Small farmers, Monsanto, and recent trends in transgenic crops

Posted by on Feb 10, 2012 | 1 comment

Fields of GM maize

Manhattan seems an odd place for a protest by North America’s small farmers. But they were up in arms earlier this week, silently protesting in Foley Square that they’re unable to keep genetically modified, or “transgenic,” crops from their fields.

The big issue is pollen drift from other farms. Wind carries pollen from crops like alfalfa, corn, and grass into neighboring fields, where it fertilizes the next generation of seed with the modified genes. Organic farmers and small farmers who don’t trust transgenic seed (which has been linked to herbicide resistance in some of the most noxious weeds and pesticide resistance in harmful insects) can’t replant their harvest from year to year if they want to remain free of genetically-modified crops. If they do, they may be subject to lawsuits by Monsanto and other transgenic seed companies that have patented the genetic code. (In researching this, I was interested to learn that Justice Clarence Thomas, a former attorney for Monsanto, wrote the majority opinion on the 2001 Supreme Court ruling allowing companies to patent genetic code for engineered crops.)

Although the Department of Agriculture recommends that farmers have buffer zones around their organic crops to prevent pollen spread, the wind doesn’t pay much attention to U.S. policymakers, and small farms may not have enough land to use as an effective buffer. It’s also an expensive proposition for the small farmer (and to me seems more than a little unfair). Organic farmers have to test their own crops using services like the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit laboratory and certifier, and increasingly they have been complaining when they have found those carefully coddled crops to be contaminated despite every effort to protect them. As a result of  such protests, last year the USDA said that crops would not necessarily lose their organic status if they were found to have some transgenic content. Not the best news for the consumer, I’d say.

Just so we’re clear: in traditional plant breeding, plants are bred with plant relatives to encourage naturally occurring traits, including hardiness, color, flavor, and so on. This is not what we mean by “genetically modified” or “transgenic” plants (aka GMOs). In these, genetic material from unrelated organisms (including fish, daffodils, and butterflies) can be introduced to build in resistance to herbicide (“Round-Up Ready” crops) or cause the plant to produce a biological insecticide (“Bt” crops). Large farmers and scientists see obvious advantages in hardier plants, and theoretically their use should lead to lower use of chemical pesticides over time, although some long-term studies have suggested otherwise.

Last year, about 90 percent of all soybeans, corn, canola, and sugar beets raised in the United States sprouted from transgenic seed. Virtually all processed foods contain modified genes from one or more of these crops. No known health risks are associated with eating transgenic foods, but many consumers wish to avoid them regardless. In a 2010 Thomson Reuters/NPR survey of U.S. households, 93 percent of respondents said that there should be a label on foods that have genetically engineered ingredients, and this number has been consistent since such crops were introduced in 1996. Similar labels are required in nearly 50 countries around the world, including all of the European Union, whose markets have never trusted transgenic crops.

Are American and Canadian farmers just being silly? Not necessarily: more than a hundred lawsuits have been filed by Monsanto against North American farmers for patent infringement, and while some were undoubtedly replanting seed on purpose to avoid paying high prices charged by the companies, some organic farmers who were victims of pollen drift have had no legal recourse. The farmers protesting in New York this week had lodged a preemptive lawsuit against Monsanto to make it clear that they did not wish to be victims of the company’s attack-dog legal tactics. The case may well be dismissed when the judge rules on March 31st, but in the meantime, the farmers have sent an important signal to the company that they do not intend to be victims of what they see as unjustified legal action.

This case is not the only obstacle facing Monsanto these days. The French government declared in January that they would maintain a ban on transgenic crops despite a French court ruling that overturned the country’s ban. This declaration, public protests, and a lack of demand by consumers in Europe–where products must be labeled as being genetically modified or containing transgenic ingredients–have apparently led some companies to retreat from the European cereals market. Monsanto has backed out of France, and BASF, a German chemicals company that has partnered with Monsanto on biotech crop research, announced recently that they will no longer be developing crops for the European market.

Monsanto is being proactive in its efforts to change its self-image. The company is spending over $100 million per year on advertising campaigns to convince people that they are increasing yields while helping the environment. (These claims are simply not true, says Doug Gurian-Sherman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who reviewed two dozen academic studies in an effort to get to the bottom of the company’s claims.) The company also made a controversial $4 million seed donation to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. (Some of the seed was burned on the docks by protesting farmers, who thought that they were transgenic seeds, and other seed was distributed by a USAID program, according to Haiti Grassroots Watch, with disturbingly little oversight or support.) It remains to be seen if these efforts will help to change the company’s image. Certainly a lot of small farmers would love to prevent it.
 
If you are interested in the labeling of GMOs, I’d recommend checking out these resolutions currently before the U.S. Congress:

Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act requires labels on foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Genetically Engineered Safety Act prohibits human food crops from being genetically engineered to grow pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals.

Genetically Engineered Technology Farmer Protection Act puts into law traditional rights for farmers that are being eroded by court decisions favoring large corporations.

One Comment

  1. Now THAT is an article I WOULD expect from you… informative and good! As a European citizen, I don't want my food, gentically modified thank you! You want it, you eat it, but please, please don't thrust it down my throat, or the throat of my owner.

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