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A myth transformed into political orthodoxy

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Friday, Sept. 20, 2002 -- CropChoice commentary) -- "Perhaps the greatest achievement of the biotechnology industry has been in creating a myth and then transforming it into a political orthodoxy. It has managed to persuade some of the world's most powerful governments that the 'white heat of biotechnology' can bring benefits of higher yields, lower chemical use, food security and, critically, profitability for farmers."

That's how Patrick Holden, director of the highly regarded Soil Association in the UK, brilliantly prefaced "Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers' experiences of GM crops," the report that the Association released earlier this week. (A link to the report's executive summary is available at the end of this commentary.)

The report systematically exposes the hollowness of those promised benefits of agricultural biotechnology. (As I mentioned earlier in the week, one should bear in mind that determining the exact amount that U.S. subsidies are shielding the full effect of markets lost to rejection of genetically engineered foods is difficult.)

As expected, the biotechnology purveyors and their cheerleaders, armed with hundreds of millions of dollars for advertising and PR, already have launched the criticism.

Monsanto spokesman Brian Arnst told the Australian Broadcasting Company: "There's a lot of reasons farmers are using these crops. They're more flexible, they believe they're better for the environment. At the end of the day farmers are better off. That sort of information...would seem to be opposite to what they're claiming in this soil report."

But let's take just one example of the false promises -- sowing more herbicide resistant crops will mean less use of herbicides.

Miguel Altieri, a University of California at Berkeley professor and expert in agroecology, put some of this in context during a presentation to attendees of the Eco-Farm conference in Monterey, Calif. earlier this year.

"When you look at the actors who brought us the first agro-chemical revolution: Syngenta, Aventis, Bayer, BASF, Monsanto, you see the pesticide sale business... These people are the same actors now bringing us the biotechnology revolution...Why concentrate on developing herbicide-resistant crops? Because they are the biggest consumers of herbicides. They are the drug addicts, so you produce something that will continue the addiction. So, that's why the chemical-turned-biotechnology companies chose soybeans and corn. If I'm Monsanto and I sell Roundup, obviously I'm going to put this technology into the product that consumes the most of that herbicide."

I took a similar tack in an Aug. 23 commentary about Roundup-resistant weeds:

" Monsanto executives in July chalked up a portion of the company's financial woes...to lackluster Roundup sales in the spring.

Michael Doane, a Monsanto executive, said in a speech last year that the company's cornerstone is not biotechnology. It's the sale of Roundup. The idea is for farmers to use lots of glyphosate (active ingredient in the herbicide) over lots of acreage.

Farmers are doing just that. But there are consequences.

University of Tennessee scientists have documented marestail weed resistance to Roundup on hundreds of thousands of soybean and cotton acres in the state. As farmers have planted more and more Roundup Ready varieties since 1996, they've been spraying more of the weed killer, not less. This has contributed to weeds developing resistance to Roundup. Reports by the Canadian Wheat Board and Dr. Charles Benbrook document this.

Even Syngenta admits to the problem as it hawks an herbicide -- Gramoxone® MAX -- that it says will complement Roundup... 'Weed resistance to glyphosate is more than theory. It’s a real on-farm problem... we demonstrate marestail resistance to glyphosate herbicides and show how Gramoxone® MAX can not only control this weed but also provide the foundation for an overall resistance management strategy.'"

What does that all mean? More herbicides with biotechnology, NOT fewer, and MORE weed resistance.

Links mentioned in above commentary: