- AGAINST THE GRAIN
- A new book by Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey,
AGAINST THE GRAIN, makes it clear that genetic engineering is revolutionizing
U.S. agriculture almost overnight.
- In 1997, 15% of the U.S. soybean crop
was grown from genetically engineered seed. By next year, if Monsanto Corporation's
timetable unfolds on schedule, 100% of the U.S. soybean crop (60 million
acres) will be genetically engineered.[1,pg.5] The same revolution is occurring,
at the same pace, in cotton. Corn, potatoes, tomatoes and other food crops
are lagging slightly behind but, compared to traditional rates of change
in farming, they are being deployed into the global ecosystem at blinding
- The mass media have largely maintained
silence about the genetic engineering revolution in agriculture, and government
regulators have imposed no labeling requirements, so the public has little
or no knowledge that genetically altered foods are already being sold in
grocery stores everywhere, and that soon few traditional forms of food
may remain on the shelves.
- Genetic engineering is the process whereby
genes of one species are implanted in another species, to give new traits
to the recipient. Traditionally the movement of genes has only been possible
between closely-related species. Under the natural order established by
the Creator, there was no way dog genes could get into cats. Now, however,
genetic engineering allows scientists to play God, removing genes from
a trout or a mosquito and implanting them in a tomato, for better or for
- Three federal agencies regulate genetically-engineered
crops and foods -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA). The heads of all three agencies are on record with speeches
that make them sound remarkably like cheerleaders for genetic engineering,
rather than impartial judges of a novel and powerful new technology, and
all three agencies have set policies that:
- ** No public records need be kept of
which farms are using genetically-engineered seeds;
- ** Companies that buy from farmers and
sell to food manufacturers and grocery chains do not need to keep genetically-engineered
crops separate from traditional crops, so purchasers have no way to avoid
purchasing genetically engineered foods;
- ** No one needs to label any crops, or
any food products, with information about their genetically engineered
origins, so consumers have no way to exercise informed choice in the grocery
store. In the U.S., every food carries a label listing its important ingredients,
with the remarkable exception of genetically engineered foods.
- These policies have two main effects:
- (1) they have kept the public in the
dark about the rapid spread of genetically engineered foods onto the family
dinner table, and
- (2) they will prevent epidemiologists
from being able to trace health effects, should any appear, because no
one will know who has been exposed to novel gene products and who has not.
- Today Pillsbury food products are made
from genetically-engineered crops. Other foods that are now genetically
engineered include Crisco; Kraft salad dressings; Nestle's chocolate; Green
Giant harvest burgers; Parkay margarine; Isomil and ProSobee infant formulas;
and Wesson vegetable oils. Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos and Ruffles Chips
-- and french fried potatoes sold by McDonald's -- are genetically engineered.[1,pg.92]
- By next year, if Monsanto's plans develop
on schedule -- and there is no reason to think they won't -- 100% of the
U.S. soybean crop will be genetically engineered. Eighty percent of all
the vegetable oils in American foods are derived from soy beans, so most
foods that contain vegetable oils will contain genetically engineered components
by next year or the year after.[1,pg.52]
- It is safe to say that never before in
the history of the world has such a rapid and large-scale revolution occurred
in a nation's food supply. And not just the U.S. is targeted for change.
The genetic engineering companies (all of whom used to be chemical companies)
-- Dow, DuPont, Novartis, and preeminently, Monsanto -- are aggressively
promoting their genetically engineered seeds in Europe, Brazil, Argentina,
Mexico, India, China and elsewhere. Huge opposition has developed to Monsanto's
technology everywhere it has been introduced outside the United States.
Only in the U.S. has the "agbiotech" revolution been greeted
with a dazed silence.
- Monsanto -- the clear leader in genetically
engineered crops -- argues that genetic engineering is necessary (nay,
ESSENTIAL) if the world's food supply is to keep up with human population
growth. Without genetic engineering, billions will starve, Monsanto says.
However, neither Monsanto nor any of the other genetic engineering companies
appears to be developing genetically engineered crops that might solve
global food shortages. Quite the opposite.
- If genetically engineered crops were
aimed at feeding the hungry, then Monsanto and the others would be developing
seeds with certain predictable characteristics: (a) ability to grow on
substandard or marginal soils; (b) plants able to produce more high-quality
protein, with increased per-acre yield, without increasing the need for
expensive machinery, chemicals, fertilizers, or water; (c) they would aim
to favor small farms over larger farms; (d) the seeds would be cheap and
freely available without restrictive licensing; and (e) they would be for
crops that feed people, not meat animals.
- None of the genetically engineered crops
now available, or in development (to the extent that these have been announced)
has any of these desirable characteristics. Quite the opposite. The new
genetically engineered seeds require high-quality soils, enormous investment
in machinery, and increased use of chemicals. There is evidence that their
per-acre yields are about 10% lower than traditional varieties (at least
in the case of soybeans),[1,pg.84] and they produce crops largely intended
as feed for meat animals, not to provide protein for people. The genetic
engineering revolution has nothing to do with feeding the world's hungry.
- The plain fact is that fully two-thirds
of the genetically engineered crops now available, or in development, are
designed specifically to increase the sale of pesticides produced by the
companies that are selling the genetically engineered seeds.[1,pg.55] For
example, Monsanto is selling a line of "Roundup Ready" products
that has been genetically engineered to withstand heavy doses of Monsanto's
all-time top money-making herbicide, Roundup (glyphosate). A Roundup Ready
crop of soybeans can withstand a torrent of Roundup that kills any weeds
competing with the crop. The farmer gains a $20 per acre cost-saving (compared
to older techniques that relied on lesser quantities of more expensive
chemicals), but the ecosystem receives much more Roundup than formerly.
To make Roundup Ready technology legal, EPA had to accommodate Monsanto
by tripling the allowable residues of Roundup that can remain on the crop.[1,pg.75]
Monsanto's patent on Roundup runs out in the year 2000, but any farmer
who adopts Roundup Ready seeds must agree to buy only Monsanto's brand
of Roundup herbicide. Thus Monsanto's patent monopoly on Roundup is effectively
extended into the foreseeable future -- a shrewd business maneuver if there
ever was one. However, this should not be confused with feeding the world's
hungry. It is selling more of Monsanto's chemicals and filling the corporate
coffers, which is what it was intended to do. "Feeding the hungry"
is a sales gimmick, not a reality.
- Monsanto's other major line of genetically
engineered crops contains the gene from a natural pesticide called Bt.
Bt is a naturally-occurring soil organism that kills many kinds of caterpillars
that like to eat the leaves of crops. Bt is the pesticide of choice in
low-chemical-use farming, IPM [integrated pest management] and organic
farming. Farmers who try to minimize their use of synthetic chemical pesticides
rely on an occasional dusting with Bt to prevent a crop from being overrun
with leaf-eating caterpillars. To them, Bt is a God-send, a miracle of
- Monsanto has taken the Bt gene and engineered
it into cotton, corn and potatoes. Every cell of every plant contains the
Bt gene and thus produces the Bt toxin. It is like dusting the crop heavily
with Bt, day after day after day. The result is entirely predictable, and
not in dispute. When insect pests eat any part of these crops, the only
insects that will survive are those that are (a) resistant to the Bt toxin,
or (b) change their diet to prefer other plants to eat, thus disrupting
the local ecosystem and perhaps harming a neighboring farmer's crops.
- According to Dow Chemical scientists
who are marketing their own line of Bt-containing crops, within 10 years
Bt will have lost its usefulness because so many insects will have developed
resistance to its toxin.[1,pg.70] Thus Monsanto and Dow are profiting
bountifully in the short term, while destroying the usefulness of the one
natural pesticide that undergirds the low-pesticide approach of IPM and
organic farming. It is another brilliant -- if utterly ruthless and antisocial
-- Monsanto business plan.
- Ultimately, for sustainability and long-term
maximum yield, agricultural ecosystems must become diversified once again.
This is the key idea underlying organic farming. Monoculture cropping --
growing acre upon acre of the same crop -- is the antithesis of sustainability
because monocultures are fragile and unstable, subject to insect swarms,
drought, and blight. Monocultures can only be sustained by intensive, expensive
inputs of water, energy, chemicals, and machinery. Slowly over the past
two decades, the movement toward IPM and organic farming has begun to take
hold in this country -- despite opposition from the federal government,
from the chemical companies, from the banks that make farm loans, and from
the corporations that sell insurance. Now comes the genetic engineering
revolution, which is dragging U.S. agriculture back down the old path toward
vast monocultures, heavy reliance on machinery, energy, water, and chemicals,
all of which favors the huge farm over the small family operation. It is
precisely the wrong direction to be taking agricultural technology in the
late 20th century, if the goals are long-term maximum yield, food security,
- It is a wrong direction for another reason
- When 100% of the soybeans in the U.S.
are grown from Roundup Ready seed -- next year -- then 100% of America's
soybean farmers will be dependent upon a single supplier for all their
seed and the chemicals needed to allow those seeds to thrive. In sum, Monsanto
will have achieved a monopoly on a fundamental food crop. It is clear that
Monsanto's goal is a similar monopoly on every major food crop here and
abroad. If something doesn't change soon, it is safe to predict that a
small number of "life science" corporations (as they like to
call themselves) -- the majority of them American and the remainder European
-- will have a monopoly on the seed needed to raise all of the world's
major food crops. Then the hungry, like the well-fed, will have to pay
the corporate owners of this new technology for permission to eat.
- [To be continued.]