While we were sleeping: Score one for the GMO lobby

Updated at 3:10 pacific to include the full language of the relevant section of the bill. Thanks, IM.

Things have been busy around here lately, but that's no excuse. We've just been reminded that, like time, Monsanto stops for no man.

Yesterday, eliciting not a ripple from the blogosphere, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved - by unanimous vote - the innocuously-titled Global Food Security Act of 2009. How will it bring food security to the hungry (and now largely out of work) masses? By increasing U.S. investment in global agricultural research... and by requiring that the agenda include "research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology."

Um. I wish this were an April Fools joke, but no such luck.

Though this may sound like the same old biotech machine grinding its gears, it is actually a major, major shift from past protocol. In previous bills funding ag research abroad, the money targeted projects that considered "the special needs of small farmers, the interrelation between technology, institutional capacity, the environment and cultural factors, and extensive field testing of technology." Hmm. Last time I checked, patented seeds that must be purchased and cannot be saved were not considerate of "the special needs of small farmers." The fact that most developing countries have no legal framework in place to govern GMO seed planting or use means that when researchers considered "the interrelation between technology [and] institutional capacity," GMO technology was a non-starter.

I suppose we could say that GMOs have been extensively field-tested in the United States, if by field-tested you mean allowed to take hold around the country despite widespread evidence that the crops cross-pollinate and contaminate non-GM plantings. (See this example of pharmaceutical crops from the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

This one slipped under the radar screen, but the good news is that we now have the opportunity to write our senators to ask them to vote against the bill when it comes before the full Senate for a vote. The indefatigable Jill Richardson of La Vida Locavore broke this story this morning and provides great talking points on why the passage of this bill - which would in essence shift U.S. investment in global food security toward encouraging countries to adopt genetically engineered crops - is a really, really bad move. To her comments, I will add just one of my own.

There's no question that for years, the U.S. and the rest of the world have seriously underinvested in agricultural research. I've ruined many a dinner party with my soapbox speech on why we need more public investment in research and educational outreach to farmers. Many readers would agree, I'd reckon, that the research agenda at U.S. land-grant universities has been comandeered by deep-pocketed biotech companies able to offer the support university labs can't get anywhere else. If all the money that's gone to researching and promoting GMO crops over the last 30 years had gone towards, say, organic agriculture or local food-production infrastructure, well -- we'd be in a pretty different place than we are now. We could have been investing in food systems that work for our communities and our health and that shore up local food security. Instead, research dollars have been invested in systems that work for Monsanto and Smithfield and Kraft and very few others.

The U.S. trend of woeful public investment in the ag sector has been mirrored around the world, where beginning under Reagan/Thatcher leadership, the World Bank and IMF required developing-country borrowers to reduce public support for agriculture, including public research, credit, and policies that protected small producers. Over the next 25 years, government support for local farmers and food systems was systematically dismantled globally. Now largely dependent on food imports, consumers in developing countries are at the whim of a global market that in turn is at the whim of a few giant agribusinesses and Wall Street speculators.

So normally, confronted with a bill that increased U.S. public investment in agricultural research abroad, I would have felt hopeful, and when that bill was introduced under a Democratic Congress and administration, I would maybe even have let out a cheer. But this bipartisan bill shoots a big, genetically-modified arrow in my wonky heart.

We need to tell our senators that we need more public investment in research that actually benefits the public. What we don't need is our taxpayer dollars being used to advance the agenda of a few already privileged and wealthy companies.

A U.S. research program that prioritizes GMO technology spells major trouble for countries that currently prohibit GM seeds and crops, as many Asian and African and some Latin American countries currently do - mainly because they don't have any way of controlling or regulating them. In the worst case scenario, this bill could force these countries to choose between accepting genetically engineered technology or forgoeing food aid. At a time of widespread hunger and economic recession, what kind of a choice is that?

See Jill's excellent post for more talking points, and then write your senators ASAP.

11 Responsesto “While we were sleeping: Score one for the GMO lobby”

  1. I think your readers deserve to have the full quote from the bill:

    "include research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology."

    This section is available at this link: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=s111-384&version=is&nid=t0%3Ais%3A110

    What I find incredibly interesting is that you purposefully edited out "appropriate to local ecological conditions" - therefore changing the overall meaning. Then, you argued that this [edited] addition to the proposed policy was ignoring the needs of small farmers by doing so. Of course, "appropriate to local ecological conditions" sounds like they are addressing what you suggest they are not.

    Genetic engineering (as you note) doesn't just happen at biotech companies - it also happens at public universities, many of whom are using it along with molecular breeding and other techniques to help small and large farmers around the world. Particularly in developing countries. It would do you well to recognize the nuances in this topic rather than quote mining and painting genetic engineering with a broad brush as just something that big biotech companies do.

  2. Elanor says:

    IM: I do appreciate your clarifying the quote. I pulled the line from an action alert that I received, which also shortened it, and you are right to note that it would have been more responsible for both the alert and me to go directly to the source.

    But I don't agree that it makes a difference. The thrust of Monsanto's international PR efforts currently focus on GM technology as the key to the new green revolution, arguing that this technology is the answer to local ecological conditions that make it difficult to grow enough food: drought, increasingly volatile storms, heat waves, salinization of the soil. Indeed, challenging local ecological conditions are the main issue that Monsanto cites when it argues that we need to expand GMO crop plantings to these regions. The ecological changes brought on by climate change are the ammunition for their agenda. That despite the fact that studies, some of which are cited in Jill's post, show that organic and other soil-building practices have immense potential in drought-prone areas.

    As far as GMO research at public universities, the point I made was that while many of these studies happen at land-grant schools, the research is not, by and large, publicly funded. It is funded by biotech companies through grants given to these schools. Public funding for conventional breeding is far, far smaller.  It's the source of the funding that drives the research, not the fact that it happens to take place on the campus of a public university.

  3. Elanor says:

    Line has been updated.

  4. Ah, I see, it is best to mention all sources. I'm always suspicious of ellipses (...) in the middle of quotes, because there is often something left out by someone. Sorry I assumed that you altered it.

    I wanted to add the refrain that genetic engineering as a way to modify varieties is not in any way at odds with different growing methods. Whether organic or, say, no-till (No-till organic being really hard to achieve), those growing methods can be applied to any crop, whether conventional or GE. I often wonder about the logic of arguing for alternatives when they are not so much alternatives as they are allies. Why settle for a single benefit when you can combine them? I think we have some real challenges ahead of us and the either-or fallacy isn't helping.

    Just because a biotech company stands to profit off of their seeds being grown doesn't mean that the farmers growing it will not benefit, ya know.

  5. MaryAnn says:

    Monsanto GM-corn harvest fails massively in South Africa
    http://www.digitaljournal.com/print/article/270101

    This story was published on March 29, 2009

  6. MaryAnn - I like this quote from the article you linked to: "Monsanto says they just made a mistake in the laboratory, however we say that biotechnology is a failure."
    Without any evidence of that, of course. Anytime anything bad happens around a GE crop it is immediately blamed on the fact that it is GE.

  7. Bill Sullivan says:

    I think that is the whole problem, "Monsanto says they just made a mistake in the laboratory." This is a case where mistakes are unacceptable, they are playing God. And when your playing God you best not be making mistakes!

  8. Thank you for your attention, your analysis of the bill, and open discussion on accurate reporting and good sources.   Other reports of the Bill were positive, and I hadn't initially caught the GMO focus.  Based on our experience, GMOs are not the approach to take.  There's so much you can do on the grassroots level with sustainable agriculture and traditional farming techniques that the GMO risk is avoidable.  I hope in the implementation they really look hard at developing local capacity to grow food, in a sustainable, place-based way. We find this is our greatest area of focus to empower communities (in case you're interested, please visit us at http://www.indigenous-permaculture.com. We welcome visitors to our projects)

  9. So this bill has been amended to encourage government research on improved seed that includes (not mandates) GE technology along with other methods like marker assisted selection that are included in the broader category of biotechnology. You would rather have a few companies do it all and hold the patents? I just don't understand the outrage. I, for one, applaud any efforts to fund more public research that will lead to decreased monopolization of food. Sadly, this post just fell down the slippery slope into no-logic land.

    Funding public research into crops that will help farmers big and small combat climate change and other environmental problems sounds like a very good thing to me. We've come to a point where a few big seed companies fund the majority of theoretical and applied plant breeding. The federal government has cut, cut, cut programs that developed any kind of lines for the public good. IMHO, we need both private and public interests across the world developing improved lines for a variety of crops with a variety of traits that are suited for a variety of environments with a variety of methods! Improved crop varieties need to then be combined with farming strategies appropriate for the farmer and the climate conditions in his/her micro-region. For example, let's develop high yielding salt tolerant and drought tolerant millet, then backcross with selection for a few generations with local lines in local farming conditions to produce seed that is adapted for the location and have additional qualities. Why don't we? The answer is money. The corporations simply have no financial impetus to do this (they are afterall beholden to their shareholders), African governments simply have no money to do this, and the US government has the money but not the will. This bill might  enable the good researchers in the US (like me!) to make things happen!

  10. Regarding the crop failures in South Africa, it's a shame, but has nothing to do with the GE technology. Whether or not the farmers there should be growing maize at all is another subject entirely. This problem could have happened if the seed was GE or not.

    There was a problem with the seed production in the field (not in the lab) that was probably "an act of God" not "an act of science". Perhaps it was too hot and the pollen was able to fertilize and produce seed but the plants from resulting seed had reduced fertility. It's hard to say without knowing the exact situation - and none of the "reports" have any useful info.

  11. Anastasia makes a good point in terms of the overall picture of public funding for crop improvement, which has been on a dismal decline for decades. By putting something in the bill that could be cited in a grant proposal, it may make it easier for a public project to get the money it needs to make it happen.