Hubris, that's all it is
by Tom Philpott
Gristmill, 16 Feb 2006
A couple of days ago, NY Times writer Andrew Pollack attempted to address the failure of biotech companies to "improve" fruits and vegetable crops -- that is, to bring a genetically altered fruit or vegetable strain (as opposed to grains like corn and legumes like soy) from seed to supermarket.
Unwittingly, the article illustrates the industry's hubris and the mainstream press's gullibility in covering the topic.
Pollack opens thusly:
"At the dawn of the era of genetically engineered crops, scientists were envisioning all sorts of healthier and tastier foods, including cancer-fighting tomatoes, rot-resistant fruits, potatoes that would produce healthier French fries and even beans that would not cause flatulence."
The only response to that statement is a horselaugh. Tomatoes already fight cancer; fruits like apples and oranges resist rot just fine (Does anyone seriously want, say, raspberries that last weeks? When we harvest them on my farm, they tend to disappear rapidly anyway); french fries can be plenty healthy, so long as you (like those skinny French people) fry them in good-quality fat and don't eat them in excess; and the answer to beans' flatulence problem lies not in the lab, but in the garden: Just add a bit of the hardy herb epazote to the pot. I've seen epazote thrive everywhere from a full-sun garden in Texas to a community garden in Brooklyn to a shady herb patch in North Carolina's mountains.
In other words, low-tech solutions already exist for most of the "problems" the biotech industry has set out to "solve." It's no coincidence that biotech ag companies are the mutant child of the pharmaceutical industry, which peddles a pill for every malady, including many you didn't know you had.
Pollack's next sentence contains another howler: "But so far, most of the genetically modified crops have provided benefits mainly to farmers, by making it easier for them to control weeds and insects."
That's enough to turn one's horselaugh into a full-on growl. How, precisely, have biotech's benefits flowed "mainly to farmers"? Let's review the industry for a second here. As Pollack notes, biotech has failed completely to bring a successful fruit or veg seed to market. Its only triumphs have been in heavily subsidized grain, legume, and fiber crops: specifically corn, soy, and cotton.
Since 1995, when Monsanto started to market GM seeds heavily, some $70 billion in direct government subsidies have flowed to corn, cotton, and soy farmers -- the most prolific decade for commodity subsidies ever. If biotech seeds have been such a boon to farmers, then why have the farmers that grow them needed such a monumental bailout?
Meanwhile, Monsanto's share price, like its bottom line, has surged.
Clearly, the big winners in the biotech boom have not been consumers or (pace Pollack) farmers, but rather shareholders in the seed giants.