Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Big Farma

One of the benefits of a month off from reading newspapers from all over the country each day (although I did scan several of them before heading off to work) was that I had the time and energy to indulge in reading other things, including print magazines that usually don't get referenced in liberal blogs very often, among them Scientific American. The August edition had several articles that held my attention during the train rides into work, including one that actually stunned me. It has to do with genetically engineered crops.

Now, hunger is a pressing issue throughout the world, one that will only grow more serious as climate change kicks in. We have been told by the agritech companies, however, that the advances in genetically engineered crops have gotten to the point that within a very short while, hunger can be a thing of the past as more seeds are developed which are drought, bug, and blight resistant; higher yield; and quicker to grow. These are never presented as hopes, or promises, but as facts in advertisements on television and in newspapers and magazines, and, more importantly, in articles in scientific journals.

So, what's the problem?

Well, according to this opinion piece in Scientific American, there's a big problem, at least when it comes to the science (although that term might be inappropriate).

Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.

To purchase genetically modified seeds, a customer must sign an agreement that limits what can be done with them. (If you have installed software recently, you will recognize the concept of the end-user agreement.) Agreements are considered necessary to protect a company’s intellectual property, and they justifiably preclude the replication of the genetic enhancements that make the seeds unique. But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.
[Emphasis added]

But, wait! There's more!

If there's no research going on checking the claims, then where are those articles in respected scientific journals coming from?

Quite simply, from those scientists willing to belly up to the trough, and only then if they follow the company line:

Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering. [Emphasis added]

This isn't science, it's corporatism at its worst. Some of the touted advances may in fact be operative for one or two seed cycles, but there's no way to tell that under the current regulations which allow the seed companies to get away with this blatant intellectual dishonesty. More importantly, the unintended consequences of some of these modifications can have devastating and disastrous effects on the environment, even if in the short run the new-and-improved-seeds provide bumper crops for a few years. We can't tell if this is so, because the seed companies won't allow for any negative reviews of any kind.

So, now what? What can we do?

Well, the science stranglehold of big farma on this issue apparently falls under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency. The current administrator of the EPA is Lisa P. Jackson. Her home page at the EPA contains this promise:

As Administrator, Jackson has pledged to focus on core issues of protecting air and water quality, preventing exposure to toxic contamination in our communities, and reducing greenhouse gases. She has promised that all of EPA’s efforts will follow the best science, adhere to the rule of law, and be implemented with unparalleled transparency.

That mirrors the promise that President Obama made while he was a candidate. And Ms. Jackson, who earned a Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering at Princeton, surely has more than a nodding acquaintance with the scientific method. I urge you to drop her an email, pointing out the inconsistencies of the current system and asking her to change the system with respect to genetically engineered crops before the entire planet becomes a sterile dust bowl.

I also recommend that you drop a note to your congressional representatives about the issue, citing the Scientific American article. If you're really serious about this (and you ought to be), send another note to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the chair of the the Senate Committee for the Environment and Public Works with the same information so that she is aware that there's something dreadfully wrong with the current system.

I know that right now most of us are working hard on health care reform, and we should be. Still, there's other stuff going on that will bite us in the ass if we don't pay attention, and I truly believe we are capable of multi-tasking. We should expect that our representatives, whom we pay well and provide excellent benefits, should also be.

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Blogger roy said...

Have you ever read Slaughterhouse-Five? Well, I know how the universe ends. Monsanto genetically engineers a seed that becomes sterile after the first plant cycle; that produces fruit whose seeds, if planted, never fruit again.

They spread this seed all over the surface of the earth so that farmers are left with crops that won't fruit, forcing them to buy new seed every plant cycle. Monsanto becomes incredibly rich. The cost of food quadruples everywhere. Entire nations die of starvation.

Eventually even Monsanto runs out of source seed. All the world is covered in a lush, green death. Plants everywhere that won't fruit. Fruit whose seed can't be planted. The whole planet starves to death and this new fruitless vegetation covers the surface of the Earth.

Eventually a comet hits the otherwise lifeless planet sending this death-seed throughout the Universe and everything, everywhere slowly starves to death.

The end.

By the way, most of the public's representatives in the FDA are former employees of Monsanto. Most of them are future employees of Monsanto too. They go back and forth to make sure the big seed providers' interests are taken care of.

If you're interested in the whole "genetically modified" schema of Washington, and if you haven't seen it already, check out "The Future of Food." You can watch it online at Hulu.


The phones that ring in Washington when you call the FDA were paid for by Monsanto. Save your dime.

4:59 PM  

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