Sunday, May 22, 2011

Contamination: The totalitarian strategy of the GMO crop industry

Certainly, many of us know people who say (wrongly) that nowadays everything causes cancer. This view becomes a justification for making no effort to avoid carcinogens, especially in food. It is a case of learned helplessness that becomes a major public relations weapon for creating and maintaining docile populations. Make people feel powerless. Then, even if they disagree with you, they won't oppose you.

This appears to be the strategy of the genetically modified organism (GMO) crop industry. The mode of attack is the contamination of non-GMO crops through the spread of pollen and the inadvertent mixing of GMO and non-GMO seeds. Large agribusiness giants such as Monsanto claim to recognize "coexistence" with conventional and organic growers as a desirable state. But, the industry acknowledges that contamination is inevitable. In fact, the complete segregation of GMO and non-GMO crops was never on the table. Several high-profile cases of mixing have already demonstrated this. Starlink corn comes to mind as well as the virtual elimination of organic canola growing in Canada because of GMO contamination (with no effective redress in the courts available). And, what we now know about the spread of genes via pollen from GMO to non-GMO plants makes it all but certain no regulatory regime, no matter how comprehensive and severe, could prevent contamination.

This fact has not stopped aggressive enforcement of the GMO industry's intellectual property rights which involves threats and lawsuits designed to intimidate not just those supposedly in violation of crop patents, but the entire farming community even when the cases involve contamination by adjacent farms and passing vehicles containing GMO seeds. Here's the message: To avoid lawsuits that threaten to take away your farming livelihood, you might as well sign up to buy our seeds because contamination by us or our farmer customers will be no defense in court.

In fact, Canadian courts found that contamination is not a permissible legal defense! Lest you think that I am making this up, here is the relevant portion of a trial court finding which was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in Monsanto Canada Inc. and Monsanto Company vs Percy Schmeiser and Schmeiser Enterprises Ltd.:
Thus a farmer whose field contains seed or plants originating from seed spilled into them, or blown as seed, in swaths from a neighbour's land or even growing from germination by pollen carried into his field from elsewhere by insects, birds, or by the wind, may own the seed or plants on his land even if he did not set about to plant them. He does not, however, own the right to the use of the patented gene, or of the seed or plant containing the patented gene or cell.

This precedent and the aggressive enforcement behavior by the industry has led organic growers and seed distributors to file a pre-emptive lawsuit to protect themselves from the industry's legal tactics which are designed to force farmers to pay the company penalties even when the farmer is organic and must avoid all genetic contamination to market his or her crops. (Organic standards prohibit genetically engineered crops.)

I am reminded of King Henry's conversation with his counterpart King Philip of France in the play Lion in Winter. Philip is insisting that his sister, Alais, be wedded to Henry's son, as previously agreed by Henry and Philip's father, the now deceased King Louis. It's that or the return of the Vexin, a key county north of Paris given to England in exchange for the betrothal.

Philip: It's their wedding or the Vexin back. Those are the terms you made with Louis.

Henry: True, but academic, lad. The Vexin's mine.

Philip: By what authority?

Henry: It's got my troops all over it. That makes it mine.

Just substitute "crops" for "troops," and you'll see an age-old strategy at work. I am also reminded of Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland and the Anschluss, his occupation of Austria. Once his troops were on the ground, nobody wanted to challenge him.

The contamination strategy solves two perceived problems for the industry. First, the industry attempted to include GMO plants as acceptable in the original National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the outcry was so great from activists that GMOs were taken out of the standards. One way, however, to overcome this resistance is through contamination. By forcing food regulators to accept GMO contamination in organic food as inevitable, the GMO industry is paving the way for eventual capitulation by the organic community and conventional growers as well. The industry wants to propagate the attitude that nothing can be done to stop it.

Second, although Europe has long had labeling requirements for GMO foods, in the United States the industry has so far been able to prevent enactment of any such requirement. The response from food activists has been to launch a campaign for voluntary labeling of non-GMO foods and that now has the GMO industry on the defensive. But, what better way to undermine such an effort than to contaminate conventional and organic crops?

What would change the calculus of the GMO industry? Perhaps it would change if some of the contamination suits (mostly outside the United States) were to result in huge verdicts, ones large enough to be financially ruinous to the industry. Nothing like that, however, is on the horizon. In the meantime, we can all look forward to the involuntary consumption of genetically modified food ingredients against our will. The GMO industry tells us that they want consumers to have a choice, that GMO foods should "coexist" with conventional and organic foods. Yet, they oppose labeling.

Meanwhile, the equivalent of the GMO industry's panzer corps is moving into our farm fields and from there into our kitchens. We may soon regret this creeping annexation of our dinner tables. Once the invasion of GMO genes around the world is complete, we may find it harder to roll back than Hitler's armies.


nathan said...

The sad thing is that these gmo crops offer little in increased yield.

Mark said...

Why would farmers buy something that did not have increased yield? Or some other advantage, like disease-resistance.

H_O_G_ said...

To Mark: Perhaps Farmers want to grow a healthy field of produce. The blog is very informative.

Anonymous said...

I've read that this strategy already worked in Peru, where they grow GM cotton, even though no GM seeds had been brought into the country officially. The whole country was contaminated and forced to accept the fact.

There is a difference between genes and troops: the latter can be driven out.

portulan said...

What about the Virus-resistant Papaya or the Golden Rice? those are not industry products but they are continuously vilified. We need to get away with the conspiracy theories. The victims of all the fuss about GMO and the action of anti-GMO lobbyists are the farmers and the scientists who help them to grow better products while preserving the environment.

Kurt Cobb said...

Let's do a fact check of Portulan's claims:

Claim #1:
Virus-resistent Papaya and Golden Rice are not industry products.

The Facts:
Virus-resistent Papaya might be said to have been created by university researchers and the license does belong to the Papaya Administrative Committee, a consortium of growers and The Cornell Research Foundation.

Golden Rice is more problematic. In includes about 70 separate pieces of industry intellectual property. The industry has granted free licenses for anyone making under $10,000 a year. Above that you pay a fee. So, to say that this product is free of industry influence and control is completely misleading. Moreover, it would really be a much better idea to teach people to grow beta-carotene rich vegetables to eat than give them this rather ridiculous method of obtaining Vitamin A, which only encourages excessive monocrop agriculture.

Claim #2:
We need to get away with (from?) conspiracy theories.

The Facts:
The GMO industry spends huge sums on coordinated lobbying to get what they want from various governments and to propagandize the public. Call it what you want; but it is coordinated industry-wide action.

Claim #3:
The victims of all the fuss about GMO and the action of anti-GMO lobbyists are the farmers and the scientists.

The Facts:
The scientists in the GMO industry and in research laboratories are handsomely paid. One can hardly call them victims.

Yes, farmers are in many cases victims, but not of those opposing GMO foods. They are victims of an industry that wants to monopolize the seed supply and destroy choice for farmers and consumer alike. And the farmers are frequent targets of lawsuits, often used merely to intimidate the farming community into using GMO seeds.

Organic farmers have been particularly hard hit by genetic contamination which is not allowed in organic food. Talk about violating property rights! The industry jealously guards its intellectual property but carelessly destroys the property of organic farmers through contamination.

Claim #4:
[The industry] helps [farmers] to grow better products while preserving the environment.

The Facts:
The industry has so far concentrated on making farmers hostages to glyphosate for weed control. No gain in yield has been promised or delivered.

Pesticide-producing strains have proven dangerous for the eco-system by killing beneficial as well as harmful insects. And, who really wants to eat plants that produce pesticides and lodge them in every part of the plant? (Keep in mind that such plants are registered with the EPA as pesticides!)

Anonymous said...

Papaya and Golden rice - the problems are not with the product or the scientists, but legislation and funds.

Moreover, it would really be a much better idea to teach people to grow beta-carotene rich vegetables to eat than give them this rather ridiculous method of obtaining Vitamin A, which only encourages excessive monocrop agriculture.

- er, no! If it was that easy to teach them and to grow B-carotene rich veg to the amount they need to help, this wouldn't have been developed would it? It's easy enough in a country with fertile ground and a decent economy, but not everyone is as privelleged as in the west where they can whine and moan about something they have a choice over, where some do not have that choice.

No gain in yield has been promised or delivered. - If it hasn't been promised, why deliver?

What about all the "natural" and "organic" food such as any brassica or banana? They are all polyploid, through hybridization. Is your banana full of seeds? No! As it is sterile as made by man. All these crop breeding strategies are early GM.

Organic farmers have been particularly hard hit by genetic contamination which is not allowed in organic food. Talk about violating property rights! The industry jealously guards its intellectual property but carelessly destroys the property of organic farmers through contamination.

- scientific proof please? This could be speculative hearsay. I've heard of some cases, but not to the extent implied. Companies have a lot of safegueards against contamination, and in fact introduction of alien species of plants due to horticulture is in fact more responsible for escaped genes.

Anonymous said...

Food should not come from a laboratory or a factory! Don't let scientists tell you how to eat!!!
Avoid GMO, grow your own or buy 100% organic food.

Kurt Cobb said...

Let's look at the response from Anonymous (2):

He or she:

1) Concedes my description of virus-resistant Papaya and Golden Rice

2) Doesn't seem to understand rice cultivation, somehow believing that areas capable of growing rice--which is typically grown in areas with heavy rainfall and excellent access to irrigation--won't be able to grow vegetable crops.

3) Agrees that no gains in yields have been achieved through genetic engineering of plants even though this is often touted by the GMO industry as the reason for its existence--often formulated as "we need GMO crops to feed the world" or some such nonsense.

4) Confuses hybridization with genetic modification. GMO plants have genes inserted into them that are from OTHER species thus crossing the species barrier with unpredictable results WHICH THE INDUSTRY REFUSES TO ACKNOWLEDGE AND WHICH THE INDUSTRY REFUSES TO EVALUATE FOR SAFETY THROUGH LONG-TERM FEEDING TESTS. Anonymous (2) also indirectly supports an argument I didn't make which is that our knowledge of plant genomes can allow us to use traditional breeding techniques to obtain the traits we need without having to cross the species barrier with its unpredictable and potentially unsafe results. GMO crops are premised on the idea that one gene controls one trait. Genetic research has proven this idea to be manifestly false. This is where much of the danger of GMO crops lies.

5) Seems blissfully unaware of the widely reported and documented destruction of organic canola farming in Canada (for which I provided a link), the GMO contamination of corn in Mexico and the fact that organic foods must now be tested extensively for genetic contamination. The contamination is so widespread that governments must set levels above zero for tolerance of GMO genetic contamination or much of the food we now produce that is organic would be discarded (link also provided above). In that you can see the totalitarian strategy of contamination working!

Anonymous said...

Saying all GM is bad is like saying all people are murderers. GM is a vast science with many different strands and can hold the key to how we are to feed a population that will continue to grow exponentially. If we don't seriously look at potential solutions and stop tarring everything with the same brush we will end up with huge famine in years to come. Bet the lefties will be very happy then! A relatively unproven cancer link or death by starvation.

Kurt Cobb said...

Anonymous (just above) gives us a false either or choice. It's GMO foods or starvation, he or she claims. But we have many other choices we can make, and the whole point of my piece is that the GMO seed producers are systematically destroying those other choices. I think I have a right to eat what I want to eat. The GMO industry thinks I only have a right to eat what they want to force me to eat. Who do you think occupies the moral high ground in this argument?

Mark said...

Kurt, we understand you are passionate, but calm down. Seems this whole area has a lot of "what if?" in it, and no one can predict how it will turn out. Gene splicing might sound creepy, but what are the actual measurable harmful effects from eating GMO veggies? And to dismiss scientists as a group of bought-and-paid-for shills really does sound a hopeless note, because if science can't come up with a response to this, then we are doomed.

A political solution you say? Makes me laugh then cry. As if politicians are qualified to make decisions about agro-tech or nutrition. Case: Aspartame and other lab chemical food additives. Once they gain FDA approval, its case closed, and no one seems to question it, despite growing mountains of evidence that people are being harmed by it.

For those not familiar with the backgroud of Canola oil (from brassica), it might be instructive to read

Kurt Cobb said...

Of course, Mark dodges my main argument: Why does he want to deny me my choices? He wants to convince me that GMO foods are good for me. I'm not convinced.

So, why shouldn't I be allowed to choose? He wants to convince me and others that GMO foods are safe and that industry practices are laudable and get me to accept the ongoing contamination of the food supply with genes I don't want in my food. If he wants to grow GMO crops in sealed rooms so they won't contaminate my food, fine. But don't hide behind a vague argument that GMO foods are good for me as an excuse to contaminate the food supply. He is actually making my argument for me. He, like others who defend the industry, don't care whether my choices are destroyed.

I have a question for you, Mark. Do you believe that I have a right to buy and consume food that has not been genetically engineered? If you don't believe I have that right, just say so and then we'll know where you stand. If you do believe I have that right, then you must embrace the principle that the GMO industry has no right to contaminate non-GMO crops and much be held strictly to account for this.

Please declare yourself.

Mark said...

My intention was neither to start an argument, nor to comprehensively address every point with a counterpoint.

Choice, yes I am a strong supporter of choice. But aren't we talking wind on farm fields here? I don't know how we can choose which way the wind blows. As I was reading about Canola earlier today, the thought came to me, "How can I be sure the field my Canola oil was made from has not been contaminated by rapeseed from an another field nearby?" I worry because rapeseed oil is documented harmful to humans. So I simply vote with my pocket book and don't buy Canola. Choice in action.

Kurt Cobb said...

So, now since you are supporter of choice, Mark, and you say you can't control the way the wind blows, and you can't claim ignorance of this fact, and you've just convinced me that you know it is inevitable that GMO crops will contaminate non-GMO crops (since the wind blows from every direction at some point), you must support withdrawing GMO crops from farm fields until the problem is solved. If you can solve the problem of contamination, then grow what you will. But until then don't plant the stuff.

We don't allow people to spread radioactive material all over people's land for obvious reasons (unless there's an accident such as we see in Japan). But the contamination of non-GMO crops is well-documented and entirely foreseeable. There's no justification for refusing to do something about it unless your intention is to contaminate.

Mark Miller said...

I've been following this story (esp. the Canada end of it) for some years now; I used to be angry, now just depressed.

I could not believe that the Canadian courts would reach such an awful decision. I thought their court system was somehow less susceptible to the corrupting influence of money and power than ours; a romantic view, I guess.

But now Kurt, do you see any hope of reversing this trend? In the short to medium term, I mean; in the long term all industrial petroleum-based agriculture will be coming to an end.

Kurt Cobb said...

Mark Miller,

I share your pessimism about the medium term. Only two scenarios that I can imagine would change that.

First, the GMO-free labeling campaign in the United States and Canada becomes so effective that the public refuses to eat GMO foods. I count this as possible, but not likely.

The second scenario is positively gruesome, but remains a possibility so long as there are inadequate testing protocols for GMO foods. (Actually, there are NO testing requirements because the FDA determined that GMO foods are "substantially equivalent" to non-GMO foods even though many of its own scientists said that GMO foods should be subjected to the same rigorous testing as new drugs.)

It could happen that undetected novel toxins appear in some form of GMO plants, toxins that are harmful only to a small subset of humans for quirky genetic reasons and so don't cause a problem during the initial release. That stuff gets broadly into the food supply, probably by being included in packaged foods. Then, a large number of suspicious deaths (perhaps thousands) lead clearly back to the GMO ingredient. The lawsuits devastate the industry. The publicity ends the public appetite for GMO foods, and governments withdraw approval of GMO foods "pending an investigation."

If the GMO regime continues for a long time, the second scenario becomes more and more likely because of the almost nonexistent testing, the careless approaches to gene manipulation, and the now provably false notion that one gene controls only one trait.

Merri Bee said...

Kurt Cobb, Thank you for your wonderful posts. You have certainly won the debate and cut through the absolute rubbish spouted by the Pro GM lobby. Thanks for spending the time inform us accurately,intelligent man.

ishtarmuz said...

Sic semper tyrannis

Mak Counter said...

Thank you Kurt Cobb for the informative writeup. FDA is allowing us to eat unregulated GMO contaminated foods, no wonder so many people are mentally and physically ill. We all have the right to know what we are eating. We should all support "Say No to GMO's". Research on GMO foods proved Gene VI, a new viral DNA in GMO foods causing food contamination. Here I have found out some shocking facts about GMO corn risks & problems with GMO foods.