Post #138: Food Politics: The GMO Conspiracy

One of the longest-standing tricks of the corporate trade is to produce an item that is dangerous, breakable, or soon to be obsolete and then produce another item that will supposedly remedy the defect.  That is what is happening with basic GMO-laden crops such as corn, wheat, and rapeseed: As they become resistant to Roundup and other toxins designed to keep them bug- or disease-free, the producers—such as Monsanto and Syngenta—come up with new herbicides for the farmer to apply.

But the agri-giants have more than one trick up their sleeves.  As a major New York Times investigation recently reported, the promise of higher yields using GMO seeds has generally not been fulfilled in the US and Canada (www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/business/gmo-promise-falls-short.html).  The investigation, using UN data, determined that US and Canadian yields are no greater than comparable yields in Europe, where GMOs are banned; yet US and Canadian farmers apply far more herbicides than do Europeans. And since higher yields per acre is the holy grail for most farmers, the obvious answer from the agri-giants is to apply more herbicides.

If you’ve heard this story before, you might be thinking of the so-called Green Revolution that took India and the Philippines by storm in the 1970s. The promise then was higher yields of rice and wheat thanks to “miracle seeds” supplied by the major agro-businesses, whose research was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.  Not mentioned was the expensive inputs this miracle would require—lots of water, chemical fertilizer, machinery, irrigation tube wells, and of course capital.  The Green Revolution was a boon to rich farmers, fertilizer and equipment suppliers, and loan sharks to whom poor farmers would become forever indebted.

Corporate control of GMO seeds, pesticides, and herbicides is becoming ever more concentrated.  Monsanto is merging with Bayer, Syngenta with China National Chemical Corporation, and DuPont with Dow Chemical.  The companies will tell us that these takeovers will cheapen their products and thus help feed the world’s 10 billion people in 2050.  Their scientists, meanwhile, will produce “studies” that prove the effectiveness and safety of GMO seeds and related toxins.  The reality, of course, is likely to be opposite of such claims: seeds, pesticides, and herbicides will become ever more expensive, available mainly to farmers in the richest countries, and the safety of GMO-based foods will depend on whether you listen to European or the North American scientists.

Debate over GMOs should not, in any case, focus exclusively on safety.  If the human interest is front and center, the debate should be over how to feed growing populations in a way that preserves family farms, which have been proven time and again to be the wisest stewards of the land, and puts the rights of farmers and communities ahead of corporate rights. From that perspective, the core issue is land reform—restoring land ownership to individual farmers, sharply limiting control of farmland (whether by contract or outright ownership) by corporations, and preventing Monsanto and other agri-giants from suing farmers who choose not to use their GMO seeds.

Fortunately, there are movements underway in a number of states, localities, and countries—called Community Rights—that by law would empower communities to ban GMOs and other destructive practices (such as chemical aerial spraying and fracking).  (See for example www.celdf.org and Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell, We the People: Stories From the Community Rights Movement in the United States.)  In Latin America and other developing-country areas, a move to “agroecology” is fast gaining the support of small farmers (www.bit.ly/agrolite) who combine traditional and scientific practices in pursuit of strengthening the local food base. In the end, defeating corporate control of resources must rely on the people most affected; it’s certainly not going to happen from Washington, where political decision making is about to fall into the hands of billionaires and former lobbyists.  The call is out for acts of self-determination.

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5 Comments

  1. Hi Mel. Powerful article. New insight for me on GMOs.

    Wondering if you’ll be doing a note on the Trump Taiwan thing. I at first thought it was the Taiwanese taking advantage of a clueless president-elect, but saw an article today that it was a long time coming, generated by some conservatives in the Trump camp (still may be a clueless president elect I guess). How bad do you think it might get? Dana and I are doing a lengthy China trip in February and March. Best regards. Roger

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. I do see that genetic engineering has a great potential to do a lot of good for a food future, yet has seemingly significant potential to do substantial harm as well, and currently is doing a lot of harm. Current GMOs are around 85% pesticide-ready, which to my way of thinking is pushing pretty far over onto the more dangerous end of the continuum. I do not agree that there has been enough toxicologic research done for unintended consequences and potential harm to overall public health… not to mention environmental health for wildlife, from pesticides. The corporate industrial nature of big agriculture is running in many directions that are not healthy for, nor best use of GE technology.
    Much of the public objection to GMOs relates to the pesticide issues and to unintended chemical trespass onto neighbors in many ways and incidences. Of course, pesticide applications are not specific to GMOs, it just happens that currently, they are tied closely together. This is bad publicity for GE potential. When the scientific method is followed by industrial AG researchers, they often omit the essential edict… that just as much effort needs to be put into trying to disprove a hypothesis as is used in trying to demonstrate adequacy. Corporate funding sources usually mandate that only part of the scientific method is usually funded and followed. This omission has resulted in a whole slew of historic woes for society, and causes a whole lot of thinking folk to pause before accepting current assurances by industry of sufficiency of care in the process utilized by GMO and GE science. GE science needs better control for ethics than what has shown so far. We should not throw the baby GE out with the bathwater of current corporate greed and irresponsibility, if used responsibly, there will be good uses toward a more sane future, it is a huge challenge, and a pressing one since we cannot seem to reach better population stability. IMHO

  3. Mel,

    I want to comment on your December 4 /In the Human Interest/ post about a GMO conspiracy, an argument I agree with. You describe an evolving system with the potential to critically disrupt ancient ways of providing societies with fundamental means of survival. Against human interest in our world today is a corporate culture that has insinuated itself into our food chain. GMO is a potential lock on that chain. And agri business is very close to holding the only key. Wow. How did we get to this? One way has been for chemical companies like those you talk about to partner with governments and government officials far and wide. My case in point is China.

    Both consumer and farmer are everywhere being victimized by corporate interests and the situation looks to worsen, with the Chinese being perhaps more vulnerable than others. My 10 year study of one village has shown that GMO rice drains much of the cash of farmers, who can buy seeds only from the government. Since the lion’s share of available villager cash comes from selling rape seed to the government according to terms of an annual set price contract, the government appears to be manipulating the local economy (in one part of Western China at least) largely with the assistance of GMO. Farmers become locked in to such an artificial annual sell-buy routine because the GMO crop yield is sterile. No longer can they set aside a portion of of the rice crop for next year’s plantings. As you note well, enhanced GMO rice seeds usually come at a higher price–as much as a 50% increase in my study village in some years. Farmers see this for what it is but feel trapped in a truly vicious cycle that can only be interrupted by returning to organically produced seeds. But in farmer’s eyes that would mean (a) reducing near term crop yields; (b) turning away from modernity, which goes against the national cultural impulse–and against local Party cadre’s urging; and (c) worst of all this being China, standing out among village peers as anti-social for organic crops can “contaminate” adjacent fields planted with GMO rice, hence potentially reducing neighbors’ yields.

    Other ways of manipulating the local rural economy includes setting prices for hogs, which when they are lowered makes it less profitable for farmers and therefore leads to a typical decision to discontinue raising pigs until prices rise again. In that context, there is less organic manure so synthetic fertilizers meant to enhance both rice and rape cropping are purchased from SOEs that are either government controlled, or linked closely, and/or are distributed through monopolistic county government channels. Clearly, encouraging such a system channels ever increasing amounts of synthetic chemicals into the environment, but that issue is ignored. Big government and big business win again. The environment, the consumer and farmer all lose.

    Further, this is not to say that the system is delivering enough food to the 1.4 billion calling China home. The past decade there’s been a series of Chinese government attempts to get a handle on food supplies that focus on large scale farming. https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/4622-China-s-tycoons-go-farming ; http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-agriculture-machinery-idUSKCN0RV5QJ20151001 A “big farming” path is certainly more amenable to centralized management (and more accessible to GMO producers) than are the millions of local plots across the land. But with only 17% of that land flat enough to be considered by most experts as arable, I don’t believe such mega farming on a national scale seen in many other areas of the world is viable. Another route for increasing the amount of arable land through arresting desertification pales in comparison to the immense scale of China. Additionally, numerous reports show a massive rural-urban shift is underway (e.g., http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-chinas-big-plan-to-move-a-population-the-size-of-the-phillippines-from-farms-to-cities-2015-7). While 250 million more farmers move to urban areas increases in food consumption in this rapidly developing country outstrip even the most optimistic projections of such land reclamation projects.http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5916 My bet is that the current trend of China to increasingly purchase its food from abroad–or even buy whole farming sectors of the US–will accelerate inexorably http://www.takepart.com/article/2016/02/22/china-syngenta-smithfield.

    Either way, whether large farms dominate future farming practices in China or whether China buys its food from outside, it will play right into the corporate farming system that you describe. Since China’s government is disinclined to give locals actual authority to make consensual decisions about policy there is not much can be done about it. Looking beyond China, as market managers (including commodity market-makers like ) beholden to banks and agri businesses get in position as middle men to dictate overwhelming allegiance to profit-driven programs, GMO becomes a key link in our global food chain. I would prefer locals had that key in hand, matching your suggestion. But the powers that be will not give it up willingly. All things considered, in China in the foreseeable future the GMO conspiracy is all set to continue, or maybe even flourish.

    -Joe Chengdu China

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