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Saturday, August 29

Monsanto hits on a clever plan to kill off the human race

"This is not theoretical. A lack of genetic diversity in Irish potatoes in the 1800s, for example, likely exacerbated the potato famine that killed an estimated one in eight Irish.  

"More recently, the widespread corn blight in the US in 1970, estimated to have reduced yields by 20%-25% across the country, is largely attributed to the fact that approximately 85%-90% of the corn grown in the US at that time had a gene that made the corn easier to breed, but also — unbeknownst to farmers—made it susceptible to a fungus that until then had been considered a minor disease."

I always knew Monsanto's heart was in the right place; by gum they're gonna save the planet from the human scourge if it's the last thing they do -- and it looks as if it will be the last thing. 

And there are still people who refuse to believe we're descended from monkeys. But no, no, it's not from monkeying around in the lab although there's plenty of that disscussed in the report. You have to read past the passages about the designer broccoli to get to the really interesting part. It's the Monsanto business model that is on track to put the human race out of commission. 

However, the most annoying aspect of the apocalypse is that there will be nobody left alive to launch a class action law suit against Monsanto.  

Well, a big thanks to Deena Shankar for the report although in this case forewarned won't stop Monsanto.  

Monsanto’s super-broccoli shouldn’t scare you, but its plans for global vegetable domination might
by Deena Shankar
August 28, 2015
Quartz

[...]

By helping farmers multiply their yields of corn and soy—and restricting the kind of business they could do with its competitors—Monsanto turned itself into a grain superpower. Doing the same in vegetables will not only give the company even greater economic and political clout but could also limit genetic diversity and global food security.

Monsanto likes to downplay its size. “We sometimes get a lot more credit for being bigger than we are,” Fraley said, drawing comparisons to market dominators like Apple in technology or Coca-Cola and Pepsi in soft drinks. “We’re probably way less than 10% of the global seed market.” Other estimates say Monsanto’s share of that market is about one quarter or as much as one third (paywall).

Whatever the size of its share, though, Monsanto’s increasing influence in that market is undeniable. A 2009 investigation by the Associated Press said the “world’s biggest seed developer” was “squeezing competitors, controlling smaller seed companies and protecting its dominance over the multibillion-dollar market for genetically altered crops.”


It found Monsanto’s patented genetics were in 95% of the US’s soybean crops and 80% of its corn. (Monsanto told Quartz that “competition is extremely robust in the seed industry” and that it “must work to earn a farmer’s business each and every year.”)

The company tamped down its anticompetitive practices once attorneys general in states like Iowa and Texas started investigating them in 2007 (with the US Department of Justice following their lead in 2009), as Lina Khan of the New America Foundation wrote for Salon in 2013. But, Khan told Quartz, “the damage is already done.” As its recent SEC filing explains, the framework for Monsanto’s sales is now set. Much as it did with commodity crops, the company says its plans for vegetables are to “continue to pursue strategic acquisitions in our seed businesses… expand our germplasm library, and strengthen our global breeding programs.” Thanks to the “multiple-channel sales approach” it has used for corn and soybeans, it says, it has a built-in advantage in this market.

“This is an industry that used to be very competitive,” Philip Howard, who does research on the food industry at Michigan State University, told Quartz. “In the 70s there were thousands of seed companies,” he said, but now, as his chart on the Seed Industry Structure shows, a few large companies own nearly all of the small ones. [See Quartz website for chart.]

Control through IP

One way that Monsanto has exerted and benefited from its increasingly consolidated control is through intellectual property. When Monsanto patents a seed, the Associated Press showed, it gets a say in nearly everything a farmer wants to do with it. Monsanto contracts, for example, “effectively lock out competitors” from adding their own patented traits to any crops with Monsanto’s genes, which for corn and soy in the US, is nearly all of them.

“What gives me pause about [Beneforté] coming from Monsanto is their approach to intellectual property,” said Jim Myers, a professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University. “I’m an old-school breeder and what I see is that when people start using patents and business models like this to tie up the germplasm, it prevents the overall progress in a particular field.”

Fraley, unsurprisingly, disagrees with Myers’ assessment, arguing that Monsanto has actually helped progress. “We license our technology to well over 200 companies around the world,” Fraley said, referring to all of its technology, not just its vegetable seeds. “We have gone way out of our way to build a business based on open architecture and broad licensing.”

But Monsanto does patent its vegetables and their traits, as it does for its genetically-modified soy and corn. (Licensing for vegetable seed technologies is actually available through an online portal.) And the company confirmed that at least some of those restrictions will be enforced with vegetables like Beneforté. “The Beneforté broccoli seed that growers plant is a special hybrid seed,” a Monsanto spokesperson told Quartz over email. “It is not standard practice for commercial vegetable farmers to save and replant seeds, especially not with hybrid seed.”

Why genetic diversity matters

“Most of the food for mankind comes from a small number of crops and the total number is decreasing steadily,” agronomist Jack Harlan wrote in his book Crops and Man in 1975. “More and more people will be fed by fewer and fewer crops.”

Forty years later, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences quoted those lines and agreed: “The rate of movement toward homogeneity in food supply compositions globally continues with no indication of slowing.”

This increasing homogeneity is often traced back to the Green Revolution, a period between the 1940s and 1960s when high-yielding varieties of grains —and other advents of modern agriculture like synthetic fertilizers and modern irrigation systems — completely changed the way food was grown. 

While it is often credited with saving a billion people from starvation, the Green Revolution also preceded a fall in diversity in crop production. (Other causes, like an increasingly globalized food system, are also thought to have contributed.)

In 1991, the New York Times warned (paywall) that “the diverse varieties of traditional crops and wild plants they need to breed more productive new strains are in jeopardy.” By 2000, when the loss of genetic diversity was considered a given, the UN said the main reason for it was “the replacement of local varieties by improved or exotic varieties and species.” In 2005, the US Department of Agriculture published a report attributing the decline to several factors, including “the dominance of scientifically bred [crops] over farmer-developed varieties.”

If Monsanto repeats the domination it has achieved in corn and soy with broccoli and other vegetables, restrictions on breeding and a loss of genetic diversity seem inevitable, even with Monsanto funding seed libraries and licensing its genetics. This might not sound like a major problem, but it could be one day.

“Everybody in the country growing the same variety of broccoli because it’s the hot new thing may not be a good long-term plan,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a non-profit organization that advocates for healthy food and clean water. Different varieties, she said, “might come in handy if the climate changes.” A 2010 UN report agrees with that assessment, as do other experts.

“Less diversity in seeds makes us more vulnerable to drought and pests and any number of factors,” said Howard. Or, as Tony Sarsam, CEO of Ready Pac Produce, described agriculture: “God is very active in our business.”

This is not theoretical. A lack of genetic diversity in Irish potatoes in the 1800s, for example, likely exacerbated the potato famine that killed an estimated one in eight Irish. More recently, the widespread corn blight in the US in 1970, estimated to have reduced yields by 20%-25% across the country, is largely attributed to the fact that approximately 85%-90% of the corn grown in the US at that time had a gene that made the corn easier to breed, but also —unbeknownst to farmers — made it susceptible to a fungus that until then had been considered a minor disease.

Even without an act of God, diversity is important for the food industry. Bulk buyers rely on it to find the best varieties, depending on their needs. While one might be looking for the best apples for cutting, another might be looking for the longest lasting, while yet another wants the apple that is the sweetest. Reducing the available varieties of a kind of produce will necessarily limit how that produce can be sold.

Monsanto doesn’t appear to be worried that Beneforté will cause the variety of broccoli seeds to dwindle. Its plant breeders “breed in natural resistance to certain pests and/or diseases” and the company “sells dozens of different broccoli products to meet the needs of different growing regions and consumer preferences around the world,” a Monsanto spokesperson said. “We are also one of many other vegetable seed companies that develop broccoli seeds. Farmers have many choices when it comes to the broccoli seeds they purchase and plant.”

The spokesperson also pointed to Monsanto’s investment in gene banks, including one in Woodland, California that preserve “rare and extensive collection of vegetable seeds from around the world.”

[...]

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