The Wall Street Journal came out with a terrific page-one article documenting “genetic pollution” — the damage caused when genetically modified crops cross-pollinate with conventional crops.
The article leads with an organic farmer in Spain whose sells his red field corn at a premium to nearby chicken farmers, who prize the product because it “it gives their meat and eggs a rosy color.” (I’d be willing to bet that rosy color also translates to higher nutrition content.)
Now the farmer is screwed — his seeds, carefully bred over time, have become contaminated by GM corn from nearby farms. The rich red color of his corn, like his premium, has vanished into the ether. The article goes on to document devastating cases of genetic contamination in Oaxaca, Mexico — birthplace of corn and home to ancient germplasm lineages; and also in the United States, where 45 percent of corn and 85 percent of soybeans are genetically altered.
The issue is: Who is legally responsible for such contamination — i.e., who pays the damages when a farmer like the above-mentioned Spanish one loses his hard-earned premium? Who pays up when a corn culture that dates back thousands of years faces sudden extinction?
The issue will be huge as the battle lines around GM are drawn. In the last ten years, the number of global acres planted with GM crops has risen from zero to about one billion — perhaps the most rapid spread of new technology in agriculture’s 10,000-year history.
Monsanto has taken the offensive in the U.S. As a recent report from the anti-GMO stalwart Center for Food Safety shows, Monsanto operatives scour the countryside in commodity-agriculture areas, investigating farms that haven’t bought Monsanto traits for intellectual-property violations, often based on tips from informants. When Monsanto’s goons find GM traits on a farm that hasn’t paid up, the company sues — even despite the distinct possibility of genetic contamination. In other words, Monsanto seeks damages from farms that its traits might have damaged.
One U.S. farmer whose field was contaminated by GM traits — but who thankfully didn’t suffer the indignity of a lawsuit from Monsanto — told the Journal:
My advice to the organic farmers in Europe is to make sure that any GMO drift becomes the legal responsibility of the GM farmer … Here, I’m responsible for my neighbor’s pollen, and that’s not fair.
Following the Center for Food Safety’s lead, I have a better idea: Make the seed companies take responsibility for the pollution they’re unleashing. Even large-scale commodity farms operate on a tight margin; holding them responsible for their polluting their neighbor’s crop would ruin them.
A brief note on my personal opinion of the GM fight: For me, the battle over genetically modified food is more about who controls the food supply than about unique health issues.
Is GM corn worse for you than any other monocropped, hyper-hybridized corn grown in soil lashed for decades with chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides? I’ve never seen any evidence that says so.
Both GM and conventional non-GM corn seem to me like minimally nutritious industrial inputs designed to maximize corporate profit, not the health of the people that consume them or the viability of the farms that grow them.
The main difference is that GM seeds have proven more efficient at creating corporate profit than their conventional counterpart. As stated above, the Journal reports that “crop farmers around the world paid a $2.2 billion premium for biotech crops this year, up from $1 billion in 2001.”
That’s a tremendous transfer of wealth from farmers to the likes of Monsanto, et al. Farmers who submit are chasing the old dream of increasing yield — squeezing as much production as possible out of the land. But especially in the commodity crops in which GM has become dominant — corn, soy, cotton — increases in yield only mean lower prices, thus more reliance on government subsidies and more misery in the grain belt.
The idea that GM agriculture is necessary to “feed the world” is a cruel joke, given what a horrible business model it has been for farmers.
Moreover, it represents an acceleration of an insidious trend: More and more of the world’s fields are planted with fewer and fewer varieties — and those few varieties tend to be owned by a few litigious multinationals.