Claire Hope Cummings is the author of the new book "Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds." An environmental lawyer for 20 years, including four spent with the USDA, Cummings reports regularly on agriculture and the environment for national media outlets; she has also farmed in California and in Vietnam. We will be posting a Q&A with Cummings soon.
Recent food riots and the fear that climate chaos will result in famine are just the tip of the proverbial (melting) iceberg. Rising prices and falling grain stockpiles are a warning of things to come.
We are, perhaps sooner than we'd hoped, facing one of humanity's most serious and recurrent challenges: how to maintain sufficient food production under conditions of massive ecological and social instability. Global warming will make droughts worse. The weather that crops depend on will become ever more unpredictable. But are hunger and famine the inevitable result?
Here in California, it's been a dry year. Our reservoirs are low and the snow pack in the Sierra is below average. Cities north of San Francisco have begun water rationing and the always water-weary city of Los Angeles just announced plans to begin using "heavily cleansed" sewage for drinking water.
California farmers use over 80% of available fresh water supplies. Currently they use much of it to grow irrigated export crops, like cotton. In the southern states, the situation is worse. Livestock and field crops there have been withering for years, leading the Governor of Georgia to pray for rain on the capital steps.
Still, nothing in this country compares to the droughts other areas are experiencing. Australia, for instance, has been trapped in an epic drought for the last six years. But developed countries still have options. The developing world, especially the semi-arid regions of Asia and Africa, face tremendous pressures on their water supplies from growing populations and rampant urbanization. How can agriculture continue to be productive under these conditions?
It's tempting to resort to a crisis mode of thinking. But international aid, while essential for emergencies, can not address the long term problem of climate-change induced hunger. Farmers in the third world need affordable seeds. And now, the biotechnology industry has stepped forward with their drought, disease, wind, and salt-resistant plants saying they will save these poor farmers.
The ETC Group, a Canadian organization that has been following the worldwide corporate concentration of seed ownership for decades, says the biotech industry has begun patenting genes that give plants the ability to respond to drought, heat, cold, abiotic stress, and salt resistance, called "climate-ready" genes. ETC analyzed 532 patent documents and found they do not just cover these traits, they assert broad ownership rights over the plant itself.
The industry acts as if they actually invented something. Actually, these beneficial traits came about naturally, as organisms responded to environmental stress, and these traits used to be freely available to plant breeders everywhere. Plus, they can be bred into crop varieties without using the expensive and unpredictable process of genetic engineering. But the reason biotech uses genetic engineering is that you can patent the results. And patents are the life blood of biotechnology.
Who are we talking about here? The biotech industry made up of corporations like Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, and DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred. They hold the patents to "climate-ready" genes, and with a handful of others they now own 57% of the world's seed market. And all over the world, they are putting legal and economic structures in place to force farmers and governments to buy their seed and end the time-honored practice of seed saving.
This is the real disaster lurking behind today's headlines. Biotech corporations have spent millions on doing what nature has already done, using seeds and plants that were, until recently, part of the great commonwealth of nature. It is a monumental theft of the highest order. Monsanto alone spends $2 million a day on research and development and then spends millions more on public relations campaigns aimed at convincing the public that their patented seeds are just what the world needs.
And they know something most people don't know: that funding for national and international public plant breeding at research centers and seed banks has plummeted. And public investment in sustainable "open source" technologies, even already proven options such as organic farming, is almost non-existent. Biotechnology may not be the answer but it may be all we have left.
What biotech fails to mention, or intentionally masks in their advertising, is that transgenic crops are not necessarily more productive. Overall, they use far more toxic chemicals than their conventional counterparts. They also do not want you to know about the risks of using their products or that they cost more and trap the farmer in an endless cycle of debt and chemical addiction.
After the failure of their "golden rice," this industry has been desperate to find some social cover for their products. Agricultural biotechnology has always been an invention in search of a necessity. The industry even requested an international study be done to show how transgenic crops could feed the world. The result was the recently released International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) which found that biotechnology was not the answer. Instead, it concluded that sustainable and locally based seeds and production methods were what developing countries needed.
What the experts know all too well is that hunger is caused by poverty. And poverty is a political problem, not a technical one. What we are facing right now is not so much scarcity itself, but the political implications of the fear of scarcity. If we are driven by fear, we are not going to make reasoned and informed political choices.
It's well known that food was being exported from Ireland to England during the Great Hunger of the mid-19th century. That fact gave rise to the saying that "The Almighty sent the potato blight… but the English created the famine." My Irish ancestors understood all too well that if you give the King power over the fertility of the land, and if you make the farmers serfs to the ruling class, when something like a disease or a drought comes along, there will be famine.
This essay was first published on the Beacon Press blog and is reprinted with the author's permission. Photo by iStockPhoto.