a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

a look at the GM controversy, part 3

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Here is the third of Mark Jensen’s paragraphs:

Today, some people believe good farming practice is achieved when as much produce as possible is harvested from a defined area of land, regardless of the chemical inputs. Monsanto is a multinational company that produces GM seeds and agricultural chemicals for commercial-scale food production. Some farmers have signed contracts to use their products exclusively. But only now do many realise what they have done. Unfortunately, these farmers have bought a ticket to board the chemical train that is fast running out of control. They are unable, even if willing, to disembark and revert back to a more sustainable way of farming.

Certainly, good farming practices are generally associated with high yields. They would hardly be likely to be associated with low yields. After all, organic farmers and their supporters are keen to show that their methods can and do achieve high yields, though of course they have other concerns such as reducing chemical inputs. Of course there are a number of key terms, beloved of the organic movement, that need to be examined here, terms such as ‘natural’, ‘chemical’, ‘sustainable’, ‘pesticide’ and ‘diversity’. With this paragraph, the term ‘chemical’ in particular needs to be scrutinised, as well as the role of Monsanto as the ‘bogey-man’ controlling GMOs and creating disaster for profit.

For a start, one of the major reasons for introducing GMOs was to create plants that were resistant to insects and to viruses, thus reducing the dependence on pesticides and herbicides. For example the gene for toxin production from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), used in in conventional insecticide, has been incorporated successfully into food plants using GM technology. Genes for virus resistance and herbicide tolerance have also been incorporated, resulting in a reduction of herbicide use. The World Health Organisation has an online Q and A, linked to above, on the safety of GM plants. On issues ‘of concern to the environment’ [where the over-use of chemicals naturally fits], here’s what it has to say:

Issues of concern include: the capability of the GMO to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations; the persistence of the gene after the GMO has been harvested; the susceptibility of non-target organisms (e.g. insects which are not pests) to the gene product; the stability of the gene; the reduction in the spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity; and increased use of chemicals in agriculture. The environmental safety aspects of GM crops vary considerably according to local conditions.

Current investigations focus on: the potentially detrimental effect on beneficial insects or a faster induction of resistant insects; the potential generation of new plant pathogens; the potential detrimental consequences for plant biodiversity and wildlife, and a decreased use of the important practice of crop rotation in certain local situations; and the movement of herbicide resistance genes to other plants.

The increased use of chemicals in agriculture, which of course has been happening regardless of the introduction of GMOs, is only one of many issues, as we see, that is being monitored by this body. A number of the other potential concerns, such as loss of biodiversity and insect resistance and susceptibility, are again just as relevant to non-GM crops, though it seems to me that monitoring for GM crops is more stringent than it is for those traditionally bred for particular traits. It seems to me that Jensen and others are confusing the biological fix that is GMOs with a chemical fix. This might be due to the fact that Monsanto, which ‘provides the technology in 90% of the genetically engineered seeds used in the US market’, is also the world’s largest producer of the herbicide glyphosate, marketed as ‘Round-up’. Interestingly, though, Monsanto’s GM seeds have been engineered to be resistant to their own herbicide.

Now to the Monsanto issue and the possible monopolization of GM seeds and the deals struck between the multinational company and farmers. I have to admit I’ve rarely heard any positive reports about this company, and where there’s so much smoke there’s probably fire. While noting that issues such as monopolization, strong-arm business tactics and litigiousness aren’t strictly scientific, they can clearly impact on farming and environmental practice. Certainly Monsanto has had a chequered and colourful history, but it is its control,or strong influence upon, the GM seed market, that is at issue here. Currently, Monsanto customers, specifically those who buy seed from Monsanto, must sign a ‘Monsanto Technology Stewardship Agreement‘ to the effect that  ‘the grower will not save or sell the seeds from their harvest for further planting, breeding or cultivation’. It’s an extraordinary proviso, but presumably completely legal. This agreement, which, a number of farmers have attested, is somewhat thuggishly enforced, prevents, at present, the need for Monsanto to introduce its ‘terminator gene technology’, which causes sterility in second generation seeds. The science behind Terminator or Genetic Use Restriction Technology [GURT] is described here, though the gene source is a commercial secret. Apparently, Monsanto has also brought lawsuits against farmers whose crops have been inadvertently ‘contaminated’ by  Monsanto-patented GMOs, the Percy Schmeiser case being the most notorious. This, of course has hugely riled organic and other farmers who wish to sell their produce as GM-free, and those who see Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide as a danger to the environment, but it really doesn’t tell us anything about the dangers, or otherwise, posed specifically by GMOs. Even the claims made by many anti-GM activists that GMOs have not increased yields or decreased chemical use are not evidence of hazard, and those who advocate the use of GMOs can point to the potential benefits even if they acknowedge that the current benefits are not great [though generally they disagree with the empirical claims of their opponents].

I think the implication that farmers are signing their lives away when they choose to buy Monsanto seeds is exaggerated. These farmers can surely decide to stop buying the seed at any time. I suspect there’s still a long way to go in sorting out the legal and political aspects of GM crop production but I don’t expect this technology to be abandoned, and I haven’t yet heard any convincing reason for its abandonment. I don’t think it’s ‘the answer’ to our food supply challenges in the future, and I don’t think it’s incompatible with sustainable and organic farming practices. It’s just one of many approaches, perhaps with more potential than most.

Written by stewart henderson

November 21, 2011 at 10:59 am

Posted in environment

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