The Serious Questions about GM technology which Kevin Myers failed to address. Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC

In his column ‘If EVER THE WORLD NEEDED GM FOOD PRODUCTION, IT’S RIGHT NOW’, claims that, GM will enable us to increase plant production, without greater use of fertilizer … Irish Independent, 23, April 200.  The corner stone of modern science is that any claims must be based on empirical evidence. While being very passionate about his views, Kevin Myers offers no evidence in support of his assertion.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the food crisis which is causing pain, suffering and hunger for many people and also serious political problems for many governments.   The crisis has been seized by many some commentators as an opportunity to, once again, promote GM crops. The most common argument from proponents of GM crops is that genetically engineered food and medicine will be necessary to feed a growing world population. They argue that if the world population levels reaches 9 billion it will be necessary either to increase the land area now under cultivation or improve crop yield by new technologies such as genetic engineering.  In 1992, the then chief executive of the biotech corporation, Monsanto, Robert Shapiro, used the ‘feed the world’ argument as a justification for developing GM crops in an interview in the Harvard Business Review.[1] The rising cost of food which has sparked violent protests  in many countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Central and Latin America has been seized on by the agribusiness corporations and others as a new opportunity to push GM crops. One of the latest voices in this chorus is Robin McKie, the science editor of The Observer. He proclaimed that “As the world begins to starve it’s time to take GM seriously”, The Observer, 27 April 2008.

There is very little evidence to support this argument.  In fact, most of the data points in the opposite direction. In 2003, Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University published an analysis of the GM crops which biotech companies are developing for Africa.  These included cotton, maize and sweet potato.  He discovered that conventional breeding and good ecological management produced a far higher yield at a fraction of the cost of genetic engineering.  At that time the GM research on sweet potato was approaching its 12th year.  12 scientists were involved and the project had already cost $6 million.  The result indicated that the yield had increased by 18%. On the other hand, conventional sweet potato breeding, working with a much smaller budget, had produced a virus-resistant variety with 100%. More important for small, subsistence farmers, the non-transgenic sweet potato had not been patented.[2] A 2007 study by Kansas State University agronomist, Dr. Barney Gordon, suggests that the yield from Roundup Ready soya was 9% less than conventional varieties.[3] He noticed that the GM crop recovered. This led him to conclude that the genetic modification hindered the crop’s take-up of the essential element from the soil. Even with this addition the GM crop still only researched the yield of the conventional soya. [4]

Recent evidence shows that the kilogram per hectare ratio of soybeans has been in decline since 2002.  This would lead one to conclude that Roundup Ready soy does not have an impact on yield. [5]

Researchers, Pretty and Hine assessed the viability and productivity of 208 sustainable farms from 52 countries in 2001.  They found that farmers had achieved substantial increases in food production per hectare.  The gains ranged from 50% to 100% for rain-fed crops, and 5% to 10% for irrigated. Probably even more important, they found that sustainable agriculture and organic farming provide a stable yield by minimizing long-term yield volatility due to adverse climatic occurrences such as droughts, floods or windstorms. [6]

A report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated in April 2006 stated that, currently available GM crops do not increase the yield potential of a hybrid variety…. In fact, yield may even decrease if the varieties used to carry the herbicide tolerant or insect resistant genes are not the highest yielding cultivars. [7]

In January 2005, the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) published a report based on studies in both China and India. These showed that farmers who switched to organic agriculture achieved higher earnings and a better standard of living.[8] In China organic agriculture is growing steadily.  Exports from China jumped from less than $1 million in the mid-1990s to $142 million in 2003.[9]

In 2001, IFAD came up with similar findings in six countries in Latin America.  While organic farming is not a  panacea for reducing poverty and avoiding ecological deterioration in every environment globally, nevertheless, where conditions are favourable organic farming by small farmers can provide a long-term solution to  poverty and hunger.  It can also stop the hemorrhaging of rural populations into shanty twos in sprawling cities slums. [10]

IAASTD Report: GM crops not the solution to World Hunger.

If GM crops are the panacea for solving the food and energy crisis as  Robin Makie (Myer’s) alleges, its seems strange that it has not been endorsed by the recently released report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).  The IAASTD is a unique collaboration between public bodies such as the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organisation and representatives from governments, NGOs and scientific bodies.  It is a thorough sifting of the evidence running to 2,500 pages.  It took four years to complete and involved the work of 400 scientists.  It does not endorse the claims of the biotech industry that GM crops will feed the world and produce sufficient biofuels. It argues that a drastic change in agricultural practices is necessary in order to counteract soaring food prices, hunger, social inequality and environmental degradation.  It maintains that GM crops are controversial and that they will not play a substantial role in addressing the challenge of climate change, loss of biodiversity, food security, poverty and hunger.  It did not rule out a role for GM crops in the future, but highlighted the problem which the current regime of patenting seeds has on farmers and researches.

Hans Herren the co-chair of IAASTD that a business-as-usual approach is not an option.  The report argues that the most pressing need was to support small-scale farmers in diverse ecosystems. These farmers need to be given access to better knowledge, technology and credit.  Investment in information systems and rural infrastructure is a pressing priority.   Professor Janice Jiggins of Wageningen University, one of the contributors to the  IAASTD report questioned whether GM crops had been proven as safe.[11] Robert Watson, the director of the IAASTD and  chief scientist at the World Bank, responded a question from the Daily Mail – Are transgenic the simple answer to hunger and poverty. He responded I would argue, no. [12] The report concludes that; Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.[13]

Guihem Calvo who is an adviser with the ecological and earth science division of UNESCO, one of the agencies which sponsored the report told a Paris news conference that, we must develop agriculture which is less dependent on fossil fuels, favours the use of locally available resources and explores the use of natural processes such as crop rotation and the use of organic fertilizers. [14]

The IAASTD report argues small-scale farmers and ecologically sensitive ways of farming are the way forward. Furthermore, it believes that the agricultural knowledge of indigenous people and peasant farmers can play an important role along side agriculture science in meeting the demands of today. This was exactly my experience working with tribal and peasant farmers in Mindanao during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.  I and many missionaries who have worked on the ground in the Majority World, famine and hunger have more to do with the absence of land reform, lack of access to cheap credit and basic technologies rather than with the lack of GM seeds.

The bias against women in terms of agricultural policy is also a major factor.

Women who are often the central players in agriculture production in the Majority World (Third World) only received a miniscule proportion of that credit.  According to the Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, African  woman receive less than 10% of the credit given to small farmers even though women are ‘the primary caretakers, holding  significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding the children.

This point will be made in a submission from Christian, Faith-Based organizations and other NGOs to the High-Level Conference on World Food Security and the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy which is schedules for Rome from June 3rd to 5th 2008.  The signatories state that:  “There is a moral imperative to feed the hungry, but none to use transgenic biotechnology when less contested and well-tested alternatives can deliver comparable results in the medium and long-term. All that is technically possible is not necessarily good for the person or society. Under no circumstances should patents as they have been addressed in the agreement on ‘Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights’ (TRIPS) restrict farmers’ free exchange of seeds and hinder their innovations. Plants, seeds and genes are part of creation which cannot be claimed by intellectual property rights”.

In  2004 a document submitted by Caritas to a Conference in Rome on biotech food made the same point.  Many countries where the inhabitants suffer from both poverty and malnutrition are major exporters of food. “Brazil, for example is the third largest food exporter in the world, but a fifth of its people (32) million do not have enough food. About 100,000 children die of hunger each year. Clearly, hunger is not due to lack of food but is caused by both the highly unequal distribution of wealth and the huge number of people who are landless. Adopting a purely  ‘technology-can-fix’ approach to hunger problems can create more hunger and more food at the same time.”[15]

Robert Watson, director of IAASTD, and chief scientist at the UK Department of Environment, Rood and Rural Affairs has pointed out that, “investment in agriculture science has decreased, yet we urgently need sustainable ways to produce food. Incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor are weak”. [16]

Will GM crops lead to fewer chemicals?

It is worth remembering that conventional agriculture, which is very dependent on petrochemicals is unsustainable, partly because of the ecological damage it is doing to the soils, but mostly because oil and gas is limited and we are quickly approaching the situation of ‘peak-oil’.   This means that despite the fact that oil corporations are spending $100 billion each year on exploration, yet they are barely able to meet the current global demand which stands at about 85 million barrels each day.  One must remember that in 2006, oil production fell in 32 countries, including in Britain. ‘Peak-oil’ does not mean that we will run out of oil completely.  It does mean that more oil is being consumed than is being discovered.  This is increasing with the rapid rise in demand in China and India. This is why on  April 23, 2008, the price of oil reached almost $120 a barrel.  Many people think that transport will be the first casualty of ‘peak-oil’. GM crops are even more dependent on petrochemicals.  Many GM crops are specifically designed to be resistant to a particular glyphosate in many cases Monsanto’s, Roundup which is made from petrochemicals.

Proponents of GMO crops claim that they lessen the amount of chemicals used.  Charles Benbrook at the time the head of Northwest Science and Environment Policy Center at Sandpoint, Idaho carried out a comprehensive study using US Government data the use of chemicals in GM crops.  He found that when these crops were first introduced in the mid-1990s they needed 25% fewer chemicals for the first three years.  By 2001, however, received between 5% and 30% more spraying, compared with conventional crop varieties.  Dr. Benbrook stated that: the proponents of biotechnology claim GMO varieties substantially reduced pesticide use. While this was true in the first years of widespread planting ….. it is not the case now. There’s been clear evidence that the average pound of herbicide applied per acre planted to herbicide tolerant varieties have increased compared to the first few years.[17]

In the light of the current food crisis people might think that there is not enough food to feed hungry people.  In reality there is  plenty of food.  In 2007, the global grain harvest reached 2.1 billion tonnes.[18] This broke all previous records and was a 5% increase on the 2006 harvest. [19] The problems is that much of this food does not reach humans. In fact, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) less than half of it, 1.01 billion tonnes went directly to meeting human needs.  Eating grain, root crops or vegetables is a much more efficient way of feeding human beings than eating meat.  The bulk of GM crops grown during the past 10 years has gone to animal feed.  This has led a boom in meat consumption in Asia and Latin America. So, ironically,  GM crops, rather than solving the food crisis are exacerbating it.  If the world is going to feed a population of around 9 billion by the year 2050, then we need to drastically reduce our meat consumption.

Writing in, Harper’s Magazine, in February 2004, Richard Manning writes that, every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940, the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. Over the past 10 years the vast bulk of GM crops was devoted to growing food for animals.

Interestingly, while Myers’s moral compass is robust in condemning those who challenge the claims put out by biotech propaganda, he silent about the ethics of patenting life and the bullyboy tactics of biotech companies, such as Monsanto, in pursuing farmers whom they claim have breached their copyright through the courts.   It leave one wondering how much Myers really knows about the tactics of biotech companies, even in rich countries such as the US.

There are also major concerns in the whole area of biodiversity. If terminator genes escaped into the wild, this could be catastrophic for the rest of the natural world. It is worth noting how little we still know about the amount of biodiversity in the world. There are particular concerns about genetic pollution in areas where crops were originally found.  Hybrids of GM crops and wild relatives could swap populations of wild species. Traditional varieties of maize in Mexico, a centre of origin and diversity for the crop, has already been contaminated.

Proponents of biotech crops would have us believe that genetically engineering crops is a fairly simple matter and that scientists have a comprehensive knowledge of molecular biology and genetics. Nothing could be further from the truth according to the zoologist, Colin Tudge, author of the book on agriculture, So Shall We Reap. Tudge writes that “genetic engineering, even at its very simplest, implies the ad hoc introduction of exotic genes into the genomes of established organisms, and this, in principle, immediately suggests a hierarchy of possible problems. Most obviously, the newly introduced gene could disrupt the host genome in undesirable and quite unpredictable ways”.  One of the best analogies for understanding the changes involved is the nature or language. “If we compare genes to language as in the title of Steve Jone’s 1993 book; The Language of Genes, individual genes are than compared to words. But the meaning of individual words is not to be captured in the stripped-down, dictionary , definitions. …. The meaning of words depends very much on their context – what words are surrounded by. Behind the dictionary definitions of individual words lies the syntax of the language and the actul use of it; the colloquialism, the cross-references, the historical allusions, the puns”. Tudge points out that genes work in a similar way. Genomes evolve “trailing their history behind them.”  He continues with the language analogy, “if genes can be compared to words, then the genome of any particular creature as a whole should be compared to  literature.”   This means for him that “genetic engineering is not engineering at all”.  In fact, it is much closer to gardening, where you plant, then stand back and watch what is  happening.  He returns immediately to the language metaphor. Genetic manipulation “is more like editing. Every writer know that the injudicious alteration of a single word can change the import of a text absolutely.”

Tudge reminds us how little we still know about biology and genetics despite a “100 years of formal Mendelian genetics and a few decades of genomics”.  He acknowledges that “we have some small insight into the function of a few genes in a few genomes (including a few human genes)”.  He would consider that this knowledge only constitutes the beginning of a dictionary. “But the genome of an organism – any organism – might be compared in literature terms, to some sacred poetic text written in a language of which we have virtually no inkling; medieval Tibetan or Linear B”.  Then he poses the crucial question: “Would you, or anyone who was halfway sane, undertake to edit such a text if all they had to guide them was  a bad dictionary.”[20]

A few pages later, Tudge reminds us that engineers and architects even after exhaustively exploring the physical properties of a their building materials often make mistakes. “How much more will we get it wrong in biology, where the complexities are multiplied by orders of magnitude, and – relative to that complexity – almost nothing is known?  We drop novel genes into genomes, and exotic organisms into ecosystems, at our peril – our’s and the world’s. There is simply no way of knowing, a priori, what will happen. [21]

Tudge goes on to argue that GM crops will not feed the world. “The startling truth is (at least I think it’s startling, in view of the hype) that genetic engineering has contributed  nothing of significance to world food security – that is, to issues that really matter – and is not likely to do so in the foreseeable future. As far as human survival goes its contribution is precisely zilch. In reality it is locked into and is designed to promote an economic strategy that is already proving pernicious, and in the longer term could well prove disastrous. The net contribution of genetic engineering to human well-being is negative”. [22]

It comes as no surprise that the biotech industry was not happy with the report.  Syngenta and other biotech and pesticide producers abandoned the assessment process in the autumn of 2007. Countries such as the United States, Switzerland and Australia which promote the biotech industry threatened to collapse the assessment unless it presented a more favourable spin on GM crops.  The impasse at the plenary was broken when the US, Canada, Switzerland and Australia agreed to a footnote in the report indicating their reservations about the text’s position on biotech crops.  In a display of Jesuitical casuistry these countries accepted the report but did not adopt it.  It is interesting that the Report’s for the further industrialization and globalization of agriculture as well as  for genetically engineered crops in particular, is based on a rigorous and peer-reviewed analysis for the empirical evidence by hundreds of scientists and development specialists.  These experts were selected by the governments and corporations that are now slamming the report as “unbalanced”.

It is important to emphasise, at this point, that Colin Tudge is not against genetic engineering in principle.  His approach can best be judge from his comments on  sorghum, the staple crop of many people in the Sahel region of Africa.  Tudge points out that sorghum is resistant to drought and heat but not resistant enough.  Scientists from ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics) have searched international gene banks for relatives of sorghum that could be crossed with sorghum to provide the requisite gene(s) for super-toughness. To date they have not found such a gene and are actively screening other plants, in this case, groundnuts, which are tough and may provide a genetic source for their research. Since ground-nuts are legumes and sorghum is a grass, the required genes could not be introduced by conventional breeding. Genetic engineering would be necessary. “Here (if it can be made to work) is a prime example of the highest technologies deployed to help the world’s poorest people. For people in some of the harshest environments, such science could, in principle, be a godsend”.  Tudge ends this reflection by adding a word of caution about the limits of our current knowledge. [23]

Patenting Crops

Proponents of GM crops such as Robin McKie fail  to mention that almost all GM crops are patented. This was not  possible until very recently. The decisive change came in the 1970s when genetic engineers and the corporations they worked for began a legal campaign to patent crops. Initially requests to patent living  organisms were rejected by the US Patent and Trademark Office (PT0).  However, in a landmark case, Diamond vs Chakrabarty, in June of 1980, the US Supreme Court in a five-to-four majority, decided that life was patentable.   The ruling stated that the “relevant distinction was not between living and inanimate things, but whether living    products could be seen as “human-inventions”.[24]

One cannot exaggerate the momentous nature of  this decision.  It constitutes a break with the way most cultures have viewed life down through the ages. The philosophical, ethical and legal bases on which the decision  was reached are at variance with most of the cultural, moral and religious traditions of the planet. Most cultures and ethical traditions make a clear distinction between living and inanimate things.  The Harvard biologist, Edward O Wilson, would go much further in directly linking humans to other living creatures.  In his book, Biophilia (The Love of Life), he argues that during our evolutional development we were hard-wired genetically to bond with other species in the living world.  In the Prologue he uses a telling metaphor to illustrate the powerful attraction of other life forms, “we learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and more towards it like moths to the poach light. [25] Nothing, and certainly not the commercial demands of transnational corporations, should be allowed to blur or eliminate the vital distinction between life and non-life.

Furthermore, patents are derived from concepts of individual innovation and ownership which are foreign to many cultures where sharing of community resources or knowledge are promoted as crucial values.  The concept of individual property rights to either resources or knowledge is alien to many indigenous people. It certainly was not practices among the T’boli people in Mindanao where I worked for many years. In a patent-dominated world it is easy to forget that European and US agriculture was developed from plants and genetic resources freed important from others countries. These include potatoes, tomatoes and maize to mention just three.  Many of the countries of origin of these plants, such as Peru or Mexico should now be demanding that Europe and the US repay the “genetic debt” to people in the Majority world.

The simple fact is that the scientist, Chakrabarty did not create ‘his’ bacterium. As Key Dismukes, a former director of the Committee on Vision of the National Academy of Science in the US observed, “he merely intervened in the normal processes by which strains of bacteria exchange genetic information to produce a new strain with an altered metabolic pattern. His bacterium lives and reproduces itself under the forces what guide all cellular life. [26]

The lawyer, Andrew Kimbrell believes that the US Supreme Court’s decision has “transformed the status if the biotic (life ) community from a common heritage of the earth to the private preserve of researchers and industry”.  He points out that the ruling has set the stage for increasing competition among multinationals as they vie for ownership and control of the planet’s gene pool, patenting everything that lives, breathes and moves. [27] The patenting frenzy of the past decade has proved Kimbrell correct.  When I speak of patenting life, including human genes and cell-line, the audience is normally dumbfounded when I point out that, at present, more than one fifth of the genes of every human being are now owned by corporations and universities.

According to Michael Crichton writing in the New York Times, on February 13, 2007, gene patents in the US are now used to halt research, prevent medical testing and keep vital information from patents and doctors.  Crichton points out that the patenting of genes has raised the costs of both diagnostic tests and treatment.  A breast cancer test which should cost $ 1,000 now costs $3,000.  Our legislators or courts have not protected us from the predatory  behaviour of biotech companies.

This is not the first time that  the judiciary in the US put the interests of corporations ahead of those of  the ordinary citizens.  The historian Morton Horwitz, writes that “from the beginning of the 19th century the legal profession and the judiciary in America bonded with the entrepreneurs and their commercial ventures, even at this early period, against the ordinary citizens, the workers and the farmers… by the middle of the 19th century the legal system had been reshaped to the advantage of the men of commerce and industry at the expense of  farmers, workers, consumers and other less powerful groups with society”. [28]

The US Supreme Court’s view of life also differs radically from the way life is understood, revered and cherished in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The first line of the Bible insists that everything was created by a living God: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1: 1).  The text is very clear that all living beings, including humans beings, are creatures of God.

Human beings have a special place in creation, as representatives of God, (Gen. 1: 16). They show their dependence on God in the way they relate to God, to each other, and to the earth.  In the initial covenant between God and humanity (Gen. 1: 28-31) humans were not allowed to eat flesh. Even after the flood, when Noah was allowed to kill animals for food, there is a prohibition on consuming the animal’s blood (Gen.  9. 3-4).  Blood, in the ancient Near-East, was considered to be the seat of life. The Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad writes, “even when many slaughters and kills, he is to know that he is  touching something which, because it is life, is in a special manner God’s property.” [29]

The first account of creation goes no to teach that all beings have their own inherent value. This dignity derives from the fact that they are created by God (Gen. 1: 12, 19-25).  This inherent dignity of creatures increases and intensifies the high one moves up the chain of being.  In the second account of creation the ‘man’ is given the privilege of naming of naming the animals. (Gen. 2:19-20). The text recognizes that all creatures, including humans, have a common origin. While naming gives humans dominion over other creatures, it does not give them the right to oppress and exploit. Rather, such dominion is to be patterned on God’s own care and sovereignty, as  expressed in Psalm 72: 4-6, where the righteous king combines  concern for the poor with care for all the creatures of the earth.

Furthermore, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, creation is an all-encompassing activity. It is not a once-off action in the distant past by a mechanistic God who immediately abandons the world to it own devices.  Creation has always been understood as a continuous reality. It is also seen, not as a thing, but rather as a gift.

The bible does not share the reductionist myopia of the US Supreme Court that views life as a isolated entity and as a product of human industry.  In the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, all beings are indebted to God for their life and continued existence.  Patenting life, on the other hand, is a fundamental attack on this understanding of life as interconnected, mutually dependent and a gift of God. It opts instead for an atomized, isolated understanding of life.  It is also at variance with the Judeo-Christian conviction that freedom, openness and possibility are the hallmarks of life in God’s creation.

The Bible also recognizes that humans are companions and stewards of other creatures in the community of  life (Gen. 2:15 – 17). In this text God settles the ‘man’ in the Garden and invites him to cultivate it and care for it. The text goes on to place certain limits on man’s use of the natural world.  God gave man the admonitions. “You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden. Nevertheless, of the  tree of knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on that day you eat it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2: 16- 17).

Stewardship doe not mean that humans are inventors or owners of life, or that they can dominate and exploit everything in creation.  In fact, it challenges and repudiates that view. God, and only God, is the Creator of life, and all life, including human life is dependent on God.  The Bible is very critical of those who, puffed up with arrogance and pride, refuse to recognize that they are creatures and that, thus, dependent on God.  In the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) humans repudiate God’s sovereignty and attempt to storm heaven under their own steam. I think it would not be misrepresenting the meaning of this text to interpret any claim to own life as usurping the divine prerogative as Author of life.

Living organisms are not merely, ‘gene machines’, or ‘gene collections’ to be manipulated and exploited for profit.  That is why, after the US Patent and Trademark Office had patented their first animal in 1987, a group of 24 religious leaders issued the following statement:

“The decision of the US Patent Office to allow the patenting of genetically engineered animals presents fundamental dangers to humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Reverence for all life created by God may be eroded by subtle economic pressures to view animal life as if it were an industrial product invented and manufactured by humans. [30]

I(n his encyclical on social justice, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II interprets the Genesis 2: 16-17 text as placing limitations on humans’ misuse of the natural world.

“The dominion grated to (humans) man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of freedom to ‘use and abuse’ or to dispose of things as one pleases. The limitations imposed from the beginning by the Creator himself and expressed symbolically by the prohibition not to ‘eat of the fruit of the tree’ shows clearly enough that, when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to biological laws, but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity. [31]

May I suggest that Kevin Myers reads the very disturbing article by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele entitled, ‘Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear’ in the May 2003, edition of Vanity Fair. The subtitle outlines how Monsanto is both powerful and ruthless when it comes to dealing with various constituents. “Monsanto already dominates America’s food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening as the corporation’s tactics – ruthless legal battles against small farmers – is its decade-long history of toxic contamination”. The article goes no to give details how Monsanto, the largest biotech company on the planet, uses a shadowy army of private agents in the American heartland to strike fear into farm country.   These investigators will sometimes show a farmer a photo of himself coming out of a store to let him know he is being followed.  They infiltrate community meetings and gather information about what farmers are planting. Farmers call these investigators “seed” police and use words such as “Gestapo” and “Mafia” to describe their tactics (page 114).  Often these “seed police” get it wrong as in the accusations against a small store owner, Gary Rinehart. In 2002, Monsanto investigator “Jeffrey Moore, accused Rinehart of planting Roundup GM soybeans.  Though Rinehart was innocent they filed a case against him and forced him to hire his own lawyer to protect his interests.  Soon Monsanto realized they had the wrong person, but, did they offer an apology?  There was “no letter of apology, no public concession that the company had made a mistake, no offer to pay his attorney’s fees.  I don’t know how they got away with it, Reinhart said. If I tried to do something like that it would be bad news, I felt I was in another country. (page 116).

The article gives a number of examples of Monsanto’s doggy record as a chemical company, though as the authors point out, the company literature has airbrushed much of this out of its official history.  Monsanto produced two of the most toxic substances every known – polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs and dioxin. (page 119). In 1949, a huge explosion at the town of Nitro, in West Virginia causing a plume of toxic smoke to drift over the factory area and the town.  Court records show that 226 plant workers were affected. However, Monsanto claimed that the contamination was “fairly slow acting” and “caused only irritation of the skin”.   In 1981 many of Monsanto’s former workers at the Nitro plant filed a case in the federal court. They claimed that Monsanto knowingly exposed them to chemicals which caused long-term health problems, including hearth failure and a variety of cancers.  (page 119).  In 1988, on the eve of the trial Monsanto settled the cases by making a single payment of $1.5 million. The company also agreed to drop its claim to collect $307,000 in court costs from six former employees who had unsuccessfully charged in a separate lawsuit that Monsanto had recklessly exposed them to dioxin. (page 120).

Monsanto’s PCBs, were extremely versatile and were used in many industries as sealants, lubricants and hydraulic fluids.  Unfortunately, they are toxic and can damage the neurological, immune, endocrine and reproductive systems in animals and humans.  37 years after ceasing operation Anniston, Alabama, the town in which Monsanto manufactured PCBs is still one of the most contaminated areas in the US.  Monsanto has paid $550 million to the 21,000 citizens of Anniston, many of whom suffer from illnesses associated with PCBs. The article claims that the company was very  slow to accept that their product was highly  toxic.  Rather than accept responsibility the company mounted a PR campaign to limit damage.  An internal memo entitled “CONFIDENTIAL –FYI  AND DESTROY” was sent out by Paul B. Hodges. It detailed the measures which were underway to limit disclosure including getting public officials to fight their case. All of this was aimed at playing down the danger even though there was enormous cause for public concern.

Currently, Monsanto are targeting dairy companies which  advertise that their milk is produced by cows not treated with Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone rBGH.  The article describes how Monsanto wish to stop Jeff Kleinpeter, a dairy farmer in Baton Rouge from including the phrase – “from Cows NOT Treated with rBGH.  It appears that many consumers share Kleinpeter’s distaste for bovine growth hormones as milk sales soared after  the notice appeared.  In an attempt to stamp out this practice, Monsanto have appealed to the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the “deceptive advertising and labeling practices” of milk producers such as Kleinpeter.  Monsanto argue that people like Klelinpeter are misleading consumers by “falsely claiming that there are health and safety risks associated with milk from rBST-supplemented cows.

To augument  their official attach on farmers such as Kleinpeter, a Monsanto-backed farmers groups called, American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT), has been attempting to discredit people like Kleinpeter.  AFACT claims to be a “producer organization” which attacks companies which are trying to    convince consumers to “shy away from foods using new technology”.  Interestingly, AFACT uses the same PR company as Monsanto, Osborn & Barr.  Websites such as StopLabelingLies attack companies such as Kleipeter’s which allegedly make misleading claims about their milk.  One of the contributors to the website is Steven Milloy, the “junk science” commentator at FoxNews.com.  Earlier in his career, Milloy worked as a registered lobbyist for Monsanto.

This is not the  first time that campaigns have been launched against people who challenge the claims of the biotech world.  In November 2001, two scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, published an article in the magazine, Nature, claiming that indigenous maize in Mexico had been contaminated by genetically engineered maize. In April 2002 in an unprecedented move Nature disowned Chapela and Quist’s findings.  The case against the scientist was led by AgBioWorld which used its data base to coordinate the attacks.  Inflammatory emails came from a Mary Murphy and an Andura Smetacek. The emails claimed that Dr. Chapela was politically motivated and that his research could only be understood in the light of his collusion with fear-mongering activists with whom, it was insinuated, he had designed the research.

In time, Mary Murphy’s emails were shown to have been sent from Monsanto’s PR company, Bivings, while Andura Smetacek’s emails were traced back directly to the Monsanto corporation in St. Louis.  The fact that the editor of such a  prestigious magazine succumbed t o this kind of pressure is very worrying indeed. In a letter to The Guardian, Chapela wrote; “perhaps the key lies in his tacit acknowledgement, albeit by dismissal, of the enormous pressure on anyone working in or around the biological sciences ever since we were set on a collision course with commercial interest. The coordinated attempt to discredit our discoveries in the public piazza sends a chilling message to those who would dare to ask important, but uncomfortable questions, and find their truthful answer. It is an assault on the very foundations of science. [32]

How does Monsanto get away with all of this?  The authors tells us on page 122 that it has long been wired into Washington. This covers both the executive branch of government and the regulatory agencies.  Michael R. Taylor was an executive assistant to the F.D.A. commissioner before joining a Washington law firm which worked to secure F.D.A. approval of Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone.  To complete the revolving door act, Taylor returned to Monsanto in 1999 as a senior vice-president.  Finally, Myers seems not to have heard of the terminator gene, which has been developed by the company Delta and Pine. This has not been acquired by Monsanto company. This technology will have a detrimental impact on subsistence farmers who have been exchanging seeds since the beginning of the agricultural revolution 11,000 years ago.  Fr. Roland Lesseps, SJ, who is an agriculturalist and has worked for years at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in Zambia believes that, the livelihood of farmers would be under threat if seed companies were able to use the Terminator technology.[33]


[1] Robert Shapiro, ‘Growth through Global Sustainability’ Harvard Business Review, 2 March, 1992, pages 79 -88.

[2] George Monbiot, ‘Force-fed a diet of hype’, The Guardian, 7 October, 2004, page 45.

[3] Barney Gordon,  2007, “Manganese nutrition of glyphosate-resistant and conventional soybeans”, Better Crops, Vol. 91, No 4: 12-13.

[4] Geoffrey, Lean, “Exposed: The Great GM Crops Myth”, The Independent, 20th April 2008.

[5] ABIOVE, 2006a, “Sustainability in the Legal Amazon” Presentation by Carlo Lovetelli at the Second Roundtable on Responsible Soy, Paraguay, 1 September 2006.

www.abiove.com.br/english/palestras/abiove_pal_sustent_amazonialegal_us.pdf

[6] J. Pretty and R, Hine, 2001 “Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture: A Summary of New Evidence” Centre for Environment and Society, Essex University, Britain,

[7] J. Fernandez-Cornejo, and Caswell, April 2006, “Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States”, USDA/ERS, Economic Information Bulletin, No. 11. see also, www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib11.pdf>

[8] IFAD, 2005, “Organic agriculture and  poverty in Asia: China and India focus”, IFAD, Rome.

[9] Ibid.

[10] IFAD, (2003), “The adoption of organic agriculture among small farmers in Latin America and the Carribbean,” Report no. 1337, IFAD, Rome.

[11] Seán Poulter,  “GM food ‘not the answer’ to world’s food shortage crisis, says report”, The Daily Mail, 16 April, 2008.

[12] Ibid.

[13] John Vidal, “Change in Farming Can Feed the World”, The Guardian, April 16th 2008.

[14] Ibid.

[15] This document was made available to the participants of the September 24th 2004 Conference at the Gregorian University in Rome organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the US Embassy to the Holy Sea. The title of the conference was “Feeding the World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology.  Interesting, despite its expertise in meeting food and hunger needs around the world, Caritas any other Catholic development organization was not invited.

[16] John Vidal, “Change in Farming Can Feed the World”, The Guardian, April  16, 2008.

[17] John Vidal, ‘GM crops linked to rise in pesticide use’, The Guardian, January 8, 2004, page 45.

See also: Benbrook, C.M. 2004, “Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years”, BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper No.7, www.biotechinfo.net/Full_version_first_.pdf> Accessed November 30, 2004.

[18] Food and Agriculture Organisation, April 2008, “Crop Prospect and Food Situation”, www.fao.org/docrep.010/ai465e01.htm>

[19] Ibid.

[20] Colin Tudge 2002, So Shall We Reap, Penguin, London, page 225.

[21] Ibid, page 261.

[22] Ibid, page 268

[23] Ibid, page 254.

[24] Andrew Kimbrell, The Body Shop, Harper, San Francisco, 1993,  page 193

[25] Edward O. Wilson, 1984, Biophilia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

[26] Quoted in Jeremy Rifkin’s , The Biotech Century, Victor Gallancz London 1998, page 46.

[27] Kimbrell, op.cit. p. 200.

[28] Morton J. Horowitz, 1995, The Transformation of American Law: 1780 -1860, Oxford University Press, New York, pages 253-254.

[29] Gerhard von Rad, 1961, Genesis, SCM Press Ltd., London, page 128.

[30] Quoted in Kimbrell, op.cit., page 201.

[31] Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, No. 34.

[32] Ignacio H. Chapela, letters column, The Guardian, 24th May, 2002, page 8.

[33] Roland Lesseps, Foreword, Unless the grain of wheat shall die, Progressio, Progressio, Unit 3, Canonbury Yard, 190a New North Road,  London N1 7BJ, page 6.

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