We’re following a story that continues to emerge from Sri Lanka, India, and Central America of a mysterious illness striking down tens of thousands of poor farm workers, destroying their kidneys. The victims are often young, male outdoor farm workers, far removed from the usual patient with severe kidney failure: older, sedentary men with a history of diabetes or hypertension. What would connect these dying farm workers in different countries across two continents?
Photo credit: Anna Barry-Jester, Center for Public Integrity
A recent study estimated that the ailment, called “chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology” (CKDu) has killed more than 20,000 people in Central America alone.
We invite you to watch this five-minute video “Mystery in the Fields” from the Center for Public Integrity that explains the problem and shows its devastating human impact on poor families and communities.
In a recent (June 30, 2013) speech in Cape Town, South Africa, U.S. President Obama announced new overtures to support agriculture in Africa. But the people of Africa need to be on their guard lest these renewed efforts to “help farmers” in Africa become mere Trojan horses for corporate colonialism.
President Obama declared that “Governments and businesses from around the world are sizing up the continent, and they’re making decisions themselves about where to invest their own time and their own energy.” With phrases invoking American generosity, he proclaimed that:
Instead of shipping food to Africa, we’re now helping millions of small farmers in Africa make use of new technologies and farm more land. And through a new alliance of governments and the private sector, we’re investing billions of dollars in agriculture that grows more crops, brings more food to market, give farmers better prices[.]
No one would complain if the United States and its corporate partners would help “millions of small farmers” grow more food. But we wonder: what kind of agriculture is the beneficiary of billions of dollars of investment? And what are the “new technologies” that purportedly will help those millions of small farmers? Continue reading →
(In Parts I and II of “GMOs: Food, Money & Control,” we explored the failure of the leading U.S. state proposal to require labeling of GMO foods (California Proposition 37), the control of crop seeds through GMO patents and licensing, the loss of seed and crop diversity, and the increasing domination of the seed industry by biotechnology firms. In this post, we examine GMO contamination of other food crops and the impacts of GMO technologies on pesticide use.)
“When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe. —John Muir
Despite pervasive human intervention, the dynamism of the natural world overcomes virtually all artificial boundaries and limits. We directly experience nature’s refusal to stay within the lines we draw. Plants penetrate concrete sidewalks; moving water inexorably surmounts or breaks through barriers; nature retakes land abandoned by humans. Continue reading →
It’s All About the Patents. And Control. And Money.
“Seeds are the most basic thing that we got. Everybody has to eat. We want to have a healthy planet with healthy people, we have to have good seeds.” – Seed Farmer, Dan Jason
For more than 10,000 years, humans have engaged in the simple free act of saving natural seeds from a season’s crop and replanting them in the next season. The primeval cycle of planting crops, saving seeds and replanting them in the next season is the practice of agriculture itself. But we are now witnessing the passing away, in a single generation, “this ancient ritual as old as civilization, a ritual in many ways responsible for civilization.”  This is due to the use of genetically engineered plants, protected by patents and contracts, which make saving seed and replanting them in the next season illegal. The replacement of nature’s bounty with increased sale of genetically engineered crops under such restrictions leads inexorably to expanded corporate control of our food supply. This problem is exacerbated by the loss of crop diversity and increasing market concentration in the seed business.
Seeds and Patents
A patent is the exclusive right, granted by law, to commercialize a new invention for a limited period of time. Thus, patent law confers upon the patent holder a monopoly on the “exploitation” of the invention. Thanks to U.S. Supreme Court decisions that recognized the right to patent life forms, crop seeds and other agricultural products produced from genetic engineering are subject to patent rights.
In the context of crop seeds, this monopoly grants companies the exclusive right to sell the seeds and allows them to charge higher prices for them. As applied in most countries, such seed patents prohibit farmers from saving seeds from their own harvest. As a result, they must either buy new seeds each year or pay for a license to use the patented seeds they have saved. 
For non-hybrid crops that employ transgenetic biotechnology, agribusiness and seed companies use intellectual property law, tangible property common law, and strict contracts to prohibit farmers from saving seed. For example, when Monsanto sells seeds for its genetically modified crops, it requires that farmers agree to severe restrictions before they can open a bag of its GMO seed. Monsanto’s typical so-called “Technology/ Stewardship” license: (1) prohibits growers from using seeds for any purpose other than planting a single commercial crop; (2) prohibits growers from saving any crop produced from seed for planting; (3) prohibits supplying seed produced from seed to anyone for planting other than to a Monsanto-licensed seed company; and (4) prohibits transferring any seed containing patented “Monsanto Technologies” to any other person or entity for planting. The agreement also requires that the grower allow intrusive investigation of the growers’ records, including examination and copying of “any records and receipts that could be relevant to Grower’s performance of this agreement.” Continue reading →
The recent battle over California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative to require consumer labeling of genetically modified organism (“GMO”) food, has shone a harsh spotlight on the impacts of biotechnology on agriculture and our food supply, and on corporate influence over the political process and the public’s right to information. As corporate efforts to expand the use of genetic engineering in agriculture march onward, we see a counterweight in the movements for sustainable food production and support for organic and small scale farming. We’ll be taking a look at some of the issues surrounding use of genetic engineering in food production in a series of blog posts on GMOs: Food, Money & Control.
Consumers Kept in the Dark: Big Push to Label Genetically-Modified Food Fails
Proposition 37 — the ballot initiative that would have required GMO food labeling in California, the world’s ninth largest economy — drowned under the tsunami of corporate money opposing it. Monsanto, a leading maker of genetically engineered seeds, contributed $8.1 million alone. More than $45 million was spent by large agribusiness, big processed food manufacturers, and chemical companies, including DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills, Nestle, Conagra and Dow. It should come as no surprise that Dow, the company that brought us dioxin-laced Agent Orange, would prefer that we not know whether the food we eat contains foreign genetic material. Continue reading →