Friday, December 06, 2002

Friday food miscellany:
Forbes attacks "luddism" and extolls agBiotech -- the latter is a very good article about pest-resistant sweet popatoes in Kenya.

Diet is the engine of human evolution.

The State Dept. has released some relatively inoffensive GM food aid fact sheets.

A survey of farmers in South Dakota reveals considerable ambivalence about biotech crops. And a real farmer lucidly explains the problem with them:

Upon noting that the majority of soybeans planted in the US are Roundup Ready and that Mississippi farmers have weeds that are especially difficult to control without Roundup, [dissenting Appeals Court Judge] Clevenger says, "Taken together, these facts indicate that farmers like McFarling have little choice but to sign the Technology Agreement if they wish to remain competitive in the soybean market."

This is most refreshing to hear! At least there is one Judge who has enough sense not to fall for the simplistic argument that farmers don�t have to plant patented seed if they don�t want to. Clevenger hits the nail right on the head: the need to be competitive forces many farmers to plant RR soybeans, even if they don�t like the tech agreement. And, it�s not just in Mississippi. Several Midwestern farmers say that a lot of landlords now expect weed free soybean fields, so if they want to rent land, they have to grow RR soybeans to keep the landlord satisfied.

To further expand on Clevenger�s argument, what would happen if Monsanto succeeds in its quest at the World Intellectual Property Organization and the US Patent and Trademark Office to patent soybean genes and genetic markers that confer high yields? One result could be, for example, that Monsanto monopolizes traits that help soybean varieties that produce 10 percent more. Then, it would be able to collect tech fees on nearly 100 percent of the acres planted to soybeans, as no farmer could stay in business growing lower yielding soybeans, and no seed company would be able to sell soybean seed without incorporating Monsanto�s patented traits.

Furthermore, the macroeconomic effect of wide scale adoption of RR soybeans makes the tech agreement and Monsanto�s iron handed enforcement of it particularly onerous. That is, because soybeans have become easier to grow, more of them are grown, and because a big crop in the aggregate is always worth less than a small crop, soybeans are cheaper than they otherwise would be. In fact, any individual benefit a farmer receives growing RR soybeans is negated or even reversed by having to sell his crop cheaper.

As Iowa State University agricultural economist Neil Harl aptly notes in describing a phenomenon he calls the Great Paradox, "The aggregate effect of these crops is to increase output, but because of inelastic demand, producers receive less money." So while farmers have to adopt new technologies to remain competitive, that same technology puts financial pressure on them. While this has been occurring for years, the one thing that�s different with biotechnology is that farmers are expected to give up their traditional rights, such as seed saving. So, it should be no surprise Monsanto expects them to give up their Fifth Amendment rights, too.

So how hard is it to stay clear of Monsanto and its tech agreement? With RR soybeans now making up three fourths of soybean seed sales, it is hard not to buy RR soybean seed. For example, I told my seed salesman months in advance that I wanted six bags of short season soybean seed to plant as a trial, as I had never grown soybeans before, not being a traditional crop here in Colorado. I emphasized that I wanted conventional, non-GMO seed. But when the salesman delivered the six bags, they were all RR. When I asked the salesman why he didn�t bring conventional seed, he said, "that�s all I could find in a short season variety. Take the seed, get it off my hands." I told him, "thanks but no thanks," and he loaded the six bags back onto his pickup.

Moreover, seed companies are combining other traits in RR soybeans. Last year�s Garst seed catalog, for instance, advertised 12 new cyst nematodes resistant varieties as the "dirty dozen." However, all twelve were RR, so if a farmer wanted to plant one of these new nematode resistant varieties, he would be planting a RR variety. And, as a recent Soybean Digest article reports, "With the exception of a handful of food-grade/conventional soybeans, Roundup Ready varieties are the list of new selections for the 2003 planting season."

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