Why Is the Obama Administration Parroting Monsanto Talking Points?

Something's very wrong when the chief scientist at the USDA says we'll have to start farming parks, forests and golf courses if we don't switch to biotech.

When key government officials start touting the need for biotechnology there's reason to be concerned. Roger Beachy, the Chief Scientist of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), recently told that biotechnology is needed to maximize food production and reduce the use of agrochemicals. "With a greater number of people," he said, "we're going to have to have more crop per acre. If we don't, we'll have to expand [agriculture] to our parks, forests, and golf courses." And at first it might seem strange to hear a top government official parroting talking points from Monsanto's Corporate Responsibility page ... until you read his resume, that is. His last job before joining the USDA was as founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a non-profit research institute co-founded by Monsanto and the Danforth Foundation.

Now, another explanation why Monsanto and Roger Beachy have similar talking points could be that both are correct and they are simply explaining the facts about the future of food and agriculture. Do we really need biotech to feed a growing population?

Nope, turns out that we don't. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, genetically engineered (GE) seeds, to date, don't translate to more crop yields. And worse, GE seeds have meant the uses of more, not less, chemicals. Jack Heinemann, a professor of genetics and molecular biology, agrees. He points out that no GE crops, to date, were designed with the goal of increasing yield, and while "yield benefits have been observed" they've occurred "sporadically and in a year-, location-, and crop-dependent manner." He does not find evidence for decreased pesticide use in GE crops either.

About the prospect of future, drought-resistant varieties of crops, Heinemann dismisses them as a pipe dream because "the physiology of stress tolerance involves the interactions of many different genes working in a complex, environmentally-responsive network... genetic engineering is unlikely to produce reliable drought tolerance in most crops grown in actual field conditions because it is unable to mix and match so many genes at once." (A Mexican peasant might also add that non-GE varieties of drought-tolerant corn already exist in Mexico, the birthplace of corn, where indigenous peoples have developed them via seed saving over centuries.)

But facts and science be as they may, Monsanto and Roger Beachy are not the one ones making these very same claims. The CEO of the biotech company Syngenta, Michael Mack, takes the argument one step further, slamming organics as well. In 2009, he said, "Organic food is not only not better for the planet. It is categorically worse." His explanation? Organic farming takes up "about 30 percent more land" than non-organic farming for the same yield. (Syngenta's slogan, by the way, is "Grow more from less.")

A fact check of Mr. Mack's math finds that multiple studies estimate an increase in productivity of about 80 percent from switching to organic methods in the developing world. (In the U.S., we would see a slight decrease in productivity, but only by about eight percent - hardly a problem for a country that boasts nearly twice as many calories as required for each man, woman, and child.) Just last week, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter called for a switch to agroecology (that is, organic farming) as it "outperforms large-scale industrial farming for global food security." He cited the "widest study ever conducted on agroecological approaches" that found an average crop gain of 79 percent from going organic.

Where is the biotech industry - and the U.S. government - getting its statements if not from facts and studies? Try market research. Beginning in 1997, the International Food Information Council began researching consumer acceptance of GE foods. Consumers didn't - and still don't - know much about biotechnology. In 1997, only 53 percent said they had heard nothing or "a little" about biotechnology, and that number went up to 66 percent in 2010. In 2010, nearly two-thirds did not know if any foods produced through biotechnology were in the supermarket, and eight percent said they thought there were not any biotech foods in supermarkets. The 28 percent who gave the correct answer - yes - proved their ignorance in the next question when they named which GE foods they thought were available commercially. Top wrong answers included vegetables (37 percent), fruits (19 percent, although to be fair, papayas can be GE), and meat, eggs, or fish (14 percent). Whereas most corn, soy, and canola are genetically engineered (and those are ingredients in most processed foods), only 21 percent named corn, four percent named soy, and less than one percent named processed foods.

So what do biotech companies do with such consumer ignorance? Acceptance of their products is something they are clearly worried about, as they do not ever label any foods as genetically engineered. (Currently labeling genetically engineered foods is not required, although a bill recently introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich would require it.) But as they've watched their market research show little signs that a majority of consumers are warming up to GE foods over the past decade, they've hit upon a few messages that work. While only 32 percent of 2010 survey respondents say they view biotechnology as "very favorable" or "somewhat favorable," a whopping 77 percent said they would be very or somewhat likely to buy a produce item like a tomato that was genetically engineered to require fewer pesticides.

They asked one question three times in three various forms: "How likely would you be to buy bread, crackers, cookies, cereals, or pasta made with flour from wheat that had been modified by biotechnology?" While only 41 percent initially responded favorably, 73 percent said they were very or somewhat likely to buy that product if it were modified to require less land, water, and/or pesticides. That number goes up to 80 percent if that GE wheat was "produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using less resources (such as land and pesticides)." Voila! The magic bullets for biotech acceptance: feeding the world and reducing pesticide use.

Clearly this is advice that biotech companies have taken to heart. And it's apparently convincing enough that it is winning over influential figures and government officials, even if their last job wasn't at a Monsanto-funded non-profit. The key phrase to look for is "In order to feed a population of nine billion people, the world needs to double food production by 2050." Typically a plea for biotechnology and genetic engineering specifically or a more general call for using science and technology to achieve this goal follows such a statement. A few years ago, one might have only heard this rhetoric at the annual Biotechnology Industry Organization conference, but by 2009 it was on the lips of such luminaries as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAD Chief Tom Vilsack. Food production alone is not the problem, as the world currently produces enough food to feed every person on earth and yet one billion people are hungry. Nor is food production in the future necessarily the problem, as the calculation that we need to double food production relies on an assumption that the rest of the world will adopt an American-style diet heavy on factory farmed grain-fed meat (a prospect that the climate crisis and the end of oil make less probable each day). But the idea is such an attractive one that it is now the basis of a new government initiative called Feed the Future, aimed at exporting U.S. biotechnology to the developing world. Apparently the Obama administration never got the memo that the biotech industry's "feed the world" rhetoric was based on market research to promote GE food acceptance among Americans and not on its ability to deliver.