Does genetic modification lead to more and better crops? Or will it destroy the foundations of our food systems?
French farmers and activists reap what they called an "illegal" plot of genetically modified rapeseed developed by the agribusiness company Monsanto. Robert Pratta/Reuters
Two weeks ago, Monsanto announced the latest genetically engineered crop it hopes to bring to market: a soybean rejiggered to resist the herbicide dicamba. The new product, says Monsanto, will aid in weed control and "deliver peace of mind for growers."
Meanwhile, half a world away, La Via Campesina, a farmers' movement of 150 organizations from 70 countries, had a slightly different idea about what would bring peace of mind to its millions of members: protecting biodiversity. In its statement to those gathered in Bali for the United Nations treaty on plant genetics, the organization urged treaty drafters to reevaluate the legal framework that allows seed patenting and the spread of genetically engineered crops, like those Monsanto soybeans. These genetically modified crops and the international patent regime, La Via Campesina said, block farmers' ability to save and share seeds, threatening biodiversity and food security.
In 2004, half of global seed sales were controlled by 10 companies. Today, those companies control nearly three-quarters of sales.
Monsanto and La Via Campesina represent two distinct worldviews. According to Monsanto and other chemical and seed giants like Syngenta, BASF, and Dupont, corporate control of seeds and relaxed laws for biotech promotion spur innovation and productivity.
That may sound good, but La Via Campesina and many other groups around the world look at the real-world effects of 20 years of patent approvals and the spread of biotech crops. These critics argue that corporate power over seeds has actually undermined biodiversity and food-system resilience.
This debate is significant. Which side we listen to will largely determine just how well we can continue to feed the planet, especially as we contend with ever greater weather extremes brought on by global warming when crop resilience will be paramount.
Since the 1980 Diamond v. Chakrabarty Supreme Court decision, companies in the U.S. have been able to patent life forms, including seeds. In Europe, since 1999, nearly 1,000 patents on animals and 1,500 on plants have been approved; thousands more are pending, and not just for genetically engineered crops, but for conventional ones, too. Monsanto and Syngenta alone have filed patents for dozens of conventional vegetables, including tomatoes, sweet peppers, and melons. This means tightening control on how and where certain crops can be planted and even whether certain seed lines are continued—or exterminated.
In contrast to what we hear from Monsanto, patents actually restrict innovation, as researchers can no longer freely use patented plants in breeding experimentation. Increasing market concentration in seed ownership has also destroyed true market competition. In 2004, half of global seed sales were controlled by 10 companies. Today, those companies control nearly three-quarters of sales. This concentration has led to higher prices and shrinking choice for consumers.
Add to this corporate consolidation the spread of biotech crops and you see why biodiversity is becoming so threatened. Biotech crops, like other industrial crops, are monocultures, with single varieties planted over millions of acres and sprayed with chemicals. Despite promises about wonder crops that would end Vitamin A deficiency or withstand drought, nearly all commercially available genetically modified foods are just one of two types, designed either to withstand a specific pesticide or to include a built-in pesticide. Fifty percent of all biotech crops planted worldwide are soybeans. Three countries--the United States, Brazil, and Argentina--grow 77 percent of all genetically modified crops, nearly all destined for livestock, not the world's hungry.