Inherit the Wind

Felix Ballarin spent 15 years of his life developing a special organically-grown variety of red corn. It would bring a high price on the market because local chicken farmers said the red color lent a rosy hue to the meat and eggs from their corn-fed chickens. But when the corn emerged from the ground last year, yellow kernels were mixed with the red. Government officials later confirmed with DNA tests that Mr. Ballarin’s crop had become contaminated with a genetically modified (GMO) strain of corn.

Because Mr. Ballarin’s crop was genetically contaminated, it no longer qualified as “organically grown,” so it no longer brought a premium price. Mr. Ballarin’s 15-year investment was destroyed overnight by what is now commonly known as “genetic contamination.” This is a new phenomenon, less then 10 years old — but destined to be a permanent part of the brave new world that is being cobbled together as we speak by a handful of corporations whose goal is global domination of food.

Mr. Ballarin lives in Spain, but the story is the same all over the world: genetically modified crops are invading fields close by (and some that are not so close by), contaminating both the organic food industry and the “conventional” (non-GMO and non-organic) food industry.

As a result of genetically contamination of non-GMO crops in Europe, the U.S., Mexico, Australia and South America, the biotech food industry had an upbeat year in 2005 and things are definitely looking good for the future. As genetically modified pollen from their crops blows around, contaminating nearby fields, objections to genetically modified crops diminish because non-GMO alternatives become harder and harder to find. A few more years of this and there may not be many (if any) truly non-GMO crops left anywhere. At that point there won’t be any debate about whether to allow GMO-crops to be grown here or there — no one will have any choice. All the crops in the world will be genetically modified (except perhaps for a few grown in greenhouses on a tiny scale). At that point, GMO will have contaminated essentially the entire planet, and the companies that own the patents on the GMO seeds will be sitting in the catbird seat.

It is now widely acknowledged that GMO crops are a “leaky technology” — that it to say, genetically modified pollen is spread naturally on the wind, by insects, and by humans. No one except perhaps some officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture were actually surprised to learn this. GMO proponents have insisted for a decade that genetic contamination could never happen (wink, wink) and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials want along with the gag. And so of course GMO crops are now spreading everywhere by natural means, just as you would expect.

It couldn’t have turned out better for the GMO crop companies if they had planned it this way.

Growers of organically-grown and conventional crops are naturally concerned that genetic contamination is hurting acceptance of their products. Three California counties have banned GM crops. Anheuser- Busch Co., the beer giant, has demanded that its home state (Missouri) keep GMO rice fields 120 miles away from rice it buys to make beer. The European Union is now trying to establish buffer zones meant to halt the unwanted spread of GM crops. However, the Wall Street Journal reported November 8 that, “Such moves to restrict the spread of GM crops often are ineffective. Last month in Australia, government experts discovered biotech canola genes in two non-GM varieties despite a ban covering half the country. ‘Regretfully, the GM companies appear unable to contain their product,” said Kim Chance, agriculture minister for the state of Western Australia, on the agency’s Web site.

For some, this seems to come as a shocking revelation — genetically modified pollen released into the natural environment spreads long distances on the wind. Who would have thought? Actually, almost anyone could have figured this out. Dust from wind storms in China contaminates the air in the U.S. Smoke from fires in Indonesia can be measured in the air half-way around the world. Pollen is measurable in the deep ice of antarctica. No one should ever have harbored any doubt that genetically modified pollen would spread everywhere on the Earth sooner or later. (We are now exactly 10 years into the global experiment with GMO seeds. The first crops were planted in open fields in the U.S. in 1995. From this meager beginning, global genetic contamination is now well along.)

Who benefits from all this? Think of it this way: when all crops on earth are genetically contaminated, then the seed companies that own the patented seeds will be in a good position to begin enforcing their patent rights. They have already taken a test case to court and won. In 2004, Monsanto (the St. Louis, Mo. chemical giant) won a seven-year court battle against a 73-year-old Saskatchewan farmer whose fields had been contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified plants. The Supreme Court of Canada court ruled that the farmer — a fellow named Percy Schmeiser — owed Monsanto damages for having Monsanto’s patented crops growing illegally in his field.

Armed with this legal precedent, after genetically modified crops have drifted far and wide, Monsanto, Dow and the other GMO seed producers will be in a position to muscle most of the world’s farmers. It is for cases exactly like this that the U.S. has spent 30 years creating the WTO (world trade organization) — to settle disputes over “intellectual property rights” (such as patents) in secret tribunals held in Geneva, Switzerland behind closed doors without any impartial observers allowed to attend. Even the results of WTO tribunals are secret, unless the parties involved choose to reveal them. Let me see — a dirt farmer from India versus Monsanto and Dow backed by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Treasury. I’m struggling to predict who might win such a politico- legal dispute conducted by a secret tribunal in Geneva, Switzerland.

During 2005, it was discovered that GMO crops have not lived up to their initial promise of huge profits for farmers and huge benefits for consumers. It was also discovered that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not enforced its own strict regulations that were intended to prevent experimental GMO seeds to accidentally contaminating nearby fields. GMO crops were supposed to produce important human health benefits – and the be developed under super- strict government control – but all these promises have turned out to be just so much eye wash.. GMOs were supposed to reduce reliance on dangerous pesticides — but in fact they have had the opposite effect. Monsanto’s first GMO crops were designed to withstand drenching in Monsanto’s most profitable product, the weed killer Round-Up — so farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented “Round- up ready” seeds apply more, not less, weed killer.

But so what? Who cares if GMO seeds don’t provide any of the benefits that were promised? Certainly not the seed companies. Perhaps benefits to the people of the world were never the point. Perhaps the point was to get those first GMO crops in the ground — promise them the moon! — and then allow nature to take its course and contaminate the rest of the planet with patented pollen. The intellectual property lawsuits will come along in good time. Patience, dear reader, patience. Unlike people, corporations cannot die, so our children or our grandchildren may find themselves held in thrall by two or three corporations that have seized legal control of much of the world’s food supply by getting courts (backed by the threat of force, as all courts ultimately are) to enforce their intellectual property rights.

The Danish government has passed a law intended to slow the pace of genetic contamination. The Danes will compensate farmers whose fields have become contaminated, then the Danish government will seek recompense from the farmer whose field originated the genetic contamination, assuming the culprit can be pinpointed. This may slow the spread of genetic contamination, but the law is clearly not designed to end the problem.

Yes, it has been a good year for the GMO industry. None of the stated benefits of their products have materialized — and the U.S. government regulatory system has been revealed as a sham — but enormous benefits to the few GMO corporations are right on track to begin blossoming. For Monsanto, Dow and Novartis, a decent shot at gaining control over much of the world’s food supply is now blowing on the wind and there’s no turning back. As the Vice-President of plant genetics for Dow Agrosciences said recently, “There will be come continuing bumps in the road, but we are starting to see a balance of very good news and growth. The genie is way out of the bottle.”

PETER MONTAGUE is editor of the indispensable Rachel’s Health and Democracy, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at:


Peter Montague is a fellow with the Science & Environmental Health Network, living in New Jersey.