BIOTECHNOLOGY. Oh, it sounds like the future, what with the “life” in the “bio” and the “innovation” in the “technology.” Making things—inventing—for life and from it. It’s like magic.
Take Monsanto, a corporation that you’ve probably heard about in the past couple of weeks. They’ve got higher yielding soybeans, corn that’s resistant to drought, and all kind of crops that are resistant to pesticides and herbicides. This final distinction is called “Roundup Ready®” for the name of the herbicide that Monsanto also produces. So, you know, one-stop shopping for all of your agricultural needs.
All this sounds great, because making more food means feeding more people, and in a world where one in seven people go to bed hungry, it’s kind of high on the list of “Shit the International Community Needs to Figure Out.”
But take a moment to follow these seeds to the farms of Brazil, to Vietnam or Kenya or any number of countries on every continent.
“Genetically modified seeds are terrifying to me,” says Taylor Miles, an activist with Ciclovida who helped organize last Thursday’s counteraction. “You’re breaking the ecosystem that has existed forever.”
Ecosystems have evolved over billions of years to contain countless symbiotic relationships: Bees pollinate while the flowers give them food, animals spread seeds while eating the fruits. What humans are learning again and again is a lesson that apparently doesn’t stick: It is impossible to alter only one thing in an ecosystem, because everything is interconnected.
A GMO is like any other product that is manufactured by a corporation: homogenous, mass-produced, and available in markets worldwide. While these companies claim that their goals are oriented towards solving world poverty and hunger, in reality they are as profit-driven as the rest. They’re smart, too. When Monsanto sells pesticide ready seeds next to the pesticide, it’s not for your convenience: It’s to build “loyalty,” the kind you don’t betray because you can’t go anywhere else.
Instead of solving a problem, these corporations are creating a need that only they can fulfill and then controlling the prices for their own profit.
Agribusinesses dealing in GMOs push out small farmers and hurt developing communities. In India, 17,638 farmers committed suicide in 2009 because of low yields and high debt due to the use and purchase of GM seeds. Seven years earlier, Monsanto had come to India advertising a cottonseed that would solve India’s woes with higher yields and pest resistance. What they brought was a seed that needed more pesticide application, not less, and more water in a place where water is already scarce. And the yields ended up being one third of what Monsanto promised.
GMOs kill the soil they’re sitting in, making it difficult or impossible to cultivate after repeated use. The modification of the plant’s genes affects the organisms within the soil and leaches it of its nutrients.
GM seeds are usually planted in what is called a monoculture, replacing the polyculture of traditional farming. Repeatedly planting the same plant in the same soil robs the soil of its nutrient diversity. With GMOs, it’s even worse, since every single seed is genetically identical. Homogeny in the seeds means homogeny in the soil, and homogeny is the enemy of unpredictable conditions—when all are equally unfit, no one survives.
The U.S. government views GM seeds as an equivalent to organic seeds, which means there is a very limited amount of regulation applied to them. In fact, the U.S. government has done much more to encourage the introduction of GMOs than to limit their use. The government continues to maintain that GMOs are safe, but scientists are finding that animals who have ingested GM foods are suffering from precancerous growths, atrophied livers, inflamed kidneys and lung tissue, and higher offspring mortality, among other symptoms.
As long as the FDA considers GMOs to be equal to regular seeds, the U.S. government will continue to allow and encourage their use. Labeling laws are gaining traction, but most processed foods contain GMOs, an omnipresence that is virtually inescapable. Purchasing “organic” or “natural” groceries is an option, but an unreliable one, since those labels are often ambiguous, and it’s hard to avoid altogether companies that use GMOs for ones that sell organic, since most have a hand in each.
Buying organic is also an exclusive option; foods with these labels often carry heftier price tags, which make them less accessible to low-income families or individuals.
Voting with your dollar is an antiquated idea; these corporations are far too big and far-reaching to be affected by individual action.
So what’s the next step? Visible, tangible community action, like what Taylor Miles describes is happening in Brazil: landless farmers biking around the country delivering non-GM seeds to other farmers who are in need.
“Bringing people who are working on this together is the strongest way to make a change,” she says.
Still not sure about GMOs? Cool infographic here.
Get involved. Find out about direct action and the Occupy Monsanto movement here.