Agrocultural Industry Giants Moving Towards Genetic Monopolism

28.06.1998

About the "Operating System" of Food Production

While our meat-obsessed millennial culture has been busy focusing on sheep cloning and BSE, far more vital issues have been taking shape across the plough-trimmed arable lands of the planet. Last year North American farmers planted some 10 million hectares with crops that have been genetically altered to make them resistant to insect pests or herbicide sprays, and the world is sluggishly becoming aware of the fact that this may not be all to the good. In moves reminiscent of those we've witnessed over the last decade in the IT industry, the transglobal corporations involved in biotechnology are expanding at an incredible rate, and soon may hold an alarming amount of power over us all.

Until about five years ago the biotechnology industry, such that it was, was deeply allergic to profit-making. Biotech companies were collectively almost $2 billion in debt in 1995, according to a Nature Bio/Technology Journal survey of 230 companies; with their high R & D costs and low turnover they were easy targets for acquisition and take-over. And taken over they were: in 1995, pharmaceutical corporations spent approximately $3.5 billion acquiring biotech firms, in addition to the $1.6 billion they paid to biotech companies in licensing agreements or R & D contracts. By now at least twenty-seven corporations have initiated herbicide-tolerant plant research, including all of the world's eight largest pesticide companies: Bayer, Ciba-Geigy, ICI, Rhone-Poulenc, Dow/Elanco, Monsanto, Hoechst and DuPont. In addition to this, nearly all agricultural seed companies have been pursuing similar research, and many of these have recently been acquired by chemical companies.

Throughout 1995 and 1996 a massive upheaval took place in the pharmaceutical industry. The larger firms suddenly began to swallow countless smaller ones, turning themselves into monopoly interests in the process. The largest single deal that took place was the union of Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis, valued at $27 billion. This makes Novartis the world's number one agrochemical corporation, its second largest seed firm, its third largest pharmaceutical firm and its fourth largest veterinary medicine company.

These colossal capital shifts were caused by the fact that a new world currency, long in the making, had finally been realised: the life patent. A life patent is a piece of proprietory information relating to a biological process and generally takes the form of a piece of genetic code or genetic engineering that has been subjected to the intellectual copyright laws of the first world. The biotech industry was spawned when the US Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that it was legal to patent genetically created life, a move which was echoed in May of this year - despite a great deal of public opposition - by the European Parliament, which voted by 432 to 78 to allow patents on gene-based technologies and medicines.

The result of this has been to make biotechnology the great new growth industry, one whose machinations will put those of companies like Microsoft into the shade. After all, we're talking about food here - a product with a somewhat larger consumer constituency that digitised information, at least at the moment. According to Environmental Health Perspectives' report on living modified organisms (LMOs) (see ) the main types of living modified organisms currently under manufacture are:

Case Study Monsanto

Each of these areas is in itself so extraordinary that it is initially difficult to understand exactly what such developments mean, whether on an individual, social, political or economic level. To get some kind of perspective, we need to examine them in the light of the behaviour of the corporations involved, and a perfect case-study is that of Monsanto and its product 'Roundup'.

Roundup - in essence a chemical called glyphosate - is the world's biggest selling herbicide; in 1996 its sales earned Monsanto $1.5 billion. However, the patent on Roundup will expire in the year 2000, and presumably Monsanto's massive profits will expire soon after. However, Monsanto is nothing if not prepared. For the last decade it has been developing a range of crops genetically engineered to resist glyphosate - crops which only it can produce, thanks to the US and European LMO patent legislation (during 1996 and 1997 Monsanto bought shares in seed and biotechnology companies worth over $2 billion). The first 'Roundup' ready plant released was a genetically engineered soya bean (over 50% of processed foods contain soya, an enormous potential market).

Roundup is what is called a 'broad spectrum herbicide', i.e. it kills pretty much everything. In the past, it has had to be used on weeds before crop germination. But if the crops are engineered to resist glyphosate, Roundup can be used after germination, and this - according to proponents - enables farmers to simplify their 'weed management requirements' by using one and only one pesticide (you guessed it, Roundup), before and after crop germination.

Now, before we get onto the myriad problems connected with overuse of a single herbicide, let's look at the what it means to grow Roundup Ready soya. If you want to buy the seed from Monsanto, the corporation first requires you to sign their 'Grower's Contract'. This obliges you to promise only to sow the seeds for one cropping season (the general cost-cutting practice of saving beans from one year and using them to plant the next is thus forbidden), and not to resell the seed or otherwise use it for research, reverse-engineering or anything else. Not only that, but you are made responsible for ensuring that these rules are not broken by anyone you sell your harvest to for three years from the original purchase of the seed. This alone is outrageous enough, and seems designed to allow Monsanto to seize vast tracts of farmland in lieu of damages a little further down the line.

But there is more. The Grower's Contract obliges you to use only the Roundup formulation of glyphosate on your crop, an outrageous monopolistic practice. And finally, you also have to agree to allow Monsanto's inspectors onto your land to police these practices any time up to three years after the sale of the seed, whether or not you are present.

But if all this is so totally outrageous, why then are farmers queueing up to plant Roundup ready soya? In part, it's because such behaviour has been around for a very long time. In the US, with the official opening of the western frontier in 1862, a department of agriculture was created for the purpose of collecting, propagating and distributing seeds for crop plants. Soon universities and agriculture stations were involved in the practice of inbreeding plants - most notably corn - in order to make them more amenable to industrial agricultural techniques. Such inbreeding however introduced weaknesses into plants as often as it produced new strengths, but 'by 1905 a new technique had been developed to compensate for this: crossing two different inbred lines of corn kept the "desirable" traits in their progeny while eliminating some of the undesirable ones, [a] process [that] produced what came to be known as "hybrid corn".' (see ).

By 1944, nearly 90% of the American Corn Belt was planted to hybrid corn. 'Yield's increased dramatically:

"corn power" had arrived.... With hybrid corn, only those who knew the parent lines and breeding sequence knew how to make the high-yielding hybrids - called a "closed pedigree" in the business - and this knowledge was legally protected as a state secret. More importantly from the business standpoint, farmers could not save and reuse hybrid seed the following year and obtain the same yield, since "hybrid vigour" would decline with continuing use of the ame seeed. Farmers had to return to the seed companies to buy new seed each year.

Jack Doyle, Altered Harvest: Agriculture, Genetics and the Fate of the World's Food Supply, p.42

This - and not Dolly the sheep - is the cloning that has had and will have the most significant effect on our lives. When 80% of a given corn population are virtually clones of one another, as was the case in the post-war Corn Belt, large 'genetic windows'are created which allow parasites and diseases free and widespread access once they are located. Just such an epidemic hit in 1970, a fungus encouraged by unusually warm and moist weather, and the US narrowly avoided losing its entire corn harvest for that year. However, genetic homogenisation of our main crops has continued nonetheless, 'and the resulting genetic uniformity has made many industrialised nations "gene poor" countries that now view with envy the genetic resources of their "gene rich" underdeveloped neighbours.' (Ibid., p.168)

On the other hand, there is no doubt that genetic engineering has significantly increased crop yields and has made an enormous impact on standards of living the world over. High yield plants did for a while dramatically increase the food base of countries such as Mexico, India and the Philippines. However, to achieve their high productivity, these crops required huge amounts of chemical fertilisers and when fertiliser costs increased dramatically in the early 1970s when OPEC began raising oil prices this green revolution was brought to an end. Additionally, clones of the plants now dominated the local gene pools and many genetic materials of traditional varieties (which did not depend on fertiliser) had been lost, making it very hard to turn back the clock.

As De Landa so succinctly points out, what we are seeing here is how 'procedures employed to deny microparasites [whether weeds, diseases or insects] to the urban flow of biomass [are being used to allow] macroparasites (especially anti-market institutions) to insert themselves at multiple points in the food chain.' (Ibid., p.176) (By anti-market institutions are meant monopolistic capitalist interests, such as Monsanto or Microsoft.) And in case you're thinking that this is just academic theorising, Robert Fraley, president of Monsanto's Ceregen division, put the companies objectives in the exact same terms (though with a different spin, of course) in the October 1996 issue of Farm Journal:

"What you're seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it's really a consolidation of the entire food chain. Companies like ours, who want to continue to be in the food and feed production business, are all trying to secure our spot along that chain."

Only last month the US Department of Agriculture and a Mississippi seed firm, the Delta and Pine Land Company, were granted a patent for a technique that can sterilise the seeds produced by most agricultural crops (New Scientist, 28.3.98). This so-called 'terminator technology' guarantees that no one can 'steal' the 'intellectual property' of the seed corporation involved, and all the major seed companies are expected to adopt the technique within the next five years. Meanwhile half the world's farmers are too poor to afford to buy new seeds every season and can only survive by saving seed from one season to replant the next.

What we are seeing then is the emergence of a struggle by capital for control of the world's crops that will make the sister struggles for control over computer operating systems and global satellite television broadcasting look unimportant by comparison. So it comes as no surprise that with such enormous prizes at stake that the industry should have developed a brand of boosterism every bit as idealistic and all-consuming as that put out by Wired magazine at the emergence of the 'digital age' in the early 1990s.

Thus we see Farm Bureau, an online magazine and the self-styled 'voice of agriculture', announcing that:

'U.S. farmers view biotechnical advances as the latest results of continuing agricultural research. It is just one more step in the process of producing more and better foods.'

Despite the fact that the first sentence is meaningless and the second undefined, Farm Bureau goes on to state:

'In our view biotechnology offers significant opportunities to improve food safety, food quality and farmers' productivity.'

Drawbacks of Biotechnology

What the magazine resolutely fails to mention is some of the drawbacks of biotechnology. Let's look at a few of these. First up is the problem of gene flow, in which the new genes inserted into crops to provide insect, disease or herbicide resistance find themselves transferred to wild plant relatives and weeds, rendering the genetic advance effectively useless. Such gene transfer has been demonstrated in the laboratory to occur within four generations (gene swapping is extremely common in the plant and bacterial kingdoms, where sections of DNA are regularly cut 'n' pasted between organisms on virus vectors and the like). Biotech companies argue that such gene flows can be prevented by careful site selection, using buffer zones and the like, but only last month [April 1998] the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) published a list of companies and research labs who have been unable to keep to the terms of their consents to carry out biotech field experiments, let alone exercises in commercial agriculture. Heading this list was, surprise surprise, our old friend Monsanto.

This particular issue is clouded by the fact that it is to the advantage of the biotech companies to flout the rules and let their altered plants escape into the wild. That way they can claim that, despite public fears, genetically engineered plants are already out there in the environment, so there's no point in curtailing their use. Similarly, various 'accidents' have happened during loading and unloading of grain ships at European ports in the last few months, that have resulted in the mixing of genetically engineered seed stocks with unadulterated shipments. Despite outcries by environmental associations, it has proved impossible to demonstrate that any of these events took place deliberately, even though in the long-term the effects are clearly to the advantage of the companies involved.

The second risk is much more straight forward, and it concerns possible harm caused by genetically engineered plants to 'non-target' species such as birds, beneficial insects like ladybirds and, of course, humans. As Mae-Wan Ho points out in her book Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare (Gateway Books), scientists probably know as little about the risks of genetic engineering as they did about the risks of radiation back in the 1950s, and we're all aware of the price we're paying for that ignorance now - and will go on paying, probably for as long as humanity continues to exist. There is also a concomitant fear about cascading effects through ecosystems. These can be extremely complex - not only can pests and weeds evolve resistance to biotechnological toxins, but evidence from studies in Scotland suggests that aphids are capable of actually extracting such toxins from within engineered crops and using them to attack their main predators, coccinelid beetles. Needless to say, this kind of effect is impossible to either predict or control.

Finally, the agricultural and socio-political structures imposed by giants like Monsanto and Novartis threaten a large-scale loss of biological diversity, especially in developing countries which due to economic pressures are easily tempted to replace farming techniques that depend upon a multiplicity of crops with an effective (and effectively unproven) monoculture.

Whatever the vested interests may say, we are a long long way from a clear verdict on the safety or long-term efficacy of biotechnology and genetic engineering. And yet many of these products are already with us, in our shops, in many of our most common foodstuffs. Battle lines are being drawn up as environmental groups cadge together protest groups while transnational corporations war behind the scenes for control of what might be termed the 'operating systems' of future agriculture. According to a report published in The Guardian [17.9.97], researchers and lawyers from Monsanto already occupy important posts in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whose administration 'has approved some of the company's most controversial products, including the artificial sweetener aspartame and an injectable growth hormone for cattle.' The same article states that 'biotech firms are now trying to persuade the World Trade Organisation to forbid the labelling of genetically engineered foods.'

This last action alone shows how much these corporations fear public opinion. Steady opposition by farmers and consumers has led to two strains of genetically engineered tomatoes, the 'Flavr Savr' and the 'Endless Summer', being withdrawn from the market in the United States. In Britain, supermarket chains have already begun to remove products containing genetically engineered material from their shelves. In addition, agricultural research is continually coming up with 'organic' techniques for reducing weeds and pest - it has recently been discovered, for example, that the proportion of weeds in crops can be dramatically reduced by ploughing fields at night, thus denying seeds the light they need to germinate. But first world farmers are notoriously reluctant to move away from chemical solutions. It may be that only widespread consumer action thing will be able to convince them.

Further Reading:

Mae-Wan Ho, Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare (Gateway Books)
Jack Doyle, Altered Harvest: Agriculture, Genetics and the Fate of the World's Food Supply (New York: Viking, 1985)
Sheldon Krimsky and Roger Wrubel, Agricultural Biotechnology and the Environment (Tufts University)
Michio Kushi and Alex Jack, Humanity at the Crossroads: Dietary and Lifestyle Guidelines for the Age of Cloning, EMFs, AIDS, Mad Cow Disease, Microwave Cooking, and Global Warming (One Peaceful World Press, 1997, $10.95)
Richard Rhodes, Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997, $24.00).
Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague (New York: Penguin Books, 1996, $14.95).
R. C. Lewontin, Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991, $10.00).
Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, $12.95).
Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon, The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops

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