March 16th, 2011
The Christian Science Monitor
By: Christopher D. Cook
Question: Would you want a small handful of government officials controlling America’s entire food supply, all its seeds and harvests?
I suspect most would scream, “No way!”
Yet, while America seems allergic to public servants – with no profit motive in mind – controlling anything these days, a knee-jerk faith in the “free market” has led to overwhelming centralized control of nearly all our food stuffs, from farm to fork.
The Obama administration’s recent decision to radically expand genetically modified (GM) food – approving unrestricted production of agribusiness biotech company Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” alfalfa and sugar beets – marks a profound deepening of this centralization of food production in the hands of just a few corporations, with little but the profit motive to guide them.
Even as United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials enable a tighter corporate grip on the food chain, there is compelling evidence of GM foods’ ecological and human health risks, suggesting we should at very least learn more before allowing their spread.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies suggest these crops – the result of reformulating plant and animal genes, with minimal oversight and no food labeling disclosures – increase allergens in the food supply. And according to the World Health Organization, “The movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops…may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security. This risk is real, as was shown when traces of a maize type which was only approved for feed use appeared in maize products for human consumption in the United States of America.”
Corporate-controlled seeds are undemocratic
But these corporate-controlled seeds pose an even graver threat: Both the technology and economy of GM crops are intrinsically anti-democratic.
What’s wrong with having a few corporations control virtually every aspect of our sustenance? Far from abstract, the genetic and proprietary control of our diets by a handful of companies (Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta combined own an astounding 47 percent of the global seed market) directly robs consumers and farmers of the most basic right to choose what they will eat and grow.
The entire concept of creating and selling patented GM seeds is based on proprietary corporate control: The seeds are non-replenishing and must be purchased anew each season, eliminating the time-honored farmer tradition of saving and re-using seeds.
Anyone doubting Monsanto’s obsession with control can just ask just ask the thousands of farmers who have been sued and spied upon for alleged “seed piracy” – at least 2,391 farmers in 19 states through 2006, according to Monsanto website documents obtained by the Washington, DC-based Center for Food Safety (CFS). A report by CFS, using company records, found that “Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers.”
Or ask Monsanto. Under the headline, “Why Does Monsanto Sue Farmers Who Save Seeds?” on its website, the firm states: “When farmers purchase a patented seed variety, they sign an agreement that they will not save and replant seeds produced from the seed they buy from us. More than 275,000 farmers a year buy seed under these agreements in the United States.”
January 5th, 2010
By: Ethan A. Huff
When India’s seed economy was forced by the World Bank to become globalized in the late 1990s, economic conditions within the nation’s agricultural sector almost immediately took a nosedive for the worst. Much of the common Indian seed stock turned from saveable heirloom varieties to patented, genetically-modified (GM) varieties that expire after a single use and require the application of expensive and cumbersome pesticides in order to grow, which plunged many Indian farmers into abject poverty. And nearly 25 years later, the devastating effects of this corporate takeover of Indian agriculture has resulted in countless suicides, 200,000 of which have occurred just in the past ten years.
According to a recent report in the U.K. Independent, many Indian farmers have lost their farms and land over the past several decades. One of the primary causes is failed investments by farmers that banked heavily on the success of newly-introduced GM crops. Multinational biotechnology giants like Monsanto and Syngenta promised farmers that GM crops would bring incredible yields at lower costs, and save the country from poverty. But in reality, many of the crops ended up failing, leaving millions of Indian farmers with absolutely nothing.
“One farmer every 30 minutes (commits suicide) in India now, and sometimes three in one family,” explained Palagummi Sainath, an Indian journalist, to the U.K. Independent. Left with nowhere to turn and a complete loss of their livelihoods, many farmers are literally drinking their crop pesticides. And since many of these suicides go unreported or unnoticed, actual rates could be even higher than those reported.
Years of drought and poor agricultural policy are also to blame for the widespread failure of agriculture in many Indian regions, but it all appears directly connected to the introduction of GMs in the 1990s. The U.K. Independent report states that the Indian government removed cotton subsidies in 1997, which resulted in a significant profit loss for many cotton farmers. But during that same year, GM varieties of cotton were also introduced, which many attribute directly to the crop failures that left the agriculture sector largely in ruin.
“Every suicide can be linked to Monsanto,” explained scientist Vandana Shiva to the U.K. Independent. After subsidies were lifted, the cost of cotton production rose dramatically, especially when GM cotton was introduced because it required the application of expensive pesticides and herbicides. Natural varieties of cotton, on the other hand, do not necessarily require chemical applications to grow and flourish. And since farmers can save and reuse natural seeds every year, all is not lost during years of poorer yields because farmers can often try again the next year.
But in the GM crop paradigm, the stakes are far higher. Farmers must borrow large sums of money to invest in GM technology. They do so based on promises that yields will increase and profits will soar. But when the promises fail to pan out and farmers are unable to keep paying for the expensive pesticides, they typically end up losing everything, including access to reusable heirloom seeds. So, many end up killing themselves because they literally have nothing left.
The introduction of GM agriculture in India shifted the agricultural economy from one of biodiversity to monoculture, which is hugely significant in India’s agricultural failures. Rather than grow a variety of different heirloom crops that each respond differently to periodic changes in climate — which Indian farmers have always done prior to the introduction of GM crops — many farmers began to grow only one single GM variety. And when conditions turned out not to be favorable for that crop, both economically and in terms of climate conditions, disaster ensued. In fact, one statistic from a government report in India states that more than 90 percent of known suicide victims were in debt, which was largely brought about when farmers took the plunge into GM crops from their former methods.
The globalization of agriculture in general has dramatically increased poverty in India, as crop subsidies in other nations began to affect Indian agriculture, driving down crop profits. Indian farmers have lost billions of dollars over the years from having to compete in the global agricultural marketplace rather than grow their own biodiverse crops to feed their own people. Global powers have literally robbed India of its self-reliance and self-sustenance in the name of “ending poverty” by thrusting upon them a system of monopolized agriculture controlled and operated by companies like Monsanto. And unless India somehow secedes from the global system of corruption, conditions will only become increasingly worse for its people.
November 18th, 2010
By: Carey Gillam
Monsanto Co could start field testing genetically modified wheat within one to two years, but remains cautious about future commercialization, according to one of the company’s top wheat technology executives.
Six years after shelving an earlier biotech wheat product in the face of stiff market resistance, Monsanto still sees a need for circumspection, but believes building acceptance and a need for increased food production makes the wheat seed market potentially lucrative over the long term.
Currently there is no biotech wheat on the market because of consumer and food industry opposition, but Monsanto sees attitudes changing.
“I wouldn’t say we’re jumping in with two feet,” said Claire CaJacob, Monsanto’s global wheat technology lead executive, in an interview with Reuters. “But I wouldn’t say we’re tentative. We have traits that make more sense. It’s the right time.”
Several rival seed companies including Syngenta, BASF and others are also working on developing genetically modified wheat but Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company and its work is closely watched worldwide.
Monsanto aims to use genetic modification to develop a higher yielding and more drought and stress-tolerant crop. This year’s drought in eastern Europe that decimated the Russian wheat crop only underscores the need for improvements in wheat, said CaJacob. The drought caused U.S. wheat and European wheat futures prices to nearly double in just two months.
Monsanto’s wheat research is still in the early “Phase 1″ of discovery work, which translates to testing various genes to see what might work. Both U.S. wheat farmers and Australian growers are the early target market.
The company’s work to develop a drought-tolerant corn is helping with the research into wheat, she said, but wheat is a much more complicated plant, and it could be one to two years before the company starts field testing and a decade before a product is brought to market, according to CaJacob.
“We are in the stage of seeing if we have any genes that work,” said CaJacob. “Until you take it to the field you don’t know.”
Monsanto abandoned biotech wheat in May 2004 amid broad opposition from buyers of U.S. wheat and from U.S. wheat growers who feared losing sales. The company announced it was restarting wheat research last year, paying $45 million for the WestBred LLC seed germplasm company.
CaJacob said the company was examining various pricing strategies for a future wheat seed product, including questions about whether farmers would continue to be able to save their seed, a common practice by U.S. wheat farmers.
Saving seed is not allowed for farmers buying Monsanto’s patented corn and soybean seed technology.
Monsanto is also striving to develop a product line of improved wheat hybrids, using molecular markers that speed up traditional breeding techniques.
“When you hear Monsanto and wheat it doesn’t necessarily mean biotech,” she said.
October 15th, 2010
By: Jonathan Benson
When mankind is permitted to steal from nature and claim it as their own, only disaster awaits. And that is exactly what is happening around the world with crop seeds and animals, as biotechnology companies slice and dice genetic characteristics from natural sources and create new, patented plants and animals. The end result is total control of the entire food supply by a few wealthy companies.
A recent report in The Ecologist highlights a visual graphic created by Philip Howard, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, that illustrates how five biotechnology giants — Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, and DuPont — have purchased hundreds of smaller seed companies over the years and essentially taken over the seed industry. The graphic can be accessed here: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/seedindustry.pdf
Farmers who wish to purchase seeds that have not been genetically-modified (GM) are having an increasingly difficult time finding alternatives because most of the seed companies are now either partially or fully owned by one of the big five, which means such companies now carry mostly GM varieties. Unlike natural seeds, GM seeds are patented and can only be planted once, which means farmers have to purchase them every year or buy a license to plant them.
Such a system is “incompatible” with renewable agricultural practices, explained Howard in a report, and it is leading to total control of the food supply by a few multinational corporations. Patents also eliminate diversity in seed variety, end experimentation by farmers in seed crossbreeding (which is different from genetically modifying them), and raise seed prices for everyone by creating a seed monopoly.
Howard believes the only answer to the problem is to ban the practice of allowing patents in agriculture. In fact, a consortium of 400 scientists from around the world agree that patents are destroying agriculture and must be stopped if any sort of sustainable agriculture is to continue.
April 20, 2010
by Michael Hawthorne
Despite growing health concerns about atrazine, an agricultural weedkiller sprayed on farm fields across the Midwest, most drinking water is tested for the chemical only four times a year — so rarely that worrisome spikes of the chemical likely go undetected.
High levels of the herbicide can linger in tap water during the growing season, according to more frequent tests in some agricultural communities.
Spread heaviest on cornfields, atrazine is one of the most commonly detected contaminants in drinking water. Studies have found that exposure to small amounts of the chemical can turn male frogs into females and might be more harmful to humans than once thought.
Manufacturers say their own research proves the chemical is safe. But alarmed by other studies, the Obama administration is conducting a broad review that could lead to tighter restrictions. It is also mulling changes in laws that require water utilities to test for atrazine just once a quarter or, in some cases, once a year.
“There always have been a lot of questions about atrazine, and we want to make sure the agency’s regulatory posture is consistent with the science about possible health effects,” said Steve Owens, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances.
Even with limited official testing, atrazine in the past four years was detected in the drinking water of 60 Illinois communities where more than a million people live, according to a Tribune analysis of state and federal records.
Under a deal between the EPA and the chief manufacturer of atrazine, about 130 water utilities in 10 states are tested weekly or biweekly. The Tribune analysis showed that during 2008, four downstate towns — Evansville, Farina, Flora and Mount Olive — were among nine Midwest communities where the average annual level of atrazine and its breakdown products exceeded the federal safety limit of 3 parts per billion. About half of the 130 saw concentrations that jumped above 3 parts per billion at least once that year.
In Flora, about 240 miles south of Chicago, atrazine levels spiked as high as 30 parts per billion. The findings concern researchers because some studies have shown adverse affects from exposure to concentrations as small as 0.1 parts per billion. The chemical has not been found in Chicago tap water, in part because Lake Michigan dilutes farm runoff.
The more frequent tests are done outside the EPA’s official monitoring program and don’t count when regulators consider whether communities meet the legal limit for atrazine.
They also don’t trigger provisions in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act that require the public to be notified about water contamination. As a result, residents are rarely advised that they can buy inexpensive filters to screen the chemical out of their tap water.
Atrazine can’t be sprayed in Europe because it contaminates groundwater, but it remains widely used in the U.S., where the EPA endorsed its continued use as recently as 2006, based on a scientific review from 2003. Federal records show the review was heavily influenced by industry and relied on studies financed by Syngenta, a Swiss-based company that manufactures most of the atrazine sprayed in the U.S.
Before clearing the way for continued use of the chemical, Bush administration officials met privately with Syngenta executives at least 50 times and convened two industry-dominated panels that shaped the agency’s decision, according to records obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that advocates a ban on the chemical.
The new review is related to an effort to overhaul the nation’s chemical safety laws. Last year the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office criticized the EPA for failing to adequately assess the risks posed by thousands of toxic chemicals. The agency is generally required to prove chemicals are harmful before it can take regulatory action; in Europe, by contrast, the burden is on manufacturers to prove the safety of their products.
Pesticides such as atrazine are studied more rigorously than industrial chemicals, and the weedkiller has been on the market since the late 1950s. But researchers are increasingly identifying atrazine as an endocrine disruptor — a hormone-like substance that can affect development and the reproductive systems of humans and wildlife.
Syngenta contends that the vast majority of studies show no harmful effects from atrazine at levels found in the environment.
“It’s one of the best-studied herbicides on the planet,” Tim Pastoor, the company’s chief scientist, said in an interview. “When it comes to atrazine, the water is safe.”
A key question is whether EPA regulations reflect the latest science. The agency is considering dozens of studies published since its last atrazine review, including about 100 on human health effects.
One study released last year by Indiana University researchers found that nine types of birth defects occurred more frequently in babies born to mothers whose last menstrual period occurred between April and July, when levels of atrazine in lakes and streams are highest. Neonatologist Paul Winchester said his work couldn’t definitively pin the blame on atrazine — that would require deliberately exposing pregnant women to the chemical — but he said the correlation was statistically sound.
Government scientists also have raised concerns. One EPA study found that rats were more vulnerable to cancer later in life when exposed to small, brief doses of atrazine as fetuses.
“There’s still a lot more we need to learn about atrazine, but it appears to have effects during critical stages of fetal development,” said former EPA researcher Suzanne Fenton, now at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
The human research was prompted by studies of wildlife. In January, University of South Florida researchers analyzed 125 recent studies of atrazine and found that most reported the weedkiller disrupted the fertility and development of fish and amphibians.
Tyrone Hayes, a University of California- Berkeley scientist, once studied atrazine for a Syngenta-funded research institute but left after a dispute over some of his findings. Hayes’ latest study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that male frogs raised in atrazine-tainted water often showed signs of “feminization,” with lower testosterone levels and decreased fertility. Some were chemically castrated; others grew female sex organs.
Syngenta says much of the independent research on atrazine is flawed. Company-financed studies, Pastoor said, have found atrazine doesn’t harm frogs or humans. He said the EPA, under guidelines developed during the Bush administration, considers one-day exposures of up to 297 parts per billion safe for people.
Removing atrazine from drinking water can be expensive. Last year, 44 water systems in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi and Ohio filed a federal lawsuit seeking reimbursement from Syngenta and other manufacturers. Flora, population 5,086, recently started pumping water from a $27 million cooperative treatment plant more than 60 miles away rather than draw water from an aging local plant.
Some farm groups say there is enough evidence to vouch for the safety of atrazine. Banning it would raise costs for farmers and cut corn yields, supporters say. Yet that view isn’t universal. Several states, including Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, prohibit atrazine spraying in some areas prone to groundwater contamination. The Iowa Farmers Union supports tougher limits on atrazine for the same reason.
John Kiefner still uses atrazine on the 500 acres he farms near Manhattan in southern Will County. However, he said he uses much smaller concentrations than he did years ago, relies on no-till practices to curb soil erosion and runoff, and plants grass buffers along drainage ditches to filter chemical residue. “We like to have a full arsenal of weedkillers,” Kiefner said. “If (atrazine) stays in the field, it’s not going into the water.”
A few miles away, Bill Heintz said he stopped using atrazine a decade ago. Alternative chemicals, he said, have worked just as well at controlling weeds on the 100 acres he farms near Peotone.
“Even 10 years ago, it sounded like something to steer away from,” he said.