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April 05, 2011

Gene modification: more, better crops or imperiled food system?

Two weeks ago, Monsanto announced the latest genetically engineered crop it hopes to bring to market: a soybean rejiggered to resist the herbicide dicamba. The new product, says Monsanto, will aid in weed control and "deliver peace of mind for growers."

Meanwhile, half a world away, La Via Campesina, a farmers' movement of 150 organizations from 70 countries, had a slightly different idea about what would bring peace of mind to its millions of members: protecting biodiversity. In its statement to those gathered in Bali for the United Nations treaty on plant genetics, the organization urged treaty drafters to reevaluate the legal framework that allows seed patenting and the spread of genetically engineered crops, like those Monsanto soybeans. These genetically modified crops and the international patent regime, La Via Campesina said, block farmers' ability to save and share seeds, threatening biodiversity and food security.

In 2004, half of global seed sales were controlled by 10 companies. Today, those companies control nearly three-quarters of sales.

Monsanto and La Via Campesina represent two distinct worldviews. According to Monsanto and other chemical and seed giants like Syngenta, BASF, and Dupont, corporate control of seeds and relaxed laws for biotech promotion spur innovation and productivity.

That may sound good, but La Via Campesina and many other groups around the world look at the real-world effects of 20 years of patent approvals and the spread of biotech crops. These critics argue that corporate power over seeds has actually undermined biodiversity and food-system resilience.

This debate is significant. Which side we listen to will largely determine just how well we can continue to feed the planet, especially as we contend with ever greater weather extremes brought on by global warming when crop resilience will be paramount.

Since the 1980 Diamond v. Chakrabarty Supreme Court decision, companies in the U.S. have been able to patent life forms, including seeds. In Europe, since 1999, nearly 1,000 patents on animals and 1,500 on plants have been approved; thousands more are pending, and not just for genetically engineered crops, but for conventional ones, too. Monsanto and Syngenta alone have filed patents for dozens of conventional vegetables, including tomatoes, sweet peppers, and melons. This means tightening control on how and where certain crops can be planted and even whether certain seed lines are continued—or exterminated.

In contrast to what we hear from Monsanto, patents actually restrict innovation, as researchers can no longer freely use patented plants in breeding experimentation. Increasing market concentration in seed ownership has also destroyed true market competition. In 2004, half of global seed sales were controlled by 10 companies. Today, those companies control nearly three-quarters of sales. This concentration has led to higher prices and shrinking choice for consumers.

Add to this corporate consolidation the spread of biotech crops and you see why biodiversity is becoming so threatened. Biotech crops, like other industrial crops, are monocultures, with single varieties planted over millions of acres and sprayed with chemicals. Despite promises about wonder crops that would end Vitamin A deficiency or withstand drought, nearly all commercially available genetically modified foods are just one of two types, designed either to withstand a specific pesticide or to include a built-in pesticide. Fifty percent of all biotech crops planted worldwide are soybeans. Three countries--the United States, Brazil, and Argentina--grow 77 percent of all genetically modified crops, nearly all destined for livestock, not the world's hungry.

Biotech crops also affect biodiversity in ways that "traditional" industrial crops don't: by risking the genetic integrity of cultivated and wild plants. In a 2006 report, Doug Gurian-Sherman, now with the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained: "Genetic engineering ups the ante when it comes to the potential for harm to wildlife from gene flow, because organisms in natural ecosystems have not adapted to many of the genes used in field trials. With the recent approval of genetically engineered alfalfa in the United States, organic farmers here are ever more concerned about such a "genetic trespass."

Among biodiversity's many benefits is that it provides a reservoir of potentially essential genetic material, varieties that might be found to be more resilient in the face of more droughts and floods, for instance. Says Jack Heinemann, a professor of molecular biology at New Zealand's University of Canterbury Heinemann, "If we jeopardize this biodiversity for the sake of a possible wonder trait for tomorrow, then we won't have any wonder traits for the day after tomorrow."

That's not what the biotech industry is saying. Instead, Monsanto, the world's leading manufacturer of genetically modified foods, is spending millions on a PR campaign to convince the public that its technology will be vital to meeting the world's growing food demands.

In early 2009, Monsanto's biotechnology chief, Steve Padgette, claimed that new crops like its forthcoming drought-resistant corn "will reset the bar for on-farm productivity." Never mind that experts in the field say engineering drought resistance is many years off—if even possible—and that biotech crops have not delivered consistently greater yields. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a multi-year study contributed to by more than 600 experts from around the world, concluded that the benefits of agricultural biotechnology "is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable."

Meanwhile, agricultural projects from around the world—especially in drought-stricken parts of East Africa—are showing the incredible potential of sustainable farming practices. The introduction of agroecological techniques on smallholder plots in hundreds of projects throughout Africa studied by England's University of Essex brought an increase in crop yields of an average of 116 percent. As a means for improving resiliency and sustainability within the global food chain, agroecology is now supported by a "wide range of experts within the scientific community," said Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Back in Bali, La Via Campesina described its farmer members as being in the midst of a "war for control over seeds." Strong language, yes. But if we don't heed the organization's call for stricter regulation of the biotech and seed industry, biodiversity may just become collateral damage.

The Atlantic Magazine

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