Monday, March 7, 2011

Patenting Life

A company once put a patent on a gene responsible for creating breast cancer.  This prevented any scientist who didn’t hold the rights to that patent from legally owning it.  Therefore they were forced to end research on that particular gene.  This is one of the many dangers of allowing U.S. Patents on living things. 
Until 1978, It was never legal to get a patent on a living thing in this country.  A scientist had discovered a genetic mutation that caused a certain microbe to eat oil. It was fought all the way to the Supreme Court, until finally the first patent was granted on this microbe and that opened the floodgates.
People used to farm a lot more, but now, most people don’t know what it takes to grow food.  And, in fact, what it takes to grow food has been changing in recent times.
Around World War Two, we started to experiment with using the same biological technology we were using to create weapons to create new pesticides.  A whole new approach to agriculture was born.
A company called Monsanto was a particularly aggressive seeker of patents on seeds. Not only did this company create a weed-killer called RoundUp that pretty much killed anything green. But this same company genetically engineers seeds that were resistant to this poison. They systematically started buying up seed companies until they had a virtual monopoly on the seed industry. 
Then they starting going after farmers for not buying their seeds. Farmers used to be able to save and trade seeds amongst each other, but now they live in fear of being sued for having the RoundUp ready crops in their field. 

The frustrating thing is that the court is saying that it doesn’t matter how the Monsanto seed got in the crops.  It could be a bird, the wind, or intentional theft, but if Monsanto’s genetically altered seeds made their way into your crop, Monsanto then owned your crop.
They began to aggressively pursue farmers for breach of patent.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the general public first learned about genetically modified foods, when a certain crop of corn was making lots of people very sick. The media got a hold of the story and soon the whole world knew about the dangers of gene splicing. 
Farmers are also starting to notice that these RoundUp ready soybeans are acting funny. In years of drought, for example, they reduce their root depth by 25%.  This is a big impact on a full crop of soy.
To this date, the United States is one of very few developed countries that don’t require genetically altered foods to be labeled. The wheat, the corn, the soy that you eat could be genetically modified, and no one has to tell you. Maybe you’re not allergic to wheat, but you’re having an adverse reaction to the genetic modification.  Without labeling, we can’t know if you’re eating real wheat or not. 
Dan Quayle was instrumental in getting regulations put in place that said that the US was officially NOT regulating genetically modified foods.  Despite the strong protestations of the FDA, who was saying that these products needed to be tested, especially because all the evidence was pointing to very real dangers presented by this type of engineered foods. 
The genetically modified foods industry is entirely self-regulated and is growing in size. 
There is a potential problem in the future of our food.  And that is the fact that if any genetically modified seed gets mixed in with the crops, the entire crop starts to adapt the genetic modification and crowds out natural biodiversity. 
The future health of our food is endangered unless we change the direction of these currently unfolding events. 
The rest of the world is starting to boycott our imported materials. Indonesia protested and burned some Monsanto cotton.  Japan is watching us. Knowing that this is untested waters, they say they are watching the development of American children over the next ten to twenty years to watch for signs of damage being done by genetically modified foods.
Don’t panic.  At this time, the vast majority of your food is not genetically engineered. However, one distinct exception is wheat. There is a lot of experimental GM corn crops in farming communities.  So cross-pollination, intentional or not, is eventually inevitable. 
There is plenty of evidence that these foods are unsafe. In one study, 40% of the caterpillars that ate from genetically modified plants died mysteriously. A doctor in Scotland was dismissed two days after announcing his new research showing a strong connection to mice dying after being fed genetically modified potatoes.  All of this research was being not only squelched, but buried in a litany of industry funded research skewed towards the results they wanted to see, and public service announcements by universities paid by the biotech industry, touting the health and importance of biotech. 
Genetic Modification was sold to us, the consumer, as a way to end world hunger.  “We could grow so much more food,” was what they were telling us.  But that logic is specious. There is already enough food to feed the world.  We throw away enough food to feed the world.  The problem is not quantity of food, but the problem is distribution. 
The United States government is a co-owner of a number of patents on a particular type of gene called a ‘suicide’ or a ‘terminator’ gene.  This causes a plant’s seed to become sterile after one usage, and forces the farmers to buy seeds year after year.  A dirty trick, for sure.  But now, let’s think about this.  What is going to happen once these types of seeds start to cross-pollinate with crops all over the world?  It’s going to be devastating. 
I hate to paint a bleak future, but I see a vast blank canvas of empty green where nutritious vegetables used to be.  And I see our population getting sicker and sicker without realizing what the cause is. 
The revolution needs to happen. I don't know how much the data has changed since this graphic was created in 2005, but according to this chart, it looks like the public is coming around. I'd still like to see a lot more blue in the bar graph than the red. 

One thing to do is to be vocal about exercising your right to safe and healthy foods.  Not only should you refuse to buy genetically modified foods, but you should make it known that that’s the reason you’re not buying it.  What you choose to eat is one of the biggest contributors to your health.  Fight for your right to continue to choose. 

When you do choose, choose organically grown foods whenever possible. 


Another very important thing we need is a return to fresh, locally grown produce and foods raised naturally. I am encouraged to learn that the numbers of farmers markets in the United States has risen almost 80% in the past fifteen years.  I hope it is a sign that people are aware of how important it is to eat naturally grown food.  

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