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Monsanto, genetic engineering and food, part 2

By Betsey Piette

October 15, 2012

Part one covered the hazards of genetically modified crops and the role of Monsanto in pushing them worldwide.

Along with DuPont and Syngenta, Monsanto controls 47 percent of the worldwide proprietary seed market.

Today farmers buying Monsanto patented seeds must agree not to save the seeds for replanting or sell seeds to other farmers. Each year farmers must buy new seeds as well as more Roundup weed killer from Monsanto.

A farmer who attempts to reuse or cull seeds is likely to receive a visit from Monsanto “seed police.” Monsanto’s seed patents, which make it illegal for farmers to reuse genetically engineered seeds, apply even if GE seeds end up in fields by accident. Over a third of U.S. cropland is already contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

According to the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, Monsanto seed police investigate more than 500 farmers every year. Since the mid-1990s, Monsanto has sued 145 farmers for patent infringements; an additional 700 farmers settled disputes with Monsanto out of court.

Traditional seeds are disappearing. In the 1990s most seed companies were purchased by pesticide manufacturers who saw a potential profit in monopolizing both aspects of farm production.

The problem is global. With the assistance of the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies, agriculture in India was laid open to Monsanto GE seeds in 1998. Peasant farmers in India, while paying higher prices to plant GMO seeds, hoped to reap the higher yields Monsanto promised. But instead Indian farmers ended up buying greater quantities of pesticides. The GE seeds also required more water to grow.

Farmers became dependent on Monsanto to buy seeds for the next year’s crops, further increasing their poverty and indebtedness. Since the introduction of GE seeds in India an estimated 200,000 farmers have committed suicide — unable to overcome their new impoverishment.

In 2009, Monsanto’s GM maize failed to produce kernels for South African farmers, leaving some with 80 percent crop failure. The company compensated large-scale farmers, but gave nothing to small-scale farmers who had been given “free” packets of seeds. (Natural Science, April 19)

From super seeds to super weeds

The increased use of Roundup Ready seeds has led to a 20-fold increase in the use of Monsanto herbicides. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 1994, farmers applied 4.9 million pounds of glyphosate on soybean crops. By 2006 (last available data), they used 96.7 million pounds. (Mother Jones, July 18)

Planting GMO seeds hasn’t always produced the crop yields promised by Monsanto, but farmers are increasingly “harvesting” something they never planned for — super weeds!

As a result of Roundup Ready seeds overuse, a massive amount of “super weeds” now affect around 15 million acres of U.S. agricultural crops. Super weeds are also being documented in Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Europe and South Africa. Around a dozen super weeds, including giant ragweed, have become resistant to spraying with Roundup weed killer, even at 24 times the recommended dose. (BBC World Service, Sept. 18)

GE crops have also increased cumulative pesticide use – about 400 million pounds since 1996 – as insects become more resistant. Just as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) use led to the evolution of resistant pests and the need for even more toxic pesticides, GMO seeds today have “joined the pesticide treadmill,” says food activist Jill Richardson, with the Organic Consumers Association. (PR Watch, Aug. 28)

While repeated use of Roundup weed killer has been linked to a reduction in the Monarch butterfly population, because it destroys their milkweed habitat, other insect populations are increasing, having become pesticide resistant due to wider use of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) seeds.
When simply sprayed on crops, the insecticidal protein Bt breaks down quickly. But genetically engineered Bt seed crops retain the chemical in every cell. As of 2012, 67 percent of corn and 77 percent of cotton in the U.S. are being grown from Bt seeds. A 2010 study found Bt in 93 percent of maternal blood and 80 percent of fetal blood sampled.

Increased pesticide use has been linked to widespread amphibian decline over the last 30 years and also declining bee populations. Combined with a return to arsenic applications in agricultural fields, it puts rural communities, farm workers and the general population at greater risk.

Arsenic still kills

Since the 19th century, arsenic could be found in many common pesticides, including calcium arsenate preferred for cotton field use. This dangerous practice continued until the 1950s. While many farm children died from exposure, farmers overlooked arsenic’s lethal nature because it was effective against some hard-to-kill pests.

It’s not known how many African-American farm workers, the dominant labor force in cotton fields, died from exposure. By the 1930s, over 100 million people in the U.S. showed symptoms of arsenic and lead poisoning, but the USDA still supported its use. (Contributor Network, Sept. 20)

In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of arsenical pesticides, including MSMA (monosodium methanearsonate) on food as well as cotton fields. However, in 2009, claiming that weeds affecting cotton fields had become glyphosate resistant, cotton farmers successfully lobbied the EPA to again allow MSMA use indefinitely.

A study published by Consumer Reports found high levels of arsenic in rice products, including baby food. (issue dated November 2012) Rice with the highest concentrations of arsenic came from south central U.S. states with a history of MSMA use on cotton crops.

‘Monsanto Protection Act’

Just how dangerous GMO products may be to human health is unknown. “The [Food and Drug Administration] has not conducted a single independent test of any genetically engineered product. The agency simply accepts the testing completed and provided by biotechnology corporations like Monsanto,” wrote Dr. Joseph Mercola in Natural Society. (Sept. 14)

The Pesticide Action Network charges that “the USDA has been ‘speed approving’ the latest creations coming from Monsanto, reducing the approval time and subsequently the ability to measure the true effects.” Earlier this year, requests for 12 new genetically engineered crops were submitted to the USDA for approval. Nine are under a new fast-track process that requires no independent studies.

This speed-up resulted from industry backlash following legal challenges to the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa and Roundup Ready sugar beets. In both cases the courts required the USDA to complete a more extensive Environmental Impact Statement prior to deregulating crops, instead of an Environmental Assessment that limited the level of public involvement and shortened the time allowed for response. The courts also ruled that the crops in question could not be planted during the appeals process.

The USDA has since completed EISs for both crops and approved their deregulation, despite massive public opposition. But this was not good enough for the industry giants, who got the 2013 agriculture appropriations bill amended to include a rider, Section 733, referred to as the “farmer assurance provision.” Food Democracy Now! calls Section 733 the “Monsanto Protection Act.”

If the bill passes with this rider, any farmer requesting to plant a GMO that had been removed from the market after USDA regulation would have to be granted a permit to do so, even if the crop’s safety was in question or under review.

The 2012 Farm Bill was also amended to limit the time and scope of future reviews of GE crops by requiring only EA, not EIS, reviews, and mandating that the USDA complete the reviews in 18 months. The provision forbade the USDA from spending money for a broader environmental impact study on a GMO.

Monsanto plagued by Rachel Carson, now rats

This government rubber stamping of GMO permits has not lessoned the heat on Monsanto.

In September, while Congress was busy rewriting legislation to protect Monsanto and Dow, French scientists released a study that found rats fed on Monsanto’s GMO corn or exposed to Roundup Ready seeds suffered tumors and multiple organ damage. (Reuters, Sept. 12)

Gilles-Eric Seralini and colleagues at the University of Caen fed rats a diet containing NK603 — a Roundup Ready seed variety — or gave them water with Roundup weed killer at levels permitted in the U.S. The rats died earlier than those in the control study.

The rats fed the GMO diet also suffered tumors, as well as severe liver and kidney damage. The study tracked the animals throughout their two-year lifespan. Given that three months is only the equivalent of early adulthood in rats, Seralini noted that his lifetime rat tests provided a more realistic view of the risks than the 90-day feeding trials typically used for GMO crop approvals.

Just as Rachel Carson’s early call for action against the environmental hazards of DDT was ridiculed by its producer Monsanto, it is not surprising that the company was quick to dismiss the French findings. Monsanto took issue that the “strain of rats [in the study] is very prone to mammary tumors.” Seralini responded that he used the same rat strain that Monsanto did to get government authorization in its 90-day trials.

The FDA approved Monsanto’s use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in cows after only a 90-day test using small animals. Wisconsin geneticist William von Meyer noted, “But people drink milk for a lifetime.” (Vanity Fair, May 2008)

Monsanto is facing more challenges. In July, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association asked a U.S. Appeals Court in Washington to reverse a dismissal of the association’s 2011 lawsuit to invalidate Monsanto’s GMO seed patents and prevent the company from suing farmers whose crops became contaminated by air-borne GMO seeds.

Hawaii is a global center for open-air field testing of experimental GE crops grown for export. As a result, a majority of food is being imported to the islands as the biotech industry takes over valuable agricultural lands and water.

Monsanto operates about 8,000 acres for GE seed production there, yet no environmental impact studies have been done. In June protesters demonstrated outside the company’s headquarters on Oahu to demand that Monsanto leave Hawaii and that GMO foods be labeled. Similar protests were held on Maui and Kauai. Organizers vowed more protests until Monsanto leaves the islands. (Eco Watch, July 5)

On Nov. 6, California voters will decide if they have the right to know what’s in the food they eat. Proponents of this grassroots-powered ballot initiative suggest that the same companies that lied about DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs and other toxic chemicals just might not be trustworthy when it comes to telling the truth about the dangers of genetically modified foods.

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UPDATED Oct 18, 2012 8:04 PM
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