Michael Sligh. English photo.
By Jean English
Activist Michael Sligh grew up on a family farm in West Texas and farmed for a decade before taking a sabbatical to “square away policies” that were detrimental to family farming. That sabbatical began some two decades ago, and hasn’t ended yet. Sligh described those detrimental policies to a crowd that gathered on the earthen-banked amphitheater at the Common Ground Country Fair in September to hear him.
He said that the issues that prompted him to join RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) in the ’80s were low prices going to farmers, difficulties with access to markets, and the shrinking number of players who were controlling prices in agriculture – issues resembling those that predominate now.
RAFI seeks to protect family farms and biodiversity and to promote safe food by promoting organic and sustainable methods; by questioning genetic engineering while promoting methods that promote biodiversity on farms; and by fighting the concentration of power in agriculture, such as the growing trend of contract agriculture.
“What is the process to decide which technologies we bring into existence?” asked Sligh. “Who decides? Who benefits? Who loses? Who pays the liability? Who cleans up?”
We can look at these questions, he said, in relation to two directions in which our food system is evolving: One is the globalization of homogenized, standardized, increasingly genetically engineered commodities that are controlled by a few corporations with government cooperation; the other is localized farming and food production systems that are based on the qualities of freshness and place.
During the 20-year history of genetic engineering imposing itself on agriculture, questions of control, benefit and responsibility have not been addressed satisfactorily. Instead, the biotech industry simply promised to increase yields, produce safer foods and feed the world. “We do not see any match between reality and those promises,” said Sligh. Nor does he buy the argument that genetic engineering is just an accelerated method of traditional breeding. “It’s genetic manipulation between species,” he countered. “As hard as nature can work, we’ll never have fish genes in tomatoes.” At least not naturally.
Sligh tied the “Gene Revolution” in with the Green Revolution. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, we had a push for chemicals and a Green Revolution to feed the world with high-yielding, hybrid seeds and pesticides and fertilizer and irrigation. It did increase yields, but at a very big price: None of the externalized costs, such as polluted water and birth defects from pesticides, were borne by the introducers, but by the local farmers and their communities.” He told how the Green Revolution exacerbated genetic erosion of plant varieties when hybrid seeds were introduced into areas that were rich in diversity. In India, for example, 10,000 varieties of rice were grown before the Green Revolution, and afterwards, twelve. The Food and Agriculture Organization states in its recent report that the Green Revolution was the largest single contributor to the loss of genetic resources in this century.
Now we have the Gene Revolution, which is “just a fancy extension of the chemical revolution that has held farmers and consumers [hostage],” he said. “It’s another look for a silver bullet for problems that are really very complex.
“The impacts of genetic engineering on biodiversity will be far greater than those of the Green Revolution,” he predicted. He is particularly concerned about the genetic pollution of crops in their centers of diversity (such as corn in Mexico). “We’re going to need that diversity,” especially with regard to continued global climate change, he believes.
Sligh went on to talk about consolidation in agriculture. In 1979, he said, seed companies began to be bought out – not a healthy trend then. “Choices of where to get seeds were narrowing.” Now, 20 years later, we have “cross sector consolidation,” in which “the seed-pesticide-fertilizer-biotech company is all the same company.” Such consolidation has brought about “a drastic change in a small time.” For example, 40% of the U.S. vegetable market now comes from one seed source; four companies control 50% of the U.S. soy market; and so on. We have experienced a “huge consolidation at a rapid rate” along with a “loss of farmers’ rights.”
Farmers are now in danger of becoming just “renters of patented varieties from seed suppliers,” a major historical shift in our food supply which, Sligh believes, will lead to decreased food security, decreased biodiversity, and the uprooting of farmers from the land. The whole shift of control over our food system to a few multinational corporations with patented, genetically engineered varieties represents a “breach of consumers’ right-to-know, of informed consent,” said Sligh. “It’s a breach without public debate. It’s seen as a human rights issue in other parts of the world.”
How did we get here? Sligh provided the following timeline:
• We have a 12,000-year tradition of farmers saving their seeds. Over 100 years ago, a large USDA budget item was free distribution of seeds to farmers for testing and selection;
• In the 1930s, Stark Bros. Nursery went to Congress to pass the Plant Patent Act for fruit tree varieties;
• In the 1970s, the U.S. patent law on seeds passed;
• In the early ‘80s, during the Reagan administration, the FDA “determined” that genetically engineered foods were “substantially equivalent” to foods that were already on the market, so no labeling was needed;
• In the mid-’80s and into the ‘90s, field trials of GE crops occurred worldwide;
• In ‘93, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone was introduced into the U.S. milk supply;
• In ‘97, 11 million hectares (1 hectare = about 2.2 acres) were planted to GE crops worldwide;
• In ‘98, lawsuits on both sides began. Monsanto hired Pinkerton detectives and retired Mounties to look for growers who were using its seed without signing a contract and paying the price; it established l-800-”turn-in-your-neighbor type” hotlines for the same purpose; farmers sued companies … whose products didn’t produce as they were supposed to (when bolls fell off GE cotton, for instance), and farmers were sued when companies’ products were found on their land, even if they claimed they didn’t buy the seed.
• In ‘98, 27.8 million hectares were planted to GE crops worldwide – and the agricultultural economy of areas growing GE crops began a downturn. Farmers in the United States, for instance, lost $200 million in trade to Europe because they grew GE crops that Europeans didn’t want;
• By March of ‘98, the ‘Holy Grail’ of biotechnology – the Terminator Technology – was publicly uncovered. Co-patents to this process are held between USDA and Delta and Pine Land; Monsanto is in the process of acquiring the latter. This is “where we believe these companies want to go,” said Sligh. “This takes care of their Pinkerton problem.” He pointed out that U.S. tax dollars, via the USDA, helped create this technology that prevents seeds from germinating in the second generation “so that farmers would need to buy these seeds every year.” (Sligh believes that since the Terminator is still in the developmental stage and has not been commercialized yet, it can be stopped. It “does not increase productivity or reduce pests, it just increases profits for private companies,” he explained. In fact, in October, Monsanto – one of 13 companies with such patents – said that it would not commercialize the Terminator Technology due to public pressure.)
• In ‘99, about half of the soy, and one-third of the corn and cotton crops in the United States were genetically engineered. Because of the widespread use of such a nondiverse seed base, and because of Terminator-like technologies, Sligh said that the the military is concerned about “agroterrorism.” The Terminator is just “a platform on which they [the biotech industry] want to build,” said Sligh. “They want to eventually be able to turn other traits on and off in patented crops by external chemical inducers,” chemicals which these companies own.
As evidence that the tide is turning on the rapid wave of biotech crops, Sligh cited Deutsche Bank’s report to its stockholders stating that “GMO is dead.” (GE crops are referred to as genetically modified organisms – GMOs – in Europe.) Deutsche is the largest bank in Europe and advises many large pension funds.
Also, a three-tiered pricing structure is emerging in which organic foods are commanding the highest premium, followed by non-GE crops, with GE crops bringing the lowest return. This may sound like good news, but “our concern,” Sligh explained, “is that farmers will be the victims and will be scapegoated as in the past.” He cited the World Scientists’ call for a moratorium on GE crops as one solution.
As further evidence of the outgoing tide, Sligh pointed to Gerber’s announcement in July that it would not use GE crops in its baby foods. This is “a powerful statement,” since Gerber’s parent company, Novartis, is one of the leaders in GE technology.
Sligh outlined several multifaceted strategies that can help keep the GE tide from flooding over farmers and consumers again:
• Regarding the Terminator Technology, we have an opportunity to turn that around now. He urged fairgoers to tell the USDA that such technologies “are not what our research money should go to – it should go to sustainable agriculture.”
• Congress is increasingly interested in studying antitrust legislation as it relates to the takeover of agriculture by a few multinationals. One plan would let the USDA look before mergers take place to see who would benefit. (In fact, antitrust suits were to be filed against biotech companies worldwide as we went to press.)
• Farmers should be able to amend contracts put forth by seed companies;
• Lawsuits are pending against FDA regarding the lack of labeling of GE foods and against the EPA for allowing Bt crops to be grown. Sligh explained that private companies engineering the Bt toxin into crops “will accelerate the loss of it for the public good,” referring to the fact that Bt is one of the most useful, most environmentally benign (when used properly and externally) insecticides that growers have to fight pest insects. “Who pays for that loss?” asked Sligh.
• “Labeling is on its way,” said Sligh. “I think it’s inevitable. Archer Daniels Midland is segregating [grains] so that they can be shipped to Europe.”
• Tax dollars should go toward research for varieties that grow well under organic and sustainable systems, for crops that taste good and produce reliably;
• Companies must be held liable for genetic pollution. “There’s not an insurance company in the world that would insure biotech companies for damage to the environment,” he said. “It’s similar to the nuclear issue. The liability needs to be placed with the companies that benefit. Farmers [who do not grow GE crops] should not have to pay for buffers and for the cost of segregating seed.”
• Consumers must vote with their food dollars. “We’ve got to see buying and growing as a political act. Ask, Is this genetically engineered? Is it organic? Is it local? Know the face of the farmer you buy from.”
In concluding, Sligh said that RAFI wants a food system that increases biodiversity; that is a fair exchange of trade; in which animals are treated humanely and farmers and workers are treated fairly; that produces local, tasty, fresh, safe and affordable food and that is environmentally sound. The polluter should pay for penalties, and those penalty dollars should be used for incentives for better farming. “We can have the food system we want if we are willing to vote with our feet and our food dollars.”
Rural Advancement Foundation International is an international civil society organization headquartered in Canada. It is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and to the socially responsible development of technologies that are useful to rural societies. It is concerned about the loss of agricultural biodiversity, and about how the loss of intellectual property rights of farmers affects food security. For more information, contact RAFI-USA at PO Box 640, Pittsboro NC 27312; Tel. 919-542-1396; Fax 919-542-0069; website www.rafiusa.org.