Growing Profits

In order to pick up my press badge for late June’s US Department of Agriculture’s Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, I had to pass concrete barricades and row upon row of police in outlandish body armor. By the time I reached the windowless pressroom, screened off from the main gathering of delegates, I felt very far indeed from the Sacramento-area farmlands stretching out across the Central Valley.
I have been covering agricultural biotechnology for Terrain since the fall of 1999. In that time, I’ve talked to activists, farmers, university extension professors, researchers, concerned parents, people from California, Tennessee, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and as far away as India.
Every one of them seems to want the same thing: for farmers to be able to grow a good crop, do right by their land, feed their families, and feed the rest of us.
Those were ostensibly also the goals of the USDA’s conference, which attracted delegates from over 100 countries, many from the world’s poorest nations, their trips paid for by the US Agency for International Development.
Repeatedly during the conference, open only to invited delegates, academic and industry presenters, and, selectively, to the media, US officials beat the drum of starvation: 800 million people go to bed hungry and a child dies every five seconds from hunger or malnutrition.
The proposed solutions to these afflictions are industrial, technical, and expensive.
And profitable, for some.
Dr. Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, was in high gear during his presentation before a packed crowd. His message: Give us the go-ahead (that is, the right regulatory climate), and we’ll provide feed corn more filling pound for pound and grains with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, naturally found in fish, thus reducing heart attacks in non-fish-eating countries like our own, and saving fish at the same time. No mention of simply eating less meat.
And when, as one delegate pointed out, Monsanto’s pest-resistant cotton, Bollgard, inevitably leads to resistant insects, not to worry. “In the US this year, we have launched our Bollgard 2 product,” Fraley said. “We are already working on Bollgard 3 and Bollgard 4.”
Nutrition-enhanced foods, edible vaccines, drought-tolerant tomatoes: these are the humanitarian efforts promised by Monsanto, the USDA, and university researchers. But outside the conference, Uruguayan activist Silvia Ribiero laid out the reality of today’s biotech: Monsanto controls 91 percent of the biotech seed on the market. Only two bioengineered traits are used on a large commercial basis: resistance to Monsanto’s own Roundup broad-spectrum herbicide, and Bt toxin expression, which makes crops like Bollgard cotton produce their own pesticides.
And already in Mexico, home to the ancestors of corn, traces of those altered genes have shown up in numerous corn varieties, despite the fact that the country has banned the planting of GE corn. “A handful of seeds of maize contains our inheritance,” Ribeiro told the capacity crowd at an outside debate sponsored by the Oakland nonprofit Food First. “This is the closest you can get to a genocide — one of the most major rapes of an indigenous people is the contamination of maize.”
Inside, after Fraley’s presentation, a delegate from Mexico confronted him about genetic contamination. Fraley’s response was astonishing: “Pollen did not start to fly with biotechnology. It’s been going on for thousands of years, and I have seen very elegant studies that show the traits that might be conferred may actually help the native species propagate and flourish better.” Fraley didn’t deny contamination or mention the consequences for biodiversity if one native species or land race outcompetes others because of out-of-control human-made genes.
And then there was the issue of choice. Any number of delegates and presenters, from Veneman to Fraley to Professor Martina McGloughlin, director of the University of California’s System-Wide Biotechnology Research and Education, repeated the same mantra: Each country needs to decide its own policies.
When I asked McGloughlin what choice nations would have if, like Mexico, their native land races of corn or other grains are being contaminated by genetic drift (which even she admits “is most likely occurring”), she responded by touting Terminator technology, which is officially called Genetic Use Restriction Technology. Terminator makes both pollen drift and seed-saving impossible, because it makes plants produce sterile seed. “This would be an excellent way to control gene flow, but there is a consideration where people need to be able to save seed,” she said.
Like in most of the countries represented at the conference. In Rwanda, where Agriculture Minister Ephraim Kabaija said his ministry has a budget of just $2 million annually, farmers use traditional heirloom varieties. They can’t afford high-yielding hybrids that won’t breed true after the first generation.
“For whose benefit is [biotech research] being done?” Kabaija asked. “The average farm in my country is one hectare.” Such farmers have little need for Roundup Ready cotton and soybeans, Monsanto’s biggest GE crops. In his country, cassava is being wiped out by mosaic virus. “If they gave it mild attention for one year, they would solve that problem, but they don’t, because they don’t eat cassava, and they don’t sell cassava.”
Outside what one US official called the “insulated cocoon” of the heavily guarded conference, a buzzing array of advocacy and nonprofit research groups held press conferences, public debates, and dinner meetings, in hopes of luring ministers away from the narrow USDA program.
And some ministers did manage to hear other stories: of Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer locked in a legal battle with Monsanto over the seed he has saved over five decades, now claimed by Monsanto after it became contaminated with their genetic property. Of Family Farm Coalition president George Naylor, whose grain was rejected from foreign markets because of GMO contamination from a neighbor’s fields.
They also heard good news. Allen Garcia grows organic rice on 1,000 acres in the Consumnes River Wildlife Preserve outside Sacramento. Without chemicals of any kind, Garcia grows premium rice in weed-free paddies teeming with ducks, egrets, and even pelicans in an adjacent pond. The Sri Lankan delegates who toured Garcia’s farm with the Ecological Farming Association and the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) were visibly thrilled: Here was something they wanted to see.
Dharmassree Wijeratne, from Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, described how 30 to 40 percent of his country’s 19 million people farm 22 varieties of rice on farms of one to two acres each, all on an island smaller than Lake Michigan.
Given such tight quarters, the government has banned all import of GE grains, for fear of contamination. “The genetic diversity is huge,” Wijeratne told me. “Traditionally, farmers in Sri Lanka use no fertilizer, no biocides.” In fact, two years ago, with a new agricultural minister, Wijeratne ’s agency instituted a new 10-year agricultural policy emphasizing organic certification.
But Garcia’s farm was seen only by the few delegates, like Wijeratne, who were willing to stray from the USDA’s official program.
Back inside the Expo, the organic story did get told, by people like Brian Leahy, CCOF president, and Amigo Bob, a quirky guru of organic agriculture who manned the organics booth, the only one offering fruit, food, and drink, all organic. “We told the other side of the story. The response has been fantastic,” Amigo Bob said. “There are 30 different countries I could go work for, and we made a major influence on the trade people and the USDA people.”
It happened only because organizations like the CCOF, EFA, and the Center for Food Safety ponied up over $3,000 each for booths alongside food irradiators, farm IT specialists, and Monsanto, which had its very own enclosed “Monsanto Meeting Room” to seal deals with delegates.
Outside, people like Timothy Byakola, with the Climate and Development Initiative in Uganda, described watching people go hungry while his nation grew enough to meet their needs. “What people need is the technology to move those crops from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity,” he told me after a press conference sponsored by Food First. In fact, as Food First’s Anuradha Mittal pointed out, the Ugandan situation is also true on a global scale: The world produces enough food to provide over four pounds per person per day.
Those voices had no meeting rooms inside, no ribbon-cuttings with smoke machines and disco lights like the one sponsored by food irradiation leader SureBeam [see <a href=>last Terrain</a>].
Farmers like Percy Schmeiser and George Naylor want us to learn from past mistakes. Schmeiser won a legal victory in early June when the Canadian Supreme Court agreed to hear his appeal, scheduled for January 2004. “We didn’t have anyone in 1996 to tell us what could happen, but now we know. There is no such thing as containment,” Schmeiser told a gathering at a dinner held by the International Forum on Globalization outside the USDA conference. “My wife is 71, and I am 72 years old. The few good years that we have left to us, we’re going to go down fighting for the rights of farmers.”

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