Like so much of what lines the aisles of our shopping markets and clothing stores, the true cost of genetically modified plants is buried so deep within the ticket price it’s barely perceivable. But for farmers around the world, the seed monopoly created by GMOs has caused an inescapable trap that ruins livelihoods, and quite often, takes lives.
There’s a common counter-argument to all the anti-GMO hubbub: humans have been breeding and altering plants and animals for centuries to do/look/grow how we want. The difference, however, is that GMOs are created with technologies that could never possibly yield the same results in nature. DNA from one species is inserted into another to produce desirable traits – such as resistance to pests.
“It is totally false to claim that GMOs are no different from what nature, farmers, or conventional public breeders have done,” says Dr. Vandana Shiva.
Shiva is the founder of Navdanya, an Indian non-profit that promotes biodiversity, seed freedom, and farmer’s rights.
“Farmers have provided traits that are based on diversity, quality, and resilience, which are vital for taste and nutrition, for resilience to climate change, and for ecological sustainability,” Shiva says. “An ecological paradigm of science is more sophisticated for food and agriculture systems than an obsolete reductionist, mechanistic paradigm on which GMOs are based.”
Since the mid-1990s, GM crops have become ubiquitous in agricultural production. Though it will take years for the health effects of consuming GMO food to become fully realized, the environmental effects are quickly becoming quite obvious. The proliferation of GM crops has created ecologically disastrous monocultures, superbugs and superweeds, and an unsustainable agricultural system.
The historic tradition of saving and sharing seed is effectively made illegal with the introduction of corporate patents. Because GM seeds are patented, corporations like Monsanto can charge farmers royalties. Essentially, farmers are caught in an inescapable, vicious cycle with GMO seeds as the culprit.
India is currently the largest exporter of cotton in the world. And with Monsanto currently controlling 95% of the country’s cottonseed market, it’s safe to say Monsanto is sitting pretty. Its insecticide producing strain of cotton, Bt, has had an increasingly controversial presence in India. While the seed has reduced the use of insecticides, it has also created an expensive dependency upon Monsanto, leading to high rates of debt for independent farmers. In addition to rising reports of Bt-resistant pests, the GM strain has also been linked to a rise in farmer suicides.
“I have seen the socioeconomic and ecological effects of GMO Bt cotton seeds on farming communities in India personally, specially in the region of Vidharba in the state of Maharashtra, which accounts for the highest acreage of GMO cotton, as well as the highest suicides among farmers,” Shiva says. “I have met widows of farmers who committed suicide because of debt. I have witnessed land that grew cotton with millets, pulses, spices, vegetables reduced to a monoculture of GMO cotton.”
Though GM seeds have yet to affect American farmers in such an extreme fashion, it doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to see that it won’t. The more we become reliant upon the products of major corporations rather than what are natural products of nature, the more we become indebted to an unsustainable system. The health and environmental side effects of GMOs are terrifying, but the privatisation of life itself is of even greater concern.
GM seed corporations have achieved patents on corn, soy, cotton, broccoli, and tomatoes, among many others. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, there is an obvious infringement upon our freedom when corporations own the rights to our ability to grow food. Eighty-eight percent of corn, 93% of soy, and 94% of cotton grown in the United States is GMO. As GMOs become the norm, so too do patents unless someone (actually, a lot of someones) speak out.
Shiva’s Navdanya has successfully prevented and revoked several patents, including Monsanto’s patent on a wheat plant derived from a traditional Indian strain, Nap Hal. Navdanya also coordinates seed saving programs throughout India, and through the Global Alliance for Seed Freedom, engages activists around the world in defense of seeds.
“There are many reasons why GMOs create a threat never experienced before on the planet or by society,” Shiva says. “The first is the total control of seed – the first link in the food chain – by 5 giant corporations. This is control over our food, and total annihilation of our freedom.”
The issues at hand are multi-facted and extend far beyond the scope of this article. If you’d like to learn more about GMOs and seed freedom, here is some recommended reading.