The caption at the top of a Los Angeles Times piece this morning that no doubt sent shivers down the spines of a lot of locovores, organic foodies and just smaller companies around the world: “Monsanto aims to dominate today’s $3-billion global market for produce seeds, much as it already has done with corn and soybeans,” it reads. And a paragraph in the middle of the story doesn’t help.
“Monsanto moved aggressively into the vegetable business in 2005, when it bought seed powerhouse Seminis Inc. in Oxnard, [Calif.]” it states. “Since then, it has acquired four other vegetable seed companies, opened 57 research centers worldwide and hired a slew of seed geneticists and agricultural researchers.”
It’s not only organic farmers and environmentalists who worry that Monsanto is cornering the market on seeds. It’s little old DuPont, too, which has sued Monsanto for lost profits and compensation for patent infringement. (The two megaliths are again “trading slurs” following another lawsuit, as one report has it.)
I should point out that the produce are not genetically modified organisms such as the soybeans that are developed with genes from a soil bacterium that allow it to survive being sprayed with Roundup, which is also manufactured by Monsanto. (Weeds, being the clever creatures that they are, are evidently figuring a way around their annihilation, however.)
Rather, these are crops that are developed by, for example, breeding the disease-resistant DNA of a particular strain of wild pepper with a domestic one. And Monsanto is, as always, claiming great benefits for the entire food chain.
“Consumers now can buy Beneforte broccoli, which Monsanto claims has twice as much antioxidant benefit than typical broccoli varieties,” P.J. Huffstutter writes. “There's the company's EverMild onion, which has lower sulfur levels and causes fewer tears when cut. And there's the orange grape tomato, which is bred to be sweeter, with a lower acidity level and a richer fragrance than conventional grape tomatoes on the market.”
It’s also working on things like single-serve melons.
"This isn't a hobby.... We're serious about it," Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant tells Huffstutter, revealing that he expects vegetable seed revenue to soon rival the $1.5-billion that soybeans generate annually.
The fact that the company is using conventional breeding techniques does not assuage some scientists.
"What they really are doing is creating something where the probability is very low that it would have happened in nature without human intervention," says R. Paul Thompson, director of graduate studies at the University of Toronto's department of ecology and evolutionary biology.
About 80% of processed foods already contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to Grocery Manufacturers Association data cited by Eve Conant in The Daily Beast. GMO soybeans acreage has grown to 94% from 7% 15 years ago; GMO corn has gone from 1% to 88% of cultivation.
Conant recounts the ongoing battle in Washington over what the organic industry sees as a betrayal of the administration to follow through on a campaign promise to “let folks know if their food has been genetically modified, because Americans should know what they’re buying,” as candidate Obama put it. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has come under particular fire for what is seen as his caving in to “Frankenfood” interests.
“Vilsack has, in fact, promoted the most controversial and dangerous forms of agricultural biotechnology, including pharma crops, plants genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals,” the Organic Consumers Associate website claims. “When grown outdoors on farmland, where most pharma crop trials have occurred, pharma crops can easily contaminate conventional and organic varieties.”
On Sunday, anti-GMO protesters in 100 cities around the world were part of “Millions Against Monsanto” rallies on what was “United Nations World Food Day.” But only “dozens” apparently “lined the street” at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Creve Coeur, Mo., according to the local Patch.
According to the Chinese news agency (cum “propaganda organization,” as per Wikipedia) Xinhua, “hundreds of people from around the United States rallied in front of the White House on Sunday, urging the government to require compulsory labeling of food made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).”
"Most Americans agree they have a right to know what is in the food they put in their own and their children's bodies, but current federal policy favors the pesticide industry and hides the facts," Katherine DiMatteo of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements told the assembled.
But NPR’s “The Salt” food blog indicates that while most people polled say that they’d like to know where the “corn in their corn flakes” comes from, “scientists and regulators have concluded time and time again that labeling is unnecessary.”
April Fulton quotes an FDA guidance document that says it “has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding."
Monsanto itself issued a statement to radio station KMOX about the protests Sunday in which it said it respected the right for individuals to express their opinions but that the world faces a number of agricultural challenges, not the least of which is feeding seven billion people.
“We understand that no single company or form of agriculture can address these challenges individually,” the statement concluded. “We embrace all forms of agriculture and the choices of farmers to grow what makes sense to them and the needs of their customers.”