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October 03, 2011

U.S. battle escalates against genetically modified crops

by Kanya D'Almeida

Home to a fast-growing network of farmers' markets, cooperatives and organic farms, but also the breeding ground for mammoth for-profit corporations that now hold patents to over 50 percent of the world's seeds, the United States is weathering a battle between Big Agro and a ripening movement for food justice and security.

Conflicting ideologies about agriculture have become ground zero for this war over the production, distribution and consumption of the world's food.

One camp – led by agro giants like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta – define successful agriculture and hunger alleviation as the use of advanced technologies to stimulate yields of mono-crops.

The other side argues that industrial agriculture pollutes, destroys and disrupts nature by dismissing the importance of relationships necessary for any ecosystem to thrive.

At the heart of this struggle is the debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which were given the green light in 1990 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated, "(We) are not aware of any information showing that GMO foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way."

But a report released October 28 by the Washington- based Food and Water Watch (FWW) on the destructive impacts of GMOs added fuel to a two-decades-long fight by farmers, economists and experts against the FDA's conclusions.

"Genetically Engineered Food: An Overview" details how the genetic engineering of seeds, crops and animals for human consumption is not the foolproof answer long championed by agribusiness and biotechnology industries to feeding the world.

To the contrary, the study found that genetically engineered/modified (GE/M) organisms do not out-perform their natural counterparts, and their proliferation into vast tracts of cropland have caused a slew of environmental and health crises, and actually increased poverty by forcing millions of farmers to "buy" patented seeds at exorbitant prices.

The report also says that three U.S. federal agencies – the FDA, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – are complicit in these crises due to shoddy oversight, weak enforcement of regulations and a complete absence of coordination.

It found that Big Agro spent half a billion dollars between 1999 and 2009 on lobbying to ease GE regulatory oversight, push GE approvals and prevent GE labeling.

This, after attorney Steven Druker in 1999 obtained 40,000 pages of FDA files containing "memorandum after memorandum warning about the hazards of (GE) food," including the likelihood that they contained, "toxins, carcinogens or allergens" and testified that GE foods violated "sound science and U.S. law".

Ceci King, a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, said that in 2011, an estimated "60 to 70 percent of all processed foods in the U.S. contain at least one GE element."

According to the report, over 365 million acres of GE crops were cultivated in 29 countries in 2010 alone, representing 10 percent of global cropland.

"The United States is the world leader in GE crop production, with 165 million acres, or nearly half of global production," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of FWW.

"From only seven percent of soybean acres and one percent of corn acres in 1996, GE cultivation in the U.S. shot up to 94 percent of soybean and 88 percent of corn acres in 2011," she added.

The bulk of these crops came from seeds owned by Monsanto.

"Eighty-four percent of GM crops in the world today are herbicide- resistant soybeans, corn, cotton or canola, predominantly Monsanto's 'Roundup Ready' varieties that withstand dousing with herbicide," said Bill Frees, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and author of 'Why GM Crops Will Not Feed the World.'

"Pesticide and chemical companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer have bought up many of the world's largest seed companies, and now call themselves biotech companies - this represents a historic merger of the pesticide and seed industries, which allows them to profit twice by developing expensive GM seeds that increase use of the company's herbicide products," he added.

Seed patents, an off-shoot of the "agro-biotech revolution" that also spawned GE/M, have had two negative consequences since their original issuance by the U.S. Patent Office in the mid-1990s, Frees told IPS: "They enticed pesticide companies to buy up seed firms; and they led to criminalisation of seed-saving."

"Farmers have saved seeds from their harvest to replant the next year for millennia," he added. "Monsanto is changing that. The company has already sued thousands of farmers in the U.S. for saving and replanting its patented seeds and won an estimated 85 to 160 million dollars from farmers, in lawsuits that have ruined farmers' lives, and (partially explains) why we have ever fewer farmers in America."

Despite the deep pockets and aggressive efforts of Big Agro, a major pushback from a broad coalition of forces has limited 80 percent of GE/M planting to just three export-oriented countries: the U.S., Brazil and Argentina.

Nearly two dozen other countries, including the European Union and China, have passed mandatory GE/M labeling, and millions around the world are refusing seed patenting and developing seed banks to protect, share and preserve their seeds.

"GM technology is antithetical to an agroecological approach to agriculture, our only hope for truly sustainable food production," Frees said.

"Without radical change we will continue to have famines," he added. "Haiti is a good example of what happens when a country's farmers are put out of business by cheap, subsidised imports from a rich producer nation (here the U.S.)."

IPS

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