Free the markets

. . .or, why can’t we be more like the savage socialists across the pond?

Marion Nestle recently pointed out that in Europe food must be labeled as containing GMO’s. The system isn’t new, and it springs from a general distrust of GM agriculture in much of the world. Nothing, however, stops a company from using GM ingredients or consumers from purchasing GM products. Their presence is labeled with the allergens. Looks like a free market where the informed consumer can make choices, promote competition and generally play a part in the all important invisible hand mechanism. But, no, you can’t have it.

I have no idea whether ingesting GM crops will damage humans, but we’ll find out for sure in a few decades. Like in the pharmaceutical industry, long-term testing mostly consists of selling it to us and seeing what happens. And we will see what happens, because planting percentages of GM crops is large and growing. Corn is at least 50%; soya is close to 90%; and canola/rape is 75%. The US plants 63% of all GM crops, with Argentina trailing by a wide margin at 21%.

Contrary to what you might read on the internet, not all of the applications are scary. Golden rice is probably one of the noblest developments in agriculture’s history, but it still amounts to fiddling the latch on Pandora’s Box. No, genetic modification is not “just like hybridization”. Hybridization is strictly controlled and promoted evolution. Genetic modification is winding evolution up and letting it go. The 50% number that Ms. Nestle quotes for GM corn is almost certainly much, much higher, and i’ve read reputable reports stating that more than 90% of corn at sorting tests positive for GM markers. The modifications don’t stay where they’re put because plants cross pollinate; in fact, genetic modification of crops travels like the wind…literally. And since some of the modifications give plants a distinct advantage, they are unlikely to go away.

You can just go ahead and figure that most of the food you eat contains GM ingredients. Even the farmers who don’t plant it end up reaping it, and when they do the Monsanto snoops will surely find out. That leads to a lawsuit that the farmer will inevitably lose, which leads to a settlement that always includes a strict gag order. The snoops and the lawyers will be from Monsanto because Monsanto is the GM agriculture industry. And the law will be on Monsanto’s side because it has infiltrated government to a degree that makes the MIC weep with envy. Without hyperbole, Monsanto makes Halliburton look like the Salvation Army.

This is the company that brought us Agent Orange, PCBs and an illustrious list of other banned substances. It is the same company that managed to get and defend a law in Pennsylvania that forbade dairy farmers/producers from labeling dairy “growth hormone free”. (Monsanto developed rBGH if you hadn’t guessed.) This is the company that applies for patents on interesting finds from the national seed bank. And when you read the stories of farmer suicide in India, think Monsanto. They have vertically integrated to such a degree that the farmers generally kill themselves by drinking a Monsanto product. After being sold/coerced into purchasing Monsanto seeds that they cannot save under threat of patent infringement, the farmer will find out that the increases in yield will also cost a great deal because the yield increase is dependent on inputs besides the seed…inputs that, coincidentally, Monsanto sells. When the loans taken to pay for the great leap into a glossy, full-page ad in The Economist come due and the harvest isn’t the shining utopia promised by the green revolution, nor are there any seeds for next season, the farmer kills himself.

It’s been said that a revolution tends to devolve into a tyranny worse than the one which it overthrew. If the green revolution were the one in Russia, Monsanto would be Stalin.

And here is the most significant problem. Monsanto and the promoters of GM agriculture claim that it feeds a hungry world by increasing yield. Except that it doesn’t. The majority Monsanto’s GM crops are designed to resist Round Up. Theoretically, being able to cover everything in Round Up to keep weed growth down will increase yield. But higher yields don’t have anything to do with Monsanto’s modifications: it’s about selling Round Up. A fair number of tests show that GM crops yield less than a traditional hybrids. (In one case, a supplement boosted the GM crop to equal the hybrid, but needing to supplement suggests that more changes have occurred than just being “Round Up Ready”…of course, i’m not a research agronomist.) When confronted with these results, Monsanto countered that it hadn’t designed the crops to increase yields. Precisely, except all of the advertisements and editorials claim yield improvements.

It’s not just the poor, Indian cotton farmers who are in a bind. American farmers are on Monsanto’s treadmill, and so are you. One company controls an astoundingly large percentage of the food you eat at its source: the seed. We won’t see GM labeling laws because they might hurt Monsanto’s business, and there isn’t a politician in America who will poke Monsanto…not for love, nor money, nor the sanctity of free markets.

Worse, if in two decades we discover that one of these modifications is quite dangerous to humans or the environment, we will likely find ourselves in a situation where there isn’t any alternative. Evolution will have adopted the modifications. Monsanto will have made its profit. And we’ll all be left holding the bag…which in this case could well be an empty one of the grocery sort.

10 replies »

  1. Discussed this in a post of my own a while back (http://www.whythawk.com/analysis/the-joy-of-a-good-biotech-lunch.html). Here’s the reason biotech is dominated by big companies like Monsanto:

    Consider the legislative background against which GM products are developed. There are few countries that allow trials and it is astonishingly expensive to comply with all the red tape. And worse, mid-way through your expensive trial, Greenpeace activists turn up and destroy the crop.

    Since 2000, only 54 GM crop trials have been allowed in the UK. Almost all of them were vandalised.

    There are virtually no small businesses that could afford to see their efforts destroyed and their investment wasted in this fashion. Far better to enter other fields. And so, the only companies that can afford to persevere against the international opprobrium heaped on GM producers are very, very large ones. The very legislation designed to protect people from the domination of the industry by major corporations entrenches major corporations.

    I’m all in favour of labelling and letting the market decide. But the problem is not just that Monsanto is dominant, but that “environmental” lobbyists are complicit in that dominance.

  2. I admire Monsanto’s forward thinking business plan and wish that I would have been forward enough of a thinker to develop a product like that.

    Whether you like GM products or not, the genie is out of the bottle and there’s no turning back.

    From personal experience, Monsanto’s Genuity VT Triple Pro is a superior corn, and offers excellent yields and bugs and blight just hates this wonderful product. Although some traits of the seed are meant to be in combination with Monsanto’s other products, with the triple stacking, this corn variety offers a natural repellent to pests which reduces waste. Monsanto better watch their lead, as DuPont’s Pioneer Seed Company is working hard on some fascinating R&D to make better seeds via the GM route. The seed companies are really slugging it out with this one. Pretty soon, we’ll find the GM applications commonplace in livestock, with C@rgill doing some groundbreaking work with turkeys.


  3. It is not always (or even most often) Greenpeace who ruins transgenic test fields, particularly in Europe. It is often neighboring farmers who will get whatever traits the test is looking at in their fields. And as i noted, if you don’t plant the product but some drifts onto your land or cross-pollinates with your crop so that markers show up, you’re guilty of patent infringement. If i were a farmer who – through no choice of my own – got a transgenic experimental plot next to mine, i’d burn it too. What gives someone the right to infringe on my property for his personal profit?

    Oh yes, the genie is out of the bottle. Unfortunately, there’s research beginning to show that Round Up is quite bad for humans (not the active ingredient, but the proprietary blend of ingredients to make the product). It is not generally an issue, because we used to spray it on things we wanted to kill. With RoundUp Ready, the plant can absorb the chemical and not die.

    GM is probably not directly responsible for pollinator death or amphibian population crashes.

    Higher yields only mean lower crop prices/higher government subsidies which does not help farmers at all. In fact, it pushes them towards ever more extreme measures to lower costs per bushel/acre/whatever.

    Nature won’t lose an arms race…not over the long run.

  4. Lex,

    With the low world food supplies, higher yields won’t make much, if any, of a dent in prices. In fact, the last crop report had a greater supply than previously thought, and wheat and soybeans rallied. A better measure to look at is to compare the average yield per acre and the average cash price FOB Duluth or New Orleans. The key drivers in food prices are the value of the USD , exports, supplies on hand, and cost of carry. This country is so export driven as far as ag products is concerned, it’s not even funny. I remember in 1973 when Russia bought our crop in the futures markets, then we had a bad crop, so they sold it back to us at a huge profit, and made a great trade. It was the trade of the century, a work of art.

    • Jeff: You ducked what seemed to me to be the most interesting of questions for a guy like you: What gives someone the right to infringe on my property for his personal profit?

      Seriously, you’re a property rights guy, right?

  5. And Sam, don’t try to pick a fight with me today, I’m not in the mood. We all know you’re the supreme intellectual so leave it at that.

    • Jeff: I’m not trying to pick a fight at all. It just seemed to me that there was something OBVIOUS that you should have an opinion on. And that if the property rights thing didn’t stand in conflict with the other thing you care a lot about – making money – that you’d be commenting rather passionately.

      I personally would just like to hear why Monsanto isn’t trampling on the preeminent right of a free society, the right to property. what’s being described is a phenomenon I’ve never thought about before.

  6. Slammy, even if you’re not TRYING to start a fight, you certainly sound like it. 🙂 But I am curious about what you asked. If what Lex is saying is true about patent infringement, that would be kinda scary. I wonder if farmers next door could actually flip that rule somehow. Have Monsanto pay damages for lost income due to cross pollination. If they can’t sell it because of infringement, there has to be some sort of way to fight back.