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Monsanto, genetic engineering and food

By Betsey Piette

October 8, 2012

If genetically modified (GM) foods and genetically engineered (GE) agricultural products are as “safe” as manufacturers Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences claim, why go to such great lengths to block efforts to label them?

Why have these chemical companies — along with DuPont, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer, Pepsi, Nestle and Coca-Cola — spent nearly $33 million to block passage of Propo­sition 37, the California Right to Know ­Genetically Engineered Food Act? Mon­santo has declared that crushing this ballot initiative is its “single highest priority.”­

Over 50 countries, including China, Russia, Australia, France and Spain, all require GM organisms to be labeled. Efforts to pass labeling laws in 19 U.S. states have all been blocked by the pesticide companies.

GM foods dominate food supply

Genetically modified foods are increasingly overtaking the food supply. Nearly 80 percent of non-organic processed foods on grocery shelves, including foods labeled “natural,” contain genetically engineered bacteria, viruses, antibiotic-resistant genes or imported DNA.

Through ownership of patents on 90 percent of all GE seeds, Monsanto effectively owns most of the U.S. food supply, and not just processed foods. This August Walmart sold fresh Monsanto GM sweet corn — the first to go straight from farm to table.

Under the brand name “Roundup Ready” seeds, Monsanto sells products genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. These GE seeds are designed to let farmers aerially spray fields to kill weeds while leaving their crops intact.

Usually repeated applications are needed, althought GE crops are often grown in the same field, year after year. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, glyphosate gets absorbed by the crops and has appeared in foods sold for consumption.

Monsanto also sells seeds engineered to produce their own pesticides. Genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis are inserted into plant genomes. The plant cell then produces an insecticidal protein known as Bt which gets incorporated into food. The EPA and the Food and Drug Administration have approved Monsanto’s sale of Bt seeds for potato plants, maize, soybeans and cotton. Some seeds can produce more than one Bt protein and be resistant to Roundup, an herbicide Monsanto manufactures.

Monsanto developed and then sold recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST or rBGH), a synthetic hormone designed to increase milk production when injected into cows. In 2008, this product line was sold to pharmaceutical Eli Lilly for $300 million.

When organic dairies began labeling their products “rBST-free,” a pro-rBST advocacy group — made up of dairies originally affiliated with Monsanto — lobbied to ban such labels. However, Monsanto acknowledged possible rBST side effects for cows, including lameness, disorders of the uterus, increased body temperature, digestive and birthing problems.

Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, is getting into the act. Dow is awaiting approval of GM corn that can withstand spraying with 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, the deadly dioxin-based defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Soybeans and cotton that can withstand 2,4-D are also planned.

Reinvention of Monsanto

For thousands of years farmers saved seeds from prior year’s harvests for planting the next spring. This age-old, cost-cutting practice is known as seed culling.

For over two centuries the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would not grant patents for seeds, viewing them as a life-form with too many variables to be patented. All this changed in 1980 when the U.S. Supreme Court extended General Electric patent law protection to a bacterium developed to clean up oil spills.

Founded in 1926, Monsanto’s legacy includes development of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT); and the dioxin compound Agent Orange. Monsanto was also involved in the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. The EPA called Monsanto “potentially responsible” for 56 contaminated superfund sights.

By 1979, attempting to shed its chemical company image, Monsanto had sold off much of the production for these now-banned products. It focused instead on the production and sale of Roundup. Monsanto then took advantage of the Supreme Court’s patent law ruling to become the world leader of GM seeds with 674 biotechnology patents. By shifting into production of GE seeds, Monsanto virtually guaranteed a market for its ubiquitous weed killer Roundup.

Today Monsanto enjoys net profits of $1.7 billion (2011) and holds a monopoly over the world’s pesticide markets.

Next: A monopoly of proprietary seeds.

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UPDATED Oct 18, 2012 7:57 PM
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