A look at Monsanto: Part II

in Contributors/Health by

By Danette Vernon

In the 1960’s I lived in the quiet of the country with my grandparents, and fortunately I was young enough to be sheltered from most of the harshness of farm life. Sure, the occasional cow that I had named would disappear, and I would refuse to eat meat for awhile in his or her memory, but I have no hard stories of back-breaking hoeing or thriving individualism from learning to drive a tractor at age five. On most days, my sisters and I simply disappeared into the fields around us. In spring, we might help drop seeds haphazardly into rows, our part in what would become a vast ocean of green, as our garden melded with endless rows of corn over the summer.
It was this experience that allowed me to make “farm-talk” with Aussie farmers when I went to Australia in 2010, as farmers really hadn’t changed much since I was child. Or had they?
My grandfather, every day, twice a day, after milking 20 cows, shoveled the day’s leavings out a small opening at the side of the barn. When the manure pile got high enough, he shoveled this same manure again, this time into a manure spreader, a machine that spread the manure over his fields as fertilizer. An arduous practice, but organic in nature. But then that’s all there was when I was a child. Everything was organic. There wasn’t anything else.
My grandfather saved part of his corn harvest as seed for next year, shoveling this precious dry grain into a bin … more manual labor.
In 2012, 80%-85 % of the corn grown in the United States is the genetically modified. Genetically modified “Bt corn” has a bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) inserted into the seeds that kills common insects that might prey on the corn. And fertilizer in this century is predominantly a chemical mix. The manure spreader has gone out of fashion.
The generations of farmers beyond my grandfather’s day have been promised by the biotech industry, a larger crop per acre — and if the yields are in fact greater, then maybe we will be able to divert less water and cut down fewer trees to make room for our ever growing demand for more food. Sounds like a win for the farmer and a win for the environment.
But, do we even need more food than what is being currently grown? In Part One of this series, it was noted that in Western cultures we throw away 50% of the food we grow. Time Magazine from March 2012 reports that in developing countries, due to poor distribution and a lack of refrigeration, the standard is 30% of the food that is grown is wasted, and at times, 70%. When you look at these facts, and others, it would appear that we need Monsanto simply because we are such poor stewards of what we already have.
The pledge, however, that biotechnology made us, of more “bang for the buck” has unfortunately proven to be an empty promise, according to a new report published by The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), called “Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops.” This report notes that, “despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.”
Doug Gurian-Sherman, a biologist in the UCS Food and Environment Program and author of the report, says, “In comparison, traditional breeding continues to deliver better results.”
OK, so the yields are not better, but we’re all used to hype. We can accept that. The question, however, that we are currently struggling within the United States is whether or not we have a right to know what we are eating.
And finally, just for the sake of curiosity, what if farmer of today wanted to stick with the standards of my grandfather, a man who only exists in the black and white pictures of the past? What are his chances of not catching the ire of the biotech industry? Would it be David against Goliath? Just how big is the biotech industry, and how far is its reach?
To be continued…

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