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Rachel #637: Against the Grain




=======================Electronic Edition========================
.                                                               .
.           RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #637           .
.                    ---February 11, 1999---                    .
.                          HEADLINES:                           .
.                       AGAINST THE GRAIN                       .
.                          ==========                           .
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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.[1]

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
speed.

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
worse.

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 nature.

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, and
sustainability.

It is a wrong direction for another reason as well.

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.]

==========
[1] Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey, AGAINST THE GRAIN;
BIOTECHNOLOGY AND THE CORPORATE TAKEOVER OF YOUR FOOD [ISBN
1567511503] (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1998).
Available from Common Courage Press, P.O. Box 207, Monroe, ME
04951. Tel. (207) 525-3068.

Descriptor terms: agriculture; biotechnology; genetic
engineering; regulation; usda; fda; epa; corporations;
food safety; food security; pesticides; bt; glyphosate;
roundup; monsanto; dow; dupont;

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