CHURCHVILLE, Va.-The terrible "terminator gene" is going to destroy the small farmers of the world and bring on global famine. That's according to several of my least-reliable sources. The terminator gene, whose patent is now owned by St. Louis-based Monsanto, renders the offspring of genetically engineered crops sterile, thus making it impossible for farmers to save and replant seeds.
That could force farmers and gardeners to buy new seed from the patent-holding companies each year. My garden supply catalog says genetically altered plants are "20 times more likely to escape from the fields than natural seeds," and, if the escaping seeds are sterile, then all the crops will fail. That's illogical nonsense. Anyway, why is a catalog that sells trowels and Gro-Lights warning me about biotechnology in crops?
Bill Walsh, editor of a Virginia-based farmers' magazine, Southern States Cooperative, says Third World farmers can't afford to buy either hybrid seeds or terminator genes. He says the terminator technology is a "gimmick to control the seed market and has nothing to do with improving crops." He urges farmers to tell the "transnational giants" that they won't tolerate this new biotechnology.
Hybrid Seed was once a new technology as well-and it has been one of the most profitable investments farmers ever made, helping to feed billions of people with higher yields from less land. In the old days, farmers used to save their own seed for replanting the next year. That was cheap, but it also meant the yields never got much better. Once a young boy named Henry Wallace watched while an eminent seed judge picked out the best-looking ears from Henry's farm. The judge told him that planting those seeds again would produce higher yields. Henry kept track. The judge was wrong. Henry Wallace became the "father" of hybrid corn. His hybrid seed idea took corn production from 25 bushels per acre to more than 300 per acre. In India, one can start a farmer riot over hybrid seeds. Indian farmers are resistant to using them, claiming it's their natural right to retain their own seeds for replanting the next year. Perhaps this is why Indian farmers average only one-third as much corn yield as U.S. farmers, one-sixth as much sorghum yield.
Similarly, a few weeks ago, farmers in North America were up in arms about biotechnology companies investigating whether farmers had grown biotech seeds without paying the royalty fees. Farmers thought this an invasion of their privacy. Without a profit motive, what incentive is left for biotech research? The biotech companies resorted to hiring detectives, a contentious and expensive (but necessary, they felt) step to get paid for their product.
The government won't do the research. The only thing less politically correct than modern high-yield agriculture is modern high-yield biotech agriculture. Absent biotechnology, there will be no way to identify the useful genes from the wild relatives of crop plants, a strategy that promises to raise yields by 50 percent. Lack of research will also stall efforts to produce crops resistant to viral and bacterial diseases.
Farmers have always loved the guy on the soapbox denouncing the "big companies" and the new technologies that farmers are "forced" to buy. But it's the researchers, not those farmers, who have done the most to cut farmers' costs and boost their yields. Well, I'm not going to worry about it. I'll just hitch my little gray donkey to my old single-bottom plow, sow by hand the seeds from my last year's crop and hope I can grow enough to feed the four people in my immediate family this year. And all of you can do the same.
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