Non-GM is beautiful

December 2011

Vegetable
Photo by Matti Matila on Flickr
In October 2011, an article appeared in the US press which had all the hall-marks of the Monsanto PR pen.

The 'news' is that Monsanto is going to bring us fresh produce like we've never seen before. This it will do by “marrying conventional breeding methods with its vast technological resources to bring about changes in fruit and vegetables” and “relying on a strategy similar to the one it tapped to dominate the world of commodity crops: use technology to speed up the breeding process”. All this success is to be achieved using non-GM methods which the anti-GM movement has been asking for for years and which, surprise, surprise, Monsanto is very capable of.

Monsanto moved aggressively into the vegetable business in 2005, and has been acquiring major vegetable seed companies world-wide ever since. Nearly one fifth of its global labour force is working on vegetable seed development. The reason is, of course, the bottom line: it expects the revenue from vegetable seed to rival its $1.5 billion GM soya business within a decade.

Another incentive is that GM crops have some persistent problems which won't go away: consumers don't like them, and regulators have an expensive habit of regulating them. As the company now acknowledges , “the financial and consumer hurdles that would inevitably come with rolling out genetically engineered produce for the grocery store” would stop fresh GM fruit and veg in their tracks.

Rather than be seen to be moving away from GM crop production methods (which would suggest there's something wrong with them), the media has been fed some 'just look at the next wonder -crops Monsanto's going to bless us with' lines to pass on to us.

The timing of the spin is interesting.

Could it be something to do with the hundreds of people from around the US who rallied in front of the White House four days previously after a 15-day, 504-kilometre march from the United Nations in New York? The demonstration was “an unprecedented effort to win genuine transparency on genetically engineered foods”. A related demonstration happened on the other side of the country in San Francisco. Labelling of GM foods in the S would also stop fresh GM fruit and veg in their tracks.

Perhaps it could be something to do with the escalating emergence of independently evolving super-weeds and Bt-resistant pests in state after state where GM crops are grown. Monsanto is only now coming to terms with the severity of these problems and the harm they will do its GM business. 'Dominating the world of commodity crops' with a handful of the very few successful GM varieties is unsustainable.

Or perhaps it could be something to do with the publication of America's longest running (30 years) side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming practises? Key findings of this study include:
  • Organic yields match or surpass conventional yields, especially in times of drought
  • Organic is more sustainable because it builds rather than depletes the soil's resources
  • Organic is more efficient using 45% less energy and producing 40% less greenhouse gases
  • Organic is more profitable.
All things that Monsanto didn't want to hear. However, if it gets its non-GM fruit and veg right, it can sell them to the organic market.

Interestingly, ten days later Bayer made an announcement indicating it has moved onto a track similar to Monsanto, but with less fanfare. The German company is planning to develop new heat- and drought-resistant wheat traits over the next decade without the use of GM. One of its Chief Executive Officers explained “The thing that has not had enough attention is really thinking about how to use modern breeding techniques to really look at the germplasm pools and find ways to actually improve yields, and to improve the heat and drought tolerance of these crops”. He also said Bayer will be able to develop new varieties much more quickly. COMMENT Anti-GM groups have really actually been saying all that for many years.

Despite making it clear that GM is slow, ineffective and a no-brainer which doesn't make use of the world's existing resources in favour of constructing artificial ones, Bayer's PR seems to use the non-GM wheat to sling mud at the scaredy-cat EU with its innovation-unfriendly regulatory environment, and anti-technology agricultural practises such as crop rotation and set aside. COMMENT Signs here that Bayer wants to keep GM crops on the boil. Their heat- and drought-tolerant conventionally-bred wheat may become GM at the last fence?

COMMENT

If the above reasons for Monsanto's PR gang feeling the need to feed us image-boosting visions of wondrous fresh produce seem far-fetched, look at what they've been up to recently in the UK and India in SPIN GLORIOUS SPIN and PAYING FOR NEWS – November 2011.

Interestingly, the article ends with a few throw-away lines hinting at GM 'success' stories: 

Hawaiian GM papaya “has been growing and sold for years”. True, but it has never generated the market acceptance and higher sales prices of non-GM papaya: as one Hawaiian farmer put it “plenty of people are not growing papaya any more”. And, Hong Kong, 9,000 miles away, has become over-run by gene-contaminated papaya it never wanted! 

Monsanto is “waiting for regulatory approval for a variety of eggplant in India”. This could be a very long wait, see INDIA'S GM AUBERGINES BECOME A TEST CASE FOR BIOPIRACY LAWS –  November 2011 and INDIA IMPOSES A MORATORIUM ON GM AUBERGINES – GMFS News Archive, February 2010! 

Monsanto's first GM sweetcorn is seemingly set to ride effortlessly into the market on the back of Syngenta's version which “has been selling for nearly a decade.” True, but it's never been labelled GM and 74% of Americans don't believe they have ever eaten GM!

Signs here that Monsanto, like Bayer, is hedging its bets in case the lucrative, patented, GM market should ever re-present itself. So, don't relax your GM vigilance.

(Also, remember that some fresh GM produce will still turn up.)


SOURCES

  • P. J. Huffstutter, Environmentalists raise concerns as Monsanto ramps up its venture, Los Angeles Times, 20.10.11
  • Hundreds rally in Washington to demand GMO labeling, Xinhua, 16.10.11
  • Rob Rogers, At DC rally, West Marin's Straus pushes for food labeling, Marin Independent Journal, 16.10.11
  • Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, The GE Emperor Has No Clothes! PANNA, 14.10.11
  • Sean Hao, Papaya production taking a tumble, The Honolulu Adviser, 19.03.06
  • Kahon Chan, War of the papayas, China Daily News, 8.09.11
  • Organic Farming is Superior to Conventional Agriculture According to 30-Year Comparative Study, Rodale Institute Press Release, 16.09.11
  • Michael Lalonde, Genetically modified corn being sold unlabelled, opponents say, Montreal Gazette, 26.09.11
  • Ask Your Representative to Cosponsor the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, Organic Consumers Association Action Alert, November 2011
  • Dr. Eva Sirinathsinghji, Monsanto Defeated by Roundup Resistant Weeds, Institute of Science in Society Report, 28.11.11
  • Monsanto EU GM Maize Plans Undermined by Damning US Report, GM Freeze Press Release, 7.12.11
  • Charlie Dunmore, Bayer CropScience targets non-GMO wheat traits, Reuters, 29.11.11

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