Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.

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Source: Harper's Magazine, Oct 1997 v295 n1769 p13(5).

Title: A techno-pox upon the land.(negative side-effects of the Green
Revolution and agricultural genetic engineering)
Author: David Ehrenfeld

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1997 Harper's Magazine Foundation

The modern history of agriculture has two faces. The first, a happy face, is turned toward nonfarmers who live in the developed world. It speaks brightly of technological miracles, such as the "Green Revolution" and, more recently, genetic engineering, that have resulted in the increased production of food for the world's hungry. The second face is turned toward the few remaining farmers who have survived these miracles. It is downcast and silent, like a mourner at a funeral.

The Green Revolution, a fundamental change in agricultural technology, arose in the 1960s and '70s from the assumption that poverty and hunger in poor countries were the result of low agricultural productivity, that subsistence farming as it had occurred for centuries was the basis of a brutish existence. In response to this assumption, plant breeders hit on an elegant method to increase dramatically the yield of the world's most important crops, especially wheat and rice. Put simply, this plan involved redesigning the plants themselves, increasing the size of the plants' reproductive parts -- the seed that we eat -- and decreasing the size of the vegetative parts -- the stems, roots, and leaves that we throw away. From a technical point of view, this worked. Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story. As in other seemingly simple, technical manipulations of nature, there have been undesirable and unintended consequences.

The primary problem is that Green Revolution agribusiness requires vast amounts of energy to grow and sustain these "miracle crops." Oil must be burned to make the large quantities of nitrogen fertilizer on which these plants depend. Farmers also must invest heavily in toxic herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides; in irrigation systems; and in spraying, harvesting, and processing machinery for the weakened, seed-heavy plants. Large sums of money must be borrowed to pay for these "inputs" before the growing season starts in the hope that crop sales will allow farmers to repay the debt later in the season. When that hope is frustrated, the farmer often loses his farm and is driven into a migrant pool of cheap labor for corporate-farming operations or is forced to seek work in the landless, teeming cities.

The Green Revolution is an early instance of the co-opting of human needs by the technoeconomic system. It is not a black-and-white example: some farmers have been able to keep on farming in spite of the high inputs required; others are mixing traditional methods of farming with selected newer technologies. But the latest manifestation of corporate agriculture, genetic engineering, is black-and-white. Excluding military spending on fabulously expensive, dysfunctional weapons systems, there is no more dramatic case of people having their needs appropriated for the sake of profit at any cost. Like high-input agriculture, genetic engineering is often justified as a humane technology, one that feeds more people with better food. Nothing could be further from the truth. With very few exceptions, the whole point of genetic engineering is to increase the sales of chemicals and bioengineered products to dependent farmers, and to increase the dependence of farmers on their new handlers, the seed companies and the oil, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies that own them.

Social problems aside, this new agricultural biotechnology is on much shakier scientific ground than the Green Revolution ever was. Genetic engineering is based on the premise that we can take a gene from species A, where it does some desirable thing, and move it into species B, where it will continue to do that same desirable thing. Most genetic engineers know that this is not always true, but the biotech industry as a whole acts as if it were. First, genes are not like tiny machines. The expression of their output can change when they are put in a new genetic and cellular environment. Second, genes usually have multiple effects. Undesirable effects that are suppressed in species A may be expressed when the gene is moved to species B. And third, many of the most important, genetically regulated traits that agricultural researchers deal with are controlled by multiple genes, perhaps on different chromosomes, and these are very resistant to manipulation by transgenic technology.

Because of these scientific limitations, agricultural biotechnology has been largely confined to applications that are basically simpleminded despite their technical complexity. Even here we find problems. The production of herbicide-resistant crop seeds is one example. Green Revolution crops tend to be on the wimpy side when it comes to competing with weeds -- hence the heavy use of herbicides in recent decades. But many of the weeds are relatives of the crops, so the herbicides that kill the weeds can kill the crops too, given bad luck with weather and the timing of spraying. Enter the seed/chemical companies with a clever, profitable, unscrupulous idea. Why not introduce the gene for resistance to our own brand of herbicide into our own crop seeds, and then sell the patented seeds and patented herbicide as a package?

Never mind that this encourages farmers to apply recklessly large amounts of weedkiller, and that many herbicides have been associated with human sickness, including lymphoma. Nor that the genes for herbicide resistance can move naturally from the crops to the related weeds via pollen transfer, rendering the herbicide ineffective in a few years. What matters, as an agricultural biotechnologist once remarked to me, is earning enough profit to keep the company happy.

A related agricultural biotechnology is the transfer of bacterial or plant genes that produce a natural insecticide directly into crops such as corn and cotton. An example is Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which has been widely used as an external dust or spray to kill harmful beetles and moths. In this traditional use, Bt breaks down into harmless components in a day or two, and the surviving pests do not get a chance to evolve resistance to it. But with Bt now produced continuously inside genetically engineered crops, which are planted over hundreds of thousands of acres, the emergence of genetic resistance among the pests becomes almost a certainty.

Monsanto, one of the world's largest manufacturers of agricultural chemicals, has patented cottonseed containing genes for Bt. Advertised as being effective against bollworms without the use of additional insecticides, 1,800,000 acres in five southern states were planted with this transgenic seed in 1996, at a cost to farmers of not only the seed itself but an additional $32-per-acre "technology fee" paid to Monsanto. Heavy bollworm infestation occurred in spite of the special seed, forcing farmers to spray expensive insecticides anyway. Those farmers who wanted to use seeds from the surviving crop to replace the damaged crop found that Monsanto's licensing agreement, like most others in the industry, permitted them only one planting.

Troubles with Monsanto's genetically engineered seed have not been confined to cotton. This past May, Monsanto Canada and its licensee, Limagrain Canada Seeds, recalled 60,000 bags of "Roundup-ready" canola seeds because they mistakenly contained a gene that had not been tested by the government for human consumption. These seeds, engineered to resist Monsanto's most profitable product, the herbicide Roundup, were enough to plant more than 600,000 acres. Two farmers had already planted the seeds when Monsanto discovered its mistake.

There is another shaky scientific premise of agricultural biotechnology. This concerns the transfer of animal or plant genes from the parent species into microorganisms, so that the valuable products of these genes can then be produced in large commercial batches. The assumption here is that these transgenic products, when administered back to the parent species in large doses, will simply increase whatever desirable effect they normally have. Again, this is simplistic thinking that totally ignores the great complexity of living organisms and the consequences of tampering with them.

In the United States, one of the most widely deployed instances of this sort of biotechnology is the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is produced by placing slightly modified cow genes into fermentation tanks containing bacteria, then injected into lactating cows to make them yield more milk. This is done despite our nationwide milk glut and despite the fact that the use of rBGH will probably accelerate the demise of the small dairy farm, since only large farms are able to take on the extra debt for the more expensive feeds, the high-tech feed-management systems, and the added veterinary care that go along with its use.

The side effects of rBGH on cows are also serious. Recombinant BGH-related problems -- as stated on the package insert by its manufacturer, Monsanto -- include bloat, diarrhea, diseases of the knees and feet, feeding disorders, fevers, reduced blood hemoglobin levels, cystic ovaries, uterine pathology, reduced pregnancy rates, smaller calves, and mastitis -- a breast infection that can result, according to the insert, in "visibly abnormal milk." Treatment of mastitis can lead to the presence of antibiotics in milk, probably accelerating the spread of antibiotic resistance among bacteria that cause human disease. Milk from rBGH-treated cows may also contain insulin growth factor, IGF-1, which has been implicated in human breast and gastrointestinal cancers.

Another potential problem is an indirect side effect of the special nutritional requirements of rBGH-treated cows. Because these cows require more protein, their food is supplemented with ground-up animals, a practice that has been associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as "mad cow disease." The recent British epidemic of BSE appears to have been associated with an increased incidence of the disease's human analogue, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. There seems little reason to increase the risk of this terrible disease for the sake of a biotechnology that we don't need. If cows stay off of hormones and concentrate on eating grass, all of us will be much better off.

Meanwhile the biotechnology juggernaut rolls on, converting humanity's collective agricultural heritage from an enduring, farmer-controlled lifestyle to an energy-dependent, corporate "process." The ultimate co-optation is the patenting of life. The Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty in 1980 paved the way for corporations to obtain industrial, or "utility," patents on living organisms, from bacteria to human cells. These patents operate like the patents on mechanical inventions, granting the patent holder a more sweeping and long-lasting control than had been conferred by the older forms of plant patents. The upshot of this is that farmers who save seeds from utility-patented crop plants for replanting on their own farms next year may have committed a federal crime; it also means that farmers breeding utility-patented cattle may have to pay royalties to the corporation holding the patent.

The life patents allowed by the U.S. Patent Office have been remarkably broad. Agracetus, a subsidiary of Monsanto, was issued patents covering all genetically engineered cotton. The patents are currently being challenged but remain in effect until corporate appeals are exhausted. Companies such as DNA Plant Technology, Calgene, and others are taking out patents that cover many recombinant varieties of vegetable species, from garden peas to the entire genus Brassica, which includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. The German chemical and pharmaceutical giant Hoechst has obtained multiple patents for medical uses of a species of Coleus, despite the fact that this medicinal plant has been used since antiquity in Hindu and Ayurvedic medicine to treat cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, and neurological diseases.

Somehow, in the chaos of technological change, we have lost the distinction between a person and a corporation, inexplicably valuing profit at any cost over basic human needs. In doing so we have forsaken our farmers, the spiritual descendants of those early Hebrew and Greek farmers and pastoralists who first gave us our understanding of social justice, democracy, and the existence of a power greater than our own. No amount of lip service to the goal of feeding the world's hungry or to the glory of a new technology, and no amount of transient increases in the world's grain production, can hide this terrible truth.

 
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