Casaubon's Book

The seed is starting to take shape as the site and symbol of freedom in the age of manipulation and monopoly of life. The seed is not big and powerful, but can become alive as a sign of resistance and creativity in th smallest of huts or gardens and the poorest of families. In smallness lies power. – Vandana Shiva

There’s an AP investigative report into Monsanto that suggests that the winner of the highly competetive “Evillest Corporation Ever” award has decided to raise the bar on evil further, trying to bring virtually all seed companies together under its own axis of evil.

We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable,’ said Neil Harl, agricultural economist at Iowa State University who has studied the seed industry for decades. “The upshot of that is that it’s tightening Monsanto’s control, and makes it possible for them to increase their prices long term. And we’ve seen this happening the last five years, and the end is not in sight.”

At issue is how much power one company can have over seeds, the foundation of the world’s food supply. Without stiff competition, Monsanto could raise its seed prices at will, which in turn could raise the cost of everything from animal feed to wheat bread and cookies.

The price of seeds is already rising. Monsanto increased some corn seed prices last year by 25 percent, with an additional 7 percent hike planned for corn seeds in 2010. Monsanto brand soybean seeds climbed 28 percent last year and will be flat or up 6 percent in 2010, said company spokeswoman Kelli Powers.”

Even if Monsanto weren’t evil, no company should be allowed to control 90% of the seed supply for any staple foods, ever, under any circumstances. Even if we ignore Monsanto’s long persecution of farmers, its disregard for human welfare and its history of malfeasance, we’re left with a big problem. Not only could they raise prices, but they could dangerously reduce genetic diversity – and given what happened when Monsanto took over Seminis, eliminating thousands of open pollinated varieties from the seed trade, this is not an unreasonable concern. We know that without sufficient diversity, we are enormously vulnerable to disease and pest loss of food.

Their monopoly can drive farmers out of business and raise food prices. The only solution is anti-trust legislation at the government level, and a real effort to cut out or reduce Monsanto seed’s monopoly on staple food crops. That means those of us who can are obligated to seek out and source corn and soybeans from farmers who don’t use Monsanto GMOs, and to avoid buying processed food that contains them. We need to support farmers who want to make a shift to other varieties so that they can – sign up for Community Supported Grain programs, and ask local producers to grow non-Monsanto seed. Consider growing a small plot of staple foods in your garden from non-Monsanto sources.

We need to stop supporting Monsanto commercially in the garden seed trade – yes, this is a small portion of their business, but there’s no reason to subsidize them. Instead, seek out seed companies that eschew Monsanto/Seminis varieties including Fedco Seeds www.fedcoseeds.com, Baker Creek Heirlooms www.rareseeds.com, Seeds of Change www.seedsofchange.com, Seed Savers Exchange www.seedsavers,org and many others. It can be hard to give up favorite varieties – but the price is too high.

The simple truth is that seed as a commons is disappearing. The culture that for all of human history made seeds something to spread and share is disappearing. But we don’t need to allow it to go. Seeds are powerful. Get some good ones, save them and plant them.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Don
    December 15, 2009

    In addition to your suggestions to boycott Monsanto seed and other Monsanto products, we need to raise public awareness of this issue. Then we launch a petition drive, petitioning the Justice Department to launch an antitrust investigation of Monsanto. I’m aware of a similar and successful campaign petitioning the Justice Department to investigate Joe Arpaio, the out of control sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, over possible civil rights violations. The Justice Department has agreed to investigate these allegations.

    How do we do it?

  2. #2 Another old gardener
    December 15, 2009

    From Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, Chapter 5, which is the retelling of a parable in which Christ comes to earth and confronts The Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition:

    “Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? ”

  3. #3 Lauren
    December 15, 2009

    This is so upsetting. Years ago, before I’d ever heard of Monsanto (or at least before the name meant anything to me), I saw a documentary about their practices, such as driving a truck with patented seeds on highways alongside private farms. The wind would scatter some seeds onto each farm. Then, when the time came to spray the crops, the ones that remained (and were therefore “Round-Up ready”) were obviously Monsanto’s patented crops, and Monsanto would sue the independent farmers for all they were worth. That film was a real eye-opener for me. Everything I read about Monsanto after that was equally or more distressing. I’m dismayed to learn that it’s getting even worse. Incidentally, here’s an article from 2005 about what I’m describing. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/MonsantovsFarmers.php

  4. #4 p.J. Grath
    December 15, 2009

    The patent ruling that opened the door needs to be reversed. Anything short of that is not enough. Can it be done? How?

  5. #5 Don
    December 15, 2009

    It appears that the DOJ is investigating Monsanto for antitrust violations. Good. Let’s hope some good comes of that. But like you wrote, p.J., it’s not enough–only eliminating the patent privilege will stop this runaway train.

  6. #6 Doug Henning
    December 15, 2009

    Well, as awful as Monsanto is, the “Evillest Corporation Ever” award goes to I.G. Farben, the Nazi-era chemical company that entered into cartels with Standard Oil and DuPont, employed Jewish slave labor, produced Zyklon B for the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and helped propel the Nazi war machine into power.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I.G._Farben

    Monsanto’s crimes are peanuts by comparison.

  7. #7 Doug Henning
    December 15, 2009

    Yes, I know I just ran up against Godwin’s Asymptote, but it’s applicable wherever moral superlatives abound.

  8. #8 Sharon Astyk
    December 15, 2009

    Douglas, you are right of course, and there are some other candidates – Dole, De Beers and Chiquita come to mind immediately. I was engaging in mild exaggeration for effect.

    Sharon

  9. #9 Green Assassin Brigade
    December 15, 2009

    I caught wind of this market concentration on the Huffington post the other day and was outraged. They broke up the seven sisters and AT&T for this kind of market control but with Monsanto we see Nothing being done about it.

    What’s more important than market concentration is the ethical issues over patents on “natural” and Heritage seeds and the potential loss of genetics as they drive smaller companies out of business. I understand that when they infiltrate seed companies in the third world the old indiginous genetics are taken off the market and we have no idea if they are being hoarded or destroyed. Without people farmning open polinated seeds, these varieties will eventually die out.

    When all seeds are hybrid , or worse GM mankind will have lost the most basic of freedoms, the ability to control the means of growing their own food. The food system will become a politcal and economic weapon. This is not right.

  10. #10 Doug Henning
    December 15, 2009

    Hyperbole acknowledged. I think Areva is an excellent candidate, too. It’s not every day that you can chalk up a near-genocide the way you can with DeBeers and Botswana’s evicted Bushmen or Areva and the uranium-poisoned Tuareg regions of Mali and Niger.

    In other news, the Chiquita Banana masterminded global warming to make the whole world “like the climate of the very, very tropical equator”.

  11. #11 Dacks
    December 16, 2009

    I’m a fellow grower in NYS (but in a much colder spot!) I’ve just started reading your blog, so you have probably already covered this in detail, but I’m curious as to your opinion on GM seed. While I deplore the concentration of power in the hands of Monsanto, is it the corporation we should be boycotting, or the GMO technology?

    I say this as a Certified-Naturally-Grown, NOFA-pledge, longtime Fedco customer. I don’t use GM seeds because I don’t need them, but I am worried about throwing away a possibly useful technology because of the people who now control access.

    As a small time market grower, I would like to save more of my own seeds, but I don’t have the room to let lettuces go for an entire season, or let carrots bloom into the huge biennial plants they must be to put out seed. I also depend on hybrid seed for crops like melons to give me the extra edge to be able to grow them in a cold area.

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    December 16, 2009

    Hi Dacks – I have a lot of sympathy with the issues you raise. When we were running our CSA, for example, I found I simply couldn’t save tomato seed – the earliest and best specimens went to my customers, not to seed saving. I had to grow enough varieties of say, c. pepo crops to preclude seed saving, and make better use of space. And yes, I use hybrids as well for some crops like peppers and melons. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing, I found – because I always had extra plants, what I did to expand my seed saving was offer to plant a garden for a friend of mine – in exchange for her putting aside some tomatoes, letting some peas go dry on the vine, etc… She got a free garden, and I got a space away from most of my crops to grow out seed. But not everyone will be able to do everything.

    Re: GMOs. I don’t like GMOs for a number of reasons – first, their capacity to cross-contaminate existing seed stocks, second, I think that in many cases, we are using biotech as a substitute for good agricultural practice – we’d rather shift genes around and create patentable food than we would teach people who need yields to increase how to do it, or help them get better seed and fertilizer.

    More importantly, so far, nearly every study I’ve seen has suggested that GMOs have yet to do anything significant to improve food access, increase yields or reduce pest damage – we keep investing a lot of money and resources in them, but so far their results have been extremely disappointing. We know how to do all of those things without GMOs – so the onus to make a case for GMOs is at this point on the people who want to continue pursuing that line of inquiry.

    Sharon

  13. #13 Brad K.
    December 16, 2009

    Sharon,

    While you point out how lack of genetic diversity increases risk exposure to pests and disease, don’t forget climate exposure.

    Reading Frank W. James’ blog, it seems that having all one genetic source means an entire region experiences harvest bottlenecks, as it all matures (or experiences delayed or interrupted) maturity at the same time. It seems there is also increased sensitivity to vagaries of the growing season – a week late planting, a frost two weeks early, an extra week’s delay in rain at the wrong time, a bit warmer or cooler – you get the idea. Planting differently sourced varieties means an average affect on crop, not risking that the whole crop has to survive, to make ends meet.

    There is the practice that Monsanto, this year, won’t let a farmer order seeds until after they sign a contract to adhere to Monsanto’s protectionist practices. Locally, grain elevators here in Oklahoma are forbidden to sell grain to use for seed, except for labeled and branded seed provided direct from seed companies (replanting patented seed would violate patents, after all).

    On the upside, the seed price may be getting to the point that most small (less than 2 square miles) may have to consider getting out of grain farming. When you *have* to get record yields – with seed that generally doesn’t – to meet your costs to plant and harvest – that gets dicey. And Monsanto may be about to that point.

    Let food plantings drop by 25% next year, and blame Monsanto prices – we could see some changes coming. As you point out, though, Monsanto has already dismantled most of the resources that might have filled the niche that Monsanto hogs today.

    And to think, Monsanto helped write the “Food Safety Modernization Act” now being considered in the Senate (passed the House already), to create a Food Safety Administration under the FDA – and impose “federal safe practices” (that rely on Monsanto) on all food suppliers. The scope of the Senate bill might exempt road side stands, community gardens, and farmers markets – the House bill didn’t, so could still resurface in a compromise bill.

  14. #14 Brad K.
    December 16, 2009

    Monsanto – following in the tradition of “safe” tobacco industry science.

    Sharon, did you see the reports on a French (as in “not paid for by Monsanto”) report that flagship Monsanto weed-killer RoundUp isn’t all that safe for humans? That the glyphosate is poisonous, but not virulently. Combine that glyphosate with surfactances and other “inert” stuff to *accelerate carrying the weed killer to the plant cells* and surprise! the combination – the most commonly used forms of glyphosate – are linked to testicular and pancreatic cancers. (Google “french study glyphosate Monsanto”). One story is at Enviromental Health News, http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/roundup-weed-killer-is-toxic-to-human-cells.-study-intensifies-debate-over-inert-ingredients

    Monsanto is rushing to get all their corn and soybean seed “roundup ready” – meaning more and more food all the time will have RoundUp residue. Monsanto just pushed to get acceptable levels of glyphosate in food upped by 20 times. That makes the idea of a backyard garden seem even better.

  15. #15 safira
    December 17, 2009

    Note to self: order Fedco catalog today.

    Take Seed Savers’ Handbook out of the library and take copious notes.

    End note to self.

  16. #16 Coffee Makers
    December 17, 2009

    I caught wind of this market concentration on the Huffington post the other day and was outraged. They broke up the seven sisters and AT&T for this kind of market control but with Monsanto we see Nothing being done about it.

    What’s more important than market concentration is the ethical issues over patents on “natural” and Heritage seeds and the potential loss of genetics as they drive smaller companies out of business. I understand that when they infiltrate seed companies in the third world the old indiginous genetics are taken off the market and we have no idea if they are being hoarded or destroyed. Without people farmning open polinated seeds, these varieties will eventually die out.

    When all seeds are hybrid , or worse GM mankind will have lost the most basic of freedoms, the ability to control the means of growing their own food. The food system will become a politcal and economic weapon. This is not right.

  17. #17 arvind
    December 17, 2009

    I am sure we can trust Tom Vilsack to rein in Monsanto :-P

    I do harbor the somewhat idealistic pro-science hope that some GMOs can be a humanitarian good provided the public and govt are able to control and regulate the evils around ownership, monopoly and loss of seed diversity. As well as make sure long term health effects are properly studied and not suppressed. I have heard many good things about golden rice, for example.

    ps: Came across your blog recently via Catharine Zivkovic. Welcome to scienceblogs. :-)

  18. #18 ERV
    December 17, 2009

    *amused*

    Anti-vax=Anti-science
    Anti-evolution=Anti-science
    Anti-GW=Anti-science

    Anti-GMO=Oh so educated and enlightened position.

    Fantastic.

  19. #19 bikemonkey
    December 17, 2009

    the post was perhaps anti-business and anti-corporate hegemony and anti-monopoly but it isn’t about science, dumbass.

  20. #20 Sharon Astyk
    December 17, 2009

    Anti-GMO=read the literature. The problem is that the case for GMOs is mostly theoretical – sometime in the future they might, maybe, kinda improve yields – so far, they haven’t. But you don’t have to be anti-GMO to hate Monsanto ;-).

    Sharon

  21. #21 tbell
    December 17, 2009

    way to miss the point ERV…:(
    and if you’re an advocate for GMOs or at least some aspects and applications of them, it will only help your cause if you acknowledge the real evil that Monsanto et al. are up to.
    deconfound the corporate evil and the useful potential of GMOs and maybe people won’t be reflexively against them.

  22. #22 Marion Delgado
    December 17, 2009

    ERV always misses those points, frankly. She is unable to or unwiling to grasp the difference between ethical, moral, economic, and political objections to something and superstition. Taken to an extreme, under Abbie we’d all be serfs to the multinational corporations, because it’d be easy to manipulate her into saying it was unscientific not to be.

    If an animal cruelty opponent says animal tests can’t determine anything useful that applies to human beings, that’s unscientific. If she says some things aren’t worth testing, and some animals should not be tested on, that’s not unscientific. Indeed, it’s the Bible, more or less, that tells modern “Western” societies that man has dominion over animals and can treat them like gum wrappers. Science says we’re close kin.

    If an opponent of GMO points out that Monsanto and others contaminated other people’s crops, reduced diversity, and stole from them, and that GMOs have caused other agricultural problems, well, they’re right, not antiscientific.

    The inability to see the difference makes Abbie, practically speaking, functionally stupid. And in fact, if anti-vax people can point to that kind of kneejerk unreason on the part of people purporting to speak for “science” that makes it that much easier for them to appeal to populism. This confusion doesn’t help. Nor does it help when regulatory agencies are defunded or forced to collude with the businesses they regulate.

    It’s also part of the false “balance” crap where “both sides do xxx.” Which is also not a natural law.

  23. #23 Marion Delgado
    December 17, 2009

    Maybe the most amusing part is that Phylis Schlafly’s *other* son, is essentialy on the same side as Shermer, at least:

    http://simson.net/clips/95.ScientificAmerican.PrimePat.txt

    Yes, he’s patented prime numbers. It’d be unscientific to object, of course. It probably would mean you’re a believer in Numerology. Stands to Reason.

  24. #24 tbell
    December 17, 2009

    I have no longstanding problem with ERV. In fact there is a very good post up by ERV on how cool it is to be able to be wrong as a scientist. It’s also ok to be wrong in socio-political analysis…So I have every expectation that ERV might show up here and say “you know what, I was wrong to ignore the actions of the corporations, I was just thinking in terms of the opposition to GMOs that I consider to be unscientific, but gee whiz, you’re right. we may disagree about GMOs, but those guys at Monsanto are truly the spawn of the devil” …not to put words in your mouth or anything ERV.

  25. #25 billygroats
    December 18, 2009

    The abuse of patent law is a fulcrum for how Monsanto and other companies of their ilk have gained a monopoly position.

    Intellectual property law is a very interesting and insular subset of the the legal world – separate courts and everything. It is yet another example of how a good idea becomes a bad idea when pushed beyond reason. We just have to keep fighting and pushing our elected officials to see that patents on gene sequences are protectionism, not competitive at all.

    Regardging sowing diverse seeds: Even landscapers know that a typical yard environment has a lot of growing variety in soil composition, sunlight, water, competition, etc. That is why they use literally a mixed-bag of seeds called “landscaper’s mix.”

    GMO seeds are like any other technology: beneficial in some applications, harmful in others.

  26. #26 Sharon Astyk
    December 18, 2009

    I don’t know ERV at all, and wouldn’t speculate on anyone’s personal situation. But I wasn’t joking when I said you don’t have to be anti-GMO to be hostile to what Monsanto is doing – many of the people most concerned with it are academic researchers who can’t get access to genetic material.

    My major objection to GMOs is the same one I’ve had to most high-tech, high cost innovations in agriculture – they don’t do much to bring more food to people who need in a consistent way. Nearly every bit of research shows that the major increase in Green Revolution yields went not to hungry people in Nigeria, but into livestock for meat in the rich world. The same has been true of any perceived (there’s little documented) crop yield increases for corn and soy – it has gone into gas tanks and cows, not to the hungry, except in largely destructive ways, through dumping during some years, with scarcity to follow. I doubt most modern GMO research will result in food poor farmers can actually plant.

    Sharon

  27. #27 Sharon Astyk
    December 18, 2009

    Ok, I’ve now done my back research and discovered who ERV is. I’m also going to request that y’all save the personal discussions for someone else’s blog – I haven’t been around long enough to know who goes with who and who hates who and who is part of what group and what I’m supposed to think about them or whatever. Until/unless I actually formulate an opinion, I’m just as happy to talk to people based on what they say, not what someone else says they said sometime before me ;-).

    Sharon

  28. #28 Mariah
    December 18, 2009

    ERV is precisely correct. And as if ERV needs to be told to read the literature.

    I find it enormously amusing that the anti-science anti-GMO forces pretend to cling to the literature and yet rely nearly entirely on unsourced and non-peer-reviewed “reports” from activists groups for all their reading.

    Lately they’ve been throwing around a modeling paper that claims to feed the world on organics (yet Sharon poo-poos theoreticals), and one paper from Rodale that purports to stand for all possible real-world situations.

    I wish Monsanto would go away because they are used as a total fog for all discussions in this area. People are unable to get around that word to assess the technology.

  29. #29 mad the swine
    December 18, 2009

    “ERV always misses those points, frankly. She is unable to or unwiling to grasp the difference between ethical, moral, economic, and political objections to something and superstition.”

    I reject science that you support based on rational cost-benefit analysis.

    You reject science that I support based on superstition.

    That’s usually how it goes, isn’t it?

    Even allowing Sharon’s claim that “sometime in the future [GMOs] might, maybe, kinda improve yields – so far, they haven’t”, there are other areas of research that haven’t shown useful results ‘on the ground’ so far. For example, stem cells. Declaring that one particular field of study is useless and wasteful based on current results is profoundly short-sighted and antiscientific. Monsanto could be the doucheiest of douchebag companies ever to bag a douche (and I’ll allow that they’re probably high up in the ranking), but their dirty tricks with proprietary genes are irrelevant to the actual science of GMOs.

    I do agree with the original post – for reasons of genetic diversity, if nothing else (yes, we have no bananas), Monsanto seed lines should probably be avoided, certainly by home gardeners, as well as by factory farms if practical. The preservation of ‘public domain’ seeds is essential. But the issue gets all mixed up with Monsanto’s corporate malevolence and superstitions about the dangers of GMOs and so on.

  30. #30 Sharon Astyk
    December 18, 2009

    Care to offer an example of a sourced, peer reviewed analysis that shows that GMOs have thus far worked out to an overall increase of yields, particularly one sufficient to compensate for the increased cost of inputs and actually benefit farmers? Doug Gurian-Sherman’s UCS study reviewed the peer reviewed academic literature – 20 years worth – and found that GE soybeans had similar or reduced yields, while Bt corn’s increases were insufficient to justify the higher costs to farmers. What review of papers would you offer in contrast?

    Moreover, 20 years of work on GMOs has put very little food in the field in places that actually need to increase yields. Increasing yields in the US corn crop went mostly to livestock and ethanol. It isn’t that useful to invest in new resources that marginally improve (or not) yields in high-yielding developed countries. But it isn’t profitable to come up with better yielding taro or cassava, that might actually make people less hungry. Nor has it been profitable to do simple things, like supply farmers in poor areas of the world with soil amendments.

    If you care about feeding the world, you do what you can to feed the people who need it most, not the people who need it least.

    Sharon

    Sharon

  31. #31 mad the swine
    December 18, 2009

    “Without stiff competition, Monsanto could raise its seed prices at will, which in turn could raise the cost of everything from animal feed to wheat bread and cookies.”

    Just in passing: IANAF (I am not a farmer), but what percentage of total operating costs does the cost of seed amount to? If it’s something like 5-10% of total costs, Monsanto could go nuts on seed pricing and not really have much of an effect on the final price of corn or wheat or whatever.

  32. #32 dewey
    December 18, 2009

    Most farmers have such a meager profit margin that if seed costs of 5-10% were jacked up another couple of percent, it might not “have an effect on the final price of corn,” but it would cause a lot of farmers to go bankrupt.

    My take as a biologist, though not an expert in this area, is that while objections about the GMO cost-benefit ratio for developing country farmers appear to be well-founded, so far there is no evidence that GMOs are directly harmful to human health in any way. A major caveat is that they have caused the use of Roundup to skyrocket in the past several years, and we are just now learning that Roundup, which never had to be tested for safety as a mixture, may be significantly more toxic than pure glyphosate.

    Another caveat is that I have heard that companies now have the power to consent to or prohibit much independent research on their proprietary varieties. The story I saw had to do with researchers who wanted to do independent yield comparisons but could not use the patented GMOs without the company’s consent. If that is true – I don’t know how the law works – it means that it’s virtually impossible for us to be confident that we know what we think we know about these crops.

  33. #33 Sharon Astyk
    December 18, 2009

    What Dewey said. Profit margins on agriculture are very, very tight. Seed cost is usually around 5% – but that’s huge for a farmer. And seed cost alone isn’t the issue – round up ready GMOs, for example, require outlays for roundup, which are non-trivial. For farmers in the poor world, the difference between seed costs from saved seed (essentially free) and purchased each year are huge.

    I haven’t said that I’m anti-GMO, actually. I am so far unimpressed by GMOs, and I think that they focus on the wrong things – that they alter the debate about food security in ways that aren’t productive, but just as I’m not an organic purist, I’m not an anti-GMO purist. Show me the case for it, and show me that it is producing more food, not for rich folks’ gas tanks but for the hungry people in the world, and I’m willing to discuss it.

    Actually, I don’t think I’ve said anything about vaccination, either…I get the feeling that a lot is being assumed here, or that I’ve walked into a conversation that seems to be about what I wrote but actually isn’t.

    Sharon

  34. #34 MemeGene
    December 18, 2009

    Oh ho ho! Monsanto is amending their position on intellectual property now:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/business/18seed.html

    In letters to seed companies and farm groups this week, Monsanto said that it would allow farmers to continue to grow its hugely popular Roundup Ready 1 soybeans even after the patent protecting the technology expires in 2014.

    My .03:
    The issue of GM crops is a deeply tangled one involving the Precautionary Principle, long-term multigenerational health impacts, consumer choice, producer choice, and legal corporate loopholes. I would actually LOVE to see clearly, honestly labeled GM and non-GM products side-by-side on the shelves so we can scientifically test and collect data over the next 10 years. The problems are:

    1) There is too much biological contamination from GM crops. We can’t scientifically assess the differences between GM and non-GM because the corporations making and using them suck at biological isolation. To compare to the flawed anti-vax analogy – that would be the equivalent of making a transmittable retrovirus that innoculates people and releasing it into the population. Once the Bio-genie is out of the bottle, we can’t put it back in.

    2) Corporate pressure is making it harder and harder to NOT grow GM, and farmers who don’t grow it are punished by powerful companies (see Percy Schmeiser) with overwhelming legal and scientific resources to test and prosecute every single plant in a field.

    3) If a problem does crop up, we may not be able to backtrack to non-GMO crops easily (extinction of other strains) nor will we be able to track public health trends due to lack of tracing of GM crops. Because sellers of GM food products are afraid of negative impressions, they refuse to label their products accurately so consumers can choose (this is a core value in Capitalism).

    Fix these problems, and I’ll wholeheartedly support further research of GM crops. Note that these problems cannot be solved or even addressed purely in the scientific arena. We need scientists to work with lawyers and policymakers and farmers to even approach this issue.

  35. #35 Mariah
    December 18, 2009

    Checkmate: “Doug Gurian-Sherman’s UCS study” is exactly the non-peer reviewed crap people rely on. A cherry-picked and slanted assessment that you would scream about if a climate denier tried the same level of quality.

    And your fixation on increased yield (which is not what the commercial varieties have intended to do at this point) ignores all the other benefits such as farmer health, reduced inputs of insecticides, reduced tilling, reduced fossil fuel required to spray, and the upcoming plants that will need reduced water and provide improved nutrition.

    But here’s one: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/299/5608/900

    “Yet the more sizeable benefits are due to yield advantages. Average yields of Bt hybrids exceeded those of non-Bt counterparts and popular checks by 80% and 87%, respectively”

  36. #36 tbell
    December 18, 2009

    @Mariah, or anyone else who is impressed by the potential of GMOs…

    care to address the corporate malfeasance of Monsanto? it’s what’s at issue in the post…

  37. #37 mad the swine
    December 18, 2009

    Mariah:

    Qaim and Zilberman are obviously in the pocket of Big Agro. Organic means of pest control, based on natural herbal compounds like orange peels, are far superior to the use of poisonous chemicals, which only keep yields down and corporate profits high. If you really want to know how to help farmers, check out whale.to.

    /need I?

  38. #38 Mariah
    December 18, 2009

    This post suggests the only seeds worth using are “good ones” that are organic, and only from non-Monsanto providers. I dispute that. As I said, I wish Monsanto would go away because no one can have a discussion of agricultural technology without demonizing any non-organic seed options. In fact, the image of Monsanto being broken up into 10 pieces actually amuses me–y’all won’t know where to aim at the demon. And it might actually help progress in acceptance.

    There are lots of countries now developing their own projects that will improve the lives of their farmers and their populations. So the debate will move away from Monsatan anyway.

  39. #39 Mariah
    December 18, 2009

    @mad the swine: is that snark? Or has this blog actually dragged out the adherents of whale.to to ScienceBlogs? That would be a tremendous shame.

    Has ScienceBlogs jumped the whale.to?

    Somebody call Orac.

  40. #40 Sharon Astyk
    December 18, 2009

    Actually, the fact that the seed companies I mentioned mostly (not exclusively in some cases) deal in organics isn’t the central point – the seeds aren’t good because they are organic, they are good because they aren’t controlled by Monsanto/Seminis, and thus less subject to being arbitrarily destroyed or witheld from the market, and they don’t involve subsidizing a company whose corporate malfeasance is legend.

    As I said, I’m not an organic purist or a GMO purist – given a compelling case for the use of either, I can see it. What I believe is that we have impoverished farmers by raising the cost of inputs, however, and that we will have to produce food using fewer fossil fuels and fewer high cost inputs as prices for all high demand materials become less available. Creating dependencies on patented seed in the poor world strikes me as deeply problematic.

    Hmmm…that’s an interesting comparison re: climate denial, given that the UCS, the IAASTD and the IFPRI, all of which say basically the same thing about the results of GMO introductions, are either the same organizations who would have been on precisely the right side of the climate debate, or rough parallels of organizations that were – ie, the IAASTD is roughly equivalent to the IPCC, the UCS was out there on global warming correctly early, etc… The fact is that none of these organizations is even remotely parallel to denialist organizations, but quite the opposite.

    Re: I don’t have a problem admitting that GM cotton does seem to have decreased loss from pests and increased yields – although the data about whether it has reduced pesticide use or increased farmer health is less clear – there’s some evidence that it was accompanied by more spraying, not less in some regions. But that’s one non-food crop, making very short term improvements – Indian farmers are already seeing marked price increases for the next generation of boll resistance. And we’ve yet to see yield increase on a food crop.

    Sharon

  41. #41 Mariah
    December 18, 2009

    Well, if you like reports (as I said, they always cite non-peer-reviewed reports as evidence, checkmake x3), perhaps you have missed this one. I tend not to cite reports because they are often so fraught with political (aka non-science) influence. [Anyone heard that the IPCC was conservative in their estimates and it doesn't reflect the best and current science? Anyone heard about the IAASTD being politically influenced? I have.]

    Here’s one you might find interesting, reference in this Science article:
    http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2009/112/4 Farming Strides Toward Sustainability

    The report analyzes the impact of growing four crops–corn, soy, wheat, and cotton, which account for 70% of farmed acres in the Unites States–from 1987 to 2007. One key finding is that the amount of land required to grow a certain amount of food has fallen. Because of yield gains, for example, it now takes 37% less land to grow a bushel of corn than it did in 1987. In addition, the rate of soil loss per amount of grain or cotton grown has declined between 30% and 70%.

    Using less land for a bushel…that’s evillest for sure.

    The analysis, led by agronomist Stewart Ramsey of the consulting firm Global Insight, also finds that the amount of energy spent on farming has fallen by 40% to 60%, probably because farmers who plant genetically modified crops are driving tractors less frequently to spray pesticides and herbicides. Irrigated water use dropped by 20% to 50%, the report found, and carbon emissions fell by about 30%. Wheat was the only crop of the four surveyed that did not post big gains in efficiency.

    I’ll give you 3 guesses for why wheat didn’t make any efficiency gains….

  42. #42 Sharon Astyk
    December 18, 2009

    Heading offline, more on this when I get back after the weekend, and I can’t get to the link – behind a paywall, but I’ll take your word for it. But I actually did write a book about the subject of fossil fuel use in agriculture, and total energy use in world farming hasn’t fallen by 40-60%.

    It has declined in the US – although starting in 1987 is sort of misleading, since it implies that the era of GMOs has something to do with this – in fact, energy use as a function of yield in agriculture began to decline in the 1970s with the oil shocks, and fell most dramatically in the 1970s and in the early 1980s, mostly because of two things – reducing the amount of fertilizer use (we were dumping it on way past the soil’s ability to absorb it – we still are, but less) and better engines in those tractors and other equipment (I don’t think you can hold GMOs responsible for that).

    Total cost of energy per bushel has declined only very slightly, however, leaving farmers paying about as much in fossil energy inputs as they did in the 1970s. The same is true with yields – most of the yield increases continued a pattern set long before the introduction of GMOs, with seed introductions that have nothing to do with GMOs.

    Moreover, yield increases in the US haven’t always been a blessing – corn and soy prices have collapsed several times from overproduction. That is, we’re putting the yield increase right where they are least needed – and it is driving farmers out of business, or driving high-impact stuipidity like the biofuels debacle. Increasing yields where people actually need food, now that would be useful – but corporate ag isn’t interested in that. Nor are they interested in the observation by the IFPRI that, for example, even if yields *decreased* organic agriculture would result in fewer hungry people because of decreased dumping and most stable food prices.

    While I agree the IPCC isn’t perfect, they also aren’t climate deniers. Sure, the IAASTD is a political body (of course, scientists funded by research grants from ConAg or ADM or whatever are totally apolitical…), but it also is trying to deal with feeding the world – with the basic question of what works and what doesn’t, and it manages to come a lot closer in answering this question objectively than any one scientist does – the best we can do is put a lot of scientists together and try and balance their biases. And so far, checkmate, GMOs are losing by all the major agencies ever set to evaluate them objectively, using the peer-reviewed literature. Corporate Ag is about money. The UN ain’t perfect, but at least some people there give a shit about human welfare.

    Sharon

  43. #43 Mariah
    December 18, 2009

    Ha ha ha.

    Moreover, yield increases in the US haven’t always been a blessing – corn and soy prices have collapsed several times from overproduction.

    Wait, I thought yield was everything and it was a huge shame and failure that we weren’t getting it?

    Maybe you’d like the Nuffield Report.

    http://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/go/screen/ourwork/gmcrops/newslist Read it all, of course, but this tidbit from the first letter contains:

    The Discussion Paper concluded that genetically modified (GM) crops could make a useful contribution in tackling some specific agricultural problems in developing countries.

    Nuffield: giving a shit about human welfare.

  44. #44 ERV
    December 19, 2009

    Ok, I’ve now done my back research and discovered who ERV is.
    LOL, wat?

    ‘Back research’? The link to my blog is right there in my comment. If you really wanted to know my opinion on this topic and why I hold it, you could search ERV for ‘GMO’.

    Not exactly 1337 hacking, here, LOL!

    Oooh, look, Im gonna be all devious and leave my blag address in the url box again!

  45. #45 Karl Haro von Mogel
    December 21, 2009

    It looks like some progress has been made in this discussion for the blog author:
    “The problem is that the case for GMOs is mostly theoretical – sometime in the future they might, maybe, kinda improve yields – so far, they haven’t.”

    Which became:
    “Care to offer an example of a sourced, peer reviewed analysis that shows that GMOs have thus far worked out to an overall increase of yields, particularly one sufficient to compensate for the increased cost of inputs and actually benefit farmers? Doug Gurian-Sherman’s UCS study reviewed the peer reviewed academic literature – 20 years worth – and found that GE soybeans had similar or reduced yields, while Bt corn’s increases were insufficient to justify the higher costs to farmers. What review of papers would you offer in contrast?”

    And then:
    “I don’t have a problem admitting that GM cotton does seem to have decreased loss from pests and increased yields”

    It seems that Sharon has gone from declaring that yield gains are merely theoretical (while saying read the literature) to saying that they are insignificant, to saying she is willing to admit that they have occurred but wants to read more. This is a good thing.

    But I think a little more reading needs to be done. For example, the UCS report, Failure to Yield, did NOT find that GE crops reduced yields. I asked the author myself whether he found any evidence of this and he said he had not. There are so many misunderstandings about this paper (and its limited scope) that it ought to be known as Failure to Read. Indeed, it only considered Bt corn, Roundup-ready corn, and Roundup-ready soy. It excluded canola and cotton, for example. And let’s quote some numbers. Doug Gurian-Sherman’s estimate of the increase in yield due to Bt corn was 3-4%. Not a whole lot, but for something that was only supposed to replace insecticides it is pretty substantial. Google “Mendel Biotechnology” for a yield-specific trait that is also more than theoretical – and was not mentioned in the non-peer reviewed report even though it was in the news months before.

    And for the yield gains in cotton – it IS a food crop in the case of cottonseed oil, and seeds can be fed to ruminants. But check out this post for an explanation of how genetic engineering can turn inedible cotton seeds into enough protein for half a billion people:
    http://www.biofortified.org/2009/09/cotton-like-candy/

    Sharon is interested in genetically engineered crops that benefit people in developing countries rather than those who are already rich. You have probably heard of Golden Rice, which underwent a very successful nutritional study published this year, but I encourage you to look up BioCassava Plus or any of the other Harvest Plus projects.

    Sharon, also, you claimed that when Monsanto bought Seminis that they eliminated open-pollinated varieties. The only reference I can find to this with google searches is an article at the Organic Consumer’s Association which was “worried” that that would happen, and this post itself. Could you point me to the source for this statement of yours?

    I write for a group blog on plant genetics called Biofortified, http://www.biofortified.org, where we approach this topic from a science-based perspective, and try to dispel myths about it and point people to the published literature. There is indeed a difference between having a problem with corporations using a technology, and the technology itself and the science surrounding it, but too often the two get tied together as if they were inseparable. “Evil” corporations that “don’t give a shit” = genetic engineering? These are the kinds of dishonest frames that are thrown up to avoid discussing the actual details, and are more pernicious than mere misunderstandings. Here’s to hoping that we can positively influence the structure of the debate!

  46. #46 Marion Delgado
    January 13, 2010

    Karl, i look forward to YOU mutating your uncritical and anti-scientific boosterism as research accumulates against GMO crops.

    Oh, wait, you won’t. Ever. Under any conditions. Market cult. Forgot. Never mind.

    When everyone is eating packaged food that says “Real cockroach meat! Less than 10% smokestack melamine!” the Karls of the world will tell us that thanks to capitalism and unregulated corporate technology, we’ve never been better off.

  47. #47 Marion Delgado
    January 13, 2010

    Monsanto, et al., have made their position crystal clear: they are not going to give anyone time to study anything. They are simply going to make money.

    The precautionary principle has done a great deal of good – it’s the basis of all the gains in food and drug safety and a fundamental concept in environmental conservation.

    Anyone who says you should not apply the precautionary principle to GMOs AND that it’s unscientific to do so, has to give a scientific paradigm, clearly specified, that has that as a clear result. Where is that paradigm?

    That *some* anti-GMO literature or activism is unscientific does not mean it all is. That’s the point. Indeed, the listing that ERV made shows that people are making distinctions, instead of uncritical boosterism – whatever someone in a lab coat does, is good is not a sane or educated posture.

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