One of the longest-standing tricks of the corporate trade is to produce an item that is dangerous, breakable, or soon to be obsolete and then produce another item that will supposedly remedy the defect. That is what is happening with basic GMO-laden crops such as corn, wheat, and rapeseed: as they become resistant to Roundup and other toxins designed to keep them bug- or disease-free, the producers—such as Monsanto and Syngenta—come up with new herbicides for the farmer to apply.
But the agri-giants have more than one trick up their sleeves. As a major New York Times investigation recently reported, the promise of higher yields using GMO seeds has generally not been fulfilled in the U.S. and Canada. The investigation, using UN data, determined that U.S. and Canadian yields are no greater than comparable yields in Europe, where GMOs are banned; yet U.S. and Canadian farmers apply far more herbicides than do Europeans. And since higher yields per acre is the holy grail for most farmers, the obvious answer from the agri-giants is to apply more herbicides. If you’ve heard this story before, you might be thinking of the so-called Green Revolution that took India and the Philippines by storm in the 1970s. The promise then was higher yields of rice and wheat thanks to “miracle seeds” supplied by the major agro-businesses, whose research was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Not mentioned was the expensive inputs this miracle would require—lots of water, chemical fertilizer, machinery, irrigation tube wells, and, of course, capital. The Green Revolution was a boon to rich farmers, fertilizer and equipment suppliers, and loan sharks to whom poor farmers would become forever indebted.
Corporate control of GMO seeds, pesticides, and herbicides is becoming more concentrated. Monsanto is merging with Bayer, Syngenta with China National Chemical Corporation, and DuPont with Dow Chemical. The companies will tell us that these takeovers will cheapen their products and thus help feed the world’s 10 billion people in 2050. Their scientists, meanwhile, will produce “studies” that prove the effectiveness and safety of GMO seeds and related toxins. The reality, of course, is likely to be the opposite of such claims: seeds, pesticides, and herbicides will become more expensive, available mainly to farmers in the richest countries, and the safety of GMO-based foods will depend on whether you listen to European or North American scientists.
Debate over GMOs should not, in any case, focus exclusively on safety. If the human interest is front and center, the debate should be over how to feed growing populations in a way that preserves family farms, which have been proven time and again to be the wisest stewards of the land, and puts the rights of farmers and communities ahead of corporate rights. From that perspective, the core issue is land reform—restoring land ownership to individual farmers, sharply limiting control of farmland (whether by contract or outright ownership) by corporations, and preventing Monsanto and other agri-giants from suing farmers who choose not to use their GMO seeds. Fortunately, there are movements underway in a number of states, localities, and countries—called Community Rights—that by law would empower communities to ban GMOs and other destructive practices (such as chemical aerial spraying and fracking). In Latin America and other developing-country areas, a move to “agroecology” is fast gaining the support of small farmers who combine traditional and scientific practices in pursuit of strengthening the local food base. In the end, defeating corporate control of resources must rely on the people most affected; it’s certainly not going to happen from Washington, where political decision making is about to fall into the hands of billionaires and former lobbyists. The call is out for acts of self-determination.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University