Who Owns The Rights To The Food You Eat?
Monsanto’s genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” seed line now accounts for 93 percent of the soybeans and 82 percent of the corn produced in the U.S., according to a recent Bloomberg article.
Should you be concerned? As Michael Pollan has pointed out, corn is the “keystone species of the industrial food system, along with its sidekick, soybean”:
“Take a typical fast food meal. Corn is the sweetener in the soda. It’s in the corn-fed beef Big Mac patty, and in the high-fructose syrup in the bun, and in the secret sauce….The “four different fuels” in a Lunchables meal, are all essentially corn-based. The chicken nugget—including feed for the chicken, fillers, binders, coating, and dipping sauce—is all corn….even the salads at McDonald’s are full of high-fructose corn syrup and thickeners made from corn.”
The implication is that in the U.S., we are becoming beholden to a single corporation for our food supply. This appears to be an emerging issue globally as well: Economist Magazine reports that, “more than three-quarters of the soyabeans grown around the world are now genetically modified, as is roughly half the cotton and over a quarter of the maize (corn).”
Supporters of genetically modified crops (GMOs) see them as a key part of the green revolution that has allowed the planet to sustain 6 billion people, and a potential boon to poor and unproductive farmers. But one of the many concerns about GMO crops is the risk created by reducing biodiversity and relying on high intensity monoculture. Like a billion computers all running the same operating system, a billion plants with identical genes are highly vulnerable to viruses (as well as fungi and bacteria.) Perhaps more concerning is the idea that the food genome could be privately owned by a single firm, with monopolistic power.
The New York Times reports that seed prices have been on an “unprecedented climb that began more than a decade ago, stemming from the advent of genetically engineered crops and the rapid concentration in the seed industry that accompanied it.” Last year alone, Monsanto raised corn seed prices 32 percent and soybean seed prices 24 percent. While many think of Monsanto as a chemical firm, a staggering 70% of Monsanto’s revenue now comes from the sales and licensing of seeds.
All this raises the question of whether we want to put our trust in a few mega-corporations for the food we eat. The Chinese don’t: They are declining assistance from Western firms, in favor of public research. And India is taking a very cautious approach, recently refusing to grant approval for the planting of a Monsanto marketed genetically modified food crop, citing problems of public trust and “inadequate” science.
Here in the U.S., there is now a “push by the Obama administration to take a closer look at competition — or the lack thereof — in agriculture, from the dairy industry to livestock to commodity crops, like corn and soybeans.”
Monsanto certainly has a right to profit from innovation and investment in R & D. But farmers and consumers have rights as well: The right to choose, and the right to exercise some control over what we eat and grow. Let’s hope the market swings back towards a more competitive balance.
For more, read Beth Buczynski’s recent post A Month Without Monsanto: One Woman’s Attempt To Avoid GMOs.