Nature has done an incredible amount of work developing the variety of plant species that we see around us. Although the animal kingdom usually hogs the evolutionary spotlight, modern day plants are also the product of relentless competition. The genetic material present in a tomato seed, for example, was created through millions of cycles of success and failure, starting in South America and continuing every year up to the present. Farmers have had their hand in the creation process as well, selecting varieties with desirable traits such as a sweet taste or large yields. But in 1953, something happened that would forever change the relationship between man and vegetable: the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. The implications were profound across the sciences, and led to the realization that man can manipulate the genetic sequence of DNA, leading to new forms of life. We can now create plant varieties that are resistant to very specific pests or diseases. And if you were to consult the marketing material from the companies that are in the business of manufacturing GM crops (genetically modified), this development heralded a new future. The problem of hunger in the world has effectively been solved—at least this was the claim that led to widespread adoption of GM crops in northern India during the so-called green revolution of the 1960s/’70s. The farmers of Gujarat might however tell a different story.
In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled in Diamond vs. Chakrabarty that it is legal to patent genetic material. This decision is the financial backbone of companies such as Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of GM seeds. The Gujarat example is a good starting point to shed some light on the business practices of modern agribusiness. India in the 1960’s was at an agricultural crossroads, as an expanding population put strains on traditional methods of agriculture. The solution, backed by the Indian government and US investors, was to transition the northern state of Gujarat into a modern breadbasket. Farmers were shown the high-yield promises of GM crops and were encouraged to grow monocrop fields of wheat, rice and cotton, as opposed to their traditional and sustainable methods of intercropping.
Only later did the farmers learn that the initial seed purchase was only part of a package. The plants produced by Monsanto are not resistant to a particular natural threat, but rather to their proprietary pesticides and herbicides such as the infamous Roundup Ready product line. These all-in-one solutions destroy all that is in their path—all, that is, except Roundup Ready resistant crops. Another hidden cost in the package was the increased water needs of the engineered plants. In the short term, India gained a food surplus and Monsanto made fantastic profits. But the situation in Gujarat played out a bit differently.
What those unknowing and trusting farmers gained was an enormous amount of synthetic pesticides introduced into their environment, a dramatic lowering of the water table in their state and a new train: the Cancer Express. This eerily nicknamed train transports victims of the new wave of cancer appearing in rural farming communities to government treatment facilities. And there is one last trend that is perhaps the most disturbing. There have been over 250,000 suicide cases among rural farmers that are attributable to the financial ruin caused by these agricultural practices.
Vandana Shiva, physicist and leading advocate against Monsanto and GM crops in India, calls the system a “mortgage on the land” and cites statistics that show an 8,000 percent increase in seed price and a 1,300-fold increase in pesticide use. Such confounding numbers are the result of a rapid change from organic, centuries-old methods to modern agribusiness. Ninety-five percent of the cotton grown in India is now from Monsanto seeds.
The tragic tale of Monsanto in India is one of many. It is clear that if left to their own devices, political leaders are unlikely to put up a fight, including Mr. HOPE himself. At the end of May, President Obama announced that Monsanto and other agribusiness companies will take charge of the Grow Africa Partnership, which aims to address issues of malnourishment in the developing continent. I wonder if he is aware that Monsanto is actually an agrochemical company or that it was a manufacturer of DDT and along with Dow Chemical, the sole manufacturer of Agent Orange? Is it a coincidence that a company founded to profit from war is now waging an undeclared war on farmers?
Such questions are beyond our power to meaningfully address, partly because labeling of foods containing GM ingredients is not required (making the vote with your wallet approach impossible) and partly because of Monsanto’s gargantuan legal apparatus. States calculate that it is too expensive to challenge Monsanto in local legislatures, and bills that have been proposed have been soundly defeated. But there is an ever-brightening light at the end of the legal tunnel: the ballot initiative in California. In 24 US states, it is possible for voters to directly vote on legislation that they can’t convince their legislators to enact. In CA, just over 500,000 valid signatures are required. On May 2, 2012, the Committee for the Right to Know announced nearly 1 million signatures in support of the GMO Labeling Ballot Initiative. So it looks like, come November 2012, Californians will be deciding for themselves if they want GM products to be labeled. And if the 93 percent who recently responded in favor of labeling have anything to say, the ship may be making an abrupt turn, or as least as abrupt a turn as a ship can make. A very important question comes to mind: why are people in California paying so much more attention than the rest of the country?
In the EU, GM crops have effectively been banned since 1999, as six of the EU’s key economies have determined them to be of questionable safety. In addition, any foods containing more than .9 percent GM ingredients must be labeled as such. These decisions are largely the result of a 1998 study in the UK that showed that feeding a certain type of GM potato to mice led to gut damage. The popular outrage that ensued was more than could be contained by a few highly paid lawyers, even though the original findings were later disputed. Although the jury is still out on whether or not GM foods themselves are a health risk, the EU is deciding to play this one on the safe side.
Considering that the item in danger might indeed be the global food supply, we may be wise to also rethink our policy of allowing the agrochemical companies to write the laws. GM crops are a self-propagating form of pollution, and once released into the wild, can out-compete native species. This unavoidable consequence can be devastating to local ecosystems. In the US, over 90 percent of the staple crops of corn, wheat and soy are genetically modified. There is also a 15-mile dead zone where the Mississippi empties into the gulf. Unchallenged monocrop agricultural practices have lead to massive runoff from Midwestern states bordering the river. This is the most visual of many, many examples.
Labeling is the key. If we win the labeling battle, the war is over. The transnational companies that removed GM ingredients from their EU product offerings will finally have to do the same here. Local producers will feel equal pressure to abandon GM ingredients.
Luckily, there are some local stores who pay attention to the content of their products. Corey Williams, owner of Pa Bunk’s on the Square, commented that GM products goes against his store’s philosophy, and that “some customers are in the habit of checking labels; those who are not can trust us to filter out the bad products.”
Kim Hillsman of Sunshine Health and Nutrition uses UNFI as a distributor, a company that has been instrumental in creating the Non-GMO label that is beginning to appear on products. According to Hillsman, the process is thorough and expensive for companies to complete. When you see that label, you can feel safe that it means something.
The information housed by a seed is invaluable, not only because of the process it sets in motion, but more importantly, because we have no way of recreating it. There is no technology than can replace the humble tomato seed. This is truly just the surface of a very deep issue. Be on the lookout for Non-GMO labels, as well as the results of the CA ballot initiative. And to depart with a note of hope: in April 2012, the state government of Gujarat decided not to distribute the new Prabal brand of corn seed, despite the fact that the new genetic wonder was offered free of charge by Monsanto.