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.
Biotech crops also affect biodiversity in ways that "traditional"
industrial crops don't: by risking the genetic integrity of cultivated and wild
plants. In a 2006
report, Doug Gurian-Sherman, now with the Union of
Concerned Scientists, explained: "Genetic engineering ups the ante when it
comes to the potential for harm to wildlife from gene flow, because organisms
in natural ecosystems have not adapted to many of the genes used in field
trials. With the recent approval of genetically engineered alfalfa in the
United States, organic farmers here are ever more concerned about such a