- GMOs and Corporate Control of Agriculture
This essay considers three excellent books on transgenic (genetically engineered) crops in agriculture and the food system. I will also reflect on some of the essential issues these books raise. Genetic engineering is a rapidly developing field. After several years of relative stagnation in the agricultural marketplace, new genetically modified crops, including fruits and vegetables, are about to be released; new technologies are being developed; and the corn genome has now been mapped. At the same time, the public has grown nervous about the presence of genetically modified organisms (gmos) in the foods we eat and uneasy over the burgeoning power of corporate seed companies. Increasing debate, pro and con, in the public media fuels this anxiety.
Activists see the gmo “takeover” of field crop agriculture as largely a “Monsanto” issue. Monsanto-bashing dominates the blogs on gmos and is prevalent in these books. There is good reason for this: Monsanto is an aggressive corporation not known for good manners. It is known for its ability to move into the marketplace with new products, capture technologies through corporate buyouts, purchase favors from universities and government policymakers, and get laws passed in its own and its industry’s favor. Monsanto has a strong presence in the courts, sometimes as defendant but more often as plaintiff, prosecuting farmers who would use saved seeds for next year’s planting, or chasing other corporations for patent infringement. Still, Monsanto-bashing, while self-gratifying, does little to advance the discussion of genetic engineering technologies and their impact on agriculture and the food system.
Running through all three books is a common theme: control of agricultural seed and chemical technology by a few large corporations harms the environment, destroys small farms, and increases risks to consumers. These and many other books, articles, and opinion pieces argue that gmos are not good for agriculture, because
gmos have and will continue to expand industrial agriculture;
ecosystem impacts by gmos have not been adequately evaluated; and
gmos have not been adequately tested regarding their impacts on food safety.
Other issues include what lies behind the European Union’s resistance to gmo foods, corporate resistance to food labeling, and, underneath it all, the belief that the Monsanto Corporation is up to much malevolence. At times it is difficult to sort out Monsanto-animosity from [End Page 197] legitimate concerns. In contrast, proponents of gmos claim that biotechnologies markedly increase yield, helping farmers to “feed the world,” save soil, and greatly lower pesticide use.
The Convention on Biological Diversity defines biotechnology (biotech) as “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use” (cited by Gabriela Pechlaner in Corporate Crops, 4). The crops resulting from genetic manipulation using foreign genes are technically called transgenic crops, or, more simply, genetically modified organisms (gmos).
Genetic engineering is the name for certain techniques scientists use to introduce new traits or characteristics to an organism. Plants may be genetically engineered, for example, to produce characteristics that enhance the growth or nutritional profile of food crops. While these techniques are sometimes referred to as “genetic modification,” the Food and Drug Administration (fda) considers “genetic engineering” the more precise term. Food and food ingredients from genetically engineered plants were introduced into our food supply in the 1990s.
About the Books
Books about emerging technologies such as genetic engineering (as well as discussions of them) can’t remain current. Even with today’s rapid publishing techniques, by the time they’re in print...