Better UTAH Beat Episode 51 – June 11, 2013

The United States has done well marketing itself as a technological and industrial powerhouse. So well, in fact, that it would probably be surprising for many Americans to learn the U.S. is still the largest producer of much of the world’s food crops.

U.S. production of corn accounts for an astounding 32 percent of the world’s corn crop. The U.S. is responsible for over 50 percent of the soybeans produced in the entire world, making it the largest exporter and producer of soybeans. And wheat grown in the U.S. makes up 25 percent of the world’s wheat export market. Farm produce is a multi-billion dollar industry and an important feature of the American economy.

But the U.S.’s embrace of genetically modified foods, commonly called GMOs, could be a troubling turn of events for this area of the economy. GMOs account for the vast majority of several key food sources, including over 90% of the US production of alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, and squash. However, in more than 60 countries, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs, creating what could be a potential blow to U.S. food exports. In the U.S., however, the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale.

Discussion of genetically modified foods got a helpful boost last week when some members of congress spoke out against the unknown effects of a complete embrace of genetically altered foods by pledging to end what some are calling the Monsanto Protection Act.

The Monsanto Protection Act is a provision that prevents judges from halting the use and sale of genetically modified seeds, even when those seeds are considered unsafe for human consumption. The provision was signed into law in late March, but only for six months. Some members of Congress and many advocacy groups, like Food Democracy Now, are justifiably upset with the act and are working hard to make sure the provision isn’t extended.

According to Monsanto’s website, the company’s mission is premised on three goals: producing more, conserving more, and improving lives. On the surface, those three goals appear noble. But at the end of the day, Monsanto is a corporation with shareholders. It’s primary purpose is to make money for those shareholders. It’s purpose is not to end global hunger. Monsanto is an important reminder that over-emphasis on short-term profits at the expense of long-term sustainability is a losing formula in our fast changing world.

Monsanto, thanks to the extensive legal protections that US Corporations enjoy, has filed over 150 patent infringement lawsuits in the last several years. In lawsuit after lawsuit, Monsanto has prevailed–whether they are bankrupting small farmers who are found to have Monsanto-patented seed on their farms–even when proof exists that it was blown in by wind, or when they’ve been sued, unsuccessfully, by organic farms for intentional seed contamination.

Monsanto began as a manufacturer of plastics and pesticides, including such cancer-causing products as DDT, PCBs, and Agent Orange. More recently, they developed RoundUp, one of the strongest pesticides in use today. It also produces genetically modified seeds designed to resist the very lethal chemicals they have developed, allowing those chemicals to be used on the crops that produce the food we eat every single day.

The truth is, genetically modified food crops are a two-edged sword that we haven’t yet learned how to wield. I’m reminded of the old adage–just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. On the one hand, they could be an effective tool for helping reduce global hunger through heartier and more easily sustainable crops. On the other hand, the jury is still out on the long term effects of GMOs, both on humans and on the environment. Unfortunately, United States law has, so far, been on the side of the producers, allowing them to conduct their own studies, self-report any issues, and provide little oversight or support for independent scientific testing. The fact that so many countries outside the US are banning GMOs, should give us pause, yet Monsanto blazes forward, unchecked.

Shouldn’t we demand more conclusive testing and look for real evidence before we start using them with abandon? You wouldn’t spray RoundUp on your breakfast cereal, yet RoundUp is used on the genetically modified seeds and plants that produce the grains that will become that very cereal. I would never intentionally consume RoundUp. Unfortunately for us, if the Monsanto Protection Act is renewed, we might not have that choice.

This is Maryann Martindale with this week’s edition of the Better UTAH Beat.

Have a great week, and remember, together, we can make a better Utah.

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