On March 3rd 1998, a US patent was granted to an American cotton seed company, the Delta and Pine Land Company, in conjunction with the US Department of Agriculture for a technique that genetically disables a seed’s capacity to produce seeds which will germinate when planted. This means that any plant grown from a seed with this genetic manipulation will produce only sterile seeds, seeds that will not grow if planted. At present, only cotton and tobacco seeds have shows to respond to this technique, but the company plans to have the technology ready for a much wider range of crops shortly after the year 2000.
The expansion of this technology will tie in nicely with agri-business companies current patenting of genetic modifications. They technically own certain types of life! And it is in their best economic interest to be able to protect their patents, to not allow others to grow “their” forms of life without buying the seeds from the agri-business company that holds the patent of that particular genetically modified form of life. One such giant agri-business company who is a leader in genetic engineering is Monsanto. Currently Monsanto is relying on contracts that must be signed by any farmer who wants to grow a Monsanto-owned genetically modified crop. The contract states that the farmer agrees to sell all of their crop, saving no seed with which to plant future crops. Of course this requires that good faith of the farmer, but Monsanto also hires investigators and lawyers to follow up on and prosecute cases in which farmers do save seed and illegally grow a Monsanto owned form of life.
For example, Monsanto is currently bringing a case against Percy Schmeiser for growing a genetically modified canola, a type of canola that Monsanto holds the patent on, without a license. Schmeiser defends that he did not plant any of Monsanto’s seed and if that type of canola grew in his fields, it occurred through pollination from other fields (his land is surrounded by other canola growers), from seed scattered by machinery in these neighboring fields, or from the trucks traveling the roads that run beside his land (his land lies beside routes that lead to near-by grain elevators). He further defends that Monsanto’s genetically engineered canola is “in the ditches and the roadsides, it’ sin the shelterbeds; it’s in the gardens, it’s all over.” Monsanto claims that he grew a crop last year, buying the seed from local growers and then saved seed for the current crop. They are asking him for an injunction preventing Schmeiser from using or selling any seed that infringes on it’s patent. Monsanto wants his canola crop, money for general, punitive and exemplary damages. As well as legal costs, a penalty that would surely financially cripple most farmers. Furthermore, they claim that seed saving of “their” seeds is illegal even if the farmer didn’t sign a contract at the time of purchase. Schmeiser further defends that he never receive any patent protected canola seed and never deliberately planted any. Yet under the patent laws Monsanto owns that life form however it got there and they can continue to entrap farmers with patent infringement claims. That is until the technique licensed to the Delta and Pine Company expands to cover more types of seeds. At that time you can count on Monsanto integrating it into every genetically engineered life form that they hold the patent on. So that they can reap the economic benefits of their “ownership”.
This new technology has been given the ominous moniker of “the terminator”. The terminator technology reminds us that our food is more and more in the control of large agri-business companies, companies which grow fewer in number and larger in size as agriculture and food production becomes more monopolized.
The ramifications of the terminator seed technology are both widespread and massive. Most significantly it interferes with the cycle of seed to seed which is the natural cyclical way of continuing life. It also takes the power from farming communities who have a 12,000 year old tradition of saving seeds and acting as plant breeders by selecting and replanting the strongest of their crops. It takes that power from the farming community and passes it into the hands of giant agri-business and bio-tech companies. The terminator seed has the economic effect of virtually forcing farmers to buy each year’s seed from a bio-tech company. This technology would give the large bio-tech companies even more control over the world’s food supply, regional self-sufficiency would be a thing of the past.
Having many farmers using a genetically similar seed can cause even more problems. Firstly it limits the world’s biodiversity, an element important to the world’s health, as biodiversity is not only the number of species but also the genetic diversity within each species. Also a very narrow range of crop diversity makes the whole crop very susceptible to the same problems which could lead to a massive crop failure. A single pest or disease that penetrates this specific plant’s weakness could cause widespread hunger. Finally, it is important to note that this technology has no agricultural or economic benefit for the farmers. It’s sole purpose is to facilitate monopoly control and the sole beneficiaries of this technology are the agri-business’s and bio-tech companies. These benefits come at the expense of the people and the environment of the world.
The terminator technology is just one example of the genetic engineering being done by agribusiness companies. While most applications of genetic engineering are not as objectionable as the terminator seed, some even contain arguably good traits, there are broad criticisms that can be leveled against all genetically engineered crops. These criticisms are two pronged. The first prong concerns how these plants will effect the environment. Since their introduction to the environment it has been documented on numerous occasions the genetically modified plants have cross-pollinated with native and non-modified plants. An organic farmer in the UK recently lost his certification due to cross pollination with neighboring fields of genetically engineered crops. The UK food safety minister is considering genetically engineered-free buffer zones around organic farms. This cross pollination will change the genetic make up of at least some of both wild and domestic forms of vegetation, possibly leading to a loss of native genes and a shrinking of the gene pool. This effects the biodiversity and the health of our world.
The purpose of some genetic manipulation is to provide a built-in insecticide to these plants. But the insect targeted could gradually adapt to the insecticide, weakening it’s effectiveness. This will greatly effect organic and biodynamic agriculture as the pesticide most often engineered into plants is bacillus truringiensis or more commonly Bt. This bacterium has been a mainstay or organic pest management for years. Now due to this genetic engineering it will most likely loose some or all of it’s effectiveness. It is also unknown how insecticide expressing plants will effect the populations of beneficial insects, another key element of organic pest management.
Another main purpose of genetic engineered plants is to develop plants which will tolerate massive doses of herbicides. Monsanto is particularly interested in this as they are not only one of the leaders in the field of genetic engineering, but also the world’s largest seller of herbicides. By genetically engineering plants to withstand larger doses of herbicides they are setting the stage for more chemicals to be used on farms, for more chemicals to migrate from these farms to our streams, rivers and water supplies and for more chemicals to end up in and on the food that we are supposed to eat. For example Monsanto’s round-up ready soybeans which have been genetically modified to withstand huge doses of the herbicide round-up, another Monsanto product by the way, may show a high concentration of round up in the harvested soybeans.
The second prong concerns how genetically engineered plants may effect people, as these plants contain DNA from undisclosed and non-food sources which have never been part of the human diet. Allergic reactions on some scale seem inevitable. Possibly even on a large scale as it was reported that Rueck, a Swiss reinsurance company, feared that lawsuits resulting from allergic reactions to transgenic food ingredients could grow worldwide to an insurance-relevant size. The result of consuming genetically modified food is definitely unclear.
This uncertainly is actually the point here, that so little is known about this technology both in immediate and future implications. As new as this technology is there are already many examples of crop failures from genetically modified seed. If it’s not even doing what it’s supposed to do, who knows what it’s doing that we don’t know about.
This technology has gotten approval quickly and without adequate testing. It seems that if something can be shown to be profitable enough any other concerns are basically moot. And approval will be granted. The approval of genetic engineering is the result of the bio-tech industries greed and little else. At this point we are all unconsenting test subjects in their experiment and it doesn’t seem like they care about our well-being. This is all summed up nicely in the following statement issued by physicians and scientists for responsible applications of science and technology (p.s.r.a.s.t.):
“We think that the increasingly powerful influence of industrial interests on science and on approval procedures represents an important threat to the future of the world. This is aggravated by a high degree of specialization along with too little of interdisciplinary and holistic thinking and awareness among most scientific experts This causes an inability to judge the consequences of a new technology in a comprehensive and realistic way.
“In cases of G.E. foods, there has been a serious neglect of important facts in the expert recommendations underlying approval by international and national regulatory bodies including FAO, FDA and EU commission. The result has been a concession to industrial interests at the expense of consumer and ecological safety...
“The... campaign for a moratorium (on genetic engineering) will continue. Our focus will remain on the G.E. foods issue, as it appears to be the most immediate and potentially serious threat.”
An immediate and potentially serious threat that is becoming increasingly widespread. Monsanto’s genetically modified crops, primarily roundup ready soybeans and yeildguard maize, have gone from being grown on 3 million acres in 1996 to 23 million in 1997 and then to 55 million acres in 1998. Most of these crops were grown in the US and a full 35% of the 1998 US soybean and corn crops were derived from genetically engineered seed. This 35% is then mixed in with the rest of the crop as segregation is not required. This has resulted in 60 to 70% of foods on US grocery shelves right no containing genetically modified ingredients. The very least that should be required is full disclosure in labeling. Labeling that would tell us exactly which products contain these genetically engineered crops. At least then we could vote with out food dollar against this technology. In the European community all food containing genetically engineered ingredients is clearly labeled (in Germany and Switzerland the presence of genetically modified ingredients in food is completely banned. Austria and Norway are currently considering bans.) In the US the FDA requires not only no labeling but no safety testing for genetically engineered food additives.
Organic certifiers have held steadfast against this technology but in some areas the organic standards may contain a loophole where genetically engineered products may sneak in. Some certifiers allow non-organic processing aides (a processing aid is an ingredient used in food manufacturing which is removed from the final food product.) As non-organic more and more means a genetically engineered product, support for the technology still exists.
Genetically modified products are getting harder and harder to avoid while the effects of the products are, if non completely unknown, as least uncertain. The biotech companies who are promoting this technology apparently have little to no interest in what might happen to the people or environment of this world as a result of what they are doing, as a result of their greed.
How can we take a stand against this, against he agri-business giants like Monsanto and ADM (the “supermarket to the world” folks), against them while standing up for ourselves and our food? I believe first that we should care, we should care about our food and how it gets to us. When we lose awareness of basic life processes we put ourselves in a precarious situation. When we stop caring and stop expressing our interest we leave ourselves open to exploitation. Which reminds me of a quote by Aldo Leopold from his great book, A Sand County Almanac, “there are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”
We can approach this with the same DIY attitude that we use in the music world. WE don’t accept major label corporate music why should we eat corporate food? It’s interesting how people can be so into the DIY approach to music yet support a “major label” version of the rest of their lives. What I’m talking about here is being thoughtful and independent in as many areas of your life as possible. We can’t leave our ethics behind when we exit the “punk” section of our lives. We need to try to carry that through to our whole life, every element including our food.
This series of columns is going to be dedicated to getting the power over our food away from the huge agri-business companies and back into our hands, to promote the concept of DIY agriculture. I want to create a forum for agricultural news and politics as well as practical matters of growing your own food. I want to provide information about the giant biotech companies and also small farms and grass roots organizations. I want to present ideas on topics like composting and soil health, on setting up an organic garden and growing food. Finally I definitely welcome any input on what I write and encourage communication in the way of thoughts, ideas, news clippings and tips or results from your own garden.
—John/Carbon Cycle/ PO Box 11741/ Portland OR 97211
(please note this address is from 1999 - ed)