Friday, May 13, 2005

A billion acres sold (and counting)

The genetically modified (GM) seed industry is aglow with news of its latest milestone: one billion acres have now been planted with biotech crops. As one industry executive enthused in an Associated Press story, "somewhere in the northern hemisphere, a farmer has [recently] planted the one billionth acre of seed containing biotech traits."

Northern hemisphere? Genetically modified seeds are pretty popular among commodity farmers in Brazil and Argentina, too. And don't some states in southern India sanction GM cotton? In fact, one industry front group boasts that GM acreage is growing at least as fast in the quote-unquote developing world as it is in the northern hemisphere.

No matter. The ascent from zero to a billion acres planted in less than a decade is indeed a remarkable achievement--more stunning still, given all the popular opposition to GM.

Describing the sheer vastness represented by one billion acres, yet another industry front group gushes:

A billion acres is a lot of territory. It would take more than 27 land masses the size of Iowa to fill up that much space.

If you lined up a billion square acres, they would circle the planet at the equator more than 1587 times. They would reach to the moon and back 164 times. They would go all the way to the sun and all the way back--and still have some length left to spare.

A "lot of territory," indeed! Consider, too, that biotech acreage is growing at a compounded annual rate of 20 percent. That means, if present trends hold, there will 1.2 billion biotech acres (five more Iowas) a year from now--and 1.44 billion acres (another six Iowas) the year after that. That's the beauty of compounding interest, as the financial planners like to say.

Already, the above-linked AP story reports, 85 percent of soybeans and 45 percent of corn planted in the United States in 2004 were biotech crops.

The story goes one to quote a satisfied customer of the GM industry's goods, one Gordon Wassenaar, 69, of Prairie City, Iowa, who:

farms about 750 acres of soybeans and about 500 acres of corn. All of his soybeans are biotech crops, and his corn is grown from about three-fourths biotech seed. He said he's used the biotech crops for years now and they've saved on cost, cutting down the use of farm chemicals, and saved some on the work because less spraying is required.
"We're pleased," he said. "No complaints at all."

So biotech's been a boon, huh? Well, Bitter Greens Journal respects all farmers, and salutes anyone still scratching a living off the land in 2005. (Although it bitterly deplores the commodity market that most farmers have been forced to sell into; see this post).

But I wonder if the goods proffered by Monsanto, which dominates the markets for biotech soy and corn seeds, have really been such a great benefit after all. I went to one of my favorite Web sites, the indispensable Environmental Working Group's farm-subsidy page. I found that the farmer quoted by AP, Wassenaar, racked up an eye-popping $337,759 in commodity subsidies between 1995 and 2003, roughly the period of GM agriculture's great rise.

Again, all respect to Wassenaar, but if GM is so wondrous, then why does the government have to dole out $37,528 a year to keep his farm afloat?

I doubt the claim that GM cuts down, long-term, on use of farm chemicals. Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed lines evidently require higher doses of the herbicide glyphosate, the key ingredient Monsanto's cash-cow Roundup product.

And if GM increases yield, as its enthusiasts promise, then farmers like Wassenaar will either have to buy and tend large herds of manure-producing ruminants—or boost application of fossil-fuel-laden fertilizers. Why? As the Appalachian State University agroecologist and Maverick Farms mentor Christof den Biggelaar points out, higher yields mean more nutrients pulled out of the soil.

Higher yields can only be sustained by amending the soil, one way or another.

According to an article in Business Week (April 13, 2000), the average yield per acre of corn has surged from 34 bushels in the 1940s to 44 in the '50s to 120 bushels by the late 1990s. The price paid for that leap can be partially measured by the devastation caused by nitrogen-rich fertilizers being washed into waterways from the Mississippi clear down to the Gulf of Mexico. (As for the implications on energy usage, stay tuned for an upcoming post.)

Also, exploding yields led to tumbling prices. Not coincidentally, the same period described by Business Week saw the total number of U.S. farms plunge from 5 million to under 2 million.

There's a lot of despair and pain built into that number, lots of tradition ruined, families and entire areas devastated. The quality of our food, too, has paid a dear price.

And as GM crops continue their awesome ascent, I fear, the unpaid bills of industrial agriculture will continue piling up.

The only salute I can offer Monsanto on the occasion of the billion-acre milestone is a middle finger raised high in the air. I hope more farmers join me in this gesture. (That one’s for the Monsanto flack who regularly checks in on Bitter Greens Journal.)

NC outrage
One way the GM industry spreads its seed, so to speak, despite widespread opposition, is through buying politicians. Monsanto recently got slapped on the wrist by the US Justice Department for bribing Indonesian officials to accept GM crops. A Bitter Greens Journal reader called Sally alerted me to a bit of shenanigans going on right in my own back yard.

According to a environmental group called the Dogwood Alliance, based in the US south, "Members of the North Carolina General Assembly have filed a flurry of bills drafted by corporate agribusiness to preempt local regulations that might restrict genetically modified crops."

Instead of simply preventing local governments from passing ordinances that ban biotech crops-bans which a few towns in California have imposed, evidently spooking the GM industry--the bills try to evade public outrage by through vagueness. They would forbid municipalities "to control any kind of plant or plant pest."

I'll be looking into the money trails of the pols sponsoring these bills. One is NC Sen. Charles Albertson (address: 136 Henry Dunn Pickett Road. Beulaville, NC, 28518; phone number (910) 298-4923); others are Assemblyman Dewey Hill, and senators David Hoyleand Tom Apodaca.

Dogwood Alliance says similar bills have been floated in nine other states. Stay tuned.


Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Some good info about the lousy economics of GMO crops:

First, in The New Farm, a reprint of a speech given by Michael Duffy in December 2001 at the American Seed Trade Association Meeting in Chicago:

Iowa Ag Economist Makes Dispassionate—And Utterly Convincing—Economic Case Against GM Crops Before a Hostile Crowd.

Duffy is Associate Director for Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (which has a very interesting site, by the way). I think he definitely qualifies for hero status. Here's another article by him on the same topic:

Study Shows No Economic Advantage for Iowa Farmers to Plant GMO Crops.

But hey, what's real research worth when you've got a "no complaints" testimonial from a real live farmer? (As an aside, average farm size in Iowa is in the range of about 350 acres, so Wassenaar, farming well over three times that, is definitely one of the larger operators. And perversely but predictably, it's the big farmers like him who can rake in the most government subsidies. And "most subsidized" is pretty much the only metric by which such farmers can be accurately labelled "successful"; they're certainly not more efficient than sustainable operaters.)

Also, here's a reprint of a NY Times article from 2003 on a predictable problem with Roundup and Roundup Ready Seeds:
Widely Used Crop Herbicide Is Losing Weed Resistance.

I don't know anything about neRAge (I remembered reading the article and found neRage's site by googling to find the full text), but at the very least they look like a good source of links and info on this stuff.

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