Perhaps I should have titled this "Smart People, Foolish Choices". But then again, I don't want to get sued - so let's leave it as it is.

There is a lot of amazing science being done now. For example, people with chronic conditions like asthma or diabetes are benefiting from recently-developed medicines that treat the actual problem instead of the symptoms. In a few years scientists expect to be able to treat many fetal illnesses with gene therapy, while the baby is still inside the womb!

Yet while human knowledge is expanding at an astounding rate, human wisdom sometimes appears to be diminishing with comparable speed. Nowhere is this more evident than in modern agriculture. Very smart people are applying this new knowledge in very stupid ways.

The 'New Leaf' Potato

In many parts of the country, potato growers have to deal with the pest Colorado Potato Beetle (CPB). There are a number of effective chemical controls, but organic gardeners have relied on a bacterium for control - Bacillus thuringiensis tenebrionis, sold as Bt San Diego. This naturally occuring bacterium attacks the gut of the CPB, which causes it to stop eating and eventually die. Bt San Diego does not affect humans (or, for that matter, anything other than these specific beetles). With intelligent use, this bacterium would remain a safe, effective control for decades.

Then along comes Monsanto. They see that the market in organic produce is increasing by leaps and bounds. They also have the personnel trained in gene splicing techniques. So what do they do? They take the gene sequence from Bt San Diego that generates the toxin, and splice it into the DNA of a potato. Thus the 'New Leaf' potato is born.

You may ask why this is such a big deal. Well, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the past half century, persistent exposure to a pesticide quickly breeds resistant pests. Many people use organic and botanical pesticides specifically because they don't persist - they break down when exposed to air, moisture, and sunlight. Colorado Potato Beetles exposed to the 'New Leaf' potato will be getting persistent exposure to this strain of Bt. Since no pesticide is ever 100% effective it is likely that resistant CPB's will result, and a good organic control used by millions of gardeners will be quickly rendered useless.

Terminator Technology

No, this doesn't involve Arnold Schwarzenegger in any way, shape or form. This is a new technology that renders plants incapable of producing viable seed.

In March of this year (1998) The Delta and Pine Land Company announced it had developed a new genetic technology, dubbed "Terminator". The seeds which incorporate this technology will germinate and produce plants; but those plants will only produce sterile seed! Monsanto, recognizing the potential value of this technique, quickly bought up Delta and Pine. Then Monsanto and Cargill merged, which gives the new company a potentially controlling share of the world agricultural market.

So why, you may ask, is this technology so valuable? The answer is rather simple - they are hoping to control the food and seed markets in developing countries, which potentially could provide a much larger market than is available in the developed world. The vast majority of grain and seed production in the world is done in poor third-world countries. The farmers in these places grow their crops, then save enough of their own seed for the next season. If Monsanto/Cargill can (through predatory pricing) quietly introduce enough of this seed into these countries, they will be able to lock these countries into an inescapable cycle. Don't believe me? Check out this article in the Hindustani Times.

There are two other dangers involved here. If these third-world farmers are cut off from Monsanto for more than a season, whether by war or some other catastrophe, they will be unable to grow their own food - they will die. Also there is some debate whether this genetic code could escape into the wild, which could have catastrophic consequences.

I know it seems like I'm picking on Monsanto, and maybe I am. Frankly with all the takeovers of the past decade, they (along with one or two other companies) pretty much control agriculture. But I'm afraid there's yet another example of short-sighted stupidity to be discussed.

Roundup-Ready Crops

The herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) is sold by - guess who? It is quite popular with both farmers and gardeners because it is relatively non-toxic and has no soil action. I have no problems with people using it correctly, for the most part. But I do object to another common use.

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, farmers really like Roundup. The problem, though, is that it is a non-specific herbicide - when sprayed on plants in sufficient concentrations, it will kill them all. Since some plants (including potatoes and soybeans) are naturally more resistant to Roundup than others, farmers were able to use a dilute Roundup solution to get some weed control on their fields without killing their crop. But it wasn't perfect, so they still had to till their fields.

One thing you have to say about Monsanto - they know an opportunity when they see it. Using genetic engineering they were able to produce Roundup-Ready soybeans, which are totally unaffected by the herbicide. Farmers could now spray a higher level of herbicide on their crops without worrying about killing them - only the weeds die. Now Monsanto is working to incorporate this genetic technology into corn and potatoes, and I'd imagine most other crops.

So what's the problem? Well, just because Roundup doesn't kill a plant doesn't mean the herbicide isn't absorbed by the plant - it's just that the plant tolerates the herbicide. Roundup may be a relatively non-toxic liquid, but I don't particularly want to be eating it or drinking it.


There now. I feel better having got all that out. I imagine you might be feeling a bit queasy, though.

All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013