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Food Fight: It Ain't The Genes, It's The Man Inside

BY BEN ZAITCHIK
03.24.2000 | SCIENCE

"Attention Grocery Shoppers: You Are Genetic Experiments." So reads the title of a recent article in Ground Score, a conscientious journal of agriculture and politics in the northeastern United States. The subject of the article, as one might gather, is the failure of regulation over genetically modified (GM) foods in the U.S. market. The author, Brad Simonds, briefly summarizes a number of the most commonly cited negatives of GM food production--the potential for herbicide-resistant "super weeds," the chance of non-target environmental effects, the near impossibility of containing pollen from engineered crops, and the perceived threat to human health that, in the absence of labeling laws, we are powerless to escape. These concerns are very real, and they merit the public's full attention.

GM also poses a threat to economic justice, both in the U.S. and abroad. Corporate patents on the genes of rare tropical species amount to intellectual thievery from the farmers who have preserved and bred the plants for centuries; it is rare that a seed or pharmaceutical company offers anything near appropriate compensation to these people. Here in the States there is an obvious threat that the "genetic experiment" of modified foods will be performed on poorer populations--foods labeled GM are sure to become the cheapest grade of agricultural product, and what empowered consumer would select the steroid-pumped milk or pesticide-producing tortilla?

That being said, the anti-GM movement is critically flawed, failing to represent the true interests of farmers, consumers, or the environment. Suspicion of genetically engineered foods is politically valuable, and ever-so trendy amidst the bumper-sticker crowd, but it misses the essential point. The reason that we face all the GM threats listed above is not because of the genes but because of the interests that control them.

This is not an argument of technological apologetics--guns don't kill people, and hormone-juiced cows don't give them colon cancer--it is, rather, a call to greater extremism. Whether GM stays or goes, the corporate lords of industrial agriculture will stay on top; sure, activism against gene tinkering has phased Monsanto and DuPont, but if the protesters only demand the end of "frankenstein fruit" then with some minor restructuring these corporations will go back to making their profits on toxic pesticides and fertilizer-hungry hi-breeds. With the regulatory boards of the USDA and FDA crowded with previous and future executives of the agriculture industry, these companies are free to satisfy their stockholders using any means available. The status quo of factory farming is no Garden of Eden; it is an under-criticized disaster area. Many farmers are afraid to venture into their own fields during the growing season, knowing the volume of chemicals that they have applied. There are potato farmers in Idaho who will not even eat the spuds that they grow until several weeks after harvest, when the crop has had sufficient detox.

GM is a troubling development in industrial agriculture, but it is still unclear whether genetic engineering is better or worse than the pesticides and fertilizers already out there. A farmer growing pest-resistant potatoes is not afraid to walk into his field, because he hasn't gassed it with toxins. As consumer activists we must reverse our priorities: fight corporation-driven farming first, and allow this stronger political statement to determine the fate of GM.

The importance of shifting the argument is borne out by the ruckus over "Roundup Ready soybean," brainchild of the pharmaceutical/chemical/seed giant Monsanto (recently merged with Pharmacia-Upjohn, so now they grow hair too). The Roundup Ready soybean is already commonplace in fields across the country, contributing to the 33% of American soybean that contains some sort of genetic modification. For those unfamiliar with Roundup Ready soy, the name pretty much says it all. Roundup, Monsanto's top selling herbicide, suffers from the same problem as virtually all pesticides--it will kill the crop along with the weeds. This means that farmers can only use the chemical at certain stages in the crop cycle, mostly before the crop is planted. This is a problem for the farmer, who has difficulty doing selective weed control later in the season, for Monsanto, who can't sell Roundup for in-season use, and for Mother Earth, since farmers must apply Roundup in broad doses at an ecologically sensitive period in spring. No such problems with Roundup Ready soybeans, which are engineered to survive a heavy dose of Roundup as the weeds around them perish.

So now we find ourselves arguing over whether Roundup Ready soybeans are an improvement over non-GM soy grown in a Roundup treated field. The debate should never have arrived at this point, with activists rejecting the new corporate gene in favor of the old corporate chemical, but let us consider the question. Unfortunately, the answer is ambiguous. It is easy to think of Roundup Ready as an inherently evil idea--nobody really wants to eat plants tough enough to survive a rain of toxic chemicals, and it seems intuitive that farmers will over-use the chemical if it poses no danger to their crop. Additionally, transgene "escape"--that is, the transfer of the Roundup Ready gene to wild species--could result in weeds resistant to Roundup within a few years. Then we lose Roundup as an herbicide, which wouldn't be such a bad thing except that most of its known replacements are magnitudes more toxic.

But before we start composing clever chants against Roundup Ready, consider its potential advantages. First, because the gene allows for targeted use of the herbicide, rather than broad pre-planting application, the technology could allow for a reduction in the total use of Roundup. Why would Monsanto harm their product line in this way? They lose the patent on Roundup herbicide very shortly, so they're transferring their investment while maintaining the trade-name value of "Roundup" relative to the chemically identical competitors on the way. Circumstance has simply changed their interest--corporations, after all, tend to be amoral, not immoral. Second, Roundup Ready makes it possible to control weeds later in their life cycle. This allows farmers to reduce tillage on their land, which is important for a number of reasons. Conventional tillage (the kind of plowing that Michael Landon did on Little House on the Prairie) is a process of turning over the land. The plow picks up all the soil in its path and flips it, tearing out all existing weeds and fluffing up the field for spring planting. This technique is energy intensive, requiring enormous fossil fuel inputs to American agriculture every year. It also harms soil fertility in the long run, increasing the need for chemical fertilizers (more fossil fuel input), crushes the soil beneath the plow layer, limiting crop potential, and contributes to the massive soil erosion that makes the Mississippi River muddy and kills fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

So there's your environmental defense for Roundup Ready. For more info contact your local Monsanto representative. But is Roundup Ready the solution (or even a solution) to these problems? Early results are mixed. Depending on who you ask, the product has led to a marked increase or a marked decrease in the use of Roundup herbicide; it's simply too soon to tell, and most of the reports are written by active proponents or opponents of GM. On a gut reaction, though, it's not difficult to believe that Roundup Ready soy has upped the use of Roundup spray--Monsanto does write their own product recommendations, after all. As for reducing use of the plow, GM might help the effort in some way, but there are far more effective options. The real way to control weeds and limit erosion is to diversify the cropping system. Cover crops, interplanting, and the introduction of trees to the crop field are all highly successful at reducing weed competition and limiting erosion, plus they have positive effects on biodiversity, insect control, and soil fertility. Cover crops were, in fact, very popular in the early 20th century, until the chemical agriculture revolution rendered them "obsolete." In most of the world the technique remains popular in spite of the chemical companies' best efforts to eradicate its use.

So even if Roundup Ready soybeans are perfectly healthy and environmentally benign (both untested propositions), we don't really need them. The technology is anti-progressive in that it preserves Monsanto's hold on the farmer and limits the search for alternative weed control methods. The job for activist groups is to bring attention to the economic power dynamics behind GM and to promote more healthful agriculture through consumer education. It is not enough merely to demand the labeling or removal of GM products; a real reform movement must offer explanation and viable alternatives.

Moreover, the problems with Roundup Ready do not mean that GM is inherently flawed. Contrast Monsanto's efforts with those of the International Rice Research Institute (the IRRI, located in the Philippines). Researchers at this non-profit facility are employing GM technology to produce a rice plant that doesn't require chemical fertilizer. In the future, they hope to develop rice that produces vitamin-A in its grain. Should these projects succeed the impact on nutrition in much of South and East Asia would be remarkable. Yes, the product ought to be tested in every imaginable way before it is released for use, but there is no reason not to trust the IRRI to do this. They are not a profit-driven corporation, and they do not fudge their science to bypass regulation. Greenhouse-smashing protesters should make sure they know whose windows they are breaking.

The debate over genetically engineered foods is tremendously polarized. On one side there are the corporations, the government agencies that they control, and their friends at the Economist and Financial Times. On the other are a wide range of activist and watchdog organizations, yelling as loudly as they can to wake up the indifferent American public. The rhetoric is impressive on both sides. My concern is that those on the forefront of the anti-GM campaign have framed the issue incorrectly, producing a platform that threatens the funding of the IRRI while doing nothing to combat the structures of industrial agriculture that have led to current abuses of GM technology. A victory against Roundup Ready would be an impressive display of consumer activism; let's turn that power into a force as progressive as it has been critical.

For those interested in these issues there are some excellent resources available on the web, including www.greenpeace.org, www.betterfoods.org, and www.ucsusa.org.

About the Author
Ben Zaitchik is a climate scientist living in Baltimore, Maryland.
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