Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Our fragile future and freedom of choice



Sources of new plant genetics, the primary source of all food, are slowly dwindling as the human population continues to grow and new plant species are threatened.

Today 38 percent of the earth's ice-free land has been cleared and cultivated for farming. What the U.S. and European seed companies, which control most of the world's seed genetics, have discovered is that with an expanding population and limited land and water for agriculture, they only need to purchase or merge with other small seed companies around the world to acquire new plant genetics.

Then these multinational seed companies invest large amounts of money in research and technology to improve the value of seed varieties. A new seed variety cannot be launched and be protected by the U.S, Department of Agriculture unless it has a new genetic trait.

Once this is done, all seeds generated by this plant technically are the property of the seed company—even if you grow the plant in your backyard.

To improve seed value and performance, most seed companies crossbreed varieties to produce new traits such as disease resistance, insect resistance, sweetness, yield, transportation ability, shelf life, shape, color and so on. It takes several years to develop a new variety through conventional plant breeding.

To save time, the seed companies discovered that if they transferred a foreign gene into a plant, they could create a new trait that the plant could possibly never develop through plant breeding and natural selection. For example, to create insect resistance the seed companies transferred the Bt bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) into a plant. The insects that eat the tissue or pollen of the altered plant will die. Can you imagine eating distasteful bacteria that paralyzes the insect's stomach?

Sweet corn is the first vegetable to have the Bt gene inserted. Bt does protect the plant from hungry insects, but many are asking what happens when humans eat it.

I have worked for a few multinational seed companies that produce genetically modified seeds and I understand the need for seed improvement technology. Most of the fear generated around the GM crops is because of the secrecy on the part of the multinational seed companies. It can and does appear suspicious that these multinational seed companies prevent, through their lobbying efforts, the dissemination of information that consumers need to an informed choice about what they want to put into their bodies.

To my knowledge, no adverse effects of eating GM food have surfaced, but efforts to keep the development of our food source secret does and should raise some serious questions.

As an agronomist, I don't oppose biotechnology. In fact, I believe the necessity for such research is important. However, what gives me the most concern is not only the secrecy but also the complete disregard for the impact on our farmers and the culture of farming. The biotech companies are creating seed patents and by doing so changing the whole system of farming in the process.

These changes are having a major impact on the choices that consumers will have in their food selection.

GM crops may be contaminating other traditional non-GM crops. Also, some biotech companies reduce genetic diversity by reducing the seed available to growers to only few varieties, forcing them to use their patented seed and denying growers the right to save and improve their own seed. Traditionally, farmers have saved seed from the previous year's crop to plant the next year—this has been going on for centuries.

Large biotech corporations see organic growers as the hippies from the1960s. They are perceived as rebels when they don't conform to modern industrial agriculture practices.

The companies also see organic growers as a threat to their businesses because they don't purchase GM seed or pesticides, the largest profitable products in the American agriculture industry.

Even though consumers want organic produce, the American organic industry cannot afford its own research and breeding programs, so organic farmers are forced to buy seed varieties from the large companies.

In the last few years, heavy-handed food regulations have fallen down on many small organic farmers who face a regulatory regime that imposes huge costs for their small operations and makes it extremely hard for them to compete.

Like it or not, our world food source now depends on a few large seed corporations, leaving us in a very tenuous position. But seed does not only belong to corporations, or to the government. Seed is a natural result of life's need to perpetuate itself, and belongs to all humanity.

Our farmers need help; we need to support our farmers. We should help support the farmer's freedom and restore the practice of farmers' right to save and improve their own seed. We should support efforts to create mechanisms for collecting, cleaning and storing seed.

It is in our best interest to protect biodiversity and the heritage of the crop varieties, which American growers have been building up for centuries.

As gardeners we need to start collecting and exchanging seed. Seed origin and the genes in seed not only define your food, they also define a consumer's freedom to choose.

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