Letter from Langdon: Forbidden Fruit

[imgbelt img=seed_pallet.jpg]A handful of corporations control the genetically modified seeds on which U.S. production agriculture depends. These patented plants help feed the world – and raise troubling questions about who “owns” life.


farmers refused to pay tech fees on seed, Monsanto got the right to collect a ‘seed tax’ at shipping ports before soybeans could be exported overseas.

Flavr Savr tomatoes containing a freshness gene, and Golden Rice with enhanced levels of beta carotene.

Early criticisms of GE crops centered on the ability of big business to dominate and control food access directly for profit as well as plants having resistance to antibiotics. That’s because antibiotic resistance was implanted into plants so that successfully modified cells could be identified through treatment with antibacterials; modified cells survived treatment, those that weren’t, died.

unintended consequences like this.

shiploads of exported corn. That unapproved release caused American corn prices to plunge, and remain low, for years, and may have helped steel farmers in other countries against growing genetically modified crops.

The company responsible for the corn varieties existence paid farmers a paltry indemnity equal to a tiny fraction of the cost of lost markets. But farmers who planted the grain, and cross pollination with other corn varieties, were partially responsible. 

Attempts to require labeling of GMOs in American food have faltered as food and seed corporations spend heavily to defeat ballot initiatives in a few states like Washington.

In spite of almost 20 years acceptance in the US and millions of dollars in promotions by multinational corporations, Europe continues to ban planting of genetically engineered crops. 

Resistance to glyphosate has been recorded in a growing number of weeds, and resistance by some insects to the BT gene. That means farmers now pay not only for implanted genes but also for more chemical weed killers and insecticides as those modifications to plants become less effective. And the newest soybean varieties containing the Roundup Ready 2 gene licensed by Monsanto come with the requirement that all seed be treated with a fungicide, just as genetically modified corn is treated with varying amounts of insecticidal seed coatings to protect both seeds and emerged plants. Farmers are encouraged to do more treatment with plant applied fungicides.

Little is said about evidence that glyphosate encourages the growth of certain molds and fungi.

Many farmers cite improved yields as a reason to plant genetically modified corn and soybeans even though implanted traits offer only insect resistance and/or herbicide resistance. To date no “high yield” gene has been identified. Conventional plant breeding remains the only route to improved yield. Newly developed hybrids are produced in limited quantities before patented genes are inserted, which means farmers have little access to any seeds other than the engineered variety. One widely publicized gene search, for a “drought gene” that allows plants to survive and replicate with little or no rainfall, continues. Seed companies like to say that through their efforts crops are more drought tolerant than ever before.

If so that is doubtless a triumph of breeding, a trait easy to copyright but difficult to patent.

But seed companies would like to blur the line, making more food plants and seeds eligible for ownership through patent law.

may not be in in full possession of the facts.

In our money driven society, it’s thought biotechnology could play a big part in helping accomplish that.

But little is being done to address growing monopolies in food, from seeds to who owns farm animals, and markets used to determine worth. Patented plants are old hat these days, but patented animals remain on the fringe in US meat and poultry industries already under various stages of corporate control.

Biotechnology also threatens to play a large part in those industrial food markets as government enforcement of laws against corporate greed in farm and food appears non-existent. An extension of that seems to be that patent applicants aren’t required to prove real benefits, but only the unique nature of creations.

There is no protection from patent driven domination of food by a few large companies, maybe only one or two.

That’s why I’ll be planting another apple tree this spring.

Before it’s too late.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.