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February 20, 2009

Transgenic Trouble

The pressure for governments and consumers to embrace transgenic crops is growing higher by the day. Our biotech overlords Companies like Monsanto, Dupont, Dow and Syngenta (the product of a merger between the ag-tech divisions of two pharmaceutical giants) would like nothing more than to be given the keys to the agricultural castle.

Sadly, it's clear at this point that transgenic crops are going to play a role going forward - the powers arrayed in support of these companies are simply too great and so much of the stuff is out there already. It's also true that there may be some crop diseases (like stem rust, currently destroying African wheat and coming soon to a wheat field near you) that will resist anything but a transgenic solution - although early indications are that stem rust, for one, is winning the fight.

And if one of these companies came up with the magic seed that could double, triple or quadruple yields, it would be hard to balance health risks against the coming global famine. But of course, the magic seed doesn't exist. Naturally, the biotech companies do everything they can to keep the dream of the magic seed alive - it's the ultimate sales pitch. But with transgenic seeds managing only minimal, if any, yield benefits (and given that there is now research indicating that the higher a food crop's yield, the lower its nutritional content), it's unclear how they'll help except at the margins. In fact, an aspect of this debate that isn't discussed enough is that transgenic seeds mostly just represent conventional agriculture, only louder. These engineered crops won't die from massive applications of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. This is the future of farming?

Another unheralded issue with transgenics is the biotech companies' current attempts to keep scientists' prying eyes and brains away from these seeds. According to the NYT:
Biotechnology companies are keeping university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of the industry's genetically modified crops, according to an unusual complaint issued by a group of those scientists.

The problem, the scientists say, is that farmers and other buyers of genetically engineered seeds have to sign an agreement meant to ensure that growers honor company patent rights and environmental regulations. But the agreements also prohibit growing the crops for research purposes.

So while university scientists can freely buy pesticides or conventional seeds for their research, they cannot do that with genetically engineered seeds. Instead, they must seek permission from the seed companies. And sometimes that permission is denied or the company insists on reviewing any findings before they can be published, they say.
Imagine if those rules applied to drug testing. Or chemical testing. We can barely overcome industry meddling as it is. So, yes, let's put these companies in control of the research into the safety and effects of growing transgenic crops. I'm sure they'll only do what's in our best interests. Isn't that what Big Business is all about?

Photo by mknowles used under CC license

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