The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture: Myth Seven

Editor's Note: "The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture" is excerpted from Fatal Harvest, a new book that chronicles the disasters of industrial farming.

Myth seven: Biotechnology will solve the problems of industrial agriculture

The truth:

New biotech crops will not solve industrial agriculture's problems, but will compound them and consolidate control of the world's food supply in the hands of a few large corporations. Biotechnology will destroy biodiversity and food security, and drive self-sufficient farmers off their land.

The myths of industrial agriculture share one underlying and interwoven concept -- they demand that we accept that technology always equals progress. This blind belief has often shielded us from the consequences of many farming technologies. Now, however, many are asking the logical questions of technology: A given technology may be progress, but progress toward what? What future will that technology bring us? We see that pesticide technology is bringing us a future of cancer epidemics, toxic water and air, and the widespread destruction of biodiversity. We see that nuclear technology, made part of our food through irradiation, is bringing us a future of undisposable nuclear waste, massive clean-up expenses, and again multiple threats to human and environmental health. As a growing portion of society realizes that pesticides, fertilizers, monoculturing, and factory farming are little more than a fatal harvest, even the major agribusiness corporations are starting to admit that some problems exist. Their solution to the damage caused by the previous generation of agricultural technologies is -- you guessed it -- more technology. "Better" technology, biotechnology, a technology that will fix the problems caused by chemically intensive agriculture. In short, the mythmakers are back at work. But looking past the rhetoric, a careful examination of the new claims about genetic engineering reveals that instead of solving the problems of modern agriculture, biotechnology only makes them worse.

Will biotechnology feed the world?

In an attempt to convince consumers to accept food biotechnology, the industry has relentlessly pushed the myth that biotechnology will conquer world hunger. This claim rests on two fallacies: first that people are hungry because there is not enough food produced in the world, and second that genetic engineering increases food productivity.

In reality, the world produces more than enough to feed the current population. The hunger problem lies not with the amount of food being produced, but rather with how this food is distributed. Too many people are simply too poor to buy the food that is available, and too few people have the land or the financial capability to grow food for themselves. The result is starvation. If biotech corporations really wanted to feed the hungry, they would encourage land reform, which puts farmers back on the land, and push for wealth redistribution, which would allow the poor to buy food.

The second fallacy is that genetic engineering boosts food production. Currently there are two principal types of biotechnology seeds in production: herbicide resistant and "pest" resistant. Monsanto makes "Roundup Ready" seeds, which are engineered to withstand its herbicide, Roundup. The seeds -- usually soybeans, cotton, or canola -- allow farmers to apply this herbicide in ever greater amounts without killing the crops. Monsanto and other companies also produce "Bt" seeds -- usually corn, potatoes, and cotton -- that are engineered so that each plant produces its own insecticide.

Independent research shows that these genetically engineered (GE) types of seed do not actually increase overall crop yields. A two-year study by University of Nebraska researchers showed that growing herbicide-resistant soybeans actually resulted in lower productivity than that achieved with conventional soybeans. These results confirmed the findings of Dr. Charles Benbrook, the former director of the Board on Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences. His work looked at more than 8,200 field trials and showed that Roundup Ready seed produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar natural varieties.

Far from being an answer to world hunger, genetic engineering could be a major contributor to starvation. There are currently more than a dozen patents on genetically engineered "terminator" technology. These seeds are genetically engineered by biotech companies to produce a sterile seed after a single growing season, insuring that the world's farmers cannot save their seed and instead will have to buy from corporations every season. Does anyone believe that the solution to world hunger is to make the crops of the world sterile? With more than half of the world's farmers relying on saved seeds for their harvest, imagine the mass starvation that would result should the sterility genes escape from the engineered crops and contaminate non-genetically engineered local crops, unintentionally sterilizing them. According to a study by Martha Crouch of Indiana University, such a chilling scenario is a very real possibility.

Will biotechnology protect the earth?

The idea that biotechnology is beneficial to the environment centers on the myth that it will reduce pesticide use by creating plants resistant to insects and other pests. In actuality the government's own independent research has disproved this claim. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2000 revealed that there is no overall reduction in pesticide use with genetically engineered crops.

Even as it does nothing to alleviate the chemical pollution crisis, biotech food brings its own very different pollution hazard: biological and genetic pollution. In 2000, Purdue University researchers found that the release of only a few genetically engineered fish into a large native fish population could make that species extinct in only a few generations. Meanwhile, scientists at Cornell University discovered that the pollen from Bt-corn could be fatal to the Monarch butterfly and other beneficial insects. The Union of Concerned Scientists has shown that the genetically engineered Bt crops could lead to pests becoming resistant to Bt. This non-chemical pesticide is essential to organic and conventional farmers throughout the country. If plant pests develop a resistance to it, this could fatally undermine organic farming in the United States. Another significant environmental issue with GE foods is that the crops are notoriously difficult to control. They can migrate, mutate, and cross-pollinate with other plants. If a pest- or herbicide-resistant strain were to spread from crops to weeds, a "superweed" could result and be nearly impossible to stop. Overall, the environmental threat of biotechnology caused 100 top scientists to warn that careless use could lead to irreversible, devastating damage to the environment.

Will biotechnology produce safe food?

The biotech industry claims that it is bringing a whole new generation of healthier and safer foods to the market. Yet according to our own government scientists the genetic engineering of foods could make safe foods toxic. GE foods may contain both old and new allergens, which could create serious reactions in millions of consumers. Biotech foods can also have lower nutritional values. In 1999, the British Medical Association recommended banning importing unlabeled genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because of their potential health risks. What makes these risks all the more alarming is that our government requires no mandatory safety testing or labeling of any genetically engineered foods. As a result we have no assurance on the safety of these foods and no way to trace adverse reactions. Far from improving the safety of our food supply, biotechnology is bringing new, unique health risks.

Is biotechnology cheap and efficient?

Biotech companies have spent billions of dollars researching the effects of inserting fish genes into tomatoes, firefly genes into tobacco plants, and human genes into farm animals, and creating thousands of other transgenic organisms. It has taken thousands of trials just to come up with herbicide-resistant crops that lead to lower yields and greater chemical use. Biotechnology has yet to bring to market a single product that actually benefits consumers. As companies pass on the enormous costs of their research, why should the public pay more for biotech foods that offer no advantages and only risks?

The biotechnology industry continues to promote itself as the ultimate panacea for all the problems of industrial agriculture. A review of its real impacts reveals that it is not an antidote to modern agriculture but rather simply a continuation and exacerbation of today's food production crisis. Biotechnology increases environmental degradation, causes new food safety risks, and threatens to increase world hunger. It is not the solution, but a major part of the problem.

"The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture" were compiled by the editors of Fatal Harvest, which is published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology and distributed by Island Press.

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