Corn Pone

We’re standing in an open field, perched on a small hill in Kihei. It’s about 4:30 p.m. and the sun is a long way from setting. From my vantage point I can see Haleakala, Kaho’olawe, Lanai and the Pali.

There’s a group of about 50 of us, all milling about near a blue pickup truck and a table showing photographs labeled “shoot bagging” and “pollination.” Holding corn shoots, a couple guys in khaki shirts that are so new they still have packing wrinkles are demonstrating “controlled pollination,” which is just a scientific term for managing plant sex.

“The workers then empty all the pollen into the bag,” one of the kahaki guys tells us. “Then they shake it into the wrapped corn shoot and staple it in place. We call these ‘high tech breeding tools.’”

The folksy joke about high tech tools and the comfortable shirts were no accident. The guys were officials with the Monsanto Corporation, an extremely powerful agri-business that last year did $5.5 billion in sales of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)—corn and soybean seeds genetically modified to carry resistance to herbicides and insects.

Agri-businesses like Monsanto say GMOs are one of modern science’s greatest achievements—a perfectly safe breakthrough that’s undergone a fantastic level of testing and will feed a hungry world. In fact, they’re incredibly controversial throughout the world, especially in Europe, where residents have demanded stringent labeling requirements on all products containing GMOs. Even in the United States, scientists hold conflicting, sometimes hostile views on the safety and efficacy of injecting alien DNA into the fruits and vegetables we eat.

For that reason, Monsanto has gone to great lengths to shape the American public’s view of genetically engineering food. To find out more about these public relations efforts, I visited the company’s GMO seed farm in Kihei on Jun. 9, 2005, as part of a tour sponsored by the Maui Chamber of Commerce.

It began at 3:30 in the afternoon, and something like 75 people showed—local realtors and business types from all over the island. Maui Time Weekly recently joined the Chamber, and eagerly took advantage of the tour offer.

At first, it was easier said than done. The seed farm wasn’t easy to find. There’s no flashing neon “Monsanto GMO Facility” sign on Pi’ilani Highway and the directions were simply to drive through the entrance across from Kanani Road. It helped that someone hung a hand-painted “Maui Chamber” banner at the entrance next to some brightly colored balloons and an armed Maui Police Officer.

Near the main office, white party tents stood over white buffet tables. At the sign-in table everyone got name tags, very nice beige Monsanto baseball caps that fit surprisingly well, corn-shaped ball point pens marked “DEKALB”—a hokey homage to Monsanto’s seed of the same name, the first to offer resistance to the popular Monsanto-manufactured herbicide Roundup—and full-color spiral-bound brochures.

The brochures, containing huge pictures of food and rolling farmland and recipes for Papaya Smoothies and Roasted Root Vegetable Napoleon, bore the logo of BIO—Biotechnology Industry Organization—a massive and powerful lobbying group representing a thousand GMO members. BIO exemplifies the tremendous political and economic power backing Monsanto and the whole biotech industry.

BIO is the industry’s best friend in Washington. It’s donated nearly $200,000 to Democratic and Republican congressional candidates since 2000 alone and another $75,000 in soft money to the two parties. Hugh Grant, Monsanto’s Chairman, President and CEO, sits on the BIO board of directors.

Though Monsanto officials said on repeated occasions throughout the afternoon that they offer facility tours on a “regular basis,” the novelty of the visit to such a secretive and secure facility wasn’t lost on attendees.

“Do you think they’ll let us take pictures?” asked Sky Barnhart, a reporter for the Maui Weekly, which is also a Chamber member.

 We all signed in, then sat on plastic chairs in a small warehouse. On one wall was a green sign saying, “This plant has worked 202 days without a lost time accident.” Two freezers in back were marked with signs saying, “Leaf samples and blue ice only.”

Officials said 150 people signed up, but I counted about 75 attending. Officials then showed a 15-minute PowerPoint Presentation on the company history. They talked about the old days, when Monsanto was just a chemical company selling the herbicide glyphosate under the trade name Roundup—so much so that today it’s the most popular plant-killer in the world.

“The billionth acre of biotechnology was planted this spring,” said Paul Koehler, who acted as our guide. He and the other Monsanto officials never used the words “genetic” or “GMO.” They always referred to their plants as “biotech.”

They also used a few novel, and in some cases misleading, arguments for genetically modifying plants. “One thousand people per hour die of hunger,” said Koehler, who showed slides sourced to the United Nations illustrating tremendous population growth.

The implication was obvious: GMOs are a cheap way to feed huge numbers of poor people, and Monsanto is only too happy to perform this humanitarian service. Though none of the guides said so, the 1,000 people statistic comes from a GMO booster named Clive James, who founded the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) in 1991.

Critics like the Institute of Development Studies, based in Sussex in the United Kingdom, have said ISAAA’s figures on a whole range of GMO-related topics are beyond reality—as much as “20 times higher even than those claimed by a biotech industry source.” But they do make good public relations.

Monsanto officials also like to say that GMOs will combat urban sprawl, though their evidence would seem to point to freeing up land for more urban construction. During the afternoon, company guides said that farms cover six million square miles today, but that number might have to rise considerably. “We’ll need 15 million square miles by 2050 if we don’t continue to grow our yields,” they said.

Though ostensibly “science-based”—we heard the words “integrity,” “evidence” and “transparency” constantly—the Monsanto officials who conducted the tour left out a considerable amount of information concerning the potential problems and threats from GMOs. This isn’t too surprising, considering that genetically modified corn is big business.

A bag of conventional corn seed that contains 80,000 kernels and will plant 2.5 acres costs $85 to $90. Adding traits will bring the price up to $150 or even $180 per bag. That’s because it costs Monsanto $60 to $120 million to create each new biotech seed.

It’s money well spent. From 1996 to 2000, acreage devoted to GMOs increased exponentially around the world, climbing from a mere four million acres in 1996 to 308 by the beginning of the 21st century. The rate of increase has since slowed, but today hovers around a billion acres. That land has produced more than a trillion meals since 1996.

Monsanto Hawai’i first began farming the Kihei land in 1996, which is about when GMOs first became commercially available. In that time, they’ve already outgrown a huge shed housing all the usual “mechanical devices” used in farming. Koehler said they’re going to double its size.

The Monsanto operation is a farm like any other farm, though much smaller and set up to produce seeds rather than food. It’s got 12-bin driers filled with corn, a big propane tank and a few pink/purple hydrants that spout water that’s not quite potable.

As we drove up the dirt road into the farm, we passed kiawe trees, grasses and rocks. Lots of rocks. “Rock picking is a never ending task,” Koehler said.

The fields themselves are pretty small. Most hold corn, which grow within a box of sorghum, planted a couple feet deep around the perimeter, to act as a buffer against wind, dust and insects. There are birds all over—lots of quail and a few cardinals.

As we headed up a shallow hill, splattering the already filthy sorghum with even more dust, we passed a county million-gallon water tank. Koehler said the Monsanto operation drew up to 200,000 gallons a day out of it.

While we were parked in the field during the shoot-bagging demonstration, the guides described a couple genes they put in the corn. The first protects it against the Roundup herbicide—these are known as HT crops—and the other is the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crop which resists the corn bore insect.

“We want the right gene or event in a plant,” said Koehler. “If it’s supposed to have Roundup, we don’t want Bt. It’s like going into Koho’s and getting a hamburger, French fries, but no tomatoes.”

Koehler said that Monsanto’s workers conduct “gene checking” on every plant in the field. That requires them to check an astonishing 2.5 million plants every year.

On our way back to the offices, Koehler talked about how a huge wave recently hit a barge carrying a “big sprayer” bound for Maui. Koehler said the wave “completely doused” the sprayer, severely damaging it.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is a non-profit organization founded in 1969. It boasts a membership of over 100,000 scientists and citizens. Of its 15 board members, 12 are professors or emeritus professors at universities like Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, Duke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The group says it “does not support or oppose genetic engineering per se” but regularly puts out reports and papers questioning many of the basic claims put out by GMO advocates and corporations.

I was thinking about them as my tour group sat in a small, air-conditioned room after our romp through the corn fields. We were there to hear from Harvey Glick, Monsanto’s Director of Scientific Affairs, who flew in from the company’s St. Louis headquarters.

Glick speaks often to groups and the press about the science backing Monsanto’s work. He told us he’s spent almost 30 years in ag research and was in Canada when the very first biotech crop—Canola—was planted.

Glick fired up another PowerPoint Presentation, this time with 10 slides labeled “Plant Biotechnology” and “Solid Record of Safety,” among others. Many of them were sourced to the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI).

Whereas BIO handles GMO industry lobbying in Washington, CBI takes care of public relations. “The Council for Biotechnolgy Information communicates science-based information about the benefits and safety of agricultural and food biotechnology,” states the organization’s website “[CBI] is committed to bringing you the facts about these exciting new developments—complete with footnotes and hyperlinks to scientific research and other information. That’s our pledge to be a credible source of information about plant biotechnology.”

Eight biotech organizations—including Monsanto and BIO—pay CBI to produce “science-based,” pro-GMO literature and studies. In effect then, whenever Monsanto quotes CBI, it’s quoting itself.

Before anyone could ask about the safety of GMOs, Glick brought the matter up.

“We have a lot of evidence about the safety of these crops,” he said. “I think it’s useful to have the discussion. Food is a very emotional subject.”

Then Glick showed a slide quoting the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): “…In those countries where transgenic crops have been grown, there have been no verifiable reports of… health or environmental harm.”

While true, such statements are terribly misleading. In 2003, a major meta-study commissioned by the UK government reviewed more than 600 GMO papers  and concluded that while genetically engineered food posed “very low” risk to human health, there simply wasn’t enough evidence to close the book on safety. In fact, the panel of 25 that wrote the report concluded that, “Absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of harm.”

And the FAO is hardly in the business of boosting GMOs. In its official Statement on Biotechnology, the UN agency states that it’s “aware of the concern about the potential risks posed by certain aspects of biotechnology.” Those risks, which are seconded by groups like the UCS, include:

•Transferring toxins from one organism to another

•Accidentally developing new toxins

•Transferring allergenic compounds from

    one species to another

•Creating hyper-aggressive weeds

•Loss of biodiversity

One tour attendee asked Glick about cross-pollination. Glick said it’s not a problem in the U.S. and wouldn’t happen between different species, though he did admit that, “corn and corn will exchange pollen.”

Glick was half right—corn and corn will exchange pollen. But genetically modified DNA has long infiltrated traditional plant varieties.

In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists put out a report entitled Gone to Seed. Its conclusion was unambiguous: “Seeds of traditional varieties of corn, soybeans, and canola are pervasively contaminated with low levels of DNA sequences derived from transgenic varieties.”

Blaming the contamination on “generally porous seed production and distribution systems,” the UCS said the contamination threatens organic agriculture everywhere and “amounts to a huge wager on our ability to understand a complicated technology that manipulates life at the most elemental level.”

Another slide Glick presented said genetically modified foods “bring societal benefits.” Glick added that “50 million pounds of pesticides” are not sprayed each year because of GMOs like the Bt corn produced by his company.

“We’re very proud of this,” Glick said. “These are some tremendous environmental benefits.”

Once again, Glick was overstating his case—pushing one fact at the expense of a bunch of other, much worse facts. In October 2004, the UCS produced “Technical Paper Number 7,” entitled Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years. Its findings were startling.

“GE [Genetically engineered] corn, soybeans and cotton have led to a 122 million pound increase in pesticide use since 1996,” the report asserted. “While Bt crops have reduced insecticide use by about 15.6 million pounds over this period, HT crops [like Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” corn that’s herbicide-tolerant] have increased herbicide use 138 million pounds.” The report concluded that, “overall pesticide use has risen about 4.1 percent on acres” growing GMOs.

After all, ecological balances are always tenuous. Tweaking resistance in one part of the food chain can cause drastic results across the board.

“Weed scientists have warned for about a decade that heavy reliance on HT crops would trigger changes in weed communities and resistance, in turn forcing farmers to apply additional herbicides and/or increase herbicide rates of application,” stated the report. “Reliance on a single herbicide, glyphosate [Roundup], as the primary method for managing weeds on millions of acres planted to HT varieties remains the primary factor that that has led to the need to apply more herbicides per acre to achieve the same level of weed control… For the foreseeable future, HT crops will increase pesticide use more than Bt transgenic crops reduce it.”

Put another way, Monsanto will continue to cash in selling Roundup as well as seeds immune to Roundup.  I didn’t hear that point made during the farm tour, but I also didn’t expect to. MTW