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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.

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