The development of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) has opened up whole new possibilities for improving the nutrition of humanity.
Humans are now able to genetically engineer new species or organisms by transferring DNA between totally different organisms, potentially allowing for food to be grown in harsher climates, for example, or for existing crops to yield more food. However, under capitalism, GMOs are being abused by large agribusinesses, such as Monsanto, to maximize shareholders’ profits at the expense of ordinary people around the world. Under capitalism, GMOs have reduced the safety and security of the food system for billions of people. What is a working-class approach to confronting the problems of GMOs and food security?
According to the agricultural giant Monsanto, genetically engineered foods are produced to address issues of food insecurity and feed the world’s booming population. However, if we look at the products being produced by companies like Monsanto, we find that this claim is patently false. They have not come remotely close to solving the question of hunger and lack of food. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 870 million people around the world (one out of every eight) suffered from chronic undernourishment between 2010 and 2012. In fact, hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
Despite the biotech industry’s assurances, none of the genetically modified traits currently exhibited offer increased harvest, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit. Moreover, GMO technology does not address the real reasons so many people go hungry, all of which result from the capitalist system: poverty, lack of purchasing power to buy food, lack of access to food, and a lack of access to land to grow it on.
It is a sad irony that GMO technology is actually increasing food insecurity. This is based on the fact that under capitalism, agribusinesses have profit margins as their number one priority. One such example is the fact that over 80% of all GMOs around the world are engineered for herbicide tolerance and, as a result, usage of toxic herbicides such as Monsanto’s “Roundup” has increased by 15 times. GMO seeds are also responsible for the rise of pesticide-resistant “super weeds” and “super bugs” which can only be destroyed with ever-more-toxic poisons such as “2,4-D.” Not surprisingly, the corporations that are pushing GMOs are the same ones who produce the chemical products that GMO crops rely upon. Monsanto has inserted genes in its seeds that are resistant to their own advertised weed-killers, encouraging farmers to buy Monsanto chemicals and spray them over crops with the knowledge that they will stay alive while other organisms competing for the soil’s minerals will be eliminated.
In order to further increase profits at the expense of ordinary people, Monsanto has created seed-sterilizing technology, also known as “terminator” or “suicide seeds.” These are plants which are genetically engineered to kill their own seeds. This means that seeds harvested from terminator crops will not germinate if planted the following season—a small detail which has been the basis of farming since the dawn of agriculture!
The goal of this technology is clearly to exploit seed industry profits by preventing farmers from reusing seeds from their harvest, thus forcing them to purchase GMO seeds from Monsanto’s commercial seed market. Recently, in Colombia, farmers have been forced to use GMO seeds—and if they refuse they are imprisoned.
Because GMO is a new innovation, biotechnology corporations have obtained patents which restrict their use by others and even forbid research into their potential side effects. As a result, GMO creators now have the authority to sue farmers whose non-GMO fields are cross-pollinated with GMOs, even when it occurs naturally, for example, when the wind or birds move seeds from one field to another. GMOs therefore pose a serious threat to small farmers and to the food security of any country where they are grown. According to environmental activist Vandana Shiva, the harsh reality of GMO innovation is that it leads to global famine and poverty as the seeds are controlled and patented by companies like Monsanto.
Of course, none of these seeds or chemicals come cheaply for farmers. The mega profits of these corporations are only possible by pushing more of the world’s farmers into poverty, and millions are forced completely out of agricultural jobs. Perhaps most insidious of all is the fact that Monsanto recently held secret tests in India in which genetically engineered cotton was grown without farmers’ knowledge, and no bio-safety measures were taken during these trials. Monsanto specifically chose India to hold its trials as there would be no issues in bribing the government and taking advantage of the subsistence farmers’ need for cheap seed.
However, these practices are not just limited to the ex-colonial world. Even in the US and Canada, farmers have had to face intense pressure and marketing tactics from companies like Monsanto, Dow, AgraEvo, and Zeneca. For example, to promote the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), these companies have hidden negative results of rBGH trials, refused to disclose their grants and donations to university clinics in the US, and threatened Canadian scientists who, in their opinion, are holding up the approval of rBGH in Canada.
Aside from food security, there is also evidence that there are real health risks associated with the GMO industry, mainly to do with the heavy reliance on chemicals that these modified crops depend upon. Once again, using one of Monsanto’s products as an example, Roundup has been linked to elevated hormone levels in humans. Although some alleged health risks around GMO may be exaggerated, it is also hard to trust the safety claims made by the agribusiness corporations themselves, considering the extent they have gone to push GMO technology on unsuspecting farmers and consumers.
Powerful food corporations have used their financial muscle to get governments to go along with their pursuit of profit. President Obama signed into law an agricultural bill that essentially guarantees agribusinesses the ability to continue selling and marketing GMO seeds, even if their safety is later called into question by the US Food & Drug Administration. Under capitalism, a company’s bottom line is put before our health and safety.
Not surprisingly, there has been a wave of protests against GMOs around the world as people try to protect their livelihoods and their source of sustenance. In India, fields of genetically modified cotton have been burned; in Liverpool, there has been a boycott in the unloading of genetically modified soybeans; and around the world, people have trampled sites where GM crops are being tested. At root, these are protests against the ravages of capitalism.
As socialists we are not opposed to GMO innovation as such, as this biotechnology has incredible potential to benefit humanity in many ways if used correctly. Human insulin, for instance, has been grown in GM yeast for decades, improving and even saving the lives of many individuals with diabetes. However, under capitalism, ordinary workers have no control over how this technology is used. For instance, a socialist system would not ignore the clear side effects of herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup on human health.
The doubts many people have about GMO technology are only natural, given the extreme secrecy demonstrated by the biggest agribusinesses. In a socialist society, all information and the results of GMO testing would be open to public scrutiny. With this information, the working class would then be able to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of using GMO foods, and thus make an informed decision as to whether humanity should pursue this technology or not.
This is why Marxists demand full public control over all GMO production and research, starting with the nationalization of the largest agribusiness corporations. We are in favor of ending all patents on seeds and agricultural chemicals, for massive funding into scientific research to determine the safety of GMOs, and for clear labeling of all products that contain GMOs so people know what they are putting into their bodies. We believe that it is a basic human right to protect our food supply.
Hunger and starvation persist on this planet, not because there is not enough food, but, rather, because it it is not produced and distributed rationally. The core of the problem is not a shortage of food, but capitalism! Under socialism, all the giant food companies would be in the hands of the working class and its production would be democratically planned to meet human needs—not in the interest of corporate greed.