MONSANTOpoly, Part 3: Seeds of Destruction
by Marc Belisle
“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
–Franklin D. Roosevelt
In 1937, when Roosevelt wrote to all US governors imploring them to oversee the implementation of the Uniform Soil Conservation Law, America was in the throes of the Dust Bowl. Overfarming, and its destruction of arable soil, created a chain reaction. Dust would blow from ruined farmland onto neighboring farms, ruining their soil, and so on.
Today, American agriculture relies on biotechnology. Many staple crops are predominantly genetically modified. Eighty-eight percent of corn, 93% of soy, 90% of canola, 90% of sugar beets, 94% of cottonseed, and 75% of Hawaiian papaya are genetically modified, and GM alfalfa was recently deregulated. Monsanto owns 90% of the world’s GMO seeds, and most GMOs are Roundup Ready, designed to resist Monsanto’s signature herbicide.
Could Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready GMOs ever repeat the kind of environmental damage the Dust Bowl wrought? A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry says GMOs are safe, concluding that “As few as one copy of RR corn genome or one copy of RR soybean genome was detected in the soil DNA extract.” The study was conducted at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Incidentally, Monsanto’s own website lists two Monsanto facilities in Guelph, Ontario. According to Google maps, Monsanto’s “Eastern Business Office” is a 15-minute drive from the university, and its “Soybean Research Facility” is a 5-minute walk. A recent report in the Guelph Mercury reveals that Monsanto and 4 other seed companies “collectively spent just over $780,000 on U of G research last year, most in the area of crop protection.” It’s a safe bet someone from Monsanto has taken that walk.
Monsanto has monopolized agricultural science, as described in Part 2: Corrupt to the Core. According to Reuters, in February, 2009, 26 leading academic entomologists (insect scientists) complained to the EPA that Monsanto has made it impossible to do research on its products, saying, “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology.” One scientist said, “It would be nice to have independently verifiable information going into EPA’s decision-making beyond just what the company provides.”
We don’t ‘know’ what Monsanto is doing to the soil. Given Monsanto’s history, as described in Part 1: Sowing Dependence, this is terrifying. But independent researchers are discovering alarming evidence of the effects of Monsanto products on the environment.
The key ingredient in Roundup herbicide is glyphosate. A report by the Pesticide Action Network UK lists “Independent research findings” that differ from “Monsanto’s claims.” The report finds that glyphosate is toxic to agriculturally beneficial soil organisms. It can linger in soil and sediment and can inhibit normal chemical production in plants for months. It has been found in crops up to a year after application. It can spread, reach lower soil layers and be “carried by soil particles suspended in run off.” This chemical is absorbed by plant root systems where it squeezes enzymes, blocking the production of amino acids and protein synthesis. It kills plants systemically by depriving their cells of nutrients and blocking their immune response to pathogens. One expert says, “When you spray glyphosate on a plant, it’s like giving it AIDS.” What could large quantities of this botanical AIDS do to America’s soil and plant life?
Glyphosate dominates the herbicide market. In 2007, US farmers used 185 million pounds of glyphosate, double the amount used 6 years earlier. A Chemical Watch Factsheet says, “Data show that glyphosate use has skyrocketed to more than double the amount used five years ago, with 57 million pounds of glyphosate applied to corn fields in 2010 compared to 23 million pounds in 2005 and 4.4 million in 2000.”
This historically unprecedented explosion of a single herbicidal chemical has resulted in “superweeds,” or weeds resistant to glyphosate, evolving on farms across the United States. Mother Jones describes them as ‘stampeding’ through the Midwest. Indeed, a study by Stratus Agri-marketing Inc. showed that between 2010 and 2012, the area infested with superweeds nearly doubled from 32.6 to 61.2 million acres. The study says that glyphosate-resistance is expanding into new weed species and that nearly half of all US farms have superweeds. Some states, especially in the South, are overwhelmed by superweeds. In Georgia, 92% of farms have superweeds. Across the US, farmers have responded to this mushrooming problem by dumping more Roundup and mixing Roundup with other chemicals. Nonetheless, Monsanto claims that using Roundup “on Roundup Ready crops has allowed farmers to … decrease the overall use of herbicides.”
The problem with this situation is that it could be creating a potentially catastrophic feedback loop. Roundup Ready GMO crops are supposed to resist the highly toxic effects of Roundup. But research done outside of Monsanto’s clique questions whether the GMOs resist Roundup at any volume, or whether the cycle of spraying more Roundup, creating more superweeds, spraying more Roundup, etc. could saturate the soil, killing off important micro-nutrients, and saturating crops with a level of Roundup that Roundup Ready GMOs can’t completely resist, making them susceptible to plant diseases. Given the lack of oversight explained in Part 2 of our series, if GMO crops were contracting plant diseases that weren’t readily visible, who would even know?
A report published in the European Journal of Agronomy explores this possibility. It says it is “highly probable” that “Roundup Ready® crops are vulnerable to glyphosate toxicity under at least some conditions. One such condition could arise when the level of glyphosate exceeds the ability of the transgenic enzyme to tolerate it…” Another condition could be if the “transgene fails” to mimic the original gene the way it is intended to if the plant is damaged. “Both of these scenarios are possible and, if they develop, it is very likely they would enhance the vulnerability of Roundup Ready® plants to fungal diseases following Roundup application.” The report adds that temporary spikes in “fungal pathogens” have been observed following application of glyphosate and that this could potentially cause root rot in GMO crops.
Reuters says entomologists are finding that GMO corn engineered to resist rootworms harvested in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and South Dakota showed “damage and disease.” Other scientists “say there are indications of increased root fungal disease as well as nutrient deficiencies in Roundup Ready crops. They say manganese deficiency in soybeans in particular appears to be an issue in key farming areas that include Indiana, Michigan, Kansas and Wisconsin.” Another scientist says glyphosate appears to affect microbes associated with the growth of plant roots.
Advocates have done what they can to alert the USDA to the observed increase in soil degradation and plant disease. According to Grist, The USDA’s research arm, NIFA, is run by Roger Beachy, “a man with long-time links to the ag-biotech industry and an openly hostile attitude toward organic farming.” Under his guidance, the NIFA’s response to these kinds of alarming findings has been “subdued.”
Apart from ensuring regulators’ indifference, Monsanto forces its products onto America’s farms through cynical manipulation of patents, farmers’ contracts, seed monopolization and seed propagation. In the documentary, Seeds of Death, Daniel Ravicher, Executive Director of the Public Patent Foundation, says that although Monsanto tells the USDA and FDA that its GMOs are no different from natural food, it tells the Patent Office, “‘We’ve invented something brand new. It’s radically different and it’s so inventive we deserve not just one patent, we deserve entire portfolios of dozens and dozens of patents.'”
These patents, combined with Monsanto’s farmer contracts, lock farmers into using ever more Monsanto GMO crops and herbicide. A Western Organization Resource Councils Factsheet explains how Monsanto’s contracts describe an almost feudalistic relationship between Monsanto, or its proxy seed companies, and the farmer. The factsheet says a farmer accepts the terms of the contract simply by opening a bag of Monsanto seed. The farmer waives all Privacy Act rights, and agrees to allow Monsanto full access to their records. Monsanto will only honor its obligations if the farmer uses Monsanto seeds and herbicides together. The farmer cannot save or share any seeds. The farmer assumes all liability, Monsanto assumes none. Monsanto will pursue damages and fees in any violation of the contract. Monsanto arbitrates any disputes, the contract has no time limit, and does not expire even if a farmer discontinues using Monsanto products.
Monsanto has gobbled up dozens of seed companies, running a virtual seed monopoly in many agricultural areas of the country. The patents, contracts and seed monopolization ensnare farmers as consumers of Monsanto’s agricultural monopoly. In the documentary, GM Crops Farmer to Farmer, Michael Hart, UK farmer and international family farming advocate, interviews several farmers across the US. In North Dakota, he talks to Rodney Nelson, who says he tried to grow organic soybeans to export to Japan. Nelson bought conventional seeds, but they were increasingly contaminated with GMO seeds. He says about 50% of his loads were being rejected because of contamination. He couldn’t buy seeds without contamination and the seed companies told him that contamination was inevitable. He says, “We didn’t have any choice but to go back and start planting Roundup Ready crops. There was no choice.” He also says that for farmers who use GM crops, Monsanto has a “rewards program” that insures damaged seeds will be replaced at a discount. If farmers use conventional seeds, then they’re on their own. “They’re forcing you to use their chemical,” he concludes.
In Nebraska, Corky Jones sprays a cocktail of several herbicides several times to kill his weeds. Referring to Monsanto’s claim that a single pass of Roundup kills all weeds, Jones says, “We’ve heard the ‘single pass’ for so long. Well, you won’t hear that from an actual producing farmer. He knows by now that that’s a fallacy.” Hart asks him why American farmers don’t go back to conventional seeds. Jones says the seed company only supports GM crops. Hart asks, “so it’s availability that’s the issue?” Jones replies, “That is right. That is right.”
Hart speaks to a farmer who chooses not to reveal his location or identity. The anonymous farmer says that glyphosate is marketed at a low price, and then once everyone is using is, the price goes up “once they’ve got everybody trapped.” He says the same thing happened with corn seed, and the price tripled in 2 years. “Once this all happened, all research and technology on any other herbicides just completely came to a halt. So if the system gets to the point where it’s at now and if it continues to deteriorate, where it doesn’t control the problem weeds that we have, there hasn’t been any new research and development hardly done on any new products in ten years. We don’t have any alternatives, other than to put on more glyphosate.”
Hart asks the anonymous farmer whether he would suggest to UK and European farmers to start using GMO crops. He says, “I would not. For the first few years, it’ll be cheap and economical, and once everybody has switched to it, you’ll lose your choices, you’ll no longer have a choice to raise conventional products, and you’ll get yourself into a trap where you’re paying royalty fees to companies that own traits and chemicals and they’ll continue to raise those fees every year. Even if you didn’t buy glyphosate-tolerant canola, somebody spilled some on the road, or it cross-pollinated and you’ll end up with some in your field and they’ll own that and you won’t be able to keep seeds back any longer.” Michael Hart says farmers could then possibly end up in court. He replies, “Not possibly. You’ll end up in court.”
Ravicher says that Monsanto has brought 140 lawsuits against farmers, including “those farmers who wanted nothing to do with Monsanto’s genetically modified seed.” The documentary Food Inc. explains how Indiana seed-cleaner Moe Parr was sued by Monsanto, he says, “on the basis that I’m ‘encouraging the farmer to break the patent law’ by cleaning their own seed.” Another anonymous farmer says he settled out of court because he couldn’t afford the legal costs of fighting Monsanto, which were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Troy Roush, Vice President of American Corn Growers Association says that Monsanto sends investigators around the country, looking for people either saving seeds or growing GMO crops on their land, whether they knew it or not, to sue them.
Roush also explains that “public plant breeding is a thing of the past. There virtually are no public seeds anymore.” The reason that public seeds are disappearing is that Monsanto has monopolized seeds and the land-grant colleges that used to breed crops as a public service. In the documentary, Seeds of Death, Mark Dunau, owner of Mountain Dell Farm in New York, says that GMOs “have completely blown out conventional breeding in our land-grant colleges. And we only in this country have 10% of the vegetable seeds that were available to our forebears 100 years ago. Our seed stock is going down the toilet and we can’t even use our land-grant colleges to breed in the standard way because there’s no money for it. And that is a huge, huge, huge threat to the future of agriculture, to lose the skill of breeding standard, which is, in fact, what all that food you see on your grocery shelves. All those vegetables came from thousands of years of farmers sharing their seeds.”
Another aspect of Monsanto’s strategy, whether by design or by accident, is how its seeds spread. Monsanto was reported to have “pulled the plug” on GMO wheat in 2004. The wheat was never approved for commercial use, but was recently found growing in Oregon fields nearly a decade later. In GM Crops Farmer to Farmer, Todd Leake in North Dakota says it’s becoming impossible to grow only organic crops. He says that no matter how much you try to segregate GMO and conventional crops, it’s impossible to prevent cross-pollination. In cases where patented seed contamination goes to court, the burden of proof is always on the farmer, not on Monsanto. Monsanto has recently won an important case against a farmer who accidentally used Monsanto seed, and won another case in which organic farmers sued Monsanto for contaminating their organic crops with GMO crops. Collectively, the American justice system has determined that when it benefits Monsanto, seed contamination is allowed and when it doesn’t benefit Monsanto, contamination is illegal.
Monsanto claims that its products improve farm yield. But a major study by the Union of Concerned Scientists entitled Failure to Yield demonstrates that 20 years of GMO farming have resulted in no significant change in farming yield. Monsanto has no real interest in improving yield, in saving farmers time, labor or money, in feeding the world or advancing scientific progress, as it claims. Monsanto’s only interest is in profit.
In pursuit of profit, the MONSANTOpoly traps farmers into frighteningly lopsided contracts. It uses patent law and the courts to sue any farmers that don’t do what Monsanto wants. Monsanto monopolizes seeds, seed research and seed production, leaving farmers no choice but to use Monsanto products. Even when farmers try to avoid GMOs, contamination can force farmers into using Monsanto products, or force them out of business. This system has created an overreliance on a single chemical product. Glyphosate is creating a rash of superweeds across America. In turn, farmers have little choice but to dump more glyphosate. Evidence shows that this is sickening crops and destroying the nutrients in the soil. Monsanto is threatening American agriculture with a chemical Dust Bowl.
Next up, Part 4: Harvesting Disease will explore what happens when Monsanto products work their way from the crops up the food chain and into your body.
by Marc Belisle | Staff Writer | The Everlasting GOP Stoppers
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