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What’s the deal about GM foods? February 25, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , ,

Our friend Ben was enraged to read yet another article, this one in today’s Yahoo! News finance section and picked up from an AP release called “Shoppers wary of GM foods find they’re everywhere,” basically implying that GM foods were safe and people who thought otherwise were stupid.

“GM” stands for “genetically modified,” usually by giant agribusiness corporations like Monsanto to make the crops resistant to their herbicide Roundup, so farmers can spray their fields with herbicide early and often without having to worry that it will kill their crops along with everything else. The range of genetic modifications can be much wider, including putting animal genes into plants. The result is to turn our planet and all life on it into a giant lab, since no one knows what the results of this global-scale experiment will be.

But the “experts” keep insisting that GM foods are safe for human consumption, and the folks raising their voices in protest too often come off sounding like idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about and are simply opposing change for the sake of it. “If you mess with nature there’s a side effect somewhere,” George Siemon is quoted in the article as remarking. Gee, is this some Wal*Mart shopper who’s being interviewed coming out of the store? No, it’s the CEO of Organic Valley, the U.S.’s largest organic farming cooperative. “Many of these opponents [of GM foods] acknowledge that there isn’t much solid evidence showing genetically modified foods are somehow dangerous or unhealthy. It just doesn’t seem right, they say,” the article adds, making opponents of GM foods appear to have all the intelligence, education, and deductive reasoning of Homer Simpson.

So far, five major crops—corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, and alfalfa—are USDA-approved for GM production, and according to the article, GM salmon will soon follow. (If you don’t think of cotton and alfalfa as “people food,” think again: cottonseed oil is used as a “vegetable oil” in tons of foods, including chips, cookies, and crackers, and what about all those alfalfa sprouts?) God knows what will be next.

Our friend Ben is not qualified to say precisely what will happen if we humans consume herbicide- and pesticide-resistant crops or genetically modified animals. I would, however, prefer not to become a human lab rat myself, and would appreciate it if GM foods were at least required to be labeled as such. (They aren’t.) But I don’t think that’s the real issue, and the real issue is one that farmers, plant and animal geneticists, botanists and gardeners, homesteaders, and historians are all admirably qualified to talk about: the deliberate limitation of diversity. 

A historian could tell you all about what happens when diversity is squandered for a single crop: We get the Irish potato famine, when the one variety of potato grown all over Ireland proved suceptible to the blight. Had hundreds of varieties been grown, doubtless some would have proved resistant. And had a wider diversity of crops been grown, the failure of the potato crop would have been far less devastating.

At this point, you may be thinking, but surely there are many varieties of corn and the like being grown, so why worry? Two reasons: contamination and lawsuits. Companies like Monsanto thrive because farmers have to buy their seed fresh from Monsanto every year. If they only had to buy them once, then saved seed from their crops and grew the subsequent years’ crops from their saved seed, Monsanto’s profits would decline. So Monsanto sends spies, for lack of a better word, out into the fields to make sure that’s not happening, and sues the hell out of anyone if the spies find that it is.

Fair enough, the companies have invested bazillion dollars developing their seeds, surely they should reap the financial rewards. Except there’s one little problem: The pollen from genetically modified plants often finds its way onto non-GM, often heirloom or open-pollinated plants, and contaminates them, destroying the pure strains that have been carefully raised to suit a given climate and to meet very specific flavor and use requirements. This is especially true of wind-pollinated crops like corn, since the pollen has been designed to carry over great distances.

Now, if I were a farmer or gardener who had carefully kept my own heirloom strain of corn alive and pure down through the generations, and I found that it had been contaminated by some god-damned GM corn, I’d be tempted to sue Monsanto or whatever company created the GM corn that ruined possibly hundreds of years of careful breeding and seed conservation for damages. After all, a priceless local resource would have been lost through corporate greed and heedlessness.

But oh, no. That’s not the way it works. Instead, the bazillion-dollar multinational corporation’s spies take a sample of crops from my field and determine that their GM genes are in my corn. Then they sue me for everything I’ve got, claiming that I’m unfairly taking advantage of their technology and developments without compensating them, when I’d actually as soon be dead as see my family’s generations of careful breeding contaminated by their god-cursed herbicide-friendly creation.

And horrifyingly, they win. And win and win and win. To my knowledge, not one farmer who’s found himself in this situation has ever, even once, triumphed over the unspeakable, monstrous, amoral corporate greed that drives these bloated pigs to sue and sue and sue. To crush all opposition like the dictators we claim to hate and oppose. If Monsanto were, say, Muammar al-Gaddafi or Kim Jong-il or Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, would we sit back and let them destroy principled, poor, hardworking individuals in the name of greed? I would like to think not. And yet, we sit back and do nothing as Monsanto and their ilk grind our farmers in the dust and destroy crop diversity—our only hope of continued abundance, or even survival—in the process.

This, in my opinion, is the real issue, and the real evil. This is an issue history has qualified each and every one of us to talk about. We don’t know what consuming GM plants and animals will ultimately do to us; nobody really knows, we’re all lab rats. But we do know what reducing the genetic diversity of plants and animals will do to us, and our friend Ben can sum it up in one word: extinction, and not just for the crops or animals involved.