Longform

Monsanto's plan to take over the world's food supply

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Ask Mike Mack, CEO of Syngenta, which is based in Switzerland. The Swiss, he argues, are more interested in environmental safety and food quality than in saving a few pennies at the grocery store.

"Switzerland's greatest natural resource is that it is a beautiful country that brings in a lot of tourism," he says. "If the Swiss could lower their consumption spending by 1 percent by applying high-productivity farming, they probably would not do it if it requires changing their approach to how they think about food. Countries like Switzerland are a good example where such things as GM food would be very difficult and perhaps commercially inadvisable."

Maybe Europe has simply been around the block enough to know better than to entrust its health to a bottom-line mentality. Although the European Union imports 30 million tons of GM crops annually for livestock feed, it's approved only two GM crops for human consumption.

In April, biotech companies took another hit when the European Union banned neonicotinoids — aka "neo-nics" — one of the most powerful and popular insecticides in the world. It's a derivative of nicotine that's poisonous to plants and insects. German giant Bayer CropScience and Syngenta both make neo-nics, which are used to coat seeds, protecting crops in their early growth stages. In America, 90 percent of the corn crop comes with the coating.

The problem is that plants sweat these chemicals out in the morning dew, where they're picked up by bees like a morning cup of Starbucks.

Last year, Dr. Christian Krupke, an associate professor of entomology at Purdue University, did one of the first studies linking neo-nics to the collapse of bee colonies, which threatens the entire food system. One-quarter of the human diet is pollinated by bees.

The mysterious collapse of colonies — in which bees simply fly off and die — has been reported as far back as 1918. Yet over the past seven years, mortality rates have tripled. Some U.S. regions are witnessing the death of more than half their populations.

"We're looking at bee kills, persistently during corn-planting time," Krupke explains. "So what was killing these bees at corn planting?"

While he's still not sure how much responsibility the chemicals bear, his study indicates a link to Monsanto's GM corn, which has been widely treated with neo-nics since 2005.

But while other countries run from the problem, the U.S. government is content to let its citizens serve as guinea pigs.

What's Mine Is Yours

The same worries apply to contamination from GM crops. Ask Frank Morton, who grows organic sugar-beet seeds in Oregon's Willamette Valley and is among the few non-GM holdouts.

This became abundantly clear in 2010, when a federal judge demanded that all U.S. farmers stop planting GM sugar beets. Farmers were surprised to find that there was very little non-GM sugar-beet seed to be had. Since the GM variety was introduced in 2005, Monsanto had driven just about everyone out of the market.

Morton's farm is just two miles from a GM sugar-beet farm. Unfortunately, beet pollen can travel as much as five miles, cross-pollinating other farmers' fields and, in the case of an organic farmer, threatening his ability to sell his crop as organic and GM-free. The contamination can arrive in the most benign ways.

"Some guy from a landscaping company goes driving by in his dump truck and sees this potting soil full of Roundup Ready sugar-beet roots and gets the farmer to sell it to him," says Morton. "A scientist who works at Oregon State University and knows me happened to go into this landscaping business and was buying some potting soil when she saw these roots, and she knew what they were.

"The company that was responsible for the roots had to go out and find all the people," he continues. "They went out and paid people to let them recover the roots from their soil. And to not say anything, they gave them $100 each. I know, because the lady who owns the liquor store told me that she bought some of the soil and they paid her not to mention it."

It's especially galling because GM crops have perverted longstanding property law. Organic farmers, for example, are responsible for protecting their farms from contamination, since courts have consistently refused to hold GM growers liable.

Kansas farmer Bryce Stephens had to stop growing organic corn and soybeans for fear of contamination; he has thirty-foot buffer crops to protect his organic wheat. (Wheat pollen doesn't travel far.)

"Monsanto and the biotechs need to respect traditional property rights and need to keep their pollution on their side of the fence," says Maine farmer Jim Gerritsen. "If it was anything but agriculture, nobody would question it. If I decided to spray my house purple and I sprayed on a day that was windy, and my purple paint drifted onto your house and contaminated your siding and shingles, there isn't a court in the nation that wouldn't in two minutes find me guilty of irresponsibly damaging your property. But when it comes to agriculture, all of a sudden the tables are turned."

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Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker