Mark Bittman writes: Genetic engineering in agriculture has disappointed many people who once had hopes for it. Excluding, of course, those who’ve made money from it, appropriately represented in the public’s mind by Monsanto. That corporation, or at least its friends, recently managed to have an outrageous rider slipped into the 587-page funding bill Congress sent to President Obama.
The rider essentially prohibits the Department of Agriculture from stopping production of any genetically engineered crop once it’s in the ground, even if there is evidence that it is harmful.
That’s a pre-emptive Congressional override of the judicial system, since it is the courts that are most likely to ask the U.S.D.A. to halt planting or harvest of a particular crop. President Obama signed the bill last week (he kind of had to, to prevent a government shutdown) without mentioning the offensive rider (he might have), despite the gathering of more than 250,000 signatures protesting the rider by the organization Food Democracy Now!
The override is unnecessary as well as disgraceful, because the U.S.D.A. is already overly supportive of genetically engineered crops. When a court tried to stop the planting of genetically engineered beets a couple of years ago pending adequate study, the U.S.D.A. allowed it. And the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack – who, in fairness, does not seem happy about the rider but was powerless to stop it – was quoted in this (excellent) Politico piece as saying, “With the seed genetics today that we’re seeing, miracles are occurring every single growing season.”
True enough. But “seed genetics” refers not only to genetically engineered seeds but to seeds whose genetics have been altered by conventional means, like classical breeding. In fact, as I said up top, genetic engineering, or, more properly, transgenic engineering – in which a gene, usually from another species of plant, bacterium or animal, is inserted into a plant in the hope of positively changing its nature – has been disappointing.
In the nearly 20 years of applied use of G.E. in agriculture there have been two notable “successes,” along with a few less notable ones. These are crops resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide (Monsanto develops both the seeds and the herbicide to which they’re resistant) and crops that contain their own insecticide. The first have already failed, as so-called superweeds have developed resistance to Roundup, and the second are showing signs of failing, as insects are able to develop resistance to the inserted Bt toxin — originally a bacterial toxin — faster than new crop variations can be generated.
Nothing else in the world of agricultural genetic engineering even comes close to the “success” of these two not-entirely-successful creations. Furthermore, at least in these cases, their pattern of success (and high profits) followed by failure was inevitable.
Don’t take my word for it. Let me summarize extensive conversations I’ve recently had with Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist and plant pathologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists: Roundup Ready seeds allowed farmers to spend less time and energy controlling weeds. But the temporary nature of the gains was predictable: “There was no better way to create weeds tolerant to glyphosate (Roundup) than to spray all of them intensively for a few years,” Gurian-Sherman told me. “And that’s what was done.”
The result is that the biggest crisis in monocrop agriculture – something like 90 percent of all soybeans and 70 percent of corn is grown using Roundup Ready seed – lies in glyphosate’s inability to any longer provide total or even predictable control, because around a dozen weed species have developed resistance to it. “Any ecologist would have predicted this, and many did,” Gurian-Sherman said. [Continue reading…]