Friday, August 27, 2010

A Month Without Monsanto: What Does it Take to Cut out the GMO Giant?

I just found this article by April Dávila. It's a decent primer on just how invasive Monsanto has become and a couple of reasons that is not a good thing. Mainly the article is about just how difficult it is to buy anything that has not been touched by Monsanto in some way.

April touches on possible health risks associated with GM corn, how GM corn has become a huge percentage of feed for the beef industry, and the use of rBGH in dairy cows. Still, what's the big deal?

First off, Monsanto has successfully taken advantage of the post-World War II trend towards mono-cropping, made our food system less secure, and profited from it. The two crops grown in the US today are corn and soybeans. After the first half of the last century it was decided that corn and soybeans could more easily be grown in abundance, stored, and used in a variety of products and the government has subsidized the over production of these two crops to insure a steady food supply. Great idea in theory, except that now we have consolidated so much food production that one problem affects a large portion of the population (see the recent egg recall). Think of the internet -- the original idea was to have information spread over a number of interconnected databases so that if any one system were to fail, the other systems would still be available. Now imagine the opposite: all of the information being stored on just two or three computers. If one system goes down in that case, the very few, already over-taxed systems that remain will not likely have complete backups of the information lost and be unable to handle the extra workload. That is a very simple model of our current food system.

Monsanto did not create this concentrated mono-cropping system, but it did create three products: a weed killer called RoundUp, and corn seeds and soybean seeds that were genetically modified to resist RoundUp called RoundUp Ready (RR1) Seeds. Good news, right?! Farmers were suddenly able to grow more crops on less land with fewer issues and Monsanto is helping to feed the world. What Monsanto had done was patent previously non-patentable seeds by claiming their genetic modification made them a unique, manufactured product and getting their appointed cronies in Washington to help push the patents through. What Monsanto did next was to sue any and every farmer they could catch saving seed to replant. This included farmers who did not use RR1 seed but whose crops had been cross-contaminated from other farms and included cases where Monsanto's case was thin, but they had more money than the farmer to pay lawyers. It is really more about sending a message than anything and Monsanto isn't really even shy about it -- you can read about it on their website.We now have even less variety in crops being grown in the US thanks to RR1 seeds.

What's more is Monsanto has expended this operation into third-world countries with the promise of helping feed poor people and bring them out of poverty, not acknowledging all of the additional inputs required to grow the GM crops. In the end Monsanto has helped to bankrupt third-world farmers, reduce the food supply, and make a profit from it.

Monsanto also developed rBGH, a bovine growth hormone that increases milk production in dairy cows. Again, that's good, right? More milk is good. I would personally argue that you can manipulate nature to a degree -- milking cows after their calves have stopped nursing, for example -- but nature is not a capitalist. If you push too hard, there will be problems. It turns out that the increased milk production takes it toll on cows, causing increased cases of mastitis, reproductive issues, a variety of hoof problems, and a number of problems mostly falling into the category of lameness. Add to this the fact that dairy cows for large-scale milk production are no longer raised on pastures, but in close-quarter concrete and steel barns where they get little exercise and little access to sanitizing sunlight and suddenly a lot of cows were needing to be treated with antibiotics. Margaret Miller, former employee of Monsanto who was at this time working in the FDA, increased the FDA allowance for antibiotics in dairy cows. The result was more rBGH, more antibiotics, and ultimately, an antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria in dairy cows (and their milk). The FDA then increased the allowance for somatic cells in milk (yeah, that's pus). Yummy.

As for corn fed beef, Monsanto has helped create a market for it's GM corn as many countries outside the US have banned it. That market is cattle feed. Now we've been feeding corn to cattle and advertising "corn fed" beef for a long time, Monsanto just helped get GM corn in there (oh, and they have done their part to insure GM foods not be labeled because they don't want consumers to know). The problem here is that cows are ruminants designed to graze on grass. But isn't corn a grass? Yes, but the corn we feed to cows is not the part of a grass plant they would eat if left to their own, natural devices. The result is a slew of health problems for the cattle resulting in E. coli problems and infections that have lead, once again, to antibiotic abuse and antibiotic resistant bacteria strains.

In the end, Monsanto's claims of wanting to "feed the world" is obviously either a veil to cover their corporate greed or a shameful lack of understanding of what they are doing. It is true that Monsanto is not alone in it's hijacking of our food supply, corporations like DuPont want a piece as well. Monsanto has just been leading the way. These are just a few examples, you can find more here, there, and elsewhere.

Check out April Dávila's article. It's a good read.

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