Is There Any Hope For A Non-Genetically Modified Future in America, Or Africa?

Jan Smith/CC BY 2.0

In the past few days a number of interesting articles have been circulating, all discussing genetically modified crops and starkly different versions of the future of food. One one hand we have the state of affairs in the US. On the other we have the future Bill Gates would like to manifest in Africa, all in the supremely laudable goal of reducing poverty and hunger, which looks an awful like the current situation in America.

It's not a pretty picture, for people, for farmers, for the planet.

First, in an excellent and frankly a bit depressing article for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott says that agriculture in the US is at a crossroads.

We (in the form of the USDA) say yes to Dow Chemical and Monsanto and their "herbicide-drenched" version of intensive agriculture. Or, if introduction of a new GM corn variety designed to be resistant to herbicide-resistant weeds can be stopped, "farming in the US heartland can be pushed toward a model based on biodiversity over monocropping, farmer skill in place of brute chemicals, and health food instead of industrial commodities.

This new GM corn variety is a joint project between Dow and Monsanto, containing resistance to different varieties of herbicide. It's hoped it will overcome this resistance by dousing crops with two different herbicides, each targeting weeds that are resistant to the other, and the corn being resistant to both. I specifically use the word 'hope' because the hope of Dow and Monsanto is that they will be able to stay one step ahead of the superweeds they hope don't develop, as plants develop resistance to high doses of herbicide.

I'll leave it to Philpott and his eloquent exposition of why, ultimately, this hope is likely to result in hopelessness. So read it all at the link above.

Second, Environmental Health News highlights the failed hope of GM crop developers: That these proprietary crops will stay where they are planted and not somehow spread beyond the fields they are planted.

Such spread has been documented for a while, but this latest is some pretty stark detail:

Throughout North Dakota, little yellow flowers dot thousands of miles of roadsides. These canola plants, found along most major trucking routes, look harmless. But they are fueling a controversy: They prove that large numbers of genetically modified plants have escaped from farm fields and are now growing wild. About 80 percent of canola growing along roadsides in North Dakota contains genes that have been modified to make the plants resistant to common weed-killers.

I'll state it again: 80% of canola growing along North Dakota roadways actually contains genetically modified genes. Eighty percent. It was hoped this wouldn't happen.

That's a snapshot of where we are in the US. And it's where Bill Gates hopes Africa will head, bringing us to the third point.

We've covered the Gates vision of African agriculture before, so suffice it to say that Gates, invested in Monsanto, supports a high-tech vision of agriculture, rather than the low-tech, affordable, diverse, climate-resistant, and just-as-productive vision supported explicitly by food activists, and less-vocally but essentially by the UN as well.

Gates told the AP (in the latter's summation), that "he finds it ironic that most people who oppose genetic engineering in plant breeding live in rich nations that he believes are responsible for global climate change that will lead to more starvation and malnutrition for the poor. Resistance to new technology is 'again hurting the people who nothing to do with climate change happening,' Gates said."

That "most people" who oppose GM crops live in rich nations is a dubious assumption at best. In fact, some of the most vocal critics of GM crops come from the Global South.

GM Watch has just gone into more detail on this point, that people in developing nations want genetically modified crops.

In 1998, African scientists at a United Nations conference strongly objected to Monsanto’s promotional GE campaign that used photos of starving African children under the headline "Let the Harvest Begin." The scientists, who represented many of the nations affected by poverty and hunger, said gene technologies would undermine the nations’ capacities to feed themselves by destroying established diversity, local knowledge and sustainable agricultural systems.

Developing nations also object to seed patents, which give biotech firms the power to criminalize the age-old practice of seed-saving as "patent infringement."  Thousands of U.S. farmers have been forced to pay Monsanto tens of millions of dollars in damages for the "crime" of saving seed.  Loss of the right to save seed through the introduction of patented GE crops could prove disastrous for the 1.4 billion farmers in developing nations who depend on farm-saved seed.

My hope in all this is that both Africa and the United States steer a different course than the one advocated by Gates, Monsanto, Dow, and their ilk. I give Gates the benefit of the doubt in regards to motivation. His desire to reduce poverty, hunger, disease is no doubt genuine. But, like his absurd statements on climate change and renewable energy, his focus on high-tech agriculture, and technological development in general—when clearly a less high-tech approach would be just as or even more effective—is just delusional. It's understandable, given Gates' background, but it's still delusional.

Part of that delusion is not realizing that for opposition to GM crops often doesn't stem from opposition to new technology at all. It's most often opposition to this specific technology, as well as genuine concern about corporate control of food through that technology.

Tags: Agriculture | Barack Obama | Developing Nations | Genetically Modified Food | Genetic Engineering

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