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Pests and weeds: Biotechnology for profit, a nightmare

We imagine that the security and nutritional value of our food supply would grow as scientific knowledge grows. The reverse is happening.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria are invaluable natural pesticides for organic growers. The bacteria were discovered in Thuringia, Germany, in 1911 and have been available in commercial formulations for insect control since the 1930s. Bt have a number of strains, including one that is effective against Colorado beetle, but they have been used sparingly by organic farmers because over-use would enable insects to develop resistance.

Biotechnology companies soon realised the potential for implanting these bacteria into the genetic make-up of plants, enabling the plants to grow with an in-built insecticide. Now genetically modified corn, cotton, potatoes and other plants have been widely planted, each carrying Bt in every cell. However, the plants are only protected from some pests, and are still sprayed against aphids and some sap-sucking insects.

Some of these novel plants have failed to perform, others have sent hordes of insects into neighbouring farms, and insect resistance has spread to surrounding crops and weeds, destroying natural predators that are essential for traditional farming. Even the biotech companies now admit that insects will develop resistance to Bt within five to eight years. This does not concern them because they are confident that their in-house scientists will come up with alternatives. But it will have deprived organic growers of their only natural insecticide.

The herbicide `Roundup' had been highly profitable for Monsanto but its patent was due to run out in 1999; so their marketing department came up with a three-pronged strategy to prolong its value to the company. First: corn, cotton and soya have been genetically modified to resist it, so these crops can be sprayed with Roundup while they are growing. They said that environmentalists should be happy because less of the herbicide is necessary if you don't have to kill all weeds before sowing the crop.

Secondly, Monsanto bought seed merchants around the world so that they could instruct them to sell the `Roundup Ready' seed.

Thirdly, they required farmers, when buying the seed to sign an undertaking: "not to save any crop produced from this seed for replanting.not to use this seed or provide it to anyone for crop breeding, research or seed production.if a herbicide containing the same active ingredient as Roundup Ultra herbicide (or one with a similar mode of action) is used over the top of Roundup Ready soybeans, the Grower agrees to use only the Roundup branded herbicide". The company is allowed to enter farms to check whether farmers are saving and replanting seed and a hotline was set up to encourage farmers to tell on their neighbours -- hardly the way to build community relations.

In 1998, 457 farmers in North America were sued. In some cases Monsanto seed had been `identified' because the farmer's crops had been cross-pollinated from a neighbour's fields. The strategy was remarkably successful and now, in parts of America, few non-conforming farmers can protect their growing crops from the drift of Roundup spray.

Environmentalists and many farmers are alarmed by these developments. Less herbicide may be used, but the process is more effective in destroying biodiversity, creating sterile soil, and eliminating natural predators.

The marketing of limited, highly engineered seed by a handful of dominant companies, together with an attack on diverse landrace seed-saving by farmers, is the ultimate move towards monoculture. Science in the hands of business is depriving the world of natural products, introducing genetically novel plants, making soil sterile and encouraging monoculture. This is putting humanity at extreme risk.

  • Herbicide-resistant GM plants cross-pollinate with wild plants to create `superweeds'.
  • Since GM crops were introduced in the US, farmers have been using more pesticides and herbicides, not less.
  • Monsanto's `New Leaf' potato incorporates pesticides in every cell, and the potato itself has to be registered as a pesticide.
  • One US company, Cargill, controls 80% of global grain distribution. The top 10 corporations control: 85% of all pesticides, 60% of all veterinary medicine, 35% of all pharmaceuticals, 32% of all commercial seed.
  • It has been estimated that US corporations receive $2,400 billion annually in subsidies and `external' costs like the use of roads, all provided by the taxpayer. This is equal to the entire Third World debt.
  • Some communities have perfected mosquito traps using a tin with holes, a light and a water tray. Elsewhere predators bred in coconuts eat mosquito larvae. Peasant-led experimentation disseminated by modern communications can be as effective as high-tech research programmes.
  • A Canadian court has fined a farmer for breaching Monsanto's patent. He had used his own saved seed from a crop that had been contaminated by a neighbour's GM oilseed rape. He has not only had his crop confiscated but has also lost a carefully developed genetic strain.

Excerpted from The Little Earth Book by James Bruges, published by Alastair Sawday. To order a copy or for further details visit www.littleearth.co.uk

  Free trade: Comparative advantage for the corporations
  Intuition: Common sense, imagination and morality
  Patenting life: Wait a minute! Who made it?
  The Terminator: Corporate control of food for profit
  Population: More or less
  Pests and weeds: Biotechnology for profit, a nightmare
  A citizens' jury: The locals know what aid they need
  Imperial tribute: Why the rich are rich and the majority poor
  The WTO: Power in a moral vacuum
  Biomimicry: Science's exciting new frontier
  Water denied: A crime against humanity
  The first MNC: Little has changed
  Feeding the world: There is no shortage of money or food
  Ecological footprints: The rich wear big boots