Ecology And Environment

Biogenics in Pharmaceuticals and Agriculture



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During the last half of the twentieth century, the biological sciences of genetic engineering and biotechnology have evolved into what the March 10, 1997 issue of Business Week called the definitive scientific progress of the 21st century. But, as the technologies develop, there are those who are concerned that biotechnology and genetic engineering are working to destroy the sanctity of life and the food supply. "Genetic engineering has been sold as a green technology that will protect nature and biodiversity. However, the tools of genetic engineering are designed to steal nature's harvest by destroying biodiversity, increasing the use of herbicides and pesticides, and spreading the risk of irreversible genetic pollution" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 95). Furthermore, this genetic engineering has resulted in the people not having the right to know what's in their food, an in turn, the right to make an educated decision as to whether or not consuming it is right for them. Biotechnology and genetic engineering have not done what it was claimed they would make more food. Instead, it has destroyed diversity, stolen food from other species, and used large quantities of fossil fuels and toxic chemicals in the process (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 12).

The mainstream media's use of "collateral language" (Collins and Glover) in their coverage of biotechnology and genetic engineering is wrong, because it does nothing but misinform the public about the real dangers. While the public is convinced that this technology is innovative and helping the growing populations of the world, it is never mentioned that this technology is actually harmful and needs to be reevaluated. For example, in a $1.6 million European advertising campaign, agricultural company Monsanto ran an ad that made numerous claims that are completely untrue: biotechnology is the only way to move forward and feed increasing populations, biotech seeds have naturally occurring beneficial genes, and numerous positive implications on food production (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 96). If this information is the only argument presented to the world, then there would be no reason for people to be skeptical of this constantly evolving technology. The mainstream media must embrace some of the ideas brought up by alternative media sources and authors such as Shiva to truly cover the truth of these technologies.

In addition to the mainstream media, legal and institutional framework also works to support biotechnology and resulting destruction of biodiversity through its apparent sympathies to the interests of corporate agriculture. According to Shiva in her book Stolen Harvest, "the completion of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1994 and the establishment of the World Trade Organization have institutionalized and legalized corporate growth based on harvests stolen from nature and people" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 1). Furthermore, the WTO's agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement actually "criminalizes seed-saving and seed-sharing" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 2). Also, the Agreement on Agriculture, part of the document founding the World Trade Organization, provides international rules governing agriculture trade and protection and has legalized the "dumping of genetically engineered foods on countries and criminalizes actions to protect the biological and cultural diversity on which diverse food systems are based" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 2).

Specifically, the two laws (a seed Act and Patent Ordinance) proposed by the WTO in 2004 seek to forever destroy the biodiversity of seeds, crops, and freedoms, establishing what Shiva calls a "seed dictatorship" (Shiva, "The Indian Seed Act"). These laws have had an extremely detrimental effect on the results that Indian farmers have spend years achieving through their seed trading. Farmers' seeds are destroyed through compulsory registration. Also, the act has made it illegal to plant "unlicensed" (Shiva, "The Indian Seed Act") varieties of seeds, pushing farmers into corporate dependency for the varieties of seeds they need to survive various environmental situations (like drought, heavy rain, etc.). These laws are preventing farmers from exercising one of the most basic freedoms they should have: the right to save and exchange seeds.

Chemical companies, like Monsanto, are taking over the life sciences through patents on things like soybeans, genetic engineering of plants, and mergers that often times monopolize the market. "Genetically engineered crops manufactured by corporations pose serious ecological risks. Crops such as Monsanto's Roundup Read soybeans, designed to be resistant to herbicides, lead to the destruction of biodiversity and increased use of agrochemicals" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 16). Patents especially serve to take over life forms that should really belong to everyone, especially the farmers that depend on them for their own existence. You see, in order for a company like Monsanto and Cargill to claim a patent on a life form, they have to say that they invented it, resulting in potential prosecutions for the "theft" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 16) of that property. These corporations merge with other corporations, leading to an "emergence of food totalitarianism" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 17), where a handful of companies control the entirety of the food supply, preventing people access to diverse, safe foods "produced ecologically" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 17).

This totalitarianism is exemplified perfectly through Monsanto business practices and their monopoly on soybeans. Not only is the trade of the beans controlled by corporations instead of private farmers, the seed itself is becoming "increasingly monopolized" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 29). Monsanto has used their own success to buy up other companies that pose any threat to their control over the soybean industry. One of the companies, Agracetus, has a subsidiary that very broadly controls "all transgenic soybean varieties and seeds, regardless of the genes used, and all methods of transformation" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 29). Before Monsanto bought the company, they challenged the patent, leading one to believe that even a company like Monsanto sees the danger in a monopoly of that sort, but once they had control of the company dropped the challenge. So currently, Monsanto controls everything having to do with the production of soybeans from the breeding of seeds to the sale of the plant, leaving private farmers with no food choice and therefore, no food democracy.

While it is argued that factory farming results in more food and less hunger, I truly believe that it results in scarcity, poverty, and declining health. "The myth of increasing yields is the most common justification for producing genetically engineered crops in agriculture. However, genetic engineering is actually leading to a yield drag'" (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 113). In 1998, a study revealed that Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans yielded 6.7% less than conventional varieties (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 113). Farmers are no longer allowed to produce crops naturally to benefit their own incomes and health, a thought that is alarming to advocates of food democracy and overall health. The fact of the matter is that these companies are advocating for biotechnology and genetic engineering because it is financially profitable for them, not beneficial to the people. People are eating foods that are pumped so full of toxins and chemicals that the results are both unclear, and scary. There is something to be said for organic foods that aim to do nothing other than provide nutrition. I know that in my last visit the grocery store, I was much more skeptical of the foods in the produce isle. In fact, I felt it only fair after reading Shiva's book to spend the few extra dollars for organic foods that are not destroying the health and biodiversity of the Third World, a freedom that everyone should have.

The spread of this genetically engineered and genetically modified food points to the conclusion that we do not, in fact, have anything near the food democracy advocated for by authors like Vandana Shiva. Instead, we have what I would most closely compare to a dictatorship, not the "free and informed food choices" (Shiva, "Food Democracy") that would constitute a true democracy. While the first two components of this food dictatorship, monopolies controlled by a few large companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, Aventis, Dow, Dupont (Shiva, "Food Democracy") and "intellectual property and patent monopolies over the engineered seeds and plants" (Shiva, "Food Democracy"), are significant, I believe the third is the key to the reason why Americans lack the food democracy that should be a fundamental right granted to all: no information and choice.

In her chapter entitled, "Reclaiming Food Democracy," Shiva outlines ways that people might come closer to ending the dictatorship on our food supply that include embracing organic food, reclaiming the seed from corporate control, becoming involved in campaigns that reveal companies with bad business practices (like Monsanto), and building alliances between the people and public interest scientists (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 117-23). As a young person whose family is still entrenched in the risky business of private farming in the Midwest, I realize now just how important these steps are to truly claiming freedom from the corporations that have sought out to control our food choices and "hijack" our food supply. US farmers are trapped, US consumers are trapped, and I know that even I am trapped by looking at my choices (and prices) at the grocery store. Consumers should be safe from the chemicals that are used in the corporate production of food. To simply argue that Americans have the choice to buy organic foods is not enough to convince me that we have food democracy. That food would have to become such a force in the marketplace that it was much easier to buy. I believe that we can reach that goal one day, but it will take public awareness and a global campaign to expose the truth of companies like Monsanto and the truth of just how important biodiversity and natural foods are to the future of humanity.

The Organic Food Act is a piece of legislation that required by federal law, any product that claims to be organic must have been manufactured and handled according to specific requirements. In 1998, acting in response to a move by consumers, the government announced that it would not allow food to be labeled "organic" if it was genetically engineered, irradiated, or grown in soil fertilized with sewage sludge (various sources). Because of this Act, the government has a legislated responsibility to consumers to ensure the products they choose to buy are truly organic, part of the steps necessary to regain food democracy. But, I feel there is an even larger responsibility on the shoulders of consumers to continue to demand companies to comply with this Act. Furthermore, I feel it is the duty of produce aisle shoppers to only buy food that has passed this requirement. Economically, if consumers demand more organic food and leave the non-organic, genetically engineered food on the shelves, corporations will be forced to see that the national mood is shifting towards a market that is safe for private farmers, healthy food, and food democracy.

After reading Singer and Mason's The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, I realized that like many Americans, I was neither aware of the things I should eat or the way in which the food I do it is actually produced. In the past, as many Americans do, I have thought of vegetarians and vegans as crazy tree huggers with off the wall thoughts on food choices. I never considered that people and animals are being harmed through the production of food I consume. Prior to reading this thought-provoking book, I ate what was on sale, what sounded good, what satisfied the appetite I have somehow developed over the span of my life. But, after thinking about the rules that Singer and Mason outline for food consumption, I started to consider why my food choices were wrong and why I was contributing to the lack of food democracy in our society. I never considered that the choices I make at the grocery store are a form of "voting" (Singer and Mason 5) with a dollar, especially voting that could potentially instill change within our society.

In considering what I should eat, Singer and Mason outline certain rules to follow. Some of these rules, especially concerning where to shop and fair trade have really impacted me to change my food decisions. As a person who has family that makes their living by farming, I'm shocked that I had never thought about trying to only buy from local farms in order to support the small-scale farmers that are struggling to survive amongst corporate monopolies on food. Furthermore, I realize now that my desire to have a hamburger at Burger King really isn't as important as ensuring there is some amount of transparency and fairness in my food choices. I have to admit that last time I went to the grocery store, I took Singer and Mason's suggestion and went to Whole Foods, despite the fact it is more expensive than my normal voyage to Giant. But, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of organic food choices there are out there on the market! The only part of Singer and Mason's argument that I'm having trouble with is not eating meat. I've tried to cut back on my consumption significantly, but have had difficulty in completely giving it up. I suppose that it's something that will come with time, once my body redefines its cravings. I believe the most important part of the food choices that Singer and Mason introduce to readers is the idea that in order for Americans to really instill change within the market in the direction of organic and fair trade foods, we have to buy them, despite their sometime increased price.

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