Sunday, March 16, 2014

Monoculture III: Will Monsanto Turn Over a New Leaf?

      Perhaps the number one biogenetic engineering corporation in the world, Monsanto has been promoting and aiding the cause of monoculture for decades.  Whether manufacturing insecticides and herbicides like DDT and Roundup with disastrous unanticipated consequences, or bioengineering crops to withstand them, Monsanto’s century-long prominence in modern agriculture has been devastating to biodiversity and organic farming.  But there are hopeful signs that pressure by concerned citizens and failure to realize expected financial gains could cause the biotech giant to change its ways.
Although it has prevailed so far in court battles with individual farmers over the use of seeds for its Roundup Ready strain of corn, its actions have galvanized opposition to GM agriculture and alienated consumers.  In one heavily publicized case from 1999 they sued a Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser for growing Roundup-tolerant canola without paying any royalty or “technology fee”.  Monsanto claimed that nearly 95% of Schmeiser’s canola contained the Roundup Resistant gene.  Because canola pollen can travel for miles, carried by wind or insects, Schmeiser claimed that the concentration of Roundup Resistant canola was due to natural pollination and the fact that he had sprayed Roundup on about three acres of the field that was closest to a neighbor’s Roundup Resistant canola.  Many plants survived the spraying, showing that they already contained the gene, and that his hired hand had harvested the crops months later and kept seed from that part of the field and planted it the next year.
       Other testers showed a significantly lower concentration of Roundup resistance but still in excess of 50%.  The court found in favor of Monsanto but awarded nothing in damages.  
Recently Monsanto’s aggressive pursuit of farmers using its bioengineered crops or seeds without paying them has led to an appeals court’s decision to bind the biotech giant to promise not to sue organic farmers.  There have been plenty of cases in which the company has engaged in raw intimidation and made accusations that turned out not to be backed up by hard evidence.  In addition, there are reports of new superweeds that are also resistant to Roundup, as well as a peer-reviewed medical study from 2013 linking the incidence of glysophate in Roundup Ready crops to the development of celiac disease (gluten intolerance) in humans. 
Celiac disease is a growing problem worldwide, but especially in North America and Europe, where an estimated 5 percent of the population now suffers from it. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes, macrocytic anemia and depression.  The study found that exposure to glysophate caused digestive problems in fish similar to gluten intolerance.  A study from 2005 in Costa Rica found an increased incidence of intestinal nephritis in male sugar cane workers from ages 20 to 40, exposed to glysophate which is used there to dry out and improve ripening of crops.

A History of Monsanto
John Francis Queeny founds Monsanto Chemical Works.  First product is artificial sweetener Saccharin
Expands to Europe by entering partnership with Graesser’s Chemical Works.  Produces vanillin, aspirin and salicylic acid.
Manufactures DDT (along with 15 other companies).
Important producer of Agent Orange for US Air Force in Vietnam War.
Monsanto chemist invents Astroturf.
First company to produce light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
Monsanto chemist invents glysophate, primary compound in the company’s Roundup brand of weedkiller.
DDT banned in US.
Stops producing PCBs prior to Congress banning their domestic production 2 years later.
Monsanto scientists first to genetically modify a plant cell.
Conducts first field test of genetically engineered crops.
Files patent application for Celebrex.
Introduces recombinant version of bovine somatropin, rBST, artificial bovine growth hormone to increase dairy production.
Partners with BASF to research, develop, and market new plant biotechnology products.

      In the long run genetically modifying consumer crops can be inefficient and expensive.  Monsanto executive David Stack estimates that adding a new gene takes roughly ten years and $100 million to go from a product concept to regulatory approval.  Added to that are the court costs and bad publicity the company’s heavy-handed legal tactics have created. 
Monsanto’s vegetable division Seminis, which claims to be “the largest developer and grower of vegetable seeds in the world” currently has no new GM vegetables in development, reverting to “good old-fashioned crossbreeding, the same technology that farmers have been using to optimize crops for millennia.”  Of the 13 new GMOs the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is tracking, only two are from Monsanto.

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