Monday, July 21, 2008

You Are What you Eat

On our planet, approximately 18% of the land mass is used for agricultural production. According to the ABIC Manifesto, this fraction cannot be increased substantially. It is absolutely essential, it claims, that the yield per unit of land increases beyond current levels given that: the human population is still growing, and will reach about nine billion by 2040; 70,000 km²'s of agricultural land are lost annually to growth of cities and other non-agricultural uses; consumer diets in developing countries are increasingly changing from plant-based proteins to animal protein, a trend that requires a greater amount of crop-based feeds. Hence the efforts, by the industrial farming lobby, for bio-engineered intervention.

Genetically modified (GM) foods, more accurately called genetically engineered foods, are foods that have had their DNA altered through genetic engineering. Unlike conventional genetic modification that is carried out through conventional breeding and that have been consumed for thousands of years, GE foods were first put on the market in the early 1990s. The first commercially grown genetically modified whole food crop was the tomato, which was made more resistant to rotting by Californian company Calgene. Calgene was allowed to release the tomatoes into the market in 1994 without any special labeling. It was welcomed by consumers that purchased the fruit at two to five times the price of regular tomatoes. The attitude towards GM foods would, however, be drastically changed after outbreaks of Mad Cow Disease weakened consumer trust in government regulators; and protesters rallied against the introduction of Monsanto's "Roundup-Ready" soybeans.

The next GM crops included insect-resistant cotton and herbicide-tolerant soybeans both of which were commercially released in 1996. GM crops have been widely adopted in the United States. They have also been extensively planted in several other countries (Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) where the agriculture is a major part of the total economy. Other GM crops include insect-resistant maize and herbicide-tolerant maize, cotton, and rapeseed varieties. Between 1995 and 2005, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs had increased by a factor of 50, from 17,000 km² (4.2 million acres) to 900,000 km² (222 million acres), of which 55 percent were Brazil.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimate that 75 percent of all processed foods in the U.S. contain a GM ingredient. In particular, Bt corn, which produces the pesticide within the plant itself is widely grown, as are soybeans genetically designed to tolerate glyphosate herbicides. These constitute "input-traits" are aimed to financially benefit the producers, have indirect environmental benefits and marginal cost benefits to consumers. In the US, by 2006 89% of the planted area of soybeans, 83 percent of cotton, and 61 percent maize was genetically modified varieties. Genetically modified soybeans carried herbicide tolerant traits only, but maize and cotton carried both herbicide tolerance and insect protection traits. In the period 2002 to 2006, there were significant increases in the area planted to Bt protected cotton and maize, and herbicide tolerant maize also increased in sown area. However, several studies have found that genetically modified varieties of plants do not produce higher yields than normal plants.

Some argue that there is more than enough food in the world and that the hunger crisis is caused by problems in food distribution and politics, not production, so people should not be offered food that may carry some degree of risk. Some opponents of current genetic engineering believe the increasing use of GM in major crops has caused a power shift in agriculture towards biotechnology companies, which are gaining more control over the production chain of crops and food, and over the farmers that use their products, as well. As a result non-aligned governments around the world started taking action. For example, in August 2003, Zambia cut off the flow of Genetically Modified Food from the UN's World Food Programme. Subsequently Hugo Chávez announced a total ban on genetically modified seeds in Venezuela, while the Hungarian government announced a ban on importing and planting of genetic modified maize seeds. In 2006, even American exports of rice to Europe were interrupted when much of the U.S. crop was confirmed to be contaminated with unapproved engineered genes.

Enforcement of patents on genetically modified plants is often contentious, especially because of gene flow. In 1998, 95% of about 10 km² planted with canola, by Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, were found to contain Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready gene although Schmeiser had never purchased seed from Monsanto. The initial source of the plants was undetermined, and could have been through either gene flow or intentional theft. However, the overwhelming predominance of the trait implied that Schmeiser must have intentionally selected for it. Although unable to prove direct theft, Monsanto sued Schmeiser for piracy since he knowingly grew Roundup Ready plants without paying royalties. The Canadian Supreme Court determined that Schmeiser had saved seed from areas on, and adjacent, to his property where Roundup had been sprayed, such as ditches and near power poles, and found in favour of Monsanto. Currently Percy Schmeiser spends a large amount of his time traveling and speaking about how Monsanto ruined his career as a farmer.

India, for example, has one of the most sophisticated Laws of Biosafety in the world. The Environmental Protection Act is science based, public interest oriented legislation created long before the commercialization of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) and crops and long before the International Biosafety Protocol of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity came into force. The genetic engineering industry, in particular Monsanto, which controls 95% of all GM seeds sold worldwide, first tried to by pass India's Biosafety Law when it started field trials without approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, the statutory body for Biosafety regulation. That is why when Monsanto started field trials of Bt. Cotton in 1997-98, without approval they initiated a case in the Supreme Court of India to challenge the illegal trials. As a result commercialization of Bt. Cotton was delayed up to 2002.

The resultant legislation proposed by the Indian Government points at a significant shift on this issue. Instead of the current multi-ministerial committee, all powers for decision making will be concentrated in one individual who will be a biotechnologist, with skills in genetic engineering but expertise in biosafety. The proposed authority is thus centralized, individualistic, biased in favour of genetic engineering and, hence, will lend itself to easy influence by the genetic engineering industry. The Indian public cannot have confidence in such an undemocratic institution, designed to support an industry that has done everything in the last decade to undermine citizens rights and the public interest. This is a direct attempt to replace India's excellent Biosafety Law with industry friendly legislation, and to replace biosafety with biotechnology.

In a world currently reeling under massive food price hikes, the correlation seems almost too obvious to be believed. Access to affordable food has once more become a political lever; as witnessed by the plethora of food subsidies, market access regulations, production legislation and distribution agreements. Some 230 years ago, give or take, the hereditary privilege of European royalty was swept aside by the agrarian class; their impetus being starvation, despite being the producers of their nations' food. Those that seek control of the means by which humans feed themselves, will do well to heed the lessons of history.