On May 25 two million people marched in protest against the global agriculture giant Monsanto. Hundreds of rallies were held across the US and in more than 50 other countries around the world. Organisers of the “March Against Monsanto” protests say they wanted to call attention to the dangers posed by genetically modified (GM) food and the multinational conglomerates that produce it.
Genetic engineering has been the subject of intense controversy. It usually involves taking genes from one species and inserting them into another to transfer a desired trait. Many people are uneasy about this, as there is limited knowledge about how the tens of thousands of genes in an organism interact with each other. Altering one gene can result in unknown side effects.
On one level GM is an extension of what farmers have done for generations – all the food we eat shows the effects of artificial selection by humans. Socialists are in favour of scientific advancement, and understand that under the right conditions genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be of assistance to humankind in the long term.
The problem is that food production and distribution are in the hands of big business. Their motives are not human need, but profit. There is a huge profit incentive to have limited regulation, testing and oversight of the suitability of GM foods.
Rather than focusing on improving crop yields and testing the safety of the new GMOs produced, private biotech firms are focused on ensuring continued profits. They litigate to ensure that seeds cannot simply be stored and used next season by a farmer wanting to continue using the crop, and prioritise modifications geared toward extra sales.
Farmers who plant Roundup-Ready (RR) soy have been found to use two to five times more herbicide than non-GMO farmers. This is the goal of RR soy, which is designed to resist a brand of herbicide sold by Monsanto.
The overuse of herbicides results in more herbicide-tolerant weeds in the long-run, which has already led some US farmers to return to conventional crop varieties. A 2012 study found increased rates of cancer in rats fed RR corn. Other studies have found unusual effects on the organs of animals fed with particular GM foods – whether this is related to herbicide over-use or byproducts of specific genetic changes is still unknown.
Companies like Monsanto seek to make agriculture dependent on their products. The motivations of biotech companies are the same as the sellers of hybrid corn in the 1920s, who crossed two inbred, poorly performing strains of corn to produce a higher yield hybrid corn. But the seeds grown on hybrid plants do not then produce more hybrids – the farmer is forced to return to the seed company to ensure continuing high yields next season. It was this trait that attracted private companies – producing high yield corn that could be freely replanted was not in the interests of profit.
This shows that the problem is not intrinsic to GMOs themselves, but to the capitalist economic system in which they are produced.
The fight against the big agriculture giants, like Monsanto, needs to be linked to the fight for system change. The alternative to the profit-driven system is a publicly owned and democratically controlled industry, planned in the interests of people and the planet. Rather than diverting science into finding the quickest ways to profit at our expense, a democratic socialist system would allow agricultural scientists to focus solely on increasing crop yields and making food healthy. It would ensure that we are able to make decisions collectively as to what degree and at what pace we want GM food introduced.
By Aishwarya Ramji