|Who has actually has the control? Maybe not who you think. Certainly not Pinky and the Brain.
A common anti-GMO narrative is that large international companies seek to “control the food supply” through patents and the ownership of seed companies. Ironically, the opponents of plant biotechnology have exercised a far more significant degree of “control”. Very few of the possible “GMO” crop options have ever been commercialized in either the developed or developing world. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but over the last 20 years I've watched as anti-GMO activists have successfully employed three, potent control strategies: political over-ride of the regulatory system, manipulation through brand protectionism, and pressure exerted via importers.
|Adoption rates of biotech varieties in various crops and geographies (data from The Context Network, USDA-APHIS, FAO-Stats)
Manipulation Through Brand Protectionism
|Colorado Potato Beetle Damage (photo by Jeff Hahn, UMN Extension)
Brand Protectionism's Expanded ReachThe success of the activists in exploiting brand protectionism had a major chilling effect on other crops with high profile, consumer brands. In the mid 1990s there was a great deal of interest in biotechnology solutions. I was personally aware of projects that had been started or which were planned for bananas, coffee, grapes, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries and apples. When MacDonald’s and Frito-Lay acquiesced to the activist pressures around 1999, all the planning and work was halted in those and other brand-sensitive crops. The ag biotech companies like Monsanto or Syngenta or DuPont essentially gave up on biotech efforts in “specialty crops” and focused only on the big row crops. Fifteen years later that pattern of effective activist control remains largely in place.
|Fusarium head blight of wheat (right) reduces
yield and leads to rejected loads because of the
DON mycotoxin (Wikimedia image)
Pressure Exerted Via ImportersAt the turn of the century there were two biotech traits poised for commercialization in wheat in the US and Canada (wheat being one of the largest and most extensively traded crops in the world). There was to be a herbicide resistance trait from Monsanto, and also a disease resistance trait from Syngenta. Once again, I had the opportunity to interview many wheat growers to assess their interest in these options. Most already had positive experiences growing biotech soy, corn or Canola, and they were keen to try the new wheat options. They never got that chance. Major wheat importers from Europe threatened to boycott all North American wheat if any commercial biotech varieties were planted in the US or Canada. Europeans grow a great deal of wheat, but they need the high quality Hard Red Spring Wheat and Durum pasta wheat grown in the Northern Plains and Prairie provinces. European bread and pasta makers did not want to have to label their products as containing GMOs, knowing that this would make them the subject of activist pressure. So they used their considerable economic leverage as importing customers and made the boycott threat (not in a public way, but quite clearly). The wheat grower organizations in the US and Canada could not resist and reluctantly asked Monsanto and Syngenta to stop their programs. Both companies complied. This was a clear example of food supply control – control based on the activist’s ability to create marketing issues for the sort of companies that really do have leverage.
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