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The Global Spread of GMO Crops Inherit the Wind

di Peter Montague - 10/01/2006


Felix Ballarin spent 15 years of his life developing a special 
organically-grown variety of red corn. It would bring a high price 
on the market because local chicken farmers said the red color lent 
a rosy hue to the meat and eggs from their corn-fed chickens. But 
when the corn emerged from the ground last year, yellow kernels were 
mixed with the red. Government officials later confirmed with DNA 
tests that Mr. Ballarin's crop had become contaminated with a 
genetically modified (GMO) strain of corn.
Because Mr. Ballarin's crop was genetically contaminated, it no 
longer qualified as "organically grown," so it no longer brought a 
premium price. Mr. Ballarin's 15-year investment was destroyed 
overnight by what is now commonly known as "genetic contamination." 
This is a new phenomenon, less then 10 years old -- but destined to 
be a permanent part of the brave new world that is being cobbled 
together as we speak by a handful of corporations whose goal is 
global domination of food.
Mr. Ballarin lives in Spain, but the story is the same all over the 
world: genetically modified crops are invading fields close by (and 
some that are not so close by), contaminating both the organic food 
industry and the "conventional" (non-GMO and non-organic) food 
As a result of genetically contamination of non-GMO crops in Europe, 
the U.S., Mexico, Australia and South America, the biotech food 
industry had an upbeat year in 2005 and things are definitely 
looking good for the future. As genetically modified pollen from 
their crops blows around, contaminating nearby fields, objections to 
genetically modified crops diminish because non-GMO alternatives 
become harder and harder to find. A few more years of this and there 
may not be many (if any) truly non-GMO crops left anywhere. At that 
point there won't be any debate about whether to allow GMO-crops to 
be grown here or there -- no one will have any choice. All the crops 
in the world will be genetically modified (except perhaps for a few 
grown in greenhouses on a tiny scale). At that point, GMO will have 
contaminated essentially the entire planet, and the companies that 
own the patents on the GMO seeds will be sitting in the catbird seat.
It is now widely acknowledged that GMO crops are a "leaky 
technology" -- that it to say, genetically modified pollen is spread 
naturally on the wind, by insects, and by humans. No one except 
perhaps some officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture were 
actually surprised to learn this. GMO proponents have insisted for a 
decade that genetic contamination could never happen (wink, wink) 
and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials want along with the 
gag. And so of course GMO crops are now spreading everywhere by 
natural means, just as you would expect.
It couldn't have turned out better for the GMO crop companies if 
they had planned it this way.
Growers of organically-grown and conventional crops are naturally 
concerned that genetic contamination is hurting acceptance of their 
products. Three California counties have banned GM crops. Anheuser- 
Busch Co., the beer giant, has demanded that its home state 
(Missouri) keep GMO rice fields 120 miles away from rice it buys to 
make beer. The European Union is now trying to establish buffer 
zones meant to halt the unwanted spread of GM crops. However, the 
Wall Street Journal reported November 8 that, "Such moves to 
restrict the spread of GM crops often are ineffective. Last month in 
Australia, government experts discovered biotech canola genes in two 
non-GM varieties despite a ban covering half the 
country. 'Regretfully, the GM companies appear unable to contain 
their product," said Kim Chance, agriculture minister for the state 
of Western Australia, on the agency's Web site.
For some, this seems to come as a shocking revelation -- genetically 
modified pollen released into the natural environment spreads long 
distances on the wind. Who would have thought? Actually, almost 
anyone could have figured this out. Dust from wind storms in China 
contaminates the air in the U.S. Smoke from fires in Indonesia can 
be measured in the air half-way around the world. Pollen is 
measurable in the deep ice of antarctica. No one should ever have 
harbored any doubt that genetically modified pollen would spread 
everywhere on the Earth sooner or later. (We are now exactly 10 
years into the global experiment with GMO seeds. The first crops 
were planted in open fields in the U.S. in 1995. From this meager 
beginning, global genetic contamination is now well along.)
Who benefits from all this? Think of it this way: when all crops on 
earth are genetically contaminated, then the seed companies that own 
the patented seeds will be in a good position to begin enforcing 
their patent rights. They have already taken a test case to court 
and won. In 2004, Monsanto (the St. Louis, Mo. chemical giant) won a 
seven-year court battle against a 73-year-old Saskatchewan farmer 
whose fields had been contaminated by Monsanto's genetically 
modified plants. The Supreme Court of Canada court ruled that the 
farmer -- a fellow named Percy Schmeiser -- owed Monsanto damages 
for having Monsanto's patented crops growing illegally in his field.
Armed with this legal precedent, after genetically modified crops 
have drifted far and wide, Monsanto, Dow and the other GMO seed 
producers will be in a position to muscle most of the world's 
farmers. It is for cases exactly like this that the U.S. has spent 
30 years creating the WTO (world trade organization) -- to settle 
disputes over "intellectual property rights" (such as patents) in 
secret tribunals held in Geneva, Switzerland behind closed doors 
without any impartial observers allowed to attend. Even the results 
of WTO tribunals are secret, unless the parties involved choose to 
reveal them. Let me see -- a dirt farmer from India versus Monsanto 
and Dow backed by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Treasury. 
I'm struggling to predict who might win such a politico- legal 
dispute conducted by a secret tribunal in Geneva, Switzerland.
During 2005, it was discovered that GMO crops have not lived up to 
their initial promise of huge profits for farmers and huge benefits 
for consumers. It was also discovered that the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture has not enforced its own strict regulations that were 
intended to prevent experimental GMO seeds to accidentally 
contaminating nearby fields. GMO crops were supposed to produce 
important human health benefits - and the be developed under super- 
strict government control - but all these promises have turned out 
to be just so much eye wash.. GMOs were supposed to reduce reliance 
on dangerous pesticides -- but in fact they have had the opposite 
effect. Monsanto's first GMO crops were designed to withstand 
drenching in Monsanto's most profitable product, the weed killer 
Round-Up -- so farmers who buy Monsanto's patented "Round- up ready" 
seeds apply more, not less, weed killer.
But so what? Who cares if GMO seeds don't provide any of the 
benefits that were promised? Certainly not the seed companies. 
Perhaps benefits to the people of the world were never the point. 
Perhaps the point was to get those first GMO crops in the ground -- 
promise them the moon! -- and then allow nature to take its course 
and contaminate the rest of the planet with patented pollen. The 
intellectual property lawsuits will come along in good time. 
Patience, dear reader, patience. Unlike people, corporations cannot 
die, so our children or our grandchildren may find themselves held 
in thrall by two or three corporations that have seized legal 
control of much of the world's food supply by getting courts (backed 
by the threat of force, as all courts ultimately are) to enforce 
their intellectual property rights.
The Danish government has passed a law intended to slow the pace of 
genetic contamination. The Danes will compensate farmers whose 
fields have become contaminated, then the Danish government will 
seek recompense from the farmer whose field originated the genetic 
contamination, assuming the culprit can be pinpointed. This may slow 
the spread of genetic contamination, but the law is clearly not 
designed to end the problem.
Yes, it has been a good year for the GMO industry. None of the 
stated benefits of their products have materialized -- and the U.S. 
government regulatory system has been revealed as a sham -- but 
enormous benefits to the few GMO corporations are right on track to 
begin blossoming. For Monsanto, Dow and Novartis, a decent shot at 
gaining control over much of the world's food supply is now blowing 
on the wind and there's no turning back. As the Vice-President of 
plant genetics for Dow Agrosciences said recently, "There will be 
come continuing bumps in the road, but we are starting to see a 
balance of very good news and growth. The genie is way out of the 
Peter Montague is editor of the indispensable Rachel's Health and 
Democracy, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached