Question: Would you want a small handful of government officials controlling America’s entire food supply, all its seeds and harvests? I suspect most would scream, “No way!” Yet, while America seems allergic to public servants – with no profit motive in mind – controlling anything these days, a knee-jerk faith in the "free market" has led to overwhelming centralized control of nearly all our food stuffs, from farm to fork. The Obama administration’s recent decision to radically expand genetically modified (GM) food – approving unrestricted production of agribusiness biotech company Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” alfalfa and sugar beets – marks a profound deepening of this centralization of food production in the hands of just a few corporations, with little but the profit motive to guide them. IN PICTURES: From Field to Fork: The foreign and domestic food chain Even as United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials enable a tighter corporate grip on the food chain, there is compelling evidence of GM foods’ ecological and human health risks, suggesting we should at very least learn more before allowing their spread. Numerous peer-reviewed studies suggest these crops – the result of reformulating plant and animal genes, with minimal oversight and no food labeling disclosures – increase allergens in the food supply. And according to the World Health Organization, “The movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops...may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security. This risk is real, as was shown when traces of a maize type which was only approved for feed use appeared in maize products for human consumption in the United States of America.”Corporate-controlled seeds are undemocratic But these corporate-controlled seeds pose an even graver threat: Both the technology and economy of GM crops are intrinsically anti-democratic. What’s wrong with having a few corporations control virtually every aspect of our sustenance? Far from abstract, the genetic and proprietary control of our diets by a handful of companies (Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta combined own an astounding 47 percent of the global seed market) directly robs consumers and farmers of the most basic right to choose what they will eat and grow. The entire concept of creating and selling patented GM seeds is based on proprietary corporate control: The seeds are non-replenishing and must be purchased anew each season, eliminating the time-honored farmer tradition of saving and re-using seeds. Anyone doubting Monsanto’s obsession with control can just ask just ask the thousands of farmers who have been sued and spied upon for alleged “seed piracy” – at least 2,391 farmers in 19 states through 2006, according to Monsanto website documents obtained by the Washington, DC-based Center for Food Safety (CFS). A report by CFS, using company records, found that “Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers.” Or ask Monsanto. Under the headline, “Why Does Monsanto Sue Farmers Who Save Seeds?” on its website, the firm states: “When farmers purchase a patented seed variety, they sign an agreement that they will not save and replant seeds produced from the seed they buy from us. More than 275,000 farmers a year buy seed under these agreements in the United States.”Threats to food safety, biodiversity The USDA, and even some leaders of the organics business such as Whole Foods and Stonyfield Farms, endorse the notion of “coexistence” between GM and organic crops – a comforting yet flawed claim. Numerous organic farmers have reported the unwanted arrival of GM seeds contaminating their fields, rendering organic crops unmarketable. Even more troubling, “Roundup Ready” and other herbicide-resistant seeds by their nature promote the use of toxic herbicides – the use of which, contrary to industry claims, has risen as GM crops have proliferated, according to USDA data. Even with buffer zones to segregate GM and organic fields, “Some degree of cross-pollination will occur regardless of what mechanism is going to be put in place,” agronomist Jeff Wolt, of Iowa State University’s Seed Science Center, told the Associated Press. The GM threats to biodiversity and democracy are closely related. When you pair proprietary technology that’s designed to retain company control of seeds (the very lifeblood of our food supply) along with highly concentrated market control, you get a hazardous blend of ecological, economic, and political centralization. According to research of industry statistics by the non-profit ETC (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), “the top 3 seed companies control 65% of the proprietary maize seed market worldwide, and over half of the proprietary soybean seed market…Monsanto’s biotech seeds and traits (including those licensed to other companies) accounted for 87% of the total world area devoted to genetically engineered seeds in 2007.” Of course, few of us think about market control when we’re hustling through supermarket aisles getting our shopping done. But when our elected leaders (from both parties) approve the expansion of risky seeds that endanger biodiversity as well as farmer and consumer choice, there should be more than a little outcry.
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Genetically centralized control over seeds and the future of our food supply isn’t inevitable. Over 80 towns across the state of Vermont, and numerous counties across the country have approved moratoria on GM crops. Monsanto has encountered mass farmer and political resistance in India and throughout much of Africa and Europe. The Obama administration’s effective rubber stamp on Monsanto’s latest GM products is out of step with international thinking about food democracy and biodiversity, and an affront to that very American notion of consumer and producer choice – and voice – in the marketplace.
Christopher D. Cook is the author of “Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.” He has written for The Economist, the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, and elsewhere. He can be reached at www.christopherdcook.com.