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Big Lies and The Biotechnology Revolution or I Know What You Ate Last Summer

"The biggest mistake that anyone can make is moving slowly, because the game is going to be over before you start." Henrik Verfaillie, Senior Vice President of Monsanto Company

"A handful of global corporations, research institutions, and governments could hold patents on virtually all 100,000 genes that make up the blueprints of the human race and tens of thousands of micro-organisms, plants, and animals, allowing them unprecedented power to dictate the terms by which we and future generations will live our lives." Jeremy Rifkin

While U.S. citizens snore away in their blissful sleep, the rest of the world is resisting the most radical scientific revolution in human history. A few giant corporations like Monsanto, Du Pont, and Novartis are taking over the world's seed stock and agriculture and permanently altering the food supply through genetic engineering.

Since 1992, with the firm support of U.S. "regulatory" agencies, genetically modified corn, soybeans, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, cotton, and dozens of other crops have been planted across one fourth of U.S. cropland, brought to supermarkets unlabelled, and imported to other countries. According to the USDA, 25% of the corn, 45% of the cotton, 55% of the soybeans, and 80% of processed foods in the U.S. have been genetically engineered, as corporations also begin to engineer trees. This makes the entire country, vegetarians included, nonconsensual guinea pigs to the largest human experiment ever undertaken.

Genetic engineering involves splicing a gene from one species into another in order to endow the new "transgenic" species with a desired characteristic. Today's Frankenfood creations include potatoes with chicken and sheep genes; tomatoes with antifreeze genes from fish; and, above all, "Bt" corn, cotton, and soybeans, created from splicing into plants a soil bacteria (bacillus thringiensis) that is toxic to the European corn borer. Biotechnology is hailed as the "second Green Revolution," which is not too reassuring since the first one -- where U.S. agribusiness employed huge machinery, enormous amounts of chemicals and fertilizers, monoculture, and centralized political control in the Third World -- failed miserably.

Biotech corporations and the government tell us three Big Lies: first, that genetic engineering is the only way to feed a world of 6 billion people and counting (the "Y6B" problem), second that it is not different in kind from traditional modes of hybridization and artificial selection, and third that genetically modified foods pose no health risks to human beings.

Humanity has altered plants and created new species since the beginning of its history. But biotechnology is radically different: it crosses species boundaries never transgressed before (such as between fishes and vegetables, humans and animals), it manipulates single genes rather than whole organisms, and it creates rapid changes that unfold in a span of months rather than years or decades.

Genetic engineering brings an unprecedented level of corporate control over nature. The path toward the total commodification of life was opened up by a disastrous 1980 Supreme Court ruling which failed to distinguish between living and nonliving objects that could be patented, thereby allowing a scientist to patent a bacterial organism. From bacteria and plants, to animals and human being, scientists, universities, and corporations now can own all DNA. This results in bioprospecting, a mad gene rush to cash in on the billions of dollars to be made in patents, and biopiracy, a new form of colonialism whereby corporations mine the genetic resources of indigenous cultures for rare pharmaceutical products, plant DNA, and genetic cell lines they can manipulate enough to claim as their own.

Besides the "Bt" modified plant, a key staple of the biotech revolution is the "Roundup Ready" soybean and corn crop. "Roundup" is the main herbicide of Monsanto, the corporation who brought us Agent Orange, PCB's, and recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). When soybeans and corn are altered to withstand the effects of Roundup, the new herbicide-resistant crops become "Roundup Ready." With this innovation, an entire field can be sprayed before planting, and, Monsanto claims, the weeds will die while the immunized plants flourish.

Monsanto is flooding the land and market as fast as it can with genetically-engineered crops, and has grand ambitions to control the world's food supply. It wants, for example, to genetically modify (and thereby own) 100% of U.S. soybeans within the next few years. Monsanto is infamous for trying to develop the "terminator seed" genetically programmed to be sterile. This means that farmers would be forced into expensive contracts to buy new seeds every planting, and end an age-old tradition of saving and replanting the best seeds. Pressured by a huge global backlash against terminator technologies, Monsanto announced in October that it will not market "gene protection technologies." Nevertheless, Monsanto and a dozen other companies have at least 31 pending patents to commercialize seed sterilization and the war is not over.

If Monsanto is so concerned to help people and end hunger, why is it trying to control the world's farmers and food supply? A study done by the Union for Concerned Scientists found that 93% of all genetic engineering of crops is done to not to improve taste, enhance nutrition, or increase yield, but rather to advance profits and sell chemicals. Thus, corporations engineer corps mainly for herbicide resistance, ripening and shipping traits, and a longer shelf life. The world hunger problem provides a front for Monsanto and other corporations in their quest to become world powers.

A look at the results of Roundup Ready crops gives us a glimpse into the serious problems with biotechnology. Once planted, crops came up spotty, cotton balls fell off, and plants were still attacked by pests. Transgenic crops easily pass their genes onto their weedy relatives through cross-fertilization, thereby creating "superweeds" resistant to the very chemicals designed to control them. Insects too became immune to the transplanted toxins, quickly evolving into "superbugs," as the utility of a naturally occurring pesticide is diminished. Despite Monsanto's promotional promises, farmers are using more chemicals than ever Roundup Ready crops. Although this is good news for Monsanto's herbicide sales department, it is bad news for the soil and groundwater which become increasingly toxic, as well as for consumers who ingest ever more poisons. Fed up with crop failure, hundreds of farmers across the country now are suing Monsanto for fraud and misrepresentation.

When a genetically modified organism is released into the environment, it cannot be recalled like a badly designed car. Through the attempt to engineer genetic superbreeds, biotechnology exacerbates the serious problems of bioinvasion (whereby foreign plant and animal species disrupt native ecosystems) and monoculture. While scientists can "sample" genes like genetic rappers, they cannot, like nature, create new DNA, and so reverse the damage they inflict on gene pools.

Biotechnology introduces highly unstable and protean genes into environments where they act unpredictably. New genes literally are shot into an existing genome, with no way of knowing how they will act. To give an example of the hazards of unexpected consequences, University of Oregon scientists genetically engineered a bacterium to hasten the transformation of agricultural waste to ethanol. Although the government required minimum testing of the new organism before releasing it into the environment, the researchers discovered in their own trials that while the bacteria produced ethanol, it also depleted a fungus in the soil essential to the ability of plants to take up nitrogen into their roots. If normal procedures had prevailed over this rare case of responsible science, a dangerous and perhaps uncontrollable organism could have wreaked havoc in the wild, transforming fertile soil into desert.

And yet, in a rush for profit, bulldozing concerns of consumers worldwide, having bought off Clinton and U.S. regulatory agencies, and commissioning flawed "junk science" to support their flimsy claims while blocking independent studies that contradict their claims, biotech corporations proceed full speed ahead. The USDA has not rejected one application for a genetically-engineered crop. Their approvals rely on "scientific" studies that analyze small numbers of plants over short time scales, such that it is impossible to discern if a gene is acting as designed. Furthermore, no tests have been done to test the safety of human beings consuming genetically modified foods, although recent studies have shown that transgenic crops killed monarch butterflies and damaged the digestive tract and immune system of rats.

To give some indication of the threat biotechnology poses to the planet, over 2000 applications for experimental release of transgenic organisms have been filed with the U.S. Government. In developing countries, well over one hundred releases of genetically engineered organisms have been documented, including the release of a vacinnia-rabies virus set loose in Argentina in 1986. Concerned about an immanent genetic Chernobyl, over 150 governments signed a "biosafety protocol" at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, but the U.S. refused to sign the treaty and has worked diligently ever since to block international regulation.

From "Flavr-Savr" tomatoes to Bt cotton crops, all results so far suggest that the Brave New Agriculture is a bust, its failures rooted in a reductionistic understanding of genes that interact in complex, holistic relationships with one another and their environment. If biotechnology contributes to soil erosion, weed and insect resistance; if it worsens the problems of monoculture and bioinvasion; and if it actually reduces crop yields, as new studies indicate, it is not likely to solve the world's food problems and its major justification is stripped away.

The answers to increasing the food supply for an overpopulated world lie not in the production of Frankenfoods, but rather in the time-tested ways of tradition: small-scale, decentralized, holistic, organic farming preserving biodiversity through crop rotation, mixed cropping, and integrated pest management. It is crucial to realize that hunger is a problem of poverty, which is artificially generated by transnational capitalism, thus we must address tough issues of social justice and economic inequality. And since the Global Meat Culture consumes astronomical amounts of land, water, food, and energy, all to feed cattle rather than human beings directly, it is urgent that the planet shift from a meat-based to a plant-based diet.

As corporations try to control the terms of the debate, and begin a massive lobbying and PR campaign in response to their critics, the people of the world are awakening to the dangers of biotechnology. Beginning with concern for health, animal welfare, the environment, and now again with genetic engineering, the politics of food production is fast becoming the political issue of the day.

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