An appeal to food activists: You are aimed the wrong direction

I can get down with fighting the power.  Actually, I’ve spent a lot of time doing just that, and working to affect policy directly.  But GMO has become the unfortunate victim of anti corporate rhetoric, all the while lining the pockets of other corporations that have been decided the Good Guys.

Some history:  Genetic modification and humankind have been entwined since prehistoric times, with the earliest genetic modification being selective breeding .  Agriculture itself began as the selection of wild grasses and subsequent breeding to form the precursors of modern staples such as wheat, rice and maize.  Selection procedures have achieved huge differences in form and function from single wild species: We see this in our animals too, like the Great Dane and Chihuahua dog varieties from the wolf. Furthermore, ‘unnatural’ hybrids — i.e. creating breeds across species barriers – were made in ancient times. The mule, a cross between a jackass or male donkey and a mare has been used as a pack animal in Europe for at least 3,000 years.  It’s for these reasons and the many more that I propose we take GMOs out of the International debate against International Corporate greed, and we do so for the good of humankind.  I can get down with activism, but in this case the wrong thing is in the crosshair.

As DNA sequencing improved in the 70s (Frederick Sanger developed chain termination DNA sequencing allowing scientists to read the nucleotide sequence of a DNA molecule in 1977), scientists began finding new ways to cross these DNA sequences for the uses of agriculture. The first GM crops were sold in China in the early 1990s in the form of a virus resistant tobacco. In the mid 90s, the EPA approved safe the use of BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) potatoes and corn in the United States. Soy beans resistant to glyphosate (roundup) made it possible to use far less pesticides on the vegetables we eat, while producing higher yields. In fact, yields jumped from a 64% success rate to 92%, meaning farmers using these seeds kept more money and wasted fewer resources. Basic toxicology states that it’s the dosage of something that makes the poison– Glyphosate, which was already well below the safe amount of parts per million for consumption when being sprayed(as regulated by FDA, EPA, and UN studies) could be cut in half. This was also beneficial for farmers, as pesticides are a big cost on a farm.

You’ll probably notice I haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room when this discussion begins: Monsanto. Monsanto is a multinational agrichemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation, who have found themselves perfectly positioned to be the big bad wolf in the circles of American activism. They were among the first to conduct field trials of GM crops in 1987, though Dupont beat them to the punch. But, it is Monsanto alone, not Dupont or Syngenta (Switzerland) or Groupe Limeagrain (france) that come up as the face of science gone mad. Speaking of DuPont: DuPont started as a virtual monopoly manufacturer of gunpowder, making money hand over fist during the U.S. Civil War and then expanding into various other military explosives. Unlike Alfred Nobel, who felt so guilt-ridden about his invention of dynamite and its subsequent use in warfare that he established the Nobel Prizes, the DuPont family was apparently more interested in arranging marriages between cousins to maintain the family fortune.

DuPont was also involved in the development of nuclear weapons. Later, DuPont developed synthetic materials like nylon and polyester that will, in many cases, still be on this earth for a long, long time. Likewise, DuPont has had its share of dangerous pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals include coatings like C8. By the way, DuPont also manufactured Agent Orange, DDT, and PCBs … just like Monsanto did.  So, why Monsanto?

The targeting of Monsanto

This momentum against Monsanto began with Vandana Shiva, a prominent Indian environmentalist who, for the past decade, has been campaigning against Monsanto’s “seeds of suicide” by writing op-eds, delivering lectures and doing media interviews. Shiva’s words are treated with earnest respect in liberal and environmental circles, where she is held in great esteem. If she insists that Monsanto and its GMO seeds have driven hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers to suicide—and she has said this frequently—then there must be something to it, right? In 2008, while attending an event sponsored by Shiva in India, Prince Charles delivered a widely reported speech, wherein he decried “science without morality” and declared, “I blame GM crops for farmers’ suicides.” The story has continued to gain momentum—to the point where it is a mainstay of blogs, opinion pieces and even films. A critically acclaimed 2011 documentary, Bitter Seeds, informs us that, because of GMO crops, “Every 30 minutes a farmer in India kills himself.” A Frontline/World segment that aired on PBS exposed the “epidemic” of “suicide by pesticide.” Project Censored included GMO-farmer-suicide among its list of the “Top 25 Most Censored Stories of 2012-2013″—an exercise in unintentional irony, given how much attention it receives.

But, from the very start, the GMO-farmer-suicide story has been rife with contradictions, says Keith Kloor—a former fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, who has contributed articles to Nature and Science. In a recent article appearing in the journal Issues in Science & Technology, he writes that: “Bt cotton has been all the rage in India since it was officially approved in 2002. The technology has been adopted by over 90% of Indian cotton farmers. Multiple studies point to significant reduction in pesticide spraying and subsequent cost savings for cotton farmers. (Similar findings attest to the same in China, where Bt cotton accounts for 80% of its crop.) India’s agricultural minister said in 2012 that the country “has harvested an average of 5.1 million tons of cotton per year, which is well above the highest production of 3 million tons before the introduction of Bt cotton.” India is the world’s second-biggest cotton producer, behind China.”

Apparently, Indian farmers have come to overwhelmingly embrace genetically modified cotton. Yet there is an enduring belief that Bt cotton has failed in India, with tragic consequences. In this paper I hope to illustrate some of the problems with these corporate distribution models, as well as some of the myths that are informing the American Public. I hope that by the end I’ve made a case for why GM (despite its problematic circumstances) are safe and could save millions of lives worldwide.

Angst with corporations as the distribution model 

Monsanto may not deserve to wear the GMO crown, But they are the ones who did the work.  Haters gonna hate.  Inherently most of the beliefs against Monsanto are ones that are entrenched in personal feelings regarding corporations. So, let’s talk about what is being said. Many Westerners find themselves concerned with the safety of what they’re eating. As informed consumers (which is an advantage of privilege) we like to do our best to be eating things that are healthy for us, and hopefully no one had to suffer for it to be produced. We conjure images in our head of the malnourished being taken advantage of to benefit the Western world as we roll a piece of produce over in our hands. We wonder things like “what’s the story here?” as we notice the low prices, well aware of all the inherent cost to get that product to us. Someone is getting screwed, says the light bulb in our head.

Our goods often come from the toil of the comparatively impoverished.  When we see images and video of the work conditions we may feel gut wrenching disgust. The first question I ask when I see these images is “why aren’t they protesting? “ And I’m reminded that they can’t. They don’t live in countries where when a Wal-Mart factory burns 300 people alive, the government steps in. They live in countries where police brutality isn’t a nationwide discussion, it’s a foregone conclusion. Just imagine what Bangladesh would do at a protest with the same gear our officers have; I doubt some teargas being used would be the tragedy.  That said, free trade has been a net positive in many parts of the world.  China now has an actual middle class, and sends more students to U.S. colleges than any other country.  They don’t make our cheap Western junk anymore, either.  They make expensive finished goods, with many of their own brands competing in the electronics market.

I always think it’s funny when Activists will compare Monsanto the Nazis.  I’m pretty sure the Nazi’s invented the only material item any good hippie needs: The Volkswagen.

It’s tricky whenever an argument revolves around who is good, and what is evil. We exist in a moment of history. I see GMO as an unfortunate victim in the fight against the Fascist Corporate State, and it’s being capitalized on by other corporations for great profit.

Myths that inform the Western public

There have also been several articles and studies over the years that have sought to debunk the connection between GMO crops and farmer suicides. A new article published in the Journal of Developing Areas, written by Anoop Sadanandan, a political economist at Syracuse University, isn’t questioning the numbers of suicides, but rather what caused them. Sadanandan confirms that more than 250,000 debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide during the last two decades. But he says that the real seeds of despair are financial policies that were implemented by the Indian government in the early 1990s.  Tellingly, Sadanandan’s research revealed that most of the suicides have taken place in five of India’s 28 states — not all of which even grow cotton. Indeed, Sadanandan couldn’t find any meaningful correlation between cotton crops and the states with high suicide rates” “While a large number of cotton cultivators committed suicide in [states such as] Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the farmers who committed suicide in states such as Kerala were not cotton farmers.  Further, cotton was cultivated in some 10 other states that did not witness high incidence of farmer suicides.”

So if GMO cotton isn’t to blame for the suicides, what is? This raises the question of why mounting debt and credit crunches affected farmers only in certain parts of the country. The answer lies with banking reforms. India is one of several developing countries in the past few decades that has ceded greater autonomy to banks and allowed the entry of foreign banks. Ideally,  these policies help drive economic growth since the private financial sector is deemed a better judge than the government in determining which loans and investments will yield the greatest returns.  Monsanto, like Dupont or any other big business, is taking advantage of lax political leadership and corruption. This is a problem. The other problem is that GMOs become caught in the crossfire with paranoia. Internet activists will trump up and share misinformation that fits their ideology on Facebook.

A idealized image of Gambia

One recent example is the nation of Gambia boycotting GMOs this year. This has been a story shared across Facebook without much introspection. This is a nation whose President believes HIV can be cured with a special secret blend of herbs and denies aid workers into his nation.

This same President also recently said he will slit gay men’s throats.  Think about that- activists are so eager to find allies in the anti GMO debate, they’ve sided with a literal warlord who murders homosexuals.  Gambia itself is a nation with a high rate of starvation diets, which are diets that slowly kill you from malnourishment.  Ironically, these diets have become fads in the west.  Meanwhile, the people of Gambia areactually starving.

GMOs could help with the crippling Vitamin A deficiency being experienced by their young, who often go blind before puberty. GMOs are not dividing up the planet and its resources, banks and warlords are. GMO has become the unfortunate victim caught in the middle of So who has benefited from the hype of these sorts of issues overlapping?  The Organic industry.

Through social media campaigns, “GMO”, “Monsanto” and “EVIL” have become synonymous. It wasn’t very hard to take the Occupy energy (with all its anti bank, anti corporate jingoism) and let it seep over into the grocer battle that’s taking place in the United States.  Whole Foods is more profitable than 85% of US grocers, with the organic industry as a whole generating nearly 5 billion dollars a year.

The Seed Drift Myth.

The number one myth lobbed is that Monsanto sued a farmer for seed drift.  False. Monsanto, nor anyone else, can sue for such a thing. Farmers can and do grow GMO and organic crops next to each other, including right here in the Oregon Valley. Monsanto does business with more than 325,000 American farmers. Out of those, there were 11 cases that went to trial last year, all of which were found in Monsanto’s favor. This conjures the image of a crack team of lawyers coming down from Corporate hill into a small town and decimating some local little farmer. Not so.

In fact all 11 cases involved seed manufacturing companies, with a sizable staff and their own crack team of lawyers. Companies like those found in the Oregon Valley who have gone after GMO Canola seeds.  Why would a seed manufacturer, who grows their own GMO brassicas (same family as canola), spend millions through the Friends of Family Farmers organization to block GM canola in the valley? Because they’re competing with new industry and defending their own corporate institution. And they’re doing so by encouraging the fear mongering about GMOs in relation to Canola, despite growing GMO themselves.

The Tomato fish myth

Back in the 1990s, the biotech company DNA Plant Technology inserted a gene responsible for the flounder’s ability to thrive in arctic waters into tomato plants. The idea was to produce a tomato that could be frozen and thawed without becoming mushy.

But that didn’t pan out and the tomato never went to market.The bigger point is that while DNA isn’t specifically pulled from a fish and combined with a plant, DNA from all sources is made up of the same building blocks. As one of the founders of this movement wrote, “My position is that there is no such thing as a plant gene. Or an animal gene, viral gene, etc. There are, instead, genes found in plants, genes found in animals, and genes found in viruses. Genes shared by Eukaryotes are just that – genes in common. Apart from the syntactical preferences of different organisms in how they like their DNA to read, there is nothing about a gene that makes it belong to one lineage or another.” So essentially, the point is I share 90% of the same genetic makeup of every organism living on earth. This is a misunderstanding amongst the public that Organic has capitalized on.

Who really suffers from this fear mongering?

It isn’t Monsanto, or Whole Foods. It’s children. It’s estimated that 1.4 million human life years have been lost in the last decade as a result of delays in approving GMO golden rice in India. The WHO calls Vitamin A deficiency “the leading cause of preventable blindness in children”, and estimates that 250,000-500,000 children go blind each year from the condition. Sadly, half of those children die within a year of going blind.

GMOs could help. In fact, the creators of golden rice distribute their seeds and licenses free of charge to subsistence farmers in countries that have approved them.  Again, the real culprit lies with banking reforms. Meanwhile, profits at Whole Foods soar.

Genetic modification has many promising implications and they deserve to be separated out of the Monsanto movement. Personally, I think the Anti Monsanto movement ought to be getting checks from the Organic industry with all the good they’re doing for their bottom line.

The paranoia about GMOs, informed by fear of conglomerates like Monsanto, is keeping nations like Gambia or India from accessing free and safe Golden Rice. And it’s making other equally indifferent corporations a lot of money.

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