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Flash in the Pan

Gene revolution


Monsanto sued Germany last month, after that country’s agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, banned the planting of corn seed engineered to resist the corn-borer moth. In banning the seed strain, called mon810, Germany joined France, Greece, Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg. While only Germany has so far been challenged in court, the biotech giant has reserved the right to sue other mon810-resistant countries as well, on the grounds that since mon810 was approved by the European Union, it’s illegal for member states to ban it.

Monsanto has gained infamy by suing farmers whose fields become contaminated with genetically modified (GM) pollen from neighboring farms. By going after sovereign nations, the mega-corporation is at least picking on targets closer to its own size.

Monsanto is demanding proof that mon810 poses a risk to the German people, environment or economy—proof Germany has yet to provide. While such evidence, if it exists, would be enlightening, Monsanto’s demand raises another question: Is innocent until proven guilty the standard by which the dangers of self-replicating genetic material should be assessed?

Guilty until proven innocent, a more cautious approach, appears to be favored by mon810-resistant countries. And mon810 has hardly been proven innocent.

Its modified genome has been shown to be unstable—the inserted genes are prone to drift away from the points on the chromosome where they were originally inserted. This makes mon810 potentially problematic to track, detect and predict.

An Austrian study released in November 2008 suggests a link between mon810 and infertility in mice. The study’s authors cautioned that these results are preliminary and called for more study. Monsanto, not surprisingly, has disputed the science behind the study.

On the environmental front, studies have shown that mon810 can kill Monarch butterfly larva, although so far efforts to demonstrate negative effects of mon810 on Monarch populations have failed.

Based on information like this, the mon810-resistant countries have decided further investigation is warranted. So the question becomes whether a sovereign nation has the right to proceed with caution before introducing an organism of concern into its food production system.

Monsanto seems ready to throw such caution—along with clouds of GM corn pollen—to the wind. The company is pushing the EU court for a decision by mid-May, in time for German farmers to plant a mon810 crop this season. The Germans, known for their conservative disposition, and many of their newspapers, are saying “not so fast.”

An editorial in Die Welt argued: “As long as doubts remain about this strain of corn and its potential danger to humans and the environment, it is our duty to ban it. This is neither populism nor panic-mongering. It is an act of reason—first to test the genetic process, then to gather facts.”

Back on this side of the pond, another study is causing a different kind of problem for Monsanto. The Washington D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists has released a report, “Failure to Yield,” that surveys the scientific literature from the past 20 years, and examines genetic engineering’s effectiveness at boosting crop yields.

“Many commentators and stakeholders have pointed to the alleged promise of genetic engineering (GE)—in which the crop DNA is changed using the gene-insertion techniques of molecular biology—for dramatically improving the yields of staple food crops.

“But a hard-nosed assessment of this expensive technology’s achievements to date gives little confidence that it will play a major role in helping the world feed itself in the foreseeable future.”

Corn and soy are the two most commonly grown genetically modified crops, with 90 percent of American soy and 63 percent of American corn, by acre planted, being GM. After comparing the results of 11,275 field trials, lead researcher Doug Gurian-Sherman concludes:

“GE soybeans have not increased yields, and GE corn has increased yield only marginally on a crop-wide basis. Overall, corn and soybean yields have risen substantially over the last 15 years, but largely not as result of the GE traits. Most of the gains are due to traditional breeding or improvement of other agricultural practices.”

While no shortage of people and groups ask questions about the safety and efficacy of GM crops, too few people, unfortunately, ask the larger question: Do we even want to be growing so much corn and soy?

As Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma; In Defense of Food), has so meticulously pointed out, corn-based products like corn syrup have infiltrated the American diet to an alarming extent, and wreaked havoc on American health.

Most soy is destined for animal feed, and methane from soy-fed livestock is one of the most significant contributors to global warming.

Monsanto promotes genetically modified crops as means to feed the world, but that altruistic argument kind of shrivels in light of the fact that so much of its product is destined for animal feed. The dedication of cropland to growing food for animals, whose meat feeds the wealthy classes, is widely recognized as one of the prime causes of hunger among the world’s poor.

If the Union of Concerned Scientists is correct in concluding that genetic tinkering has failed to increase soy yields, that’s another blow to Monsanto’s altruistic pretense. I’m not saying genetic engineering is inherently a bad thing. But in the hands of megacorporations like Monsanto, the risks outweigh the rewards.

Ask Ari: Flying the coop

Dear Flash,

First of all, thank you for all you did to get the chicken law passed in Missoula. I love my flock, but I do have a hen-related problem. They like to fly over the five-foot fence and into the backyard. From there it’s a 4-foot flutter into the alley behind the house. Once in the alley, they will hunt and peck their way down the block, and even into other yards. I’ve heard you can put netting over your yard, but I’m wondering if there’s a simple solution, like psychological deprogramming or something. I know some people clip wings, too, but that sounds too cruel.

Any advice?

—When Hens Roam

A: Assuming there’s nothing you can do to make the girls happier in their yard, clipping wings is your best option. It isn’t cruel—no more painful than getting a haircut.

The chicken needs to be calm when you do this, so dusk is a good time. Have a friend hold your chicken. Gently lift one wing away from the body, and snip 2 or 3 inches off the ends of the feathers sticking out behind the wing. Repeat with the other wing. If you’re nervous about snipping too much you can always snip a little and see if that stunts their flying enough. But as long as you’re snipping feathers and not flesh, there really isn’t such a thing as too much.

And thanks for thanking me for helping legalize chickens. I’m not sure I deserve any credit, though I’m happy to take some. Mad props belong to Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC), and to all the people who pestered City Council, especially the goofballs with the awesome “I’m pro-chicken and I vote” T-shirts that I wish I had.

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