GMO Seeds, the Green Revolution, and the Corporate Enclosure of Agriculture


March 1, 2007


Browse in Agriculture Intellectual Property

The Straus Dairy near my town has gained a national reputation for innovation.  It was the nation’s first organic dairy West of the Mississippi.  It converts methane gas from bovine emissions into electricity.  Just a few weeks ago, Straus announced that it has been certified as GMO-Free, which means that it uses no crops grown from genetically engineered seeds.

The Point Reyes Light, our local weekly, reported on this development in a way that was straightforward and informative.  But the editor, who moved out here from New York and bought the paper about a year ago, took it upon himself to undercut the Straus family. He wrote a long editorial that contended that GMO crops not only are safe for humans and the habitat; more, they are necessary to feed a hungry world.

The Light received many letters in response.  One was from Ignacio Chapela, Associate Professor of Microbial Ecology at Berkeley, who discovered the contamination of native corn crops in Mexico by GMO strains.  Chapela’s letter began:

“To read your editorial of 13 February evokes quaint memories of decades past.  Long ago – a quarter century to be more precise – your eulogy of genetic engineering could have passed for visionary science in popular magazines.  Now, more than $350 billion later, it simply reeks of the stale propaganda of Russian Lysenkoism: a futile attempt at denying truth borne by factual evidence.”

I cannot provide a link because the Light does not put letters on-line.  I can however  produce the text of a letter I wrote, which discusses the experience of my wife’s father, a Third World rice farmer, with the Green Revolution.  (The Light editor touted the Green Revolution as a model.)

PO Box 427
Point Reyes Station, CA  94956
February 21, 2007

Dear Editor:

Last week, on my show (America Offline) on KWMR-FM, I interviewed Denise Caruso, a former New York Times reporter in Silicon Valley, who spent years researching genetic engineering for her new book Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet.

Then, a few days later, I read Robert Plotkin’s editorial in which he touted the supposed benefits of genetic engineering. In the process he recited the very claims from biotech press releases that Caruso refutes convincingly in her book.

Plotkin trots out the industry chestnut that genetic engineering is going to feed the hungry of the world.  The implication, not much veiled, is that we readers are elitists who lack Plotkin’s concern about the poor.  Sorry, friend.  There is more than enough food in the world to feed the hungry right now.  The problems are political corruption and corporate greed.  Genetic engineering isn’t going to change that.  If anything it will make them worse.

Plotkin hauls out another chestnut, the Green Revolution.  Opponents of genetic engineering today are like people who opposed the Green Revolution back then.  What Luddites. Well, it happens that my wife’s father is a rice farmer in the Third World.  He shifted to Green Revolution methods some three decades ago.  At first his yields increased and all was well. (That’s leaving aside the way the pesticides killed the fish in nearby streams, along with the herbs that grew next to the fields.)

Since then, however, rice yields have flattened, while the cost of fertilizer and pesticide has gone through the roof.  Today he figures he’s right back where he was three decades ago.  The oil, pesticide and fertilizer companies are getting rich, not him.  He and other farmers are becoming interested in organics.  This is not a Marin County elitist, It is someone who earns roughly $750 a year.

If genetic engineering is going to feed the starving of the world; and if the Green Revolution is the proof of this, then please help me understand something.  Why are landless squatters and sharecroppers going hungry, even though they live right at the edge of rice fields that are following the practices of the Green Revolution?  How could this be?

Could it have something to do with land and who owns it?

Here’s another thing you may not know.  Organics can be a boon to Third World farmers.  Last year I was in a province in my wife’s country where peasants received small plots through land reform.  Now some of them are selling organic sugar cane to Japan for much more than the conventional crop would fetch.  That price premium could be what enables them to survive.

I am sorry to have to break this news.  But genetic engineering is not about feeding the hungry.  Corporations do not make money selling products to people who cannot pay for them.  Genetic engineering is about corporate ownership of the food chain, and catching farmers in the snare of the intellectual property laws.  Just ask the hundreds of U.S. farmers Monsanto has sued for infringing on its patented, genetically modified seeds.

In many cases the seeds blew over from a neighbor’s field, or off a truck.  Doesn’t matter.  Infringement is infringement. Monsanto now owns what once was free for any farmer to produce and share.

Or ask the Third World farmers who have been prosecuted for the heinous act of saving seed from one crop to plant the next.  Farmers have done this for eons.  There is a word in my wife’s dialect – binhi – for the best seeds that farmers know from experience how to select.  There is no more binhi in the new world of genetic engineering.  Seed companies regard saving seeds as copying, and therefore as infringement, much the way Microsoft regards it as infringement if you make a copy of Vista for a friend.

Farmers will have to buy new seeds every single year.  Who do you think wins in that deal?

I urge a little skepticism when dealing with the claims of biotech companies, and corporations generally.


Jonathan Rowe