BIODIVERSITY, GMO, AND THE FUTURE
Jamey Hecht, Ph.D.
Senior Staff Writer
© Copyright 2006, From The Wilderness Publications, www.fromthewilderness.com. All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact [email protected]. May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.
April 20, 2006 0900 PST – (FTW) - Biodiversity is an issue that gets us in the heart when we behold the fate of gorgeous megafauna like the polar bears (who are starting to turn up drowned, as global warming melts the planet’s ice caps). But it can hit us a lot harder in the belly when corporate agribusiness wagers our food security on a handful of genetically brittle monocrops.
Because of die-hard muckraking activism, it’s now common knowledge that Monsanto and other biotech firms are off and running in a race to patent as many lucrative organisms as the legal system—and popular outrage—will permit. In a comment on the www.axisoflogic.com story “Patenting A Pig,” FTW reported last August that Monsanto filed a patent application that would give it control over: a variety of desirable genetic traits, a modified swine breeding process (actually little more than a longer applicator for artificial insemination)1, and all the pigs born as a result. This horrified lots of people, and Greenpeace ran an effective campaign to put pressure on the agribusiness giant and on government officials; but the patent process can take several years, and it’s too early to tell whether the pig-patenters will succeed.
For all the ink spilled about the ethical nuances of human cloning, patenting mammals may dwarf human cloning on the horror index. The dangers of human cloning generally have to do with rights: clones with desirable traits might out-compete people who lack them; clones might be discriminated against; programs and decision makers might exploit clones; etc. On the other hand, farm animals have no rights, which is why they’ve been the victims of a vast and appalling factory-farm system for decades. What the patents add is the idea that the corporation not only owns the individual animals, but also the genotypes that code for them. In effect, Monsanto would own the process, the animal, and the very possibility of the animal’s existence.
My comments at the time were these:
Monsanto has something important in common with both Captain Ahab (from Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick) and the Nazi regime. Each represents a strange combination of rationality and madness. As I’ve written elsewhere, Melville’s captain has an utterly irrational obsession with the White Whale, but his suicidal pursuit of that creature draws upon years of technical expertise and deliberate planning. He and his men on the ship Pequod were supposed to be hunting as many sperm whales as possible, in order to harvest oil—but the whales, and therefore the oil, were being depleted at a rate far faster than their natural replenishment. And just when the commercial rationale for hunting the whales became untenable, along comes Ahab the damaged genius on his hunt for Moby-Dick, this time for revenge, not oil. Ring a bell?
Like Ahab, the Nazis were bent on death in a way that failed to distinguish between their own murderous ambitions and the cultic yearning for suicide that helped to draw them into an unwinnable war—one which the Nazis lost in part because they failed to secure Russian oil reserves in Baku. Scarce resources were still being diverted to the strategically useless death camps long after it became unmistakably clear, even to the stupidest Nazis on the team, that the war would end in defeat. The avowed motive for Hitler’s genocidal expansion into the territory of the Slavs and others was “Lebensraum”—room for living, not totally different from the American Manifest Destiny with its smallpox blankets. But the big difference was the Nazi’s cool efficiency—the bizarre prominence of rational calculation in the midst of the most irrational depravity. What Himmler had that Custer did not was the combination of bureaucracy, technology, and an ideology of transgressive, taboo-breaking, hubristic scientism. There’s that tolling bell again.
Monsanto is pursuing a rational policy of the maximization of profit. Like all bureaucracies, its internal organization works by conducting ethical responsibility away from individual actors. You can sell your own mother to perdition, provided your uniform (with a pay-stub in the pocket) shows that the person responsible is not really you: it’s the corporate person. Left to work its designs, Monsanto will extend and maintain its control over the world’s food supply—just at the moment when grain stocks and yields are falling farther short of demand, and Peak Oil and Gas begin to close in on the kitchen table. Large scale famine would be difficult to avoid. How can they permit themselves this behavior? By narrowing their focus on the wrong object (profit), and keeping it there no matter what.
Breeding disease resistant pigs—rather than raising healthy pigs—is a Faustian bargain: it will produce germ-resistant herds, but it will make the germs more powerful. Any pathogenic germ population that gets blocked by a newly common swine gene will include a few little guys running around who just don’t get blocked. So they get to proliferate in the vacuum left by their blocked peers and presto: another germ-blocking gene is superseded by a mutated new bug.2
Furthermore, genetically modified pigs are not likely to escape and somehow breed with non-GMO pigs (though GMO animals do sometimes slip through the controls3). But GMO crops are far harder to control, and Monsanto has extorted millions of dollars by suing farmers whose fields are found to be contaminated with the company’s patented seeds.
A new report by the Center for Food Safety sheds light on the money involved:
The report finds that, in general, Monsanto’s efforts to prosecute farmers can be divided into three stages: investigations of farmers; out-of-court settlements; and litigation against farmers Monsanto believes are in breach of contract or engaged in patent infringement. CFS notes in the report that, to date, Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers in 25 states that involve 147 farmers and 39 small businesses or farm companies. Monsanto has set aside an annual budget of $10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers.
“Monsanto would like nothing more than to be the sole source for staple crop seeds in this country and around the world,” said Joseph Mendelson, CFS legal director. “And it will aggressively overturn centuries-old farming practices and drive its own clients out of business through lawsuits to achieve this goal.”
The largest recorded judgment CFS has found thus far in favor of Monsanto as a result of a farmer lawsuit is $3,052,800.00. Total recorded judgments granted to Monsanto for lawsuits amount to $15,253,602.82. Farmers have paid a mean of $412,259.54 for cases with recorded judgments. Many farmers have to pay additional court and attorney fees and are sometimes even forced to pay the costs Monsanto incurs while investigating them.
So that’s one major racket: build a seed with a desirable trait that you’ve patented, physically spread the seed beyond your own land (or just watch while it spreads itself), then sue everyone whose farms have been tainted with your patented seed. The most famous case is that of Canola farmer Percy Schmeiser, whose fields became contaminated with Monsanto’s frankenfood. The corporation sued for $15 per acre, and there’s been a protracted legal battle. What is the supposedly desirable trait patented by Monsanto? Resistance to a potently toxic herbicide called “Roundup”—manufactured by Monsanto. Without knowing it, we’re often buying genetically modified food whose sole agricultural purpose is to sustain massive doses of petrochemical poison. Who wants in?
What trumps even this piracy for sheer hubris is the biotech industry’s “terminator seeds,” or “Genetic Use Restriction Technologies.” These seeds grow new generations of food crops (say, corn) that are entirely sterile. You can eat the new corn, but if you plant it, the seeds just rot in the dirt. That way, you have to keep coming back to the corporation for each generation of seed you want to plant and, ultimately, each ear of corn you want to eat. And as with the “Roundup Ready” trait, pollen from fields of terminator crops can blow in the wind until everyone is growing patented, expensive, sterile foodcrops. The resulting mass starvation would amount to genocide. In such a world, farmers who lack the money to pay Monsanto will starve—and Monsanto will get nothing. The more benign explanation (though this warps the word “benign”) is that the Big M is simply squeezing the whole world, getting the money from those who have it, and killing those who don’t as an accidental side effect of corporate greed. The more sinister interpretation is that in a world of rapidly diminishing resources—especially water, crucial to third-world irrigation—Monsanto is providing powerful elites with a crucial service: depopulation.
One of the most important forces for improvement on the food security front is an organization founded by Indian physicist Vandana Shiva, called Navdanya or “Nine Seeds.” The Navdanya Movement protects indigenous peoples from biopiracy, the absurd-yet-legal drawing-up of patents on naturally occurring organisms. Biopiracy may be a crime against humanity, but it’s not illegal because it can only be perpetrated by powerful corporate interests, among which Monsanto is only the largest. Here’s a striking remark from “For Rice is now Oryza Syngenta!” by Devinder Sharma:
The tussle over the monopoly control of rice extends to its 12 chromosomes. These chromosomes contain 430 million base pairs of DNA, and are expected to have about 50,000 genes. Syngenta, in collaboration with Myriad Genetics Inc. of USA, has beaten Monsanto in the game by sequencing more than 99.5 per cent of the rice genome. Syngenta has already made it clear that it will restrict access to the genomic map and expects proprietary control over any research carried out with the information.
But it isn’t only the vampires of the biological patent game who threaten global food security. Even without the chicanery of patenting and the brave new world of genetically modified frankenfood, there is the sheer folly of betting everything on a minimal range of crop variety. Daniel Nierenberg and Brian Halweil explain in the 2005 Worldwatch State of the World Annual:
Since the beginning of the last century, 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost. In China, 10,000 varieties of wheat were under cultivation in 1949; by the 1970s only 1,000 were still in production. Just 20%—one fifth—of the maize varieties reported in Mexico in 1930 are known today. And farmers in the Philippines once cultivated thousands of rice varieties, but by the 1980s just two varieties took up 98% of the growing area.
Advocates of GM monocrops cite technology’s success in fighting insects and fungal blights. But traditional farming methods include(d) a vast trove of accumulated knowledge about such pests and their nontoxic suppression. At a huge cost in unintended consequences, GM mitigates the failings of the large-scale industrial farming from which it sprang—not traditional farming, which had its own ways of preserving crops from pests. Take a look at this abstract of a key paper by agroecologist Miguel Altieri:
Biodiversity is a salient feature of traditional farming systems in developing countries and performs a variety of renewal processes and ecological services in agroecosystems. It is of fundamental importance to understand the role biodiversity can play in reducing pest problems, if vegetation management is to be used effectively as a primary IPM [integrated pest management] tactic in small-scale sustainable agriculture. The maintenance of biodiversity in traditional agroecosystems is not random, but depends on a complex set of indigenous technical knowledge systems (ethnoscience).
If you want to establish control over the range of plants available to farmers, you have to stop them from exchanging seeds with one another. We close with a quotation from “Monocultures, Monopolies, Myths And The Masculinisation Of Agriculture” by Vandana Shiva, Director of India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology:
The attempt to prevent farmers from saving seed is not just being made through new IPR laws, it is also being made through the new genetic engineering technologies. Delta and Pine Land (now owned by Monsanto) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have established new partnership through a jointly held patent (No.5723785) to seed which has been genetically engineered to ensure that it does not germinate on harvest thus forcing farmers to buy seed at each planting season. Termination of germination is a means for capital accumulation and market expansion.
However, abundance in nature and for farmers shrinks as markets grow for Monsanto. When we sow seed, we pray, “May this seed be exhaustless.” Monsanto and the USDA on the other hand are stating, “Let this seed be terminated so that our profits and monopoly is exhaustless.”
1 "We applied for a patent...for some specific reproductive processes in swine,” said Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner. “Any pigs that would be produced using this reproductive technique would be covered by these patents.” The practices Monsanto wants to patent basically involve identifying genes that result in desirable traits in swine, breeding animals to achieve those traits, and using a specialized device to inseminate sows deeply in a way that uses less sperm than is typically required. REUTERS, August 10, 2005, “Crop King Monsanto Seeks Pig-Breeding Patent Clout,” by Carey Gillam.
2 At that point, a genetically uniform population of pigs is much more vulnerable to the new threat than a genetically diverse population would be. Narrowing the genetic purview of a population means amplifying the risk of serious losses to microbial or fungal attacks.
3 See GM WATCH at http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=5728:
The genetic engineer's garbage can: the U.S. food supply. When nearly 400 pigs used in U.S. bioengineering research apparently entered the food supply, the FDA said "it could not verify the researchers' claim [that the pigs weren't dangerous] because they failed to keep enough records..." (US biotech researchers careless with 386 pigs - FDA, full story below)
Here are some more missing GM pigs from the same report:
"One year ago, several genetically altered pigs ended up in Canadian poultry feed. Researchers at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario discovered 11 dead piglets were mistakenly sent to a rendering plant and ground into poultry feed."
The year before that we had:
"Tainted pork from genetically altered pigs stolen from the University of Florida showed up in sausage served at a funeral in High Springs, university police said.
The stolen pigs were genetically engineered to develop a disorder similar to diabetic blindness in humans. University officials do not know what effect, if any, the treated meat could have on people who eat it.
The pig incident is one in a series of missteps at the university's Animal Resources department which oversees the treatment of biomedical research animals."
(“Tainted pigs show up in sausage at funeral,” The Associated Press, June 3, 2001)
Pigs themselves were also put at risk by a lab break-out a year later:
WASHINGTON -- Federal authorities are investigating the disappearance of genetically altered bacteria fatal to pigs that appear to have been stolen from a research laboratory at Michigan State University.
Investigators said that while the bacteria apparently are harmless to humans, they could devastate the pork industry if replicated and released, and they are treating the case as a potential terrorist threat.