Environment

Genetic Engineering and Environmental Racism

An ongoing conference series reveals how biotech giants like Monsanto are trying to gain control of the world's food supply, and keep the global South poor.
As drought plagued southern Africa in the summer of 2002, biotech companies lost no time in exploiting hunger for profit. The US offered to "help" by donating food from GMO (genetically modified organism) crops. But African scientists knew there was a catch. They had seen demonstrations showing that Europe wanted no part of the technology. They knew that GMOs were associated with health and environmental dangers. Worst of all, the Percy Schmeiser case suggested that if GMO seed was planted in Africa, the next generation of GMO plants could result in farmers owing "technology fees" to biomaster Monsanto.

Countries throughout Africa denounced the food-for-control ploy of the US. US spokespersons brayed that African leaders were letting their people starve. After massive US bullying, most African countries agreed to accept GM corn if it was milled (ground so that seeds could not be planted). Zambia refused GM food of any kind. The conflict scored a tremendous moral victory in exposing the cynical complicity of the US government in fronting for corporate greed.

Opposition to GMOs coheres in 1998

For decades, biologists have known that a gene can be removed from a cell, modified, and reinserted into the same cell or a different cell from another species or even the other kingdom (plant and animal). As the technology developed rapidly, during the 1980s and 1990s, scientists warned that the process was inherently risky. Its critics spelled out in detail the range of health, environmental and social problems that genetic "engineering" could bring.

In 1998, many of those critics came together for "The First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering." The Gathering was in St. Louis, the home town of Monsanto. Monsanto is the world's most aggressive proponent of GMOs. The company's spokespeople claim that genetic engineering is necessary to feed the world's growing population.

At the 1998 Gathering, researchers explained how shooting a gene into an inexact location in a foreign species produces unpredictable results. Farm advocates spoke of how genetic engineering produces lower yield, not the higher yield promised by Monsanto. Health experts warned that genenetic engineering is used to allow greater quantities of herbicides, which affects the health of farm workers. Genetically engineered foods produce toxic reactions as well as food allergies, which are most serious in children.

Those at the event learned how genes can escape from domestic crops to their wild relatives, giving weeds immunity to herbicides. Genetically engineered microorganisms can unpredictably kill crops and genetically engineered plants can harm wildlife.

The Gathering attracted many newcomers to movement politics who were shocked to hear from Jane Akre and Steve Wilson how Fox News in Florida bent to pressure from Monsanto, suppressed their story on rBGH milk and ultimately dismissed the reporters.

Vandana Shiva pulled the diverse knowledge together, explaining the way genetic engineering is used by corporations to monopolize the seed supply and raise the cost of farming so that agribusiness can consolidate its control worldwide.

Increasing danger, exploding opposition

Since the 1998 Gathering, threats from the biotech industry have increased profoundly while opposition to it has exploded. The international movement for labeling genetically engineered food gained tremendous world-wide support as it exposed corporations who were terrified that telling consumers that their food was genetically engineered would be putting a skull and crossbones on it. Opponents have pulled up so many test fields of GMO crops that companies and governments have taken to hiding their locations.

Biotech proponents have frenetically sought to silence criticism as they shriek that corporate-funded research is the only road to scientific truth. When he began his investigations, Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland was neither for nor against genetic engineering. But when results of his own studies showed that rats fed genetically engineered potatoes had damaged internal organs, he felt compelled in 1998 to warn the public. He was involuntarily retired from his position and condemned in a report by the British Royal Society.

In 2001, the journal Nature published findings of University of California researcher Ignacio Chapela showing that genetically contaminated corn cross-pollinated with native Mexican species hundreds of miles away. For the first time in its heretofore distinguished history Nature bowed so low to corporate greed that it printed a retraction of Chapela's article (based on methodological disagreements which did not challenge the finding of cross-pollination).

About the same time, the world became aware of the plight of Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Monsanto's corporate police had trespassed on Schmeiser's fields to steal canola plants for testing. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent violations when genetic testing showed the presence of Roundup Ready Canola DNA. The court ruled in Monsanto's favor, declaring irrelevant Schmeiser's testimony that he never used the Monsanto product and that wind-blown pollen had contaminated his fields.

Hunger in 2002

These events set the stage for countries of southern Africa telling the US "No GMOs" in summer 2002. One of the most eloquent spokespersons on the dangers of GMOs to Africa has been Ethiopia's Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, a winner of a Right Livelihood Award in 2000. Egziabher believes that, even though global warming is making droughts more frequent, Ethiopia is able to feed itself by storing surplus food during bumper harvests.

Hunger is due to the country's being too poor to ship stored food from one location to another. International food aid agencies could assist impoverished African countries by cash donations that would help develop their transportation systems as well as strengthen local farms. In contrast, the US concept of food aid is to create dependency in Africa by dumping US GMO food that Europe won't touch.

Egziabher also fears that economic dependency on GMO food from the US is fraught with health, environmental and patent dangers.

One of the main GMO crops is corn. Donated GMO food could become the entire diet of starving people, as opposed to only a portion of food eaten by those in other parts of the world. This means that any long-term effects of allergenicity, cancer, or birth defects (which have not been adequately studied), could be multiplied for victims of famine.

What would happen if African farmers saved GM seed and replanted it? GM pollen is known to kill butterflies, which are important pollinators for African crops. GM crops have lower yield, since they are designed for farmers who can afford large amounts of pesticides. Many animals refuse to eat stems and leaves of GM corn. If pigs eat GM food, their reproductive capacity can be reduced.

Despite the treatment of Chapela by Nature, African scientists know that wind can spread GM pollen across the continent. If that contaminates enough African crops, Europe would not buy them, leaving desperate farmers crushed.

African governments also know of the Percy Schmeiser case. If fields are contaminated by GM pollen and the next generation of corn tests positive for GM, farmers would become patents violators and owe technology fees to Monsanto and other biomasters. Massive impoverishment could cause the transfer of land throughout Africa.

Returning to St. Louis, May, 2003

The 1998 Biodevastation Gathering sparked subsequent events in Seattle, New Delhi, Boston, San Diego and Toronto. The anti-genetic engineering movement has won the hearts and minds of Europe and India and support from governments in southern Africa. In the US, there is a strong alliance between anti-GE activists, family farm organizations, and the anti-globalization movement. Now is the time for the anti-GE movement to reach out to social justice, peace and environmental movements.

On May 16-18, 2003, the Biodevastation series will return to St. Louis for the gathering on "Genetic Engineering: A Technology of Corporate Control." The Gateway Greens are working with the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis to make this the cutting edge event defining links between environmental racism and biotechnology industries. Subtitled "A Forum on Environmental Racism, World Agriculture and Biowarfare," the gathering is organized around five main themes: "The International Threat to Farms and Farmers," "Corporate Greed and Environmental Racism," "Biowarfare," "Globalization and Food Imperialism," and "Crop Contamination and the Future of Indigenous Agriculture." Each theme will have a panel and associated workshops, including a workshop for coordinating future actions.

As genetic engineering drives the price of farming too high for the poor, it pushes them off their land, destroys ecosystems existing in harmony with the land, transforms its victims into "terrorists" if they resist, and leaves them to discover the unknown effects of eating genetically contaminated food when their bodies have been poisoned with countless agricultural chemicals. Biodevastation 7 will be the first time a gathering focuses on how genetic engineering is used to crush people of color. Even more important, it will develop more coordinated resistance between the expanding numbers of people who realize the danger of the technology.

Upcoming actions across the U.S.

May 18 -- 20 An anti-globalization convergence will coincide with the World Agricultural Forum (WAF), scheduled for May 18-20 in downtown St. Louis. Every two years, the WAF brings together the biotech industry, Western scientists and US Officials who try to coerce government leaders of the global South into accepting corporate control of food and fiber through the sale of GMOs. MoRAGE (Missouri Resistance Against Genetic Engineering) is calling for action at this year's WAF.

Farmers from all over North America will attend Biodevastation 7 and actions at the WAF. Some will go to the WAF site on May 18 to demand that their concerns be heard. MoRAGE will have speakers with alternatives to the globalization of agriculture in downtown St. Louis.

Get more information on WAF actions at WorldAgForum.com or call 314-771-8576.

May 19 - June 19. A fun and educational Caravan Across the Cornbelt will bicycle from St. Louis to Washington DC where the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) will hold its annual convention in June. The Caravan will be a month-long bicycle spectacle covering over 1000 miles, featuring puppet shows, presentations, speak-outs, clown acts, and music. All concerned citizens, clowns, puppeteers, bike riders, messengers, farmers, and eaters of food are invited to bring a bicycle and join the ride! Contact [email protected].

June 20 - 22, Washington, DC and Sacramento, California. People will gather in Washington in response to the annual convention of BIO. Contact [email protected]. At the same time, trade ministers from all around the world will be meeting in Sacramento CA at the invitation of US Agriculture Secretary Anne Veneman. This WTO-level meeting is designed to promote the biotech agenda in preparation for this fall's WTO ministerial meeting in Cancún, Mexico. Contact [email protected]. Don Fitz is the editor of Synthesis/Regeneration.

Get more information on Biodevastation 7 at BioDev.org or 314-353-8176.
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