Along the Tracks

Tuesday, April 22, 2003
 

Genetically modified revolt?


I believe the Washington Post is overstating the case when it says there is a farmer-led revolt against genetically-modified crops. A more accurate assessment would be there is a growing movement against Big Agriculture by smaller operations. The GM debate is really a Monsanto debate.

In his article, the Post’s Justin Gillis notes “pro-biotech plausibly [claims] majority support among farmers” - I would say “vast majority” - but he is correct that there are misgivings. In the Wheat Belt of the Northern Plains, there may be a greater hesitance to accepting GM crops, since for most farmers there, it would be their first experience with such modified crops. Here in Ohio, Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn are almost universally accepted and grown about as widely as the companies allow (maybe more widely).

Still, I hear plenty of misgivings about where we are headed, and who is in control. While I think most criticisms of GM crops are based on nothing more than close-minded fear-mongering, until the public is educated - particularly in overseas markets, where the anti-GMs have the upper hand - it makes sense to go slow and offer a slew of scientific proof that these new crops are safe. Unfortunately, much of Big Agriculture wants to rush these products to market, seeing huge profit potentials but not fully considering what a backlash in Europe and Asia would do the grain market, American agriculture and eventually, the companies themselves.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by “Big Agriculture.” Today’s farm economy is completely controlled by just a few large corporations and a fairly small number of huge farming operations. This is not meant to be some conspiracy theory - it’s a fact you can look up, research and find for yourself. Companies like ADM, Cargill, General Mills, R.J. Reynolds, DowAgro, Monsanto, etc., sell the production supplies (seed, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.) to farming operations and purchase the vast majority of the product. Grain prices in general are not a major concern for these companies; farmers still need what the corporations are selling, regardless of grain prices, and overseas prices are set by the 800-lb. gorilla of American agriculture, so the exporting companies merely ride out the ups and downs with a set profit margin. Meanwhile, the corporate farmers - the 10 percent or so of producers who own or operate on 90 percent of the productive land - are well taken care of by contractual agreements with the corporate buyers and safely ride out low crop prices through government subsidies (a disaster for small operations, but that’s another subject).

In the Post piece, I think it is important to note the primary subject of the interview is politically active and met his wife at Berkeley - enough said. Nevertheless, there is a rising concern among family farmers and smaller operations that the system is rigged to force them out. A look at the past few decades of farm policy would tend to verify that assessment. The debate over genetically-modified crops is just one aspect of this larger issue inside American agriculture.


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