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Biotech Boasting: Are Frankenfoods Conquering the World?

In January, a biotech industry front group, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), announced, with great fanfare, that global acreage of genetically engineered (GE)crops had increased 19% in 2001.  According to ISAAA, 5.5 million farmers last year planted 130 million acres (52.6 million hectares) of GE crops, a 30-fold increase since 1996.  For the year 2000, ISAAA had reported a somewhat smaller 11% growth in GE acreage.  Cheerleaders for Frankenfoods, including Monsanto and the American Farm Bureau, hailed ISAAA's most recent projections as "proof" that the Biotech Century was going forward, despite widespread opposition in Europe and Asia, and increased rumblings of discontent among North American consumers and farmers.

Although most of the corporate media dutifully regurgitated ISAAA's press release on the "progress" of agbiotech, a closer more critical look at the evidence reveals a somewhat different story.  First of all, ISAAA estimates on crop acreage are based on interviews with "true believers," farmers who are growing GE crops.  Secondly, ISAAA gets its funds from corporations such as Monsanto, Aventis, and Pioneer (Dupont).  In addition, previous assertions made by the group's spokesman, Clive James have subsequently been proven false.  For example, James claimed that 1998 plantings of GE soybeans resulted in a 12% yield increase, when in fact yields fell 6-12%.

Finally, even assuming ISAAA's estimates are correct, BioDemocracy News believes they are inflated); biotech industry trends themselves tell a different story.  For example: global GE crop acreage grew over thirty-fold in 1996; 675% in 1997; 255% in 1998; and 143% in 1999.  In comparison, puny 11%-18% growth rates in 2000 and 2001 indicate a sharp leveling off in demand for GE seeds worldwide, rather than an increase--obviously a reaction to the growing global opposition against Frankenfoods.  ISAAA boasts that 5.5 million farmers around the world are now growing GE crops (another questionable figure) but forgets to mention that there are 2.4 billion farmers and rural villagers who are not growing GE crops.

Despite industry rhetoric, very few countries are willing to ignore public opposition and allow the commercial cultivation of GE soybeans, corn, cotton, or canola, the only four crops currently being grown on any significant scale.  While farmers in 130 nations are currently producing certified organic crops, a grand total of three nations, (the US-with 68% of the world's GE crops, Canada-6%, and Argentina-22%) are still producing 96% of the world's Frankencrops.

Several highly touted GE crops, the Flavr Savr tomato and Monsanto's Bt potato, have already been taken off the market.  Moreover the US, Canada, and Argentina are finding that that their major overseas customers such as Europe, Japan, and South Korea no longer want to buy

GE crops, even for animal feed.  In Europe, the largest agricultural market in the world, grassroots market pressure has forced all of the major supermarket chains and food companies to remove GE ingredients from their consumer products.  Meanwhile, on the regulatory front, no new GE crops have been approved for commercialization in the EU since 1998.

Syngenta (formerly Novartis), the largest biotech company in the world, has removed all GE ingredients from its consumer food products.

Because of increasing marketplace pressure, 25% of all animal feed in the EU is already GE-free.  In a recent poll 80% of British consumers said they would avoid purchasing meat or dairy products from animals fed GE feed.  Even China, which was supposed to be the Promised Land for agbiotech, has been reluctant to embrace Frankencrops (other than Bt cotton), sensing that the real future for their agricultural exports to Asia and the EU will be non-GE and organic crops.

Agbiotech industry propaganda about feeding the world through increased productivity is no longer credible.  As Amory and Hunter Lovins, founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute, point out:

"Genetically engineered crops were created not because they are productive but because they're patentable.  Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich." 

Currently 63% of the world's GE crops are soybeans, used primarily for animal feed.  Corn, again mainly for animal feed, makes up 19% of all GE crops, while rapeseed, used for animal feed and cooking oil, makes up 5%.  Even cotton, which constitutes 13% of all GE crops, provides feed for cattle, in the form of cottonseed and cotton gin trash.

A look at ISAAA's figures for 2001 and 2000 reveal that most of the growth in global GE acreage in 2001 resulted from increased cultivation of Monsanto's flagship GE product, herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans, by farmers in Argentina (where Monsanto is selling RR seeds at bargain basement prices, trying to boost sales) and the US (where farmers have to grow more and more soybeans in order to obtain government subsidies and to make up for record low prices of soybeans on the world market).  One might ask why US farmers are buying so many RR soybeans, since they cost more (US soy farmers have complained about Monsanto selling RR beans at a much lower price in Argentina) and since RR varieties actually produce a 6-12% lower yield as documented by Dr. Charles Benbrook and others.

The answer to the riddle of why US farmers and their counterparts in Argentina are planting so many RR soybeans does not bode well for the future of GE crops.  In Argentina, Monsanto's seeds are the cheapest seeds available.  If Monsanto sold RR seeds worldwide at such low prices they would lose much of their profitability as a company.  In Latin America, Monsanto and their allies (Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland) are desperate to develop a major market for RR soybeans, since Argentina's next door neighbor, Brazil, now the largest producer of soybeans in the world, has a ban on GE soybeans and has taken over the major US overseas soybean markets in the EU, Japan, and Korea, where anti-GE sentiments are strong.

Government Subsidies--Why US Farmers Plant GE Crops

American farmers are planting millions of acres of RR soybeans and other GE crops, not because there is a market demand for them, but because they are receiving taxpayer subsidies from the US government. Although gene-altered RR seeds and Roundup herbicide are expensive, herbicide-resistant soybeans are more convenient and less time-consuming to grow than traditional varieties-enabling farmers to plant, weed, and harvest more and more acres in a limited amount of time.  Instead of having to till weeds with their tractors and spray several different toxic pesticides, farmers need only spray Monsanto's potent broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup, which kills everything green-except for the GE soybean plants.  Especially for cash and time-strapped farmers earning most of their money from off-farm employment (US family farmers get about 90% of their net income from jobs off the farm), this "efficiency" makes RR soybeans seem attractive.

Far more important is the fact that in the US, the more acres a farmer plants in soybeans (or other subsidized crops like corn or cotton), the more money the farmer gets from the government farm subsidy program, which last year paid out $28 billion.  Of this $28 billion in farm subsidies, at least $7-10 billion went to farmers growing GE crops.  Thus even though Cargill or ADM routinely rob farmers by paying them less for a bushel of RR soybeans or Bt corn than it took to grow them, farmers can count on recouping their losses with a subsidy payment from the USDA.

The fundamental flaw, from an economic standpoint, of US farmers ignoring global opposition to Frankenfoods and planting more and more GE soybeans so as to collect more and more subsidy payments from the government, is that there is already a huge global surplus of soybeans, not to mention corn and cotton.  This massive surplus is quite profitable for the crop commodities giants like Cargill and ADM, cotton buyers, and the big factory farm cattle feedlots and hog farms, who can count on getting cheap grain and fiber from farmers desperate to sell at any price, but it's nothing less than a recipe for disaster for rural America.  Billion dollar subsidies are the driving force for GE soybeans and corn, but they are also the major destructive force flooding the market and lowering the price for soybeans paid to the farmers.  

This ever-declining price results in farmers planting even more soybeans or corn.  The end result of this process will likely be the elimination of most small and medium sized farms in the US who depend upon subsidies (with the notable exception of organic farms, which are selling products which consumers want).  Organic farmers currently receive no US government subsidies whatsoever.

A major nightmare for the US grain and cotton farmers (including those growing GE crops) who are surviving on taxpayer subsidies is that government support may soon be declining.  Bush administration officials, hell-bent on subsidizing the military-industrial complex to the tune of $380 billion a year and cutting taxes for large corporations and the wealthy, have recently warned agribusiness lobbyists that crop subsidies may decline over the next few years.

This could be bad news indeed for non-organic farmers, but also bad news for Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Bayer, and the other Gene Giants. Without $7-10 billion a year in government crop subsidies paid out to US farmers growing GE crops, we're likely to see a significant decline, rather than an increase, in GE acreage next year.  

For updates on the growing global opposition to GE foods and crops click on the Daily News section of the OCA's website at