Marcia Ishii-Eiteman: GE crops have been designed to be used to contain or to be used with pesticides, and so even industry’s own data indicate that virtually 100%, 99.99%, of GE crops’ seeds on the market today have been designed either to contain an insecticide, that’s the BT, those are the BT crops, or to be used with an herbicide that the producer manufactures as well.
So that is really the, the dirty little secret, if you will, of, of GE seeds, that they are the mechanism to sell pesticides, they are the money-making scheme for the pesticide companies. And what happened, if we kind of look backwards in time, in around the ’70s and ’80s, gradually all the, the devastating environmental impacts of a lot of the pesticides that were out on the market were becoming known, and we were passing laws to protect the environment, and protect kids’ health, and so on from these pesticides, and the companies could see that there was potentially a, you know, a loss in market-share there, if their pesticides were being gradually, both in the U.S. and in the, in the international realm, rolled back, restricted, even banned.
So, about in the ’90s, Monsanto and the other major international pesticide companies began packaging their pesticides with seeds. …and this was a very clever move that we are now seeing tremendous sort of ripple effects from, where the pesticide companies began buying up seed companies. Initially, they packaged them together in just a basic food way, like, here’s a package, you buy the seeds that you want, and you, as part of the package, you have to buy the pesticides. Then, they figured out through the process of genetic engineering, that they could actually engineer, so what they would do is splice together bits of, of DNA into these kind of artificial gene units, and insert those into plant cells. They’d create plants that they could then patent that would contain either the insecticide, so this, in the case of the BT crops, the plants had been designed to, to actually carry the, this toxin that, that when insects consume it, that it, basically, it kind of explodes their gut after they eat it for a while, so it’s an insecticide, it has an insecticidal effect.
Now BT itself is a naturally-occurring soil bacteria so it can be used by organic farmers in the field. It just occurs naturally, it breaks down under daylight- under sunlight, so it’s just not there all the time and it has been able to be used by farmers for decades. The problem with inserting it into plant cells is that it is there all the time, and in fact there’s a much greater load of this toxin in the genetically engineered BT plant environment than if organic farmers are spraying a little bit of organic BT on the leaves, it breakdowns in the sunlight, like I said. So in the genetically engineered version, it’s there all the time, the insects are exposed to it constantly, and then as was predicted back in the ‘90’s by ecologists, now we are seeing the breakdown of that system with insects evolving resistance to the BT.
“…our government and our US Department of Ag. needs to have a much bigger vision of how we are going to be a, a part of the world economy, and how we are going to contribute and be able to export desirable products that are not contaminated with, with either pesticides or genetically engineered traits.”
But even more than the BT crops are the more dangerous, are the herbicide-resistant crops. And so these are genetically engineered seeds that Monsanto and Dow and DuPont, all these major pesticide companies, have engineered to be resistant to a particular herbicide that that company manufactures. So, the Roundup-resistant crops, the Roundup Ready cotton, corn, and soy, these are all Monsanto’s products that are designed to withstand applications of Roundup, and therefore enable the farmer to plant the seed, and then just spray the heck out of their field with Roundup, because their plant will no longer die because of the Roundup. Every, a lot of the other plants in the environment will. But it’s a great, you know, it’s like the greatest marketing mechanism that these companies came up with, because it ensures continued marketing and sales of their, their flagship pesticide.
Andrew Stelzer: So, it sounds like they don’t have to lobby for better pesticide laws, they just have to lobby for laws friendly to their seeds, and the pesticides kinda get a free ride along with that?… I guess that’s where the myth of, of we’re feeding the world comes in, with these seeds?
MIE: There’s a couple things in your question there. The myth that we’re feeding the world with your seeds is certainly one that industry has trotted out time and again, and yet when you look at the evidence these seeds do nothing to feed the world! The genetically engineered corn, cotton, and soybean that we’re growing here in the US, and that is being grown in countries like Brazil and Argentina, that’s not actually feeding the world, you know. We’re either feeding concentrated livestock operations, or we’re feeding our cars with the production of, of ethanol and, from the corn, the genetically-engineered corn. So, all that is not actually going to feed the world. Even in terms of production, you often hear the companies say “Oh we increase yield” but even now Monsanto is kinda beginning to back down from these big claims that have been completely shot apart. These GE seeds do not have, provide an increase in yield. They often have what’s called, what scientists call a yield drag, where there’s a decrease in yield. But what the companies have done is they go out and they buy the best conventional, non-genetically engineered seed varieties, they insert their, their genetic traits, and then they patent it, so it becomes a Monsanto seed product, but the good yield that may come from that seed had nothing to do with the insertion of herbicide-resistant trait, or an insecticide toxin. It had to do with some, perhaps a university, public university plant-breeder, or just conventional breeding, that developed and improved the seed variety. But the problem is, now it’s captured by Monsanto, and, and is packaged and sold as a Monsanto product with all these additional patents on it.
I’ve heard, I spoke to a farmer in Iowa, who said that the previous year, this was a couple years ago, he was at one of these extension field days, and the, there’s some new corn variety that the extensionist was talking about, that yielded very well. It was a conventional, not genetically engineered, seed variety. And the extensionist told him, well, you know, if you like this and it’s doing really well, you better buy it now, because Monsanto’s working on this, and next year, it’s gonna come back as a Roundup Ready, or, you know, some genetically engineered seed, and you won’t be able to get it except in the engineered form, where you’re gonna have to pay all these extra licensing fees, and it’ll cost two or three times as much.
So, indepe-, we’ve lost so many independent seed companies, over two hundred have disappeared, and farmers can’t find non-GE seed for the, especially for the commodity crops, the corn, cotton, and soy, that, you know, if they would wish to use non-GE seed, some farmers are increasingly beginning to try to get off the GE-pesticide treadmill, and it’s very, very difficult to find that seed.
AS: You’ve been involved in watching USDA regulations, so over this, it sounds like maybe a three, four decade story you’re telling, where were the points at which important regulations could’ve been made? Either through the Department of Agriculture or through legislation, where this new system could’ve been stopped or altered,–that it wasn’t–and how did that happen?
MIE: The terms for the USDA or Department of Ag. to decide whether or not to approve a genetically engineered seed, when petitioned to do so by Dow or Monsanto, the terms, the decision-making process for that was very narrowly defined as being, well, what we have to decide is whether this seed poses a threat to plants, whether it’s a plant pest risk, not really looking at the bigger picture of, is this the right and best thing that we can do for American, for US agriculture. You know, not looking at, is this really going to support farmers’ livelihoods, and ensure, you know, healthy rural communities. Is this the best way for our farmers to be able to produce food and in a way that, you know, that is healthy and keeps their air, water, and soil clean, but rather, just this very tiny, narrow question that is still what is the decision point that USDA uses now, does this seed, as an organism, you know, pose a threat to other plants? And so, they almost invariably pretty much find that, no, the seed itself isn’t really going to pose a, a plant pest risk, it’s not going to harm, you know, the plant next to it. Now, this is such a, a narrow approach that it pretty make-, much makes it a joke of the whole regulatory process that we have right now.
The vast majority of, of Congressional representative and senators are not willing to stick their neck out and, and go against the, the will or the pressure of the biotech companies because of this horrendous problem we have of corporate buyout of our democratic, you know, government systems…the campaign finance, the situation we have there, where biotech companies are just pouring millions of dollars into the campaign buckets of Congressional reps and senators, that’s one of the most silencing effects that corporate power’s having over our government, over our agencies, and over our elected officials.
AS: What about the international picture? I know a lot of other countries don’t accept genetically-engineered foods. Is the American market big enough to sustain if essentially the whole rest of the world banned these crops,? I know it hurts our export market.
MIE: The genetically engineered wheat that was never approved that showed up in Oregon, immediately led to a loss, you know, a closing of some of the export markets for, for our wheat. We need to be able to assure our buyers in Japan and Europe that the wheat we’re exporting is not genetically engineered. So, every time we have one of these contamination problems, that has very real impacts on our, on our, on our economy, because it certainly affects the, our ability to export these crops.
I think that needs to be reckoned with and our government and our US Department of Ag. needs to have a much bigger vision of how we are going to be a, a part of the world economy, and how we are going to contribute and be able to export desirable products that are not contaminated with, with either pesticides or genetically engineered traits.
The problem though is that we’re going backwards in time, because the new set of, of seeds that are about to be approved by the US Department of Ag. are corn, soybeans, and cotton is now coming up in the, in the approval process. These seeds have been designed to be used with 2,4-D, which is an old pesticide from decades ago, that is a neurotoxin. It’s known to have reproductive, cause reproductive harm, endocrine disrupting effects, that is, mess up the en-, the hormone systems, it causes, it’s been linked to decreased sperm counts, birth defects, it’s cytotoxic, that is, it can kill cells. So, it’s a very, very dangerous chemical, and it’s been known, it’s particularly harmful for children’s health.
When this, and when Dow first presented this seed, these seeds that would, are designed to be used with 2,4-D, there was such an outcry from the public health community. There’s a letter sent by over seventy doctors and other health professionals to USDA and to the Environmental Protection Agency, saying, hold on, this is insane, this is the wrong direction to be going. And farmers, too, have been standing up and saying, wait a minute, this, this, the whole GE seed thing was supposed to help us get away from toxic pesticides, and now you’re telling us that we’re, we’re going to be using 2,4-D resistant seeds? Some farmers are happy to because they’re in this situation where they’re trying to deal with roundup resistance but many growers are beginning to say, “that’s not what they bargained for” they realize that, that they’re kids are going to be affected by a huge spike, scientists expect over a twenty five-fold increase in the use of 2,4-D over the next, between now and the end of the decade, or by 2019.
AS: PAN just got involved in a lawsuit in Hawaii. Before we even get into the lawsuit, what’s going on right now in Hawaii to do with pesticides, genetically engineered crops, This is 2014; what’s taking place right now?
MIE: Well, I, what’s happening in Hawaii is that the people have realized there they have been under tremendous onslaught living in a kind of a chemical toxic soup of pesticides for, for years, and what’s happened there is that the biggest pesticide companies, some of the very biggest ones, Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, BASF, they all use Hawaii as a, a testing grounds for the genetically engineered seeds that they are developing to market in the midwest, or in, and in other parts of the world. So what happens there is that, because they are testing the seeds they are developing, they are continuously applying massive amounts of pesticides, pretty much all year around, in part, Hawaii has a great, long growing climate, so they can just keep growing, test, producing test plots, growing seeds out, year after year, and applying tremendous amounts of pesticides, which drift out of the fields over into people’s homes, into schools, into playgrounds, and for such a long time, those communities have been really bearing the brunt of all this pesticide exposure.
So, communities have said, enough is enough, and that it is far past time to do something. They’ve stood up, and in Kauai, have actually gotten together and passed a bill recently that would require the pesticide companies to report on how much, what pesticides they are using, when and where, and, amazingly, that information is not available, so, basic reporting, people have a right to know what pesticides are being applied. And, that would also create safe buffer zones around sensitive sites, so around schools and playgrounds, that, where, in these areas, the companies would not be allowed to spray pesticides that will drift into these areas, so creating a safe, protective zone. Basic common sense, people’s rights to, you know, a safe, clean environment, people’s right to know what’s going on, and that was a huge victory, organized on the ground, Hawaiians standing together and saying, you know, these are our children, these are our lives, you know, we want to have a clean, fair, safe environment for our kids and ourselves. What’s happening right now is that then, some of these big pesticide companies filed a lawsuit against Kauai, saying, yeah, you have no right to protect yourselves, you know, we want the right to be able to spray right up, and, you know, let our pesticides drift right into your schools and playgrounds, and you don’t have a right to know what we’re doing, that’s our business, so we, that’s the, the lawsuit, and PAN, Pesticide Action Network, is involved as one of several groups that are, the legal term is intervener, we’re, we’re assisting Kauai county in its defense against this lawsuit from the big pesticide companies.
This interview is taken from Making Contact’s show “G.M.No!! Genetically Modified Democracy” Listen to the entire show here.
Andrew Stelzer is a radio producer for Making Contact. His radio work has appeared on programs including Marketplace, NPR News, BBC’s The World, Latino USA, Radio France International’s Crossroads, Free Speech Radio News, and on Making Contact since 2008. His print work has appeared in The St Petersburg Times, In These Times, E! Magazine, and elsewhere. Andrew was previously the senior reporter and anchor at WMNF radio in Tampa, FL.
Making Contact, is an award-winning, 29-minute weekly magazine-style public affairs program heard on 140 radio stations in the USA, Canada, South Africa and Ireland.
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