“These vegetables are on the verge of extinction,” I explained, gazing at them with the misty pride of a mother hen with a clutch of eggs.
“Tomatoes are on the verge of extinction?”
“Home-grown tomatoes. Grown from saved seed. In this instance from squished tomatoes thrown out with the compost. If the biotech companies have their way, anyone who grows a tomato, or broccoli or cucumber from saved seed will be prosecuted for infringing patents.”
Kennedy stared at them sceptically. “Will this help you sell books,” he asked with that look he gets when he is being my publicist and not my four-legged friend.
“This is serious, Kennedy. Once they can patent life forms like tomatoes, they can patent anything. Even Chihuahuas. If you were patented, they could sue you for having puppies.”
“Well there’s no danger of that, is there.” (He said this rather bitterly. The loss of his manhood remains a sensitive issue.) “Anyway, again, will this help you sell books?”
“Don’t be venal. That kind of obsession with profit is what has turned the big corporations into psychopaths.”
But Kennedy had wandered off to investigate a chewy thing. His pursuit of profit cannot match the lure of a really good chew or a roll in the grass. Sadly, the owners of the biotech giants are not so easily deterred: the risk of imploding global food security, wide spread famine, mass suicide amongst peasant farmers, the extinction of bees, the collapse of ecosystems… nope, none of that is any match for a really pleasing incline on their profit graphs.
Far fetched? Not as far as you would like it to be. In the past ten years, Monsanto has won more than $23 million from hundreds of small farmers accused of replanting seeds from the company’s genetically engineered crops. These have included farmers like Percy Schmeiser, whose canola crop was cross-fertilised by neighbouring GMO fields; and 75 year old Indianna farmer Vernon Bowman, who planted left over soybeans from a communal silo as he’d done all his life. He didn’t know they were descendents of Monsanto soybeans (they’ve not yet engineered them to carry their logo – no doubt they’ll find a way soon). But he is being sued none the less.
Monsanto has won the cases by pleading that all the millions they poured into researching and developing these seeds must be recovered – they can’t have people planting their descendents with no regard to the god of commercial gain (after all, they only netted a $1.48 billion profit on the last quarter of the last financial year)[i]. For years, agri-tech companies have been getting fabulously rich on selling only the first generation of seeds to farmers, who buy the seeds again the following year because the first generation is a better quality. But that’s not enough for Monsanto. They want to own mommy, daddy, and all their kiddies and grandchildren into perpetuity.
The GMO process involves engineering a whole new species by ramming in genes from other species, a fact which has been used to justify bringing out a patent on the species that covers every generation of plant that grows, ten, twenty thirty years down the line. They sell the seeds at considerable expense, getting the farmer to sign an agreement that they will buy new seeds and not replant. Then they can sue anyone who plants the seeds of these crops, wittingly or not.
My last novel deals with the issues of GMO’s and a big bad bio-tech company. The title, The Unseen Leopard, is a metaphor for both the priceless value of wild nature that is not perceived by the likes of Monsanto; and for the dangers that lie hidden, creeping up on us until it is too late to escape them. What I discovered about the industry in my research was alarming – even more alarming was how blind people seemed to be to its hazards.
What I read now is a hundred times more alarming – every dire prediction and worse is unfolding. People are waking up, and there is a groundswell of resistance against GMO’s. But in the intervening years, bio-tech companies have been eroding the world’s food security by stealth, creeping in under the guise of “progress” and “scientific advancement” and “the answer to world hunger”[iii], tightening their monopoly in a stranglehold that will be difficult to reverse
Their strategy is simple: Buy up all the seed companies. Ensure that only GMO seed is available. Mix up the grains. Make the organic farmers pay for expensive tests to have their crops certified, then lose their certificates when traces of GMO genes are found in the crops. Sue them if you find your crops growing on their land and put them out of business. Make it almost impossible for consumers to choose non-GMO food. Challenge labelling laws, because, weirdly, if they have the choice people are reluctant to eat crops that contain a genetically engineered insecticide, or that have been doused in herbicide. Harmful effects? As long as they don’t come with litigation, who cares? And who can say that this cancer or that allergy is a consequence of the GMO food, the herbicide sprayed on it, household cleaners, left over PCB’s[vi] or just the stress of living in the thrall of psychopathic corporates? Besides, a bill nicknamed the ‘Monsanto protection act’ was (staggeringly) signed into law earlier this month, which ensures that the US government cannot stop biotech companies from selling and growing crops that have proved to be damaging to human health and to the environment.[vii]
Even when efforts are supposedly made to contain the seeds, they fail. In 2006 30% of the entire US long-grain rice supply was contaminated by experimental GM rice varieties unapproved for human consumption – a public safety disaster that cost the rice industry over $1 billion. The source of contamination was ‘controlled’ field trials[viii] (exactly the scenario I postulated in The Unseen Leopard).
GMO’s are spreading like a cancer across earth. Or like the giant herbicide resistant weeds that have emerged after ten years of dousing crops with Roundup[ix]. An article in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics concludes that “The cultivation of genetically modified maize [in Spain] has caused a drastic reduction in organic cultivations of this grain and is making their coexistence practically impossible.” [x] Dr. E. Ann Clark, professor of plant agriculture, University of Guelph, says that “It’s doubtful whether there’s a farm anywhere in western Canada that does not have Monsanto Roundup Ready canola seed in its soil.” [xi] Roundup and ready canola is growing like a weed. Even in the cemeteries (eerily apt), according to Percy Schmeiser. It’s hard to kill, because it has been genetically engineered to resist herbicide.
Does it matter? What are the consequences of a world governed by biotech corporations? Apart from the health risks, which are largely unknown although studies have shown organ damage to rats from long-term consumption[xii], the environmental consequences are drastic and well-documented. Of particular concern is the loss of genetic biodiversity: the biotech companies want to reduce our food crops to a handful of engineered varieties. Hybrid monocultures are already more vulnerable to disease, pests and climate disasters, which are all set to increase with climate change. The engineered seeds are even more limited genetically, and already show a sharp decline in yields. Peasant farmers (who feed about 70% of the world) rely on seed saving and small overheads – the input costs of GMO crops has driven many into bankruptcy, sparking a string of suicides amongst Indian farmers.
Luckily, humans are not that gullible. Some things won’t be swallowed. And there is something about those Roundup Ready soybeans that just won’t go down. Recently, AVAAZ mounted a petition to oppose the granting of patents on conventionally bred crops. In 36 hours, they got 1 million signatures.
I guess most people don’t want to have to go knocking on Monsanto’s door, life savings in hand, every time they feel like wrapping up a soybean in cotton wool and growing some new ones.
In the meantime I shall save those seeds and cultivate my tomatoes. And if anyone from Monsanto comes to sue me, I’ll blame it on the dog.
- Go here to sign the AVAAZ petition: http://www.avaaz.org/en/monsanto_vs_mother_earth_loc/?tyRFIab
- Check out http://www.gmeducation.org for a thorough and well referenced overview of the claims made by the GMO producers and the reality.
[i] Monsanto Announces $1.48 Billion Profit Amid ‘Monsanto Protection Act Controversy HuffPost/AP | Posted: 04/03/2013 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/03/monsanto-profit_n_3006157.html
[ii] President of the European Patent Office gives green light for patents on plants and animals
[iii] See statement signed by 24 delegates from 18 African countries to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 1998: “We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.” – cited in http://earthopensource.org/index.php/7-feeding-the-world/7-1-myth-gm-crops-are-needed-to-feed-the-world-s-growing-population
[iv] Ann Foster, as quoted in The Nation magazine from article The Politics of Food by Maria Margaronis December 27, 1999 issue.
[v] quoted in Starlink fallout could cost billions Toronto Star, 9 January 2001
[vi] PCB’s are also a Monsanto product, whose toxic properties were known to the company since 1938, but they declined to speak out about them and only stopped production in 1977. See Monsanto knew about pcb toxicity for decades – report based on internal Monsanto documents
[vii] March 28, 2013 Critics slam Obama for “protecting” Monsanto
[viii] Contamination of Crops, Gmeducation.org http://www.gmeducation.org/environment/p149075-contamination%20of%20crops%20.html
[ix] Agent Orange chemical in GM war on resistant weeds By Matt McGrath Science reporter, BBC World Service BBC news 19 September 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19585341
[x] Conclusion of research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics: An impossible coexistence: transgenic and organic agriculture, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, 30 June 2008 http://www.uab.es/servlet/Satellite?c=Page&cid=1096476786473&pagename=UAB%2FPage%2FTemplatePlanaDivsNoticiesdetall¬iciaid=1214462302153
[xi] Canadian professor speaks out on Percy Schmeiser decision, Crop Choice,
March 30 2001 http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry57b3.html?recid=276
[xii] For example, Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Gilles-Eric Séralini, Emilie Clair, Robin Mesnage, Steeve Gress, Nicolas Defarge, Manuela Malatesta, Didier Hennequin, Joël Spiroux de Vendômois