Planting the seeds of health, environmental and economic hazards
By Don Fitz
As drought plagued southern Africa in summer 2002, biotech companies lost no time in exploiting hunger for profit. The United States offered to “help” by donating food from crops containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms). But African scientists knew there was a catch. They had seen demonstrations showing that Europe wanted no part of the technology. They knew that GMOs were associated with health and environmental dangers. Worst of all, they were aware that if genetically modified (GM) seed was planted in Africa, the next generation of GM plants could result in farmers owing “technology fees” to biomaster Monsanto.
Countries throughout Africa denounced the food-for-control ploy. But U.S. spokespersons brayed that African leaders were letting their people starve. After massive U.S. bullying, most African countries agreed to accept GM corn if it was milled (ground so that seeds could not be planted). But Zambia refused GM food of any kind. The conflict scored a tremendous moral victory in exposing the cynical complicity of the U.S. government in fronting for corporate greed.
For decades, biologists have known that a gene can be removed from a cell, modified, and reinserted into the same cell or into a different cell from another species. As the technology developed rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s, scientists warned that the process was inherently risky. Critics spelled out in detail the range of health, environmental and social problems that genetic “engineering” could bring.
In 1998, many of those critics came together for “The First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering.” The gathering was in St. Louis, the hometown of Monsanto. Monsanto is the world’s most aggressive proponent of GMOs. The company’s spokespeople claim that genetic engineering is necessary to feed the world’s growing population.
At the 1998 meeting, researchers explained how shooting a gene into an inexact location in a foreign species produces unpredictable results. Farm advocates spoke of how genetic engineering produces lower yield, not the higher yield promised by Monsanto. Health experts warned that genetic engineering is used to allow greater quantities of herbicides, which affects the health of farm workers. Genetically engineered foods produce toxic reactions as well as food allergies, which are most serious in children.
Those at the event learned how genes can escape from domestic crops to their wild relatives, giving weeds immunity to herbicides. Genetically engineered microorganisms can unpredictably kill crops and genetically engineered plants can harm wildlife.
Vandana Shiva [of the Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology] pulled the diverse knowledge together, explaining the way genetic engineering is used by corporations to monopolize the seed supply and raise the cost of farming so that agribusiness can consolidate its control worldwide.
Biotech proponents have frenetically sought to silence criticism as they shriek that corporate-funded research is the only road to scientific truth. When he began his investigations, Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland was neither for nor against genetic engineering. But when results of his own studies showed that rats fed genetically engineered potatoes had damaged internal organs, he felt compelled in 1998 to warn the public. He was involuntarily retired from his position and condemned in a report by the British Royal Society.
In 2001, the journal Nature published findings of University of California researcher Ignacio Chapela showing that genetically contaminated corn cross-pollinated with native Mexican species hundreds of miles away. For the first time in its distinguished history, Nature bowed so low to corporate greed that it printed a retraction of Chapela’s article (based on methodological disagreements which did not challenge the finding of cross-pollination).
About the same time, the world became aware of the plight of Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Monsanto’s corporate police had trespassed on Schmeiser’s fields to steal canola plants for testing. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent violations when genetic testing showed the presence of Roundup Ready Canola DNA. The court ruled in Monsanto’s favor, declaring irrelevant Schmeiser’s testimony that he never used the Monsanto product and that wind-blown pollen had contaminated his fields. [That decision was recently upheld by Canada’s Supreme Court.]
Fostering Food Dependency
These events set the stage for countries of southern Africa saying “No GMOs” in the summer of 2002. One of the most eloquent spokespersons on the dangers of GMOs to Africa has been Ethiopia’s Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, a winner of a Right Livelihood Award in 2000. Egziabher believes that, even though global warming is making droughts more frequent, Ethiopia is able to feed itself by storing surplus food during bumper harvests. Hunger is due to the country’s being too poor to ship stored food from one location to another. International food aid agencies could assist impoverished African countries with cash donations that would help develop their transportation systems as well as strengthen local farms.
Egziabher fears that economic dependency on GM food from the United States is fraught with health, environmental and patent dangers. One of the main GM crops is corn. Donated GM food could become the entire diet of starving people, as opposed to only a portion of food eaten by those in other parts of the world. This means that any long-term effects of allergenicity, cancer, or birth defects (which have not been adequately studied), could be multiplied for victims of famine.
What would happen if African farmers saved GM seed and replanted it? GM pollen is known to kill butterflies, which are important pollinators for African crops. GM crops have lower yield, since they are designed for farmers who can afford large amounts of pesticides. Many animals refuse to eat stems and leaves of GM corn. If pigs eat GM food, their reproductive capacity can be reduced.
Despite the treatment of Chapela by Nature, African scientists know that wind can spread GM pollen across the continent. If that contaminates enough African crops, Europe would not buy them, leaving desperate farmers crushed.
African governments also know of the Percy Schmeiser case. If fields are contaminated by GM pollen and the next generation of corn tests positive for GMOs, farmers would become patent violators and owe technology fees to Monsanto and other biomasters. Massive impoverishment could cause the transfer of land throughout Africa.
A Growing Movement
The 1998 Biodevastation Gathering sparked subsequent events in Seattle, New Delhi, Boston, San Diego and Toronto. The anti-genetic-engineering (GE) movement has won the hearts and minds of Europe and India, and support from governments in southern Africa. In the United States, there’s a strong alliance between anti-GE activists, farm organizations, and the anti-globalization movement. Now is the time for the anti-GE movement to reach out to social justice, peace and environmental movements.
Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought. This article is excerpted, with permission from the author, from the article, “Genetic Engineering and Environmental Racism,” Synthesis/Regeneration, No. 31, Spring 2003.