of corporations patenting seeds, a concept that directly contradicts the tenets of organic farming, which encourages plant diversity, preserving unique and heirloom varieties, and most important, saving seed.

Monsanto sells its patented GMO seed to farmers with the caveat that they are not allowed to save any seeds to plant again the next year, forcing customers to buy new seed every year from the only provider available. Even farmers who don't buy genetically modified seeds can't protect their crops from cross-pollination with GMO crops, which are becoming widespread, so their harvest ends up containing Monsanto's patented genetic material. Monsanto legally owns any seed that contain those genes, so they canand dosue farmers essentially for replanting their own seed. In many states, corporate operatives are legally allowed to wander onto farms without permission and take samples to spy on farmers, although some remarkable individuals are fighting back like this North Dakota collective.

Science is a wonderful thing. I'm right in line with Obama's cheerleading; we absolutely should "restore science to its rightful place." Bioengineering has the potential to contribute the amazing benefits McWilliams describes, and then some. But as it stands right now, I would be suspicious of any claims made by GMO folks that include dicey terms like "organic" or "humanitarian." Take the controversial golden rice, for example, which is a genetically modified grain containing additional beta-carotene, designed for farmers in poor nations to help allay Vitamin A deficiency, a particular problem for certain populations in Africa and Southeast Asia. It sure makes for good PR, but golden rice has met with plenty of opposition.

No one is disputing that world hunger is a profound problem; what some take issue with is its oversimplification. The truth is that there's more than enough food in the world to feed all 6.7 billion of us. The problems are availability, distribution, poverty, corrupt governments, and loss of biodiversity. Some scientists make the point that golden rice treats just one symptom rather than the source of malnutrition and argue that it could even increase Vitamin A deficiency in the long run. And even though this "wonder grain" is touted as a humanitarian tool, it's no surprise that the Syngenta corporation, which holds intellectual property rights, is looking to make a fortune out of this situation.

This situation sounds very familiar to me. I used to work for a global non-profit organization that brought technology education to developing countries. They did great work and expanded quickly. When Microsoft became a major funder, they started suggesting nations where they wanted us to direct ourr efforts. We discovered that the areas they targeted were ones where open-source was gaining a foothold, and it became clear that they were scrambling to make these populations reliant on their proprietary software so they could make money off them later. Unsurprisingly, much of their support came in the form of Microsoft products. As with agribusiness, we were looking at corporate PR and strong-arm tactics in the guise of humanitarianism.

GMOs run rampant here in the US. In fact, you can bet that whatever you ate today has some genetically modified ingredients unless they're explicitly labeled otherwise. Note that the FDA actively discourages labels to alert consumers to GMOs in our food. I'm not against GMOs in principle, but I do object to the way they are developed and used here. Monsanto has spent countless dollars and months trying to ban labels that identify milk as hormone-free; other biotech companies won't let independent scientists research the environmental impact of their products. So far the bigwigs are using these powerful genetic tools as little more than a get-rich-quick scheme. On the other hand, true organic farming has been working for centuries to feed people and animals with delicious, nutritious food in a sustainable manner. Score one for organic.

No comments: