April 21, 2008
High Crop Prices Undermine Opposition To Plant Genetic Engineering

I see a genetically engineered future down home on the farm. Opposition to genetic manipulation of crops is so passe.

In Japan and South Korea, some manufacturers for the first time have begun buying genetically engineered corn for use in soft drinks, snacks and other foods. Until now, to avoid consumer backlash, the companies have paid extra to buy conventionally grown corn. But with prices having tripled in two years, it has become too expensive to be so finicky.

“We cannot afford it,” said a corn buyer at Kato Kagaku, a Japanese maker of corn starch and corn syrup.

In the United States, wheat growers and marketers, once hesitant about adopting biotechnology because they feared losing export sales, are now warming to it as a way to bolster supplies. Genetically modified crops contain genes from other organisms to make the plants resistance to insects, herbicides or disease. Opponents continue to worry that such crops have not been studied enough and that they might pose risks to health and the environment.

It is worth noting that genetic engineering has been embraced much more rapidly for corn than for wheat. The reason: corn is mostly fed to animals whereas wheat is mostly fed to humans. Opposition to genetically engineered crops is stronger for those crops which humans eat directly.

This opposition to genetically engineered wheat has helped prevent wheat yields from growing as rapidly as corn yields (sorry, no cite. this is from memory). But necessity is the mother of invention. Rising hunger and budgets already made very tight by high oil prices are going to overwhelm much of the opposition to biotechnological means for raising crop yields. Even the Europeans are feeling the pressures to embrace genetic modification as a way to boost yields and lower costs.

Even in Europe, where opposition to what the Europeans call Frankenfoods has been fiercest, some prominent government officials and business executives are calling for faster approvals of imports of genetically modified crops. They are responding in part to complaints from livestock producers, who say they might suffer a critical shortage of feed if imports are not accelerated.

The rising East Asian countries such as China aren't going to worry about genetic engineering of crops. They are just going to do it. Europe is affluent enough to create a zone where crop genetic engineering is much less used. But the rest of the world is moving on. Governments want to ensure their own survival. Governments in less developed countries aren't going to fall as a result of rioting against genetically engineered crops. But the riots against high food prices could get out of hand and bring down governments.

In Cameroon, 24 people have been killed in food riots since February, while in Haiti, protesters chanting, "We're hungry" forced the prime minister to resign this month.

In the past month, there have been food riots in Egypt, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Madagascar.

Unfortunately, opposition to genetically engineered wheat has reduced the amount of genetic research into methods of boosting wheat production. So we are going to see some lean years before the new incentives for genetic engineering finally start to translate into lower cost wheat.

A Haitian lady who earns $3 per day cares squat about supposed dangers from genetic engineering of crops.

"Everything has changed," said the 30-year-old Joseph, stabbing at a half-frozen chunk of poultry with a screwdriver. "My kids are like toothpicks. Before, if you had $1.25, you could buy vegetables, some rice, charcoal and a little cooking oil. Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and it's not good rice. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With $1.25, you can't even make a plate of rice for one child."

People who spend over half their income on food can't afford a doubling of prices. They can't maintain their calorie intake.

“Food price inflation hits the poor hardest, as the share of food in their total expenditures is much higher than that of wealthier populations,” said Henri Josserand of the Global Information and Early Warning system of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Citing FAO’s new Crop Prospects and Food Situation report, he noted that “food represents about 10 to 20 per cent of consumer spending in industrialized nations, but as much as 60 to 80 per cent in developing countries, many of which are net-food-importers.”

The report states that the rise of 56 per cent in 2007-2008 comes after the already harsh increase of 37 per cent in 2006-2007 that had been squeezing lowest-income households hard.

These people need genetically engineered foods. People who spend over half their incomes on food ought to be given free birth control too. Our interests are harmed (and habitats are destroyed and species driven to extinction) by billions more of very poor people.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 April 21 05:56 PM  Trends Agriculture

David Govett said at April 22, 2008 12:50 AM:

OPEC nations will fatten their coffers while starving third-world children.
Which nation will be blamed? Saudi Arabia? Iran? Venezuela? Guess again.
Which nation will be expected to feed the starving? Canada? Europe? The UN? Guess again.
Pax Americana will soon become unsustainable, if it entails feeding the 19 foreigners for each American.
We shall see how foreign and domestic anti-Americans explain the approaching global chaos. (Guess whom they will blame.)

grn said at April 22, 2008 1:23 AM:

We have always genetically engineered crops - that's how they became crops in the first place. But what we did not do was breed in things like sterility so that you have to buy new every year, or resistance to expensive pesticides. The current kind of genetic engineering is about profit it is not about anything else, so it is not going to solve anything. And yes, people will blame America. And rightly so as it is the Monsantos of this world that will be to blame.

Wolf-Dog said at April 22, 2008 2:32 AM:

Genetic Engineering will be important especially for biomass. Even without Genetic Engineering, there are hybrid variants of the Poplar tree, which grow an astounding 8 feet per year, and this kind of tree is ideal for cellulosic ethanol production. What we need is fast growing genetically engineered biomass to be burned directly in power plants, or conversion to biodiesel.

Additionally, if certain fast growing trees (40 feet per year) can be genetically engineered to start the forestation of deserts, this can save the world from the greenhouse effect, and also provide extra fuel.

Cervus said at April 22, 2008 8:08 AM:

Combine GM crops with agrichar to enrich the soil, and we may have a winner here.

kurt9 said at April 22, 2008 8:21 AM:

A guy who calls himself "Spengler" has written a editorial over on Asia Times (www.atimes.com) about the causes of the recent rice shortages that is causing so much trouble around the world (some of you in S.E. Asia and the like could let me know if this is real or not).

Spengler believes that the recent spike in the price of rice is purely a monetary phenomenon. I agree with him. The spike in rice prices has occurred very quickly, which rules out any of the purported long term causes of increased food prices. Also, rice paddies, unlike corn land, is not be converted over to ethanol production. So, this cannot be the blame.

The reason for the run up in prices is due to the debasement of the dollar, with the result that Chinese and other investment funds are investing in commodities instead. As you know, Chinese and other foreign investors are limited to buying T-bills or buying smaller companies in the U.S.

There has been very little talk of this in the media (surprise, surprise!), but the U.S. government is reluctant to allow foreign investment into the large U.S. companies such as Citibank and the like. The reason cited is the fear that the sovereign wealth funds will provide foreign governments with more influence over our economy. This is a false fear. The sovereign funds want to invest in our economy for the same reason as anyone else would and that is to make money. A sovereign wealth fund is like any other fund, if they do not make money, they loose in comparison to the other players that make money. Indeed, a sovereign wealth fund has even more incentive to make its decisions purely on the basis of profitability. If the fund looses money, the country that relies on that fund also suffers as well. This is not good for the politicos of that country, even if it is a dictatorship or monarchy. Also, there are many sovereign funds around the world. Even if political considerations in their host countries influenced their investment decisions, the fact that you have multiple sovereign funds investing in the U.S. means that the influence of the U.S. government (a monopoly) is replaced by the influence of multiple sovereign funds resulting in a competitive situation even if they are all dominated by their host governments. You have a "monopolistic" situation being replaced by a competitive landscape, and this is always positive.

No, the real reason why the U.S. government will not allow direct foreign investment in our companies is two fold.

First, the U.S. senior managers that are used to getting their lavish bonuses are likely to loose their jobs. They complain to the government that, in turn, works to protect them. The reason why they protect them is that they have much in common with them. The U.S. political class and the corporate senior managers make up a kind of elite class whose members share commonality with each other. They are also a parasite class that contributes little to real wealth creation (when was the last time a CEO lost his "performance" bonus because his company did not perform?). If the current senior managers making their zillion dollar bonuses go away and the companies continue to do well (with somewhat lower paid managers from abroad), what does this say about the value of the political class in the U.S.? The parasites are protecting the parasites and rally support among the American people (the suckers) by claiming that they are protecting the American economy by keeping it in American hands!

The second reason why the U.S. government is loath to allow foreign investment into our large corporations is because they are afraid that such direct foreign investments will ultimately weaken the U.S. federal government's ability to influence the U.S. economy. This is certainly a true. However, as a software developer would say, "Thats not a bug, its a feature". We all know full well that engineers. business people, and entrepreneurs are the wealth creators of society. Government and the political class does not create wealth. They only parasitize wealth by getting in the way of wealth creation by burdensome taxes and meddling regulation. Anything that reduces the influence of government on the economy is always a good thing and we should always work to make this happen. In short, one should always place more trust in markets than in governments.

The point is that direct foreign investment in our economy would solve all of our current difficulties without the need for the FED to debase the currency or, even worse, require that taxpayers money be used to bail out the housing and finance industries. The fact that the U.S. government and the FED are willing to create the economic distortions of currency debase at home and potential starvation abroad, simply to preserve the power and influence of an incompetent, inept elite class goes a long way to illuminate the parasitical nature of our elites.

P.S. I refer to inflation by its true description of currency debasement. Money having value is one of the most fundamental social contracts between a government and a people. A government that debases the currency of its people is one that, by definition, forfeits its right to exist.

Hopefully Anonymous said at April 23, 2008 1:28 AM:

It's not clear to me that it's in our interest for poor people in developing countries to be given free birth control. It could make their labor, and hence the goods we derive from it, more expensive if there's fewer of them. Right now the third world overall seems pretty stable and productive. So it's not clear to me that we need fewer people in the third world. It's worth exploring whether we'd derive benefits from considerably more people in the third world, in which case it might be in our interest to encourage fundamentalist religion and conservative sexual mores there.

Tiedemies said at April 23, 2008 3:33 AM:

Also, rice paddies, unlike corn land, is not be converted over to ethanol production. So, this cannot be the blame.
Only a complete lack of understanding of the very basic economics can lead to someone making this kind of an argument.

Rice, wheat, corn, all crops are close substitutes. This was known already in Adam Smiths time.

beowulf said at April 23, 2008 7:21 AM:

If Uncle Sam is opposed to sovereign wealth funds buying up Wall Street, its because of reasons precisely opposite to Spengler's point (or was it Hopefully Anonymous's commentary?), because it will only cause even more popular opposition to globalization and to the elites who keep pushing it.

It doesn't matter who owns a publicly traded company (defense contractors with access to sensitive data excepted), ultimately as Lenin said, the state holds the commanding heights. Look what Spitzer could do as NY AG-- through the SEC, Justice, Treasury and the Fed, Uncle Sam has far more power than a state Attorney General's office and can easily destroy any company that doesn't, well, cry uncle. That it doesn't is only because the financial elites run the show.

mtoto said at April 23, 2008 8:47 AM:

There is no magic bullet to the current food crisis. Everything should be on the table. I totally disagree with people who try to demonize crop genetic engineering. It has a place in agriculture. I'd like to advise everyone here to visit James' blog which discusses potential applications of crop genetic engineering. His blog is very interesting. Although it seems pro-biotech, it raises very important issues that I believe are worth examination. Please visit the blog at GMO Africa. I also came across very interesting videos on Monsanto web site. Experts and farmers discuss potentials applications of crop genetic engineering in agriculture. They are worth watching by anybody with an open mind about crop genetic engineering.

Lono said at April 23, 2008 9:02 AM:

Completely agree with grn - this is not the GM future we are looking for...

Technology can obviously be used for productive or destructive ends - and when one company produces 90% of all GM crops - and huge legal staff to help obliterate competition - we should definately be questioning their intentions.

(also why is Bill Gates working with them to creating the largetst natural seed banks in the world!??)

This does not bode well for the lower economic classes of this planet - Americans better become informed before they become dependant on a handful of corporations for their entire food supply.

I think this documentary does a good job invetigating this trend:


Time for scientists and activists to educate themselves - before these technologies help create a dystopia instead of the great promise they could deliver on in the right hands.

I hope their is an open source style initiative that forms as a backlash to this rampant imperialistic corporatism - I am not overly optimistic though right now...

Hopefully Anonymous said at April 23, 2008 6:31 PM:

offtopic, but since you don't do open threads, thoughts about this slideshow article on maximizing longevity by minimizing immune system activity? The author recommends against using antibiotics. I wonder if this applies to vaccines too, as another reason it might be optimal for an individual for the masses to be vaccined but not that individual?


What Are You? said at April 24, 2008 12:33 PM:

Aren't you guys worried about genetic drift? Have any of you read Seeds of Destruction by Jeffery Smith? He states that genetically modified foods were toxic to rats done in the only two independent studies of GMO potatoes. The rats, who were force fed, developed sores through out their intestines and a reduced immunity response in comparison to rats fed normal potato foods. The source of EU hysteria is not unfounded. The scientists assume that by simply inserting or removing a gene they can modify the organism in predictable ways, but this is a baseless, spurious assumption. What is not known are the relativistic effects on the DNA molecule itself. The so called junk DNA may in fact act as an anchor or catalyst for further reactions and that by distorting it or plugging in foreign DNA you contort the messaging system of the DNA molecule. In essence the scientists are mutating the DNA in ways that have never before been experienced on this planet. They then consider these organisms safe to eat. The difference between previous genetic manipulation, such as with bananas, oranges and apples where they used hybridization and cross pollination to increase sizes and nutrition was that the method still relied on the natural DNA path. The organisms had mechanisms to anticipate cross-pollination. Oranges and grapefruit could be crossed but oranges and butterflies could never be. Asexual and sexual reproduction were still beholden to the natural procession. The difference between previous harvesting techniques and new genetic manipulation is that one process is analog the other is digital. The Monsanto scientists either don't care about the environment or believe that they are infallible in their reasoning.

The Monsanto bigwigs saw a way to capture patents on the American food supply. So they paid and marketed GMOs through the Agriculture lobbies. Which is why the science was rushed. Now Monsanto believes that it has positioned itself in a symbiotic relationship with US Agriculture, they produce corn that releases pesticide, the bugs adapt, new corn in turn is needed, Monsanto comes to the rescue with the latest modification and so on forever. It's the iota squeeze as seen in big pharma, where they merely tweak old drugs infinitely drawing out value as slow as possible, and now it's coming to america's farms. Do you really think we need higher yields? We can feed the world three times over, it's just price obnoxiousness that keeps food concentrated in certain areas. Also most of the starving people that these businessmen hold up as a symbol of the moral reasoning for allowing such modifications, such as the masses in Africa, really are misplacing the role of food in the deteriation of their societies. In fact it is the graft of those African governments that horde food, then refuse to put birth control measures onto the populace, and in turn which creates seas of hostile young men who go to all lengths to gain military strength or escape to Europe. The businessmen use these sob stories as a moral ruse to push forward their patents.

On top of that these rogue organisms will probably float into the natural ecosystem obliterating food webs that have no defences against them. Or rather they may introduce pathogens into the food web causing specific organism populations to die off and others to balloon out of control. What are we thinking?

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2008 8:27 PM:


I figure the motivation of a seed company is to make a lot of money. Am I to question that?

I do not see the fear we should have of Monsanto. One can grow crops without using genetically modified seeds. Monsanto does not prevent that. Monsanto needs to present a value proposition to farmers: The seeds cost more but will create enough additional crops to more than pay for the seed. That constrains what Monsanto can charge.

"What Are You?",

If genetically modified corn was a big problem like those potatoes supposedly were then we'd be hearing about livestock and corn tortilla eaters with sores in their intestines and weakened immune systems. We aren't hearing about this. I doubt the genetically engineered crops are hurting us.

Nature's forces of natural selection have modified crops a great deal. Should we ban natural selection because it modifies genes?

What Are You? said at April 29, 2008 5:02 PM:

Randall, for one thing bioengineered foods have not been given the scale of research as you assume. The regulation was forced through. Scientists took for granted how complex DNA really was and how disruptive the engineering process is on an organism's structure. They were thinking in semi-fantasy black and white logic about the effects of their tampering. In a way they were overly confident of their presump

For instance there are many ways we have to get foreign DNA into a cell's nucleus. One method uses a gun that fires DNA laced gold pellets into a sheet of cells and the researcher basically has to pray that one of the bullets makes it into the nucleus. The next uses special markers that are electrified into the cell to implant the DNA. A third relies on organic chemistry specific to the organism, i.e. calcium phosphate absorption or using dendrimers. All three methods subject the cell to forces that destabilize it in unforseen ways. For instance in calcium absorption it is not known why many cells soak the substance up along with DNA.

There are only about a dozen peer-reviewed animal feeding studies regarding GMOs. Woefully inadequate for such a bizarre new technique. The reason we have not heard about these disorders is because it is speculated that humans and livestock have slower metabolisms than rats and that the disease response would be slower. Also the potatoes used in the study were just one strain that was not meant for human consumption. As of this moment it is not known what effect various modified crop strains meant for human consumption will have on a human subject. On top of the multitude of plant species that have not been tested, neither has the many DNA tranfection techniques on each organism. Massive amounts of research and time was sidestepped for the eager Monsanto businessmen. So instead of relying on a lab they've turned the global population into a petri dish.

To allow something with so many unknown variables into the environment is lunacy. On top of that if you buy into the Monsanto's supposed technological sophistication for the betterment of the economy then I must warn you about becoming mesmerized by their advertising and the presumption that market forces will correct any deleterious effects from their products. Remember it wasn't until advocates forced the studies of trans-fats into the public eye did corporations begin to reformulate their ingredients. The corporations tossed in an additive that was cheap for them to use and that they could sneak inside foods without any immediate cause and effect. Just like GMOs the scientists that created hydrogenated oils presumed that their product was safe to eat simply because that was the way they designed it. It wasn't until after thirty years of research and many heart attacks later did corporations acknowledge its detrimental effects. This was independent research mind you, the corporations had no reason to lift a finger for these studies. No good reason exists why we should suddenly give a monster corporation the ability to brand crops. That is like giving McDonalds the right to control the air supply. You would have no choice but to use their product, tainted or otherwise because, like seeds, air can leak anywhere. If there's anything wrong with it McDonalds will see your wheezing body in court and use the profits stripped from a monopoly on Earth's bounty to fight till the bitter end. If you are advocating this recklessness out of giddy scientific egotism then you are basically giving Monsanto and their ilk the rope to strangle you with.

Finally as for the effects of a GMO on an ecology I have only to say this, nature has a hard enough time removing species that are simply transplanted from another continent, much less formulated by gene guns in a lab. The very existence of many fish farms raised by hormones has caused the wild fish of some areas to vanish as their hormone laden counterparts flood the ocean with massive bodies that draw females away from experienced males, causing the eggs to perish. Chemical dumping is very unhealthy for the environment, but at least most chemicals reduce in volume over time. An aggressive DNA strand, however, could multiply into the billions as time progresses.

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