‘GMO Crops Are Tools of a Chemical Agriculture System’

3 June 2016 — FAIR

Janine Jackson interviewed Patty Lovera about Monsanto protests for the May 27, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

MP3 Link

Anti-Monsanto protest at the White House (photo: Occupy Monsanto)

Anti-Monsanto protest at the White House (photo: Occupy Monsanto)

Janine Jackson: Anti-Monsanto rallies in 400 cities in 48 countries around the world failed to draw much US media attention, despite hundreds of thousands of people, from Dhaka to Paris to Cape Town, literally yelling out their opposition to the biotech giant’s products and practices, and the disturbing impact of their increasing control over the food supply.

But it’s not that US press don’t care about Monsanto. A few days later, when word came that Bayer was in talks to buy it, that was big news.

Few issues are more important than the food we eat. What would reporting that foregrounded the voices of farmers, indigenous communities and consumers look like when it comes to a phenomenon like Monsanto? We’re joined now by Patty Lovera; she’s assistant director of Food and Water Watch. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Patty Lovera.

Patty Lovera: Hi. Thanks for having me.

JJ: Well, I wouldn’t want to imply that US media have given no attention to controversies around Monsanto. They certainly have. I would say that a lot of that attention, especially lately, stays focused on GMOs—whether they’re safe and whether they should be labeled. I have some issues with the way they cover even that, but my bigger concern is how it presents the story as one of relatively well-off US consumers demanding to know every little thing that’s in their food—because they have too much free time, basically. But cotton farmers in India aren’t killing themselves over labeling. What does Monsanto mean around the world, that people in 400 cities would go out in the street?

PL: Monsanto at this point has become synonymous, not just with GMOs, but I think also with a type of agriculture, and it’s a type of agriculture that’s really counter to the way a lot of people want to farm around the world, and are still farming around the world. It’s chemically intensive. I mean, Monsanto was a chemical company first, and then they acquired seed companies, and engineered seeds through genetic engineering to make those crops work with their chemicals.

So they sell Roundup, and they sell Roundup Ready corn and soybeans and cotton, so you can spray the crop with this weed killer, Roundup. Before it would have killed the crop, right? It would have killed the weeds, but it would have killed the crop, too. Now the corn or the soy or the cotton is engineered to survive Roundup. That’s a hell of a business model for a chemical company, and they sell these things together.

And so it’s really become a company that’s synonymous with that type of agriculture, of very expensive inputs, expensive seeds, and chemicals that go with them, and corporate control of these basic building blocks of the food supply.

JJ: Well, I want to pick up on one word, which is you say “can,” you “can” use these seeds. It’s not as though Monsanto is saying, hey, we’re in the market, we have a seed, you can choose our seed over other seeds. That’s not the way it’s playing out in terms of choice, is it, really?

PL: It depends on what part of the world you’re talking about. But in the US, if you are growing the commodity crops that we look at, you know, corn, soybeans, cotton—not wheat, they haven’t figured wheat out yet, they haven’t genetically engineered wheat—but the other big commodity crops, they have. And odds are, if you’re growing those crops, you’re probably growing a GMO, and you’re probably growing a GMO that has a Monsanto-patented trait in it. And it’s hard for folks who don’t want to do that type of agriculture here. It’s hard for them to find options.

In other countries, Monsanto has bought seed companies that used to be independent. There is that sense that it’s hard to escape them, and that they take over a lot of market share and that choice for farmers disappears; it’s harder to avoid them. If it’s not a company you want to support, you may not have other good options.

JJ: Monsanto actually sues farmers who try to save seeds or re-use seeds, in the way that maybe their community has done for eons. But once you kind of buy in to Monsanto, you kind of have to stick with the company store.

Marching against Monsanto in Bangladesh (photo: GMWatch)

Marching against Monsanto in Bangladesh (photo: GMWatch)

PL: Right. And that’s one of the huge points of friction, especially outside the US. Historically, folks have held some seed back and saved it. You don’t eat everything you grow, or sell everything; you’re investing in next year. Hybrid seeds, which came before GMOs, changed this; they changed that business model. Big seed companies that then got bought by chemical companies like Monsanto or DuPont, they were very big into hybrids, and they said they offered a lot of benefits in terms of better varieties and better yields, but it did stop a lot of seed-saving.

And GMOs take that to the next level, because of the patenting that goes on. This is intellectual property that’s in those seeds, and there have been very infamous examples of Monsanto going after people who did try to save seed, and not pay that licensing fee the next year, and very high-profile lawsuits and challenges. And that’s a big disruption to the way people farm in many parts of the world. That’s a really radical shift to the economics of farming.

JJ: It shifts the economics in which a place like India, which now has upwards of 90 percent of their cotton is GMO cotton, that Monsanto is collecting these royalties, which are very, very high, on. But it also has an impact on the planet, right? I mean, some of the concerns are about biodiversity.

PL: Right. There’s a choice issue we worry about when you have this much market share, and you have a couple of companies, or one big company like Monsanto, that’s really controlling the majority of any one seed marketplace. There’s also really a biodiversity issue, right? If you’re making everybody farm, no matter where they are, with just a few varieties of something, you’re taking diversity out of that system, and that is not a smart biological bet, you know, when you’re  growing something outside in places that have unpredictable weather and droughts or floods or pests or — you know, crazy things are happening with the climate. People’s growing conditions are changing, and we’re going to need more options to adapt to that around the world, and make sure people have good options and a resilient food system, not less.

Mothers against Monsanto in Paris: "So that the world of Monsanto is never that of our children" (Photo: La Chouette)

Mothers against Monsanto in Paris: “So that the world of Monsanto is never that of our children” (Photo: La Chouette)

JJ: I resent in some way the way that media make it a story about the proof of the danger of GMOs, as though someone needs to eat a GMO tomato and drop dead. When we’re really actually talking about health on a bigger scale, on a community, on an environmental and on ultimately a planetary scale.

PL: Absolutely. It’s one of the most frustrating things working on this issue, is the way that it gets portrayed. There’s lots of folks who make some pretty extreme claims about what GMOs do.

JJ: Right.

PL: And we don’t have evidence to show that those are happening or not happening, and that’s by design. We have a regulatory system that is designed to not look [or] to ask real questions about, are these the same as non-GMO foods? And we have a system that is incredibly good at, and designed, not to look at the chemical use that is absolutely tied to this model of production. GMO crops are tools of a chemical agriculture system, and it’s been very separated in [terms of] how we regulate things and approve things, and it really isn’t getting counted as part of the public health impact of this type of agriculture.

Europe does a better job than we do. There’s still things they could do better. But when we get information about these chemicals, it usually comes from outside the US, because our system is not designed to look for it. So it absolutely should be part of the conversation, and instead we get caught in this very reductionist look at it, where they call you names and say you’re like a climate denier if you dare to question this technology.

JJ: Sometimes I feel as though journalists think they’re waiting for something to be settled before they weigh in, but we can already raise questions about the process. It’s not as though we had a debate, and people who think monopolies, and corporate control of food, and farmers not being able to control their seeds, just convinced those people who didn’t feel that way, you know? That’s not how the process has worked, and it seems to me like maybe there’s a role for journalists in there.

PL: Absolutely. I mean, a really critical example of that just recently: The National Academies of Science put out a report, every so many years they put out these big reports on these hot topics, and they put one out on GMOs. And a lot of people referred to the format as a sandwich: The opening part said, oh, we think they’re probably fine, we think they’re safe to eat. Then there was some bad news in the middle, that, oh, oops, they don’t seem to increase yields, doesn’t seem like they actually help us produce more food. Oh, yeah, we’re seeing production problems, because the weeds we keep spraying with Roundup are now resistant to Roundup, so we’re going to have to switch to tougher herbicides. You know, like all the bad news was in the middle. And then they ended up with, but they’re probably safe to eat, so we think it’s okay, and that was the headline.

And we actually went and looked at who was on this committee, and lots of them had some tie to this industry. This was not a neutral panel of experts. A lot of them had skin in this game, and that never makes it into the coverage as well. It was a very convenient headline of, you know, “expert panel says GMOs are safe to eat.”

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Patty Lovera from Food and Water Watch. You can find their work on Monsanto and a range of other issues online at FoodAndWaterWatch.org. Patty Lovera, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

PL: Thanks for having me.

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