The West Australian Minister for Agriculture, Tony Redman, wants to redefine “organic” to accommodate genetic engineering. Well he might wish it, since the legal battle brewing there over contamination of organic crops by genetically modified ones could easily blow right back onto his turf. Far scarier, though, is the environmental blowback, which could knock all these little old floods and cyclones into a cocked hat.
Steve Marsh is an organic farmer in Kojonup, four hours south-east of Perth. Or that’s what he thought he was. So did the certifiers. Then, last December, the nightmare came true. Marsh’s wheat and oats began testing 70 per cent positive for novel DNA and he was stripped of certification. A year earlier, following approval by the Gene Technology Regulator, the WA government approved commercialisation of GM, or ”Roundup Ready”, canola – although their own fact sheet at the time cited a United Nations report that “since the advent of GM canola in Canada farmers can no longer grow organic canola in western Canada.”
They also admitted that GM canola can cross-pollinate with a number of other species, and eating such resulting crops would decertify organic livestock as well. Yet they broke their promise to publish a list of GM farmers so that non-GM growers could take evasive action. Their official advice? That “farmers discuss … this remote possibility [of contamination] with their neighbours”.With a loss of up to $800 per tonne and a minimum five-year wait before Marsh’s crops can be recertified ”organic”, compensation could be big. Except that the defendant will be bankrolled by that shady agro-giant, that food-world Voldemort, Monsanto.
Morally, if not legally, the case draws on the 1990s precedent of a Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser. Schmeiser had spent 40 years perfecting his own canola hybrids when Monsanto genes were detected through 80 per cent of his crop. Far from compensating Schmeiser for the loss of a life’s work, Monsanto decided aggression was the best form of defence and sued him, as it had hundreds of others, for unlicensed gene-use.
Immaterial, argued Monsanto, that the genes might have been wind or bee-propagated. They were illegally in his plants, and he should pay; $400,000, to be exact. This patentability of subsistence crops is a real evil; not just because individuals get screwed, but because it privatises a commons.
Twenty years ago GM, aka GE or transgenics, was sold much as nuclear power is sold today, as an evil necessary to meet demand. I learnt in school how high-yield transgenic soy and sorghum would feed the starving millions. Never mind that more people now are overfed than underfed (suggesting that it is more about distribution than quantity). Even measured against its own promises of food security and equity, transgenics has failed to deliver. Indeed its effect, if anything, has been the opposite.
Dr Vandana Shiva, physicist, philosopher, activist and winner of last year’s Sydney Peace Prize, links more than 200,000 Indian farmer suicides to Monsanto’s introduction of GM cottonseed in the early 1990s. With 90 per cent of India’s cotton now transgenic, it is a phenomenon that campaigners, including the Prince of Wales, have branded the “GM genocide”.
There is a typical pattern. Farmers stricken by drought and poverty are so entranced by Monsanto’s promises of wealth that they take on debt, at local moneylenders’ extortionate rates, to buy the GM seed. Hundreds of times more expensive than traditional seed, it has two ”novel” characteristics; resistance to Roundup, enabling fields to be soaked in the herbicide, and a terminator gene that renders them sterile.
This in effect emplaces a loyalty contract whereby the farmer is perennially bound to repurchase both glyphosate (Roundup) and seed from Monsanto. Thus does an ”heirloom seed” economy – where seed is both product and means-of-production and even a bad harvest is offset by seed saved for the next – become a spiral of debt and dependency, where recovery from a failed harvest requires yet more debt, just for the hope of escape.
After even a couple of consecutive failures, all the more likely because the GM seeds are thirsty, the debt is insurmountable. One day, rather than spray pesticide on the soil, the farmer swallows a cupful himself, leaving his family landless, foodless, destitute. Sometimes the wife takes over the farm, only to kill herself as well, reports the Daily Mail in Britain. At 1000 suicides a month on official figures, it is like the Highland clearances and the potato famine, all at once.
There are some techno-upsides. In the past five years, drought-resistant varieties have been engineered, with insecticidal genes as well as herbicide-resistance, requiring less chemical intervention. But whether GM has improved yield at all, anywhere, is still controversial. And what it has not improved are nutrition, ecosystems or equity. Equity issues may perhaps be resolved by recent reports that, in classic Indian style, Monsanto’s genes are being bootlegged.
As to ecology, on the question of soil-culture damage science is split, but much of the research (even in our trusted CSIRO) is Monsanto-funded and several studies show serious damage to earthworms and soil microbes from glyphosate at even nominal levels. With 90 per cent of America’s sugar beet, canola, cotton, corn and soy already transgenic, moreover, and alfalfa newly approved, the burning issues are not just biodiversity and herbicide resistant weeds but, crucially, the reversibility principle.
And food? Many argue all GM foods are refined to remove DNA. It’s not quite true. China’s first commercial GM rice is expected next year, a special ”Bt eggplant” has been developed for (but rejected by) India (both using a Bacillus thuringiensis gene, which will be directly human-ingested), and most of the world’s soy is GM.
Sure, there’s no proof of harm. But in this great, global experiment there’s no proof, either, of safety. Proof takes time, but science takes industry cash and the US has already led us into epidemic obesity, diabetes, allergy and cancer. Pretty soon, if we docilely wear the GM blindfold, ”organic” will no longer be a refuge. Why? Because organic won’t exist. That’s why labelling matters.