TOPIC: Monsanto and GMO's
Monsanto and GMO's 1 year, 2 months ago #534
These were my notes on the recent thread about Occupy at the Monsanto headquarters.
What’s wrong with Monsanto?
Seems like I’ve had a lot of conversations about this company lately. Jargon abounds.
Hybrid vs. GMO, what’s the difference? With apologies to plant breeders who will say that I am oversimplifying…..
A hybrid could, at least in theory, occur in nature. You can intentionally cross two plants of the same species. If you like the outcome, you can propagate the cultivar by taking cuttings (Iceberg rose) or by budding or grafting it (Santa Rosa plum), or by cutting up the roots (Russet potato). The next time you cross those two parents, you get different results, so you take cuttings or divisions (clones). If your new cultivar is normally grown from seed, you can re-create the cross by maintaining a genetically almost pure population of each parent, and re-crossing them over and over (Early Girl tomato).
Two plants in the same species are relatively easy to hybridize. Two plants in the same genus, but different species, are harder to hybridize. Two plants in the same family, but different genera, are very unlikely to cross in nature though it happens. Two plants in different orders simply won’t hybridize.
There is no way a bacterium can insert its genetic material into a plant in nature. They aren’t even in the same category of organism, much less order, family, genus, or species. But genetic engineering has introduced genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium, into corn. Bt is a natural pesticide for caterpillars. So corn plants are then toxic to caterpillars.
Can you see how this might be of concern? Monsanto says it is not a concern. But Monsanto has a long history of saying things about genetic engineering are not a concern. Monsanto points to the regulatory environment in which they operate to assert that safeguards exist. Then Monsanto executives influence the regulations, get appointed to the agencies that implement them. They said superweeds wouldn’t happen, until they did happen.
By developing and selling genetically engineered crops, Monsanto has control of the majority of the corn (80%) and soybean (95%) crops planted in the United States. Until a court enjoined them, they had taken the U.S. sugar beet crop from 100% normal hybrids to nearly 100% GMO in less than five years. Monsanto is testing GMO sugar cane. There are only two sources of sugar: beet and cane. Moreover, their licensing agreements and acquisitions of small firms have given them unprecedented control over the genetics of much of the ag industry.
It wasn’t too long ago in our country that a company controlling an entire industry was subject to anti-trust action by the government. Particularly when we are talking about food, this seems like an unhealthy concentration of market control.
What has made their crop seed so attractive to farmers is the genetic modification that renders the crop plant immune (mostly) to glyphosate, best-known as RoundUp (that particular gene was also derived from a bacterium). For years Monsanto owned the rights to glyphosate entirely. That patent has expired, but they are still the major manufacturer. Glyphosate kills nearly all plants, and hundreds of millions of pounds a year are applied worldwide.
That glyphosate usage has more than doubled in the last decade. So fields which were once sprayed with more targeted herbicides, applied more carefully due to possible crop harm, are now broadcast sprayed with glyphosate. When I studied herbicide science, considerable attention was given to the means of delivery of the active ingredient to target the weeds without harming the crop. Herbicides were applied with care, at ground level, with careful calibration of the spray rig to minimize drift and harm to non-target organisms. Why bother with all that when your crop is immune?
This kills everything: all the weeds, all the wild plants (considered weeds by the farmer). Millions of acres worldwide are now complete monoculture at a level never achieved before.
What’s the problem? Aside from the pollution of vast areas with glyphosate, repeated spraying has had an effect that was predictable, predicted, and completely denied by Monsanto until it was self-evident: resistant weeds have developed. Weeds that aren’t killed by glyphosate, which grow exceptionally vigorously because of the removal of all the other weed species. Dozens of cases, worldwide.
What’s the solution? Insert more genes that confer resistance to other herbicides that will kill those weeds. How long do you think it will take for weeds resistant to those other herbicides to develop?
Monsanto also has a long history of aggressive (some might say abusive) litigation to protect their patents. See Monsanto vs. Schmeiser for the most egregious example. Then there was the ‘terminator gene’, a notorious innovation which disabled the production of viable seed (since abandoned).
As you will see if you read all the way through this timeline, Monsanto’s GMO plants have contaminated hundreds of feet into adjacent fields, including into an organic farm, destroying the organic certification and reducing the value of that farmer’s crop. GMO crops are a serious threat to organic farmers.
In my industry, Monsanto is now partnering with the biggest horticulture dry-goods supplier, Scotts Miracle-Gro. Perhaps as early as 2012, Scotts will be introducing lawn seed GMO varieties that resist glyphosate. Voila! You will be able to spray your lawn with glyphosate and kill all the other plants! How long do you all think it will be before we have glyphosate-resistant spurge?
Genetically engineered seed plants aren’t supposed to “escape” into the surrounding environment. But grasses are wind pollinated. Protocol exist to keep tested varieties isolated until they have gotten through the regulatory process. Which company has paid the highest allowable fine for allowing test varieties of turfgrass to pollinate and seed into the surrounding countryside from their test facilities? Which company is now embarking on an eradication campaign to remove their “escaped” turfgrass species from near their research facilities? Scotts Miracle-Gro.
I liked CalGene. It was a funky little company with quirky researchers doing strange and interesting things. Even the CEO, quite a character, was down to earth. I consider him a friend. CalGene hired away a few of my employees over the years, and I wished them well and kept in touch. The Flavr-Savr tomato never took, for a number of reasons, and as far as I know CalGene never actually made a profit. But it was a unique and very Davis company. But Monsanto? They’re like Microsoft in the early 1990’s. Notorious bullies, way too much market share. And they are simply not credible on topics of environmental safety.
Prudent stewardship of our food supply says we don’t allow one company to dominate it so completely; of our environment says we don’t rely so heavily on a single pesticide. The advantage of traditional breeding methods is the incorporation of multiple genes in conferring benefits to crops. Farmers shouldn’t live in fear of patent police from a mega-corporation. And regulators shouldn’t be owned by the industries they regulate, in agriculture or any other part of our economy.
Re: Monsanto and GMO's 1 year, 2 months ago #539
Footnote: reply posted on DavisWiki:
Don, re: There is no way a bacterium can insert its genetic material into a plant in nature. They aren’t even in the same category of organism, much less order, family, genus, or species.
Absolutely not true, you'd be surprised at how DNA shuffles around. See horizontal gene transfer. I know several examples of transfer between bacteria and eukaryotes. Excuse a nitpick from a scientist on that sentence, but DNA is pretty amazing, and plants have crazy genomes. Otherwise, I completely agree with your point that it's virtually impossible for it to happen and be selected for, much less isolated by us, in the wild. –ES
I should know better than to ever say "there is no way..."
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