Meanwhile, Back at Monsanto's Ranch...

This week I take a break from railing at the pending war. The Bush administration is going to have its way, regardless of public opinion, international opposition and the cautionary arguments of statesmen and scholars. But, sorry, there's no good news in its stead. For meanwhile, back at the ranch -- and on farms and in food stores -- powerful corporations, in defiance of public need and commonsense, continue to have their way.

Last week, a Canadian canola grower and seed developer named Percy Schmeiser came to Vermont to talk about genetically-modified (also called genetically-engineered) food. Schmeiser, a former member of the Saskatchewan parliament, told how the Monsanto Corporation has destroyed his seed stock and taken him to court, accusing him of growing Monsanto-patented genetically-modified (GM) seed without signing a contract and paying them for its use. Schmeiser didn't want to grow the Monsanto seed. It blew in from a neighbor's field and contaminated his own canola crop.

Genetically-modified seed, carried by wind, birds and other animals from field to field, is taking over agriculture. There are some arguments that can be made in behalf of genetically-modified seed. Seeds bred to resist insects and disease and to grow in inhospitable climates may, ultimately, prove a boon. But there are important health, environmental, and agricultural issues that have not been studied. More to the point, Europe and Japan have banned imports of non-labeled GM crops, thus threatening the livelihood of canola, soybean, corn, and wheat growers in the United States and Canada. Many of these growers, like Schmeiser, do not want to grow GM crops, but their fields have been contaminated and their export markets closed. The Bush administration is expected to pressure the World Trade Organization to nullify the European and Japanese ban. See neRAGE for more information.

The concerns of the growers, like the concerns of consumers, get short-shrift in the world of North American industrial agriculture. Elsewhere, farming is considered part of the rural fabric, a way of life, valuable in and of itself. In North America, despite the opposition of many farmers and rural communities, agriculture is simply an industry. Growers and consumers be damned! In GM seeds, Monsanto and other agrichemical giants have found a product they can push for potential profit.

Monsanto insists that seedmen have always engaged in genetic engineering, taking desirable traits of existing plant varieties and crossbreeding them for specific purposes. Thus we have tomato plants bred to be disease-resistant, fruit tree stock that can withstand cold, and sweet corn varieties, like Butter and Sugar and Seneca Chief, that are extra tasty. This is scientific agriculture at its best, proven, safe, and beneficial to farmers and consumers alike. With GM seeds, however, breeders take genetic material from non-species related plant and animal organisms and introduce them into existing crops. This is abusing nature, creating crop varieties that otherwise could not exist.

Monsanto create its Frankenstein seeds to tolerate the chemical herbicide glyphosate which they sell under the trade name Roundup. The herbicide kills all plants except Monsanto's genetically-modified crops. But some weeds have already adapted to Roundup and -- it's the law of nature -- the more the herbicide is used the more weeds will become resistant. Monsanto nevertheless claims that GM crops require fewer chemical applications, but this is disputed (see, for example, a paper by Dr. Charles Benbrook). And, as happened to Percy Schmeiser's canola crop, already-developed non-GM seed varieties are being contaminated by the GM seeds planted in surrounding fields. Over time, farmers will have fewer varieties, fewer strains to turn to if the GM seeds create problems. Already 75 percent of this country's soybean crop is grown with GM seed.

From an economic standpoint, growing genetically-modified plants is foolhardy. Europe and Japan insist that food grown with GM plants be labeled as such, and European and Japanese consumers won't buy food containing GM crops. Other countries are moving in to fill the void. Australia is growing non-GM canola, while Brazil has banned the growing of GM soybean and is expanding its non-GM production.

The United States has no labeling requirements except for food grown by organic methods. GM seeds, blowing free in the environment and crossbreeding with organic seed stock, compromises organic methods. The agrichemical industry is threatened by the commercial success of the organic movement. Recently, House Speaker Dennis Hastert sneakily inserted a provision in the federal budget making it legal for meat producers to use non-organic grain (meaning grain grown with GM seeds or with chemical sprays) and still be labeled organic. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, with allies in the House and Senate, has introduced legislation to overturn the measure. Still, it's a sign of what's to come. The agrichemical industry is out to destroy the right of farmers to choose their growing methods and the right of consumers to know what they are eating.

The paradigm is this: farmers are expendable as long as the agrichemical companies can sell their products. We've already had one go-round on this issue when Monsanto tried to foist it's untested Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) on dairy farmers. A major problem of the dairy industry is over-production. Yet, the Monsanto hormone promised to increase milk production. When consumers and farmers tried to fight back, insisting that dairy products from rBGH-free cows be labeled as such, Monsanto fought them.

We need to stand up for producer and consumer rights and insist that genetically-modified food products be honestly labeled. Many Vermont towns have a question on their town meeting ballots this coming Tuesday about the growing and labeling of genetically-modified foods (called "genetically engineered" foods on the ballot). A vote in favor of this non-binding resolution is a vote to take back back agriculture and our food supply from the agrichemical industry and the multinational giants that rule the farmlands across rural America.

Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vermont. His books include "The Dark Ages: Life in the U.S., 1945-1960."

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