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Altered eats


Some commodity crops’ genetically altered counterparts are already pervasive. Will modified wheat still smell sweet?

C.G. Niebank April 20th, 2011

For some, the phrase “genetically modified organism” might conjure up nightmarish visions of giant plants run amok, as portrayed in “Little Shop of Horrors,” while others embrace the label for efforts by seed and chemical companies to develop better seeds in order to improve food crop quality and yield worldwide.

Because no state or federal labeling requirements presently cover GMOs, no certain way exists to determine if food bought in Central Oklahoma includes these ingredients. Environmentally conscious consumers can buy organic and read labels to avoid GMO-free food.

Genetic modifications have resulted in widely planted soybeans, corn and cotton seed referred to as “Roundup Ready,” because they have been genetically engineered to be unaffected by glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, a broad-spectrum herbicide made by Monsanto.

While there is no mention of herbicides on its website titled “Monsanto Wheat Breeding,” there is mention of “an intensive effort to incorporate breakthrough breeding technologies — developed and deployed with notable success in other row crops — in wheat.” Monsanto’s wheatbreeding efforts have been under way since 2009 when it acquired WestBred, a company devoted to developing cereal grain seeds.

Despite insistence their motivations are well-intentioned, companies such as Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta engaged in agricultural research and development have been met by local, national and international criticism that include assertions their intentions are far from benign.

In fact, a desire to monopolize crops is what drives the companies’ biochemical and genetic research, according to former state Sen. Paul Muegge, a wheat farmer from Tonkawa who served as chairman of the Oklahoma Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.

“When I worked on the National Conference of State Legislators Agriculture Committee, and when we held meetings, we saw that company representatives were there for a very specific purpose: to make sure that no one questioned or would go the extent of passing laws or rules or regulations that would impede their progress,” Muegge said. “There would be more company representatives in the room than there were state legislators.

“It started out very innocuously, and they’d say, ‘Y’know, you guys who are questioning this, you just don’t know the science.’ At a later date, some of us said, ‘We’ve got a problem with this, because they want this to be a monopoly’ — that’s what they’re doing, that’s where they’re headed,” he said.

GMO

On March 10, 2010, website GMWatch.org reprinted a BusinessWeek.com story that reported at least seven U.S. state attorneys general were investigating Monsanto for allegedly using its market share to dominate its competitors and control the price of soybean and corn seed. The article noted that the genetic traits of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seed line were in 93 percent of soybeans and 82 percent of corn produced in the U.S. in 2009.

If they don’t want to buy the stuff, why are we pushing it?

—Scott Blubaugh

Monsanto countered such assertions on its corporate website, stating that in 2008 in many places in the U.S., farmers could purchase corn or soybean seed from as many as 20 different seed companies.

According to DuPont spokeswoman Bridget Anderson, DuPont’s aim in its seed-development efforts is to meet specific customer requests by providing a wide variety of products.

“Pioneer Hi-Bred (a DuPont business) is focused on developing products that provide our customers choices to meet their individual needs,” Anderson wrote in a statement. “A majority of the corn and soybean products we sell in the U.S. do contain biotech traits, as these are the products that our customers are asking for to help better manage their farming operations and improve their productivity.”

FOOD SECURITY

Paul Minehart, head of corporate communications in North America for Syngenta, a biochemical and seed development company, said in a written statement that a primary purpose of his industry is to meet the rapidly escalating global need for more food.

“The world’s population has grown nearly fourfold over the last century and is projected to rise from more than 6.6 billion people today to more than 8 billion by 2030 and 9 billion by 2050,” Minehart said. “Biotech crops contributed (worldwide) production gains of 29.6 million metric tons for soybeans, corn, cotton and canola in 2008. Higher-yielding crops can help feed more people and boost incomes for poor farmers.”

In fact, food security is often cited as the driving force behind biotech expansion. Joe Neal Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Grain and Feed Association and lobbyist for several agribusiness trade organizations, said a growing global need is evolving for the development, distribution and planting of genetically engineered wheat seed.

“I’m just not sure how we’re going to feed this world if we don’t have yield enhancements to meet the growing need,” Hampton said. “Until the world accepts GMO wheat, the wheat yields will never make the big gains, percentage-wise, that corn and soybeans and cotton have.”

Despite such concern, some people involved in local agriculture and food distribution are skeptical of the economics associated with the use of genetically enhanced seeds, because farmers who use such seed are required under contract to buy a new supply each year, rather than employ the age-old agricultural practice of holding back seed from the previous year’s crop.

“You have to buy seed from (Monsanto) every year, you have to pay a patent fee every year, and they decide what the fee is, and they’ve been raising it consistently for several years,” said Scott Blubaugh, a fifth-generation Kay County farmer and rancher. “It’s very expensive. If you do keep your seed back, the fines are tremendous, and usually, it’ll put those guys out of business. Those kinds of business practices in agriculture are terrible, and I worry about the poor countries of the world: There’s no way they can buy their seed every year.”

In response to such criticism, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant said as Roundup Ready soybean seed patents expire in 2014, holding for future planting seasons would be permissible. “Farmers will be free to plant, to replant that seed,” Grant said in an interview published January 2010 on Bloomberg.com. “Licensees will be able to do the same thing.”

In the same article, Grant noted that Monsanto, the world’s largest seedmaker, would follow a similar policy as the company’s other biogenetic patents expire in the future.

STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY

Robert Waldrop, a founder of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, expressed concern that dependence on a small number of genetically engineered seed varieties could reduce the natural biodiversity that strengthens resistance to future crop diseases.

“You never know when a new plant disease is just going to spring out of nowhere,” Waldrop said. “The more diverse your genetic stock, the more resilient that plant will be to new diseases and threats like that.”

Although GMO wheat seed is still only in development, considerable international resistance already exists to making such seeds available.

In early 2010, the Organic Consumers Association reported that more than 200 consumer and farmer groups in 26 countries had signed a “rejection statement” calling on Monsanto to halt any plans for the commercial development of genetically modified wheat. Among the groups opposed to its development is the National Family Farm Coalition.

“GM wheat would contaminate our crops and food supply, and put an end to organic grain production,” Dena Hoff, a representative of the National Family Farm Coalition, said in the OCA story. “Monsanto is sorely mistaken if they think farmers will ever accept GM wheat.”

CASH CROP

Wheat is Oklahoma’s largest cash crop, bringing in $1.2 billion in 2008, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Oklahoma Field Office. Mike Schulte of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission thinks the market will continue to grow and hopes Oklahoma wheat producers can provide.

“We can look in the marketplace right now and see volatility compared to what we saw five or 10 years ago.” In 2010, 23.6 billion bushels of wheat were produced globally, but 24.3 billion bushels were consumed, with stored wheat making up the difference, Schulte said, adding the disparity will increase because of population growth and reduction in arable land.

“We’re going to have to be able to grow more bushels with less land available,” he said.

But Blubaugh thinks GMO wheat is an unnecessary risk and feels adequately equipped with the status quo.

“In Oklahoma, I don’t need a Roundup Ready wheat; we’ve got lots of other herbicides that we can use today, without genetically modifying the crop. So in Oklahoma, we don’t even have the need for it here,” Blubaugh said. “My biggest fear is that, rightly or wrongly, if your customers — that’s the world wheat market — if they don’t want to buy the stuff, why are we pushing it? It’ll upset the world wheat market, because nobody in the world is gonna want to buy our wheat.”

While he formerly planted Roundup Ready soybeans, Blubaugh said he stopped for two reasons: The weeds in his fields were becoming resistant to the pesticide, and by not having to pay the annual seed patent fee required by Monsanto, he makes more money from his soybean crop.

“I went back and bought some conventional seeds that are public varieties that the universities devel- oped years and years ago, and I think I’m doing just as well on my yields,” he said. “You can’t control the weeds as well; I’ll admit that right up front. And you drive by my fields — and they’re not gonna look as pretty as the Roundup fields my neighbors have — but at the end of the day, I’ve got more money.”

 
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