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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Karen Charman | PR Watch

"Biotechnology Will Feed the World" and Other Myths

by Karen Charman

Monsanto and other corporate proponents of genetic engineering are using a form of emotional blackmail to get people to accept this new technology. They claim biotechnology will be a savior and fix many of the very real and pressing problems that the Monsantos of the world created in the first place.

Monsanto's past record as a chemical manuufacturer does not inspire confidence in its environmental stewardship. Witness Times Beach, Missouri. The town was so contaminated with dioxin that in 1982 the federal government ordered it to be evacuated. Monsanto has continually denied any connection with the catastrophe, yet laboratory documents were found showing that large concentrations of PCBs in town soil samples were manufactured by Monsanto.

The thing about the past, as opposed to the future, is that facts about it are harder to fabricate. Rather than recall the past polluting activities of today's biotech industry leaders, government and agribusiness interests prefer to talk about the technology's promise for the future, casting biotechnology as the answer to some of humanity's deepest and oldest aspirations. The fundamental contradiction in this message is that while on the one hand they want to present biotechnology as something new, powerful, and revolutionary, at the same time they want to reassure us that that what they are doing is cautious, prudent, safe and in keeping with age-old agricultural traditions.


 



 

Biotech Myth #1: Biotechnology is nothing new. The use of genetic engineering to improve food crops is merely a natural extension of plant breeding techniques that have been used since time immemorial. Promoters of agricultural biotechnology insist that genetic engineering is just a faster and more precise way to improve crops than traditional plant breeding methods, which can take several generations of breeding and therefore be a lot more time-consuming.

Fact: While it is true that conventional breeding methods have yielded a wide variety of plants and animals that did not exist previously, the genes that produce those traits have come from within their own or closely-related species. Modern genetic engineering can take genes from a species such as a fish or a virus and place them into an entirely different species, such as a tomato. This gives humans--actually, corporations--radical new powers, with unpredictable consequences.

Biotech Myth #2: Biotech foods are the most extensively researched and regulated food products ever.

Fact: Every industry likes to pretend that its products are the most extensively researched and regulated products in existence. The nuclear power industry has made this claim, as have the makers of vinyl chloride, dioxin, fen-phen, MSG and Olestra.

Back in 1992, the FDA decreed that genetically engineered foods were no different than conventional foods. Under FDA law, unless a food is "generally regarded as safe" (GRAS), a legal determination, it must be thoroughly tested. Because biotech foods have been determined "GRAS," they undergo no independent safety testing. Instead, government regulators rely on biotech companies to do their own safety tests and also determine themselves if the product in question is GRAS.

Testing biotech crops for their environmental safety is equally lax. It is up to the USDA to ensure that genetically modified crops are ecologically safe. The New York Times recently reported that the agency has not rejected a single application for a biotech crop and that many scientists say "the department has relied on unsupported claims and shoddy studies by the seed companies."

Biotech Myth #3: Genetically engineered crops will allow us to reduce, if not eliminate, environmentally toxic pesticides and fertilizers. Biotechnology is therefore good for the environment.

Fact: So far, the opposite has been true. The vast majority of genetically engineered crops currently on the market have been modified to either withstand herbicide (so that more can be sprayed) or produce their own insecticide.

This year, more than half of the US soybean crop was genetically engineered to survive spraying with Monsanto's best-selling weedkiller, Roundup. An analysis of 8,200 university research trials revealed that farmers planting Roundup Ready soybeans are using two to five times as much of the herbicide as farmers growing conventional varieties. Chuck Benbrook, who reported the results of the studies, said nobody is testing the crops for increased residues of Roundup. The EPA, moreover, has raised the allowable residue limits for Roundup on forage crops.

Producing a plant that can make its own insecticide so that farmers don't have to spray insecticides may sound like a good idea, but anything more than the most superficial consideration reveals otherwise. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a natural soil bacterium that destroys the digestive tracts of certain very pesky insects, like the Colorado Potato Beetle and the European Corn Borer. It is one of the safest insecticides known and has been used in spray form by organic farmers for years. Biotech companies have engineered crops--corn, cotton, canola, and potatoes--with a Bt gene so that Bt crops express the toxin in every cell of the plant. Such widespread use of the toxin will eventually make the bugs it targets resistant to it. That's just evolution, plain and simple. The loss of Bt, which is currently used sparingly by organic farmers, will deprive sustainable agriculture of one of its most effective tools.

Another point that biotech promoters never mention is that unlike other forms of pollution, genetic pollution produces live organisms that can grow, reproduce, mutate, and migrate. For that reason, genetic pollution may cause greater long-term harm than the petrochemical toxins now plaguing the planet, as Jeremy Rifkin observes in his book, The Biotech Century.

Already there have been instances of genes escaping much farther than anyone predicted. Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin was quoted in a New York Times Magazine article last year saying, "There's no way of knowing what the downstream effects will be or how [genetic engineering] might affect the environment. We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don't get one rude shock after another" (emphasis his).

Biotech Myth #4: Biotechnology will increase crop yields, help farmers and rebuild rural economies.

Fact: So far, the opposite has been true. Aside from throwing corn and soybean growers into a tailspin because of the international consumer revolt against genetic engineering, 8,200 university research trials comparing the performance of different varieties of soybeans show that yields of genetically engineered herbicide resistant soybeans are lower than comparable conventional varieties. Since more than half of the soybeans planted this year were Roundup Ready varieties, the 5-10 percent yield drag is a significant drop--some 80 to 100 million bushels.

The contracts governing the use of transgenic seeds are not exactly farmer-friendly, either. Genetic engineering turns the seeds themselves into "intellectual property," so the farmers using the seeds don't legally own them. Monsanto likes to use the analogy of leasing a car--at the end of the lease, the car is returned. This new ownership arrangement makes it illegal to engage in the time-honored practice of saving seeds, a practice which is especially common in the Third World. In the United States and Canada, Monsanto pressed this concept to the point of hiring private investigators to swipe plants from farmers who didn't buy their seeds to see if they are planting Monsanto's transgenic varieties. Monsanto has also encouraged its farmers to snitch on neighbors they suspected of planting transgenics without paying for them. There's even a case in Canada of an elderly farmer who is being sued by Monsanto for intellectual property theft. He swears he never planted Monsanto's transgenic seed, yet it showed up in his field, quite possibly through genetic drift--i.e., contamination of his crops by wind-blown, genetically-engineered pollen. While this type of harassment continues, genetic engineering can be considered a "benefit" to rural communities only insofar as farmers enjoy living in a police state.

Biotech Myth #5: Biotechnology is the only hope we have to feed a growing world population.

Fact: Starvation and malnutrition are very real problems, but they are caused by unequal distribution of wealth, not by food scarcity. According to the United Nations World Food Program, there is currently more than enough food produced to feed everyone on the planet an adequate and healthy diet. The reason that approximately 800 million people go hungry each year is that they don't have access to food by either being able to afford it or grow their own. Biotechnology, by turning living crops into "intellectual property," increases corporate control over food resources and production. Rather than alleviate world hunger, biotechnology is likely to exacerbate it by increasing everybody's dependence on the corporate sector for seeds and the materials


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Reprinted with permission of
PRWatch.org: Center for Media & Democracy

The Center for Media & Democracy is a nonprofit, public interest organization funded by individuals and nonprofit foundations and dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry. The Center serves citizens, journalists and researchers seeking to recognize and combat manipulative and misleading PR practices.
 

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