Thursday, February 03, 2005

Surrendering to biotech crops

In an important recent report, which has yet to receive the full airing it deserves here, the Center for Food Safety lays out Monsanto's strategy for winning the war over GMO crops. First, buy up every major seed supplier, thus gaining a powerful share of the market; then patent everything in sight; and then require farmers who buy your product to sign away their right to save seeds, forcing them to repurchase your stuff each year. The coup de grace: since seed germoplasm is spread naturally through cross-pollination, farmers who never agreed to plant biotech seeds will be effectively using your stuff--and can be extorted into paying you licensing fees. And indeed, Monsanto drops $10 million a year for a 75-person-strong shake-down team, which runs around the country monitoring farmers for possible patent violations.

The study quotes Don Westfall, vice president of food consultancy Promar International (see below), in a frank assessment of the strategy: “The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded that there’s nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender.”

Evidently, more and more farmers are surrendering; biotech crop acreage worldwide is growing at a robust 20 percent annual clip; my friend in Brazil gave a stark example of how the process works in the so-called developing world.

Moreover, the liberals are surrendering, too, removing yet another obstacle for biotech's leveraged buyout of global agriculture. The latest evidence: a craven report, released today, by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Now, I've never found much use for the CSPI; it's always been one of those do-gooder groups that lectures the public on the importance of eating one's spinach, without questioning whether that spinach was doused with pesticides or trucked across country from a factory farm. It's forever chiding the fast-food industry to offer more low-fat items, without stopping to consider the ruinous thrust of the entire fast-food project, or the brutalizing effect "low fat" has had on the American palate.

But I would have expected a more nuanced view of biotech than what the company served up Thursday morning.

Apparently, Monsanto has not been effective enough in promoting its agenda. CSPI is annoyed that Monsanto has only transformed a few big commodity markets. " The industry promised a bounty of beneficial crops, but the biotech cupboard remains pretty bare, except for the few crops that have benefitted grain, oilseed, and cotton farmers,” the report's author complains. Moreover, the biotech-friendly Bush government should speed up the approval process: "Just 13 .. approvals were granted from 2000 to 2004, and again, it took APHIS [one of the government's oversight agencies] almost twice as long—13.4 months on average—to grant approvals."

Clearly, the answer to the biotech crop shortage is government cash. Here is the CSPI's press release heralding the report: "In the report CSPI also recommends increasing public investment in GE [genetically engineered] crops, particularly by applying existing technology to non-commodity crops and by expanding research on biotech crops that would benefit consumers. CSPI also urged increased government support for research on crops that would be important to developing countries." To be fair, the report does lodge a couple of complaints against the industry: it's not innovating fast enough (despite Monsanto's $430 million annual R&D budget), it opposes "sensible biosafety regulations in the U.S. and abroad," and it should "make its proprietary technology freely available for public research and development efforts."

Meanwhile, all the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) can do is incessantly call for "monitoring."

Thus the biotech juggernaut charges ahead, its wheels oiled (GMO canola, no doubt) by the faint complaints of its would-be critics.

Note: Styling itself a “problem solver to the food chain,” above-mentioned Promar boasts a client list that reads like a most-wanted list of U.S. corporate food criminals.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guest Choice & "The Food Police" Make Strange Bedfellows

Source: 6/17/01 CSPI letter to NYT, and Guest Choice Network

Lobbyist Rick Berman runs the DC-based Guest Choice Network, a mean and nasty PR operation serving the tobacco, booze and food industries. (See PR Watch Volume 8 #1 for the inside scoop on Berman & Co.) His favorite target is often Michael Jacobson's "food police" at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). But now, after years of sitting on the sidelines in the genetically engineered food debate, Jacobson has received biotech funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, and CSPI is praising the alleged benefits and safety of GE food. As a result, Berman's Guest Choice Network is praising CSPI, especially after CSPI's Gregory Jaffe told the New York Times that the benefits of GE food, "without any evidence of harm to humans or the environment � partly explain why engineered crops are spreading so rapidly." Oh really, Gregory? We suspect that the failure of the US FDA to require mandatory safety testing or labeling -- and the failure of the snoozing food police at CSPI to demand they do so -- are the more obvious reasons why GE foods have stealthily grabbed market share in the US. Politics is known for strange bedfellows, and Mike Jacobson and Rick Berman are today's odd couple.

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