Bill Freese is tired of promises. In the 30 years since scientists first announced that they could crack the secrets of plant and seeds in order to create genetically enhanced superfoods, science has been largely unable to point to any real-world success.
Not in feeding people, anyway. Scientists certainly have figured out how to enhance seeds, Freese says, but none of them have released any type of savior crop to the world. Science’s successes, he says, almost entirely benefit private companies that use seed science to help them develop bigger, badder chemicals to spray on the world’s food supply.
Freese will present “The Failed Promise of Agriculture” at the biotechnology symposium on Wednesday, April 29, at 10:15 a.m. at McCosh Hall.
Since 1996 science has ushered four staple crops — cotton, soybeans, corn, and canola — into the world’s food supply as genetically modified crops. But, says Freese, a policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., rather than delivering nutritionally enhanced, biofortified foods that require no pesticides and can survive salt, sandy ground, and arid climates, science has given us toxins like glyphosate — an herbicide marketed to great success by the agrichemical manufacturer Monsanto under the name “Roundup.”
Monsanto — co-maker, along with DuPont, of the infamous defoliant Agent Orange — is, perhaps, the most vilified name in biotech. As early as 1917 it was sued by the United States government over the company’s development of saccharin (the company won the suit). It has since been sued repeatedly over environmental issues and has been linked by the EPA to at least 54 Superfund sites. It also has won tens of millions of dollars in patent infringement lawsuits from farmers and companies around the world.
The company publicly espouses sustainable agriculture, its website (www.monsanto.com) stating the company’s pledges to help farmers “produce more and conserve more” by developing high-yield crops, as well as seeds that require less use of water and soil.
Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s chief of scientific affairs, will be part of a debate on whether “slow food” (organic) or new technologies will better handle the food vs. sustainability dilemma at Wednesday’s symposium. In a 2008 letter to the American Society of Plant Physiologists, Sachs wrote that the need to “accelerate agricultural productivity on a global scale has never been greater or more urgent. At the same time, the need to implement more sustainable approaches to conserve natural resources and preserve native habitats is also of paramount importance.” He cites as an answer to the challenge of delivering twice as much food by 2050 (when the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion), the need to “encourage the development of new technologies that deliver economic returns for all farmers.”
Freese’s problem with Monsanto, as well as other agrichemical giants, is that such companies own patents and licenses on an enormous number of seeds. Politically charged translation: Monsanto controls and can privatize much of the planet’s future food supplies. And rather than engineering super-nutrient foods, Freese says, companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Behr, and the Swiss giant Syngenta — which combined have either acquired or are heavily vested in most of the world’s largest seed and flower stockpiles — use the seeds to develop crops that are resistant to their own herbicides, not ones that offer safer foods at higher yields.
While on the surface the science sounds smart — herbicide-resistant plants can withstand heavy applications and continue to produce food without being compromised by weeds — the reality is that herbicide-resistant crops have generated their own arms race. Weeds once cowed by glyphosate are starting to become resistant. The answer? Heavier pesticides, and more of them — a bad move for the soil, for the crops, and for the people and animals who ingest them, Freese says.
Freese holds a bachelor’s in chemistry from Grinnell College in Iowa. A year of this study was in a drought-prone area of India, where Freese studied biotechnology related to rainwater use. The program — landscaping to redirect stormwater into the soil and percolate rather than letting it simply wash away — was so successful that the Indian government, itself hampered by a hugely unpopular dam project, sent representatives to learn what Freese’s program had accomplished and later started to apply the principles at large.
In 2000 the St. Louis native went to work on agricultural biotechnology issues for Friends of Earth and moved to the Center for Food Safety in 2006, where he continues his efforts to effect policy change. His experiences have not soured him on science itself, but rather on the applications of science. “Schemes that just foist technology on people won’t work,” Freese says. “Imagine that you’re an African farmer and someone comes along with this rice and says, ‘Eat this.’”
Rather than relying on scientists to alter foods, he says, it is better to engage the people who are going to grow the food that will feed themselves and their neighbors. Freese admits that most people are well-intentioned, scientist or not, but says the problem is that people seeking to solve world hunger are looking at it the wrong way.
“This conference is a good example,” he says. “Events like this say, ‘Here’s the problem and here’s the technology.’” What is needed is more public discussion on the holistic view — find out what the problems are on a smaller level and engage people directly; get people to solve their part their way, instead of expecting a blanket answer for a multi-level problem.
Freese has a lot of backup and a growing number of voices in his corner. Last year the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development released a report on a joint United Nations-World Bank project that studied the effects of technology on agriculture in the third world. Its findings, summarized in a report by the Kutztown, Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute, a pro-organic agency also represented at the conference, state that “regenerative farming practices, local knowledge, and regionally appropriate technology are favored over biotech and industrial agriculture.”
The report states that science and technology have increased food production but have failed to address serious social and environmental consequences it has caused. Increased greenhouse emissions from tilling, deforestation, and livestock top the list of problems. A close second is cross-pollination.
Canada’s organic canola production is probably the best example of cross-pollination’s ugly side.
Where once there were huge fields of organic canola, there are now huge fields of genetically modified canola, made possible not by a direct, malevolent manipulation of the crops, but by nature.
Simply planting genetically modified canola within a couple miles of the organic variety and letting the wind carry the pollen has effectively crushed Canada’s organic canola industry.
Equally troubling for Freese are the legal consequences of such a situation. The USDA’s attitude has been “It’s too bad if that happens,” Freese says. But he does not put it past one of the agrichemical giants to wait for nature to spread its seeds to unsuspecting farms and thus make a new seed that carries enough patented genetic material to warrant a lawsuit.
And crop breeding itself, which used to happen almost exclusively on the academic level and now is almost entirely the domain of corporate labs, is expensive and time consuming.
For the millions the USDA or groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (also to be represented at the conference) have been spending on developing supercrops, Freese says, the money could be going to more sustainable, local-level projects around the world.
“We could be reducing malnutrition,” he says, “but we’re not because we’re putting our money into these science fiction projects.”
Critics of Freese’s position say it is an alarmist way of thinking. That international laws would not allow a single American company to own the world’s food supply; and that Freese’s belief in fostering a more diverse diet, rather than relying on a single, nutritionally enhanced staple crop fails to take into account that many people simply do not have access to a broad range of foods.
Freese counters by saying that the single-crop diet is an artificial one, created by human tampering and, thus, reversible through human interaction.
Rodale Institute’s summation on the report by the IAASTD is available at www.rodaleinstitute.org. The original, full report can be found at www.agassessment.org.