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GMOs and politico-corporate incest

The lines of distinction between government and agribusiness continue to blur, at a great cost to many.

Last Modified: 31 Oct 2013 09:17
Belen Fernandez

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.
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"Nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995 after being driven into overwhelming debt by neoliberal policy, which encouraged the rampant proliferation of Monsanto's Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton," writes Belen Fernandez [AFP]

The annual World Food Prize - self-advertised as "the foremost international award recognising … the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world" - was presented to three scientists in a ceremony earlier this month.

One of the recipients is an executive at Monsanto, the US-based biotech firm and Vietnam War-era manufacturer of the lethal defoliant Agent Orange.

Another recipient belongs to Syngenta, the Swiss agribusiness giant that recently sued Europe for daring to temporarily ban dangerous pesticides linked to the decimation of bee populations.

Both corporations are synonymous with the campaign to sow the earth with genetically modified crops.

According to the World Food Prize website, the award "emphasises the importance of a nutritious and sustainable food supply for all people".

Bestowing such a prize upon representatives of the GMO industry is thus the equivalent, in terms of irony, of bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize upon the bellicose US President - the main difference being that Barack Obama did not make a multimillion dollar donation to the Nobel committee prior to receiving his award.

A press release from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) notes:

"Monsanto and other agricultural companies are generous sponsors of the World Food Prize - including a $5m donation from Monsanto - which creates a conflict of interest for company scientists who receive the prize."

Sustaining unsustainability

The press release contains several hints as to why GMOs are not in fact conducive to producing a "nutritious and sustainable food supply".

For example, UCS points out that Fraley - the Monsanto executive in the winning threesome - assisted in the development of the Roundup Ready product line, which consists of GMO crops designed to resist the company’s signature herbicide Roundup.

[Roundup] overuse has led to an epidemic of herbicide-resistant 'superweeds', which has driven up total herbicide use and left farmers turning to more toxic formulations.

- Union of Concerned Scientists

The press release explains that Roundup "overuse has led to an epidemic of herbicide-resistant 'superweeds', which has driven up total herbicide use and left farmers turning to more toxic formulations".

Beyond renegade weeds and poison, GMO seeds engineered with non-renewable traits so as to necessitate repeated repurchase by farmers are not enormously compatible with the concept of sustainability.

Nor is the fact that nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995 after being driven into overwhelming debt by neoliberal policy, which encouraged the rampant proliferation of Monsanto's Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton.

Marketed as resistant to the bollworm and a sure-fire way to boost agricultural output, Bt cotton has instead spawned inferior crop yields and new pests requiring an abundance of pesticides.

On numerous occasions, these pesticides have proved to be multipurpose, serving as a suicide weapon of choice for desperate farmers.

A 2006 article by physicist and author Vandana Shiva meanwhile highlights other reasons biotech executives should perhaps not win sustainable nutrition prizes:

"One billion people are without food because industrial monocultures robbed them of their livelihoods in agriculture and their food entitlements. Another 1.7 billion are suffering from obesity and food-related diseases."

What, then, are some alternatives? Drawing attention to the "grossly exaggerated" productivity claims of the GMO industry, UCS notes:

"Genetic engineering has not dramatically increased yields in the US when compared to other agricultural technologies. The modest increases in yield from genetic engineering are less than the increased productivity resulting from crop breeding and improvements in growing crops. Moreover, modern agroecological practices, including cover cropping, crop rotations, and integrating livestock and crops, can balance productivity, farmer profits and environmental protection."

The roots and repercussions of incest

Of course, revising the current arrangement is a bit challenging when the US government is unabashedly in bed with the likes of Monsanto.

As WikiLeaks cables have revealed, the State Department - using US taxpayer money - has aggressively shilled for Monsanto and other seed makers overseas, with US embassy personnel sometimes appearing to function as little more than representatives of the biotech industry.

At a June State Department celebration honouring the three recipients of the World Food Prize, Secretary of State John Kerry offered enraptured praise for "their pioneering efforts and their tremendous contributions … to the fight against hunger and malnutrition":

"Hunger is a trap that prevents people from realising their God-given potential. Food drives life. And the struggle for food is a struggle for life. This makes hunger an economic issue, a national security issue - and without a doubt a moral issue."

Another moral issue, no doubt, is why politico-corporate incest in the US is permitted to pass as democracy with hardly a peep from the mainstream media, which shuns critical reporting in favour of apologetics on behalf of elite capital.

In a recent email to me on media complicity in GMO evangelism, investigative journalist Christian Parenti - whose book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography includes a section on Bt cotton - discussed other relevant factors beyond the wealth-enabled corporate permeation of key institutions of society:

"There’s a tendency in our society to view technology uncritically. Because much of what technology does is good, the assumption becomes: Technology is always good. Linked to this technophilia is the common misrepresentation of environmentalists as technophobic .... Part of the mainstream media's general hostility towards environmentalists involves an overcompensating embrace of all things technological."

Deadly silence

To maintain a narrative according to which technophilic neoliberalism is indeed good for us, the system’s victims must be effectively concealed from the public conscience - hence the utility of relative media silence on human and environmental casualties of GMOs in places like India and Argentina. In the latter locale, a love affair with genetically modified soya plantations and pesticides has been accompanied by a soaring rate of cancer and birth malformations.

In its annual compilation of the top 25 censored news stories, media research group Project Censored featured my 2012 op-ed for Al Jazeera on Monsanto and India’s suicide economy, inspired by film-maker Leah Borromeo’s forthcoming Dirty White Gold on farmer suicides and the fashion industry.

As for uncensored contemporary news stories, these include the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, which elicited conscientious New York Times op-eds such as: "Bomb Syria, Even if It Is Illegal."

If only we could be this up in arms about other, subtler varieties of chemical destruction of life.

Belen Fernandez is the author of 'The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work', published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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