American Agriculture: Wreaking Biological Havoc

by Rodney Leonard

Rodney E Leonard is the publisher of Nutrition Week, the journal of the Community Nutrition Institute of Washington, DC.

This article appeared in the June 5,1988 edition, and is reprinted with kind permission of CNI.

American agriculture, the spawning bed of populism and prairie radicalism over a tumultuous century of change, is plunging again into a radical transformation of uncertain outcomes with implications for American democracy itself.

The vague outlines already are forming with several structural features now visible:

Two agricultural systems are emerging. One is a system of small independent farms relying on the management skills of farm owners who produce natural, organic foods that provide arising portion of the American diet. The other is an industrial agriculture system managed by executives of corporations that genetically convert plants and animals into miniature factories producing chemicals, drugs and body parts through biotechnology; farmers will grow and harvest these factories on command of corporate managers.

In a global economy, biotechnology is transforming U.S. democracy into its commercial agent. The national interest is defined as compelling the world to accept products of biotechnology corporations, even jeopardizing the rights of citizens to decide how much risk to health and environment they will accept.

In fact, this strange new world is already here, with the rules of governance quietly being changed to restrain popular reaction. In the last several months, a radical transformation of agricultural biotechnology has largely been completed, with two giant corporations in the chemical and drug sectors emerging to dominate an industry of which few Americans are aware. One is American Home Products, Inc. (AHP), and the other is DuPont Co. AHP is a drug company and DuPont is a chemical company. Until this week, when AHP merged with Monsanto Corp. in a $33 billion combine, DuPont and Monsanto had both spent billions of dollars to acquire seed companies, biotechnology research firms, and food processing and distribution companies. Each has spent more than $6 billion apiece in the past three years on acquisitions, and both giants have additional billions to spend. DuPont will shed Conoco Oil, a $30 billion subsidiary, to create a massive acquisitions and research investment fund.

Other companies are scrambling to catch up, but Monsanto's earlier start has given AHP a market lead in genetically modified seeds for corn, cotton and soybeans. AHP-Monsanto wlll control an estimated 80 percent of the U.S. cotton seed market if regulators approve the acquisition of Delta & Pine Land Co., the largest cotton seed supplier. Between the two companies, AHP-Monsanto and DuPont will have acquired control of the dominant share of the U.S. seed market for commercial grain and oilseed crops, including half of the market for soybeans and corn.

The rivalry is intense, for good reason. Control of seed production, with the monopoly pricing power from control of patents on genetic changes, allows the biotechnology corporation to control farmers and industrial farming production. Enhanced by such gifts as the terminator gene from Department of Agriculture USDA) that causes seeds to become sterile after one season, AHP-Monsanto and DuPont will be able to dictate seed prices, growing practices, marketing and other terms of management. Growers cannot object. Seeds for next year's crops must be purchased, and alternative uses for croplands are few.

Until AHP arrived on the scene, Monsanto appeared to be concentrating on exploiting upstream applications of biotechnology: those which occur through control of seeds modified to resist pests and toxic chemicals for corn, soybeans and cotton. DuPont has greater advantages in downstream applications: those which modify the genetic structure of plants as miniature chemical factories to make unique nutrients and drugs. AHP, with over-the-counter drug marketing skills, brings end-of-stream retail sales prowess to market the genetically modified organism (GMO) products Monsanto is developing.

The radical restructuring of U.S. agriculture carries large economic and social costs. Some, such as giving control of farmland and farm equipment for free to the biotechnology industry and its investors, are obvious. Others are hidden. Within the span of a generation, grain and oilseed growers must learn the rules of how to please corporate managers in highly integrated agribusiness. Growers still must obtain credit to survive, and bankers value independence less than appreciation of corporate status.

Hidden costs penetrate deeply to affect all of American society, and arise from the complexities of global markets and finance. Land grant universities, USDA, agribusiness, food makers and Wall Street money managers promote genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with the promise of increased output and income. Growers, however, compete in global markets saturated with conventional grains and oilseeds. Farmers sell to survive.

Bureaucrats, scientists, managers, and educators are paid salaries, however, that depend essentially on recouping the multi-billion dollar speculations in biotechnology. Success is measured in the ability of biotechnology companies to charge higher prices for GMO seeds compared to conventional seeds, i.e., by raising production costs. Higher production costs can be recovered only if GMO commodities can be exported. The Clinton administration is growing fearful over prospects and the reason is clear. If U.S. consumers are uneasy about foods with novel genetics, consumers in Europe, Japan and other major U.S. markets are downright hostile, for good reason. Health risks of GMOs are uncertain and will not become known until long-term consumption studies of GMOs have been conducted. Health studies on humans are morally wrong, leaving GMO advocates to deny that risk is possible.

Other arguments for GMOs are even weaker. Scientists and bureaucrats raise the threat of famine, the ultimate speculative argument for GMOs. But famine caused by lack of food globally has not occurred in more than 200 years. Famines in Southeast Asia, India, Africa, Ireland, China, North Korea and Russia all have been created by political decisions to withhold available food stocks, not because of food shortages. Food programs in the U.S., a political decision to treat malnutrition as a disease of poverty, are responsible for ending hunger in America, not science and technology.

American growers can produce either novel or conventional grains and oilseeds. European consumers have said loudly enough for their governments to hear that they do not want GMO commodities in the foods they eat. Protests in the largest single market for U.S. farm exports have led European governments to propose either a ban on GMO commodities or food labels to enable consumers to choose between novel or conventional ingredients.

U.S. growers of novel GMO grains and oilseeds are exposed to the loss of a major export market, a disaster with rippling economic impact. If growers cannot export, they must sell GMO grains and oilseeds at home, but U.S. consumption rises with population growth, or about one percent a year. Half of soybean and corn output must be sold abroad, and cannot be absorbed in the domestic market without catastrophic economic consequences. If exports drop, growers will be bankrupt, sales of GMO seeds will shrink, and biotechnology earnings will fall, as will stock prices.

Radical change brings radical problems, and the U.S. and EU are poised on the brink of economic war as a result. The conflict is not over soybeans, corn and conventional trade but over growth hormones and GMOs-over chemicals, drugs and labeling novel products of unknown risks and uncertain consumer value. The potential trade war is not over product but over quelling consumer resistance in Europe to GMOs. Countries that compete with the U.S. for EU and other key global markets are ready to provide more than abundant supplies of basic food stocks of conventional biology. Global stocks will be ample for another century, according to World Bank estimates.

The distortion is not limited to economies and global politics, but also extends to U.S. regulatory policy, public values and to the concept of managing risk in a democratic society and a global economy. No significant value, either in productivity, nutrition or other health attributes, can be demonstrated for GMO products that cannot be called forth by normal competition. For biotechnology corporations, the wealth needed to support now-obvious speculative excesses in GMOs can be obtained only with political power to shield the industry from market forces.

The first step was to attach property rights to genetics in the U.S., i.e., to extend patents to what nature creates rather than what society invents. Next, risk had to be redefined, i.e., rather than protect health from danger, or uncertain risk, regulate only certain risk. Regulatory policy was turned upside down.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now ignores the precautionary principle, regulating GMOs only on nutritional differences which can be demonstrated, rather than on genetic consequences that will be unknown for decades. The next step was to limit the power of governments to protect the health of citizens and the environment of their communities, a goal achieved in 1994 by subordinating national sovereignty to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The next step is to set ceilings on risk, tell each country how to set them, and establish global bureaucracies to do this.

The question is whether the public will go along with this carefully crafted strategy. Early signs indicate that people and popular sentiments-i.e., democracy-may be the Bastille of corporate GMO excesses. European consumers, at a minimum, want to choose between GMO and conventional products. In the U.S., consumers are opting out of a food supply they view as a vehicle to market chemicals, drugs and novel products, aware that foods grown naturally are available at little or no higher costs. Organic foods account for an increasing proportion of food consumption.

The Clinton administration tried to shield the corporations last month from consumer preferences by including GMOs in the definition of organic foods-arguing no nutritional difference-but backed down after 200,000 people sent letters of protest.

Something odd seems to be happening. If market forces and popular democracy must be suppressed to serve corporate excesses, how long will the public tolerate the situation?

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