BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
The father of “Frankenfoods”* is feeling out the farms of Armenia! The pitchforks and torches, at least figuratively, must be prepared. Much like in the old black-and-white horror movies when the Frankenstein monster is being chased by the villagers, Monsanto should be hounded out of Armenia before it can cause the kind of economic and environmental damage it has heaped on American farmlands.
Last week, the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, just doing its job, announced that Monsanto and Valmont had participated in a program which was meant introduce and connect them to Armenia’s agricultural sector. To read it is to think these two huge companies will be able to restore the Garden of Eden to Armenia! Meanwhile the frightful reality is very much the opposite.
First, let’s dispense with Valmont. Judging by their website, they are an equipment and machinery firm. In the agriculture sector, they seem to focus on irrigation. It may be that they are a relatively benign company. I do not know and have not heard of them previously. But, they also provide equipment for mining, which rings some alarm bells given the rampant environmentally destructive mining that is ravaging parts of the Republic of Armenia’s (RoA) relatively pristine regions. Maybe Valmont wants to get a foot in RoA’s economic door through agriculture then expand to mining. Given the constraints of a publication deadline, I could not dig deeper into this aspect, but it deserves to be researched.
Next, Monsanto, described as a company “everyone loves to hate” because of its hideous corporate practices. A few decades ago, Monsanto shifted gears and went from being a primarily chemical company to an agricultural seed and “pesticides” company. I will use the word pesticide generically, since Monsanto is using it that way, to describe anything that is used to fight things that can harm crops and crop yields, even though the main concern at this point is herbicides – poisonous chemicals that kills undesirable plants, i.e. weeds, which have been the bane of farmers since humans first started planting and reaping. Along the way, Monsanto has been buying up smaller competitors so that now it controls effective-monopoly-level percentages of the seed sold for some major crops.
Here’s what Monsanto is known for doing and why introducing those practices to the RoA would be a disaster.
Seeds are engineered, genetically modified (please see sidebar “What Is a GMO”), to have certain traits, and patented (something which was not allowed until a 1980 Supreme Court decision enabled it). In this case, the trait is resistance to pesticide, most famously, glyphosate (sold as “Roundup”). The seeds are then sold to farmers who like the advantage of not having to weed their fields and later, after harvest, till the soil to bury the dead plants. But, Monsanto makes the farmers agree that they will NOT save seeds from their crops to plant the next year. Imagine! A fundamental practice in farming, keeping some part of the crop to plant next year’s crop, is forbidden! This way, Monsanto has the farmers by the throat since they have to buy its seeds year after year. The farmers go about their business and apply the glyphosate.
But, there’s something called wind on this planet. It causes some of the pesticide to blow over to the next-door farmer who is not using “roundup-ready” seeds. What happens? Given how potent glyphosate is, the neighbors plants suffer or die, harming that farmer’s yield and profits. Also, pollen gets blown around and the neighboring farm’s plants receive some of the Monsanto-patented-pollen. The neighbor can’t tell this has happened (no one can just by looking, the seeds have to be tested) and saves seed to plant the next year.
Monsanto hires private investigators and tracks farmers it suspects might be cheating on their contracts. Or, it gets seed from its non-customers to check if they have somehow gotten some of its patented product. Legitimately, if a farmer who signed a contract with Monsanto, the company should expect compliance with its conditions. But why should the neighbor, whose seeds have been adulterated through no action or fault of her/his own, be expected to comply with Monsanto’s conditions? Instead of Monsanto being found at fault for “infecting” the neighbor’s crops, I recall (it has been some years and this may have changed) that courts found the neighbor had to comply with Monsanto’s predatory practices! Monsanto has taken hundreds of small farmers to court annually in this way.
Now let’s move on to glyphosate/Roundup itself. It is extremely toxic and must be applied under specified conditions. Yet, people use it on their extensively lawns and government agencies on public lands. Fortunately, some localities have started banning it. In my awareness, the City of Irvine has banned its use, as has Burbank’s School district, with the City of Burbank now having discussions about banning it.
It’s not just glyphosate. Dicamba, another pesticide sold by Monsanto (and others) has damaged some 3.6 million acres of soybeans in the U.S. this year – that’s 4% of the crop. It turns out Dicamba volatilizes (evaporates) fairly readily, so it spreads to unintended locations. Another, new, Monsanto product, NemaStrike, designed to kills worms, was set to go to market in 2018. But, because of extensive reports of skin rashes, it has been put on hold, with Monsanto blaming farmers for mishandling it. Why should something that is going into our food supply be so risky to use?
Let’s forget about whether the genetically modified seeds that Monsanto is likely to sell to Armenian farmers will have any health effects, since the effects of “weird” (see the sidebar again) GMOs on humans is not yet settled science. Do we want Monsanto’s practices foisted on RoA’s farmers? They are already hurting from a scam from a few years ago (another example of corruption there) which gave many of them low-quality seeds passed off as high-quality Russian seeds at a correspondingly high price. Many of them lost their land and livelihood as a result.
Do we want one struggling Armenian farmer inadvertently killing off an equally-strapped neighbor’s crops?
Do want our villagers being dragged into Armenia’s notoriously unjust courts by a behemoth such as Monsanto whose on-site henchmen are likely to buy off the relevant authorities?
Do we want our homeland’s reputation as a source of clean, organic, foodstuffs sullied by the presence of a toxics-based form of agriculture?
Yerevan should be approaching institutions such as Holland’s Wageningen University & Research described in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic. Since World War II, the Dutch have managed to achieve huge increases in crop yields through technological innovations while using as much as 97% less toxic substances.
Already, reactions to this potential toxic invasion of our homeland with its attendant economically and socially disruptive aftereffects have elicited a strong response both from the Diaspora and the homeland. It’s interesting that just three days after its original press release, the American Embassy in Armenia is quoted by the news.am website as stating, “Monsanto products have been sold in Armenia since 2006…” I did some poking around, and as of this writing, no one seems to know what these products are. The Embassy also said, “The decision on which products and services to use, if any, is ultimately up to Armenia’s farmers and agribusinesses.”
Right… once the pressure is on and the snowball effect of neighbors’ use of toxics forcing others to use Monsanto’s seeds picks up momentum, no family farmer will be able to resist the pressure to relent and use Monsanto’s poisons.
Speak out forcefully against the invasion of our homeland by Monsanto. Clearly, the heat is on, judging by the Embassy’s hedging, and that’s a good thing! Our lobbying groups should take a stand, perhaps cooperating with the numerous organizations that are fighting these battles. Let’s not allow our compatriots to, effectively, become Monsanto’s serfs barely more than a century after they were freed from such servitude to Kurdish and Turkish local chieftains.
In Armenia, the next time Monsanto shows up, demonstrations featuring pitchforks and torches should be organized!
*Frankenfoods is a term used to describe foodstuffs made with genetically modified plants and animals whose safety is suspect to many observers.
What Is a GMO?
Since GMO is a term that is inseparable from Monsanto, I thought it deserved to be defined to help with grasping the points made in my article this week.
As I understand it, GMOs – genetically modified organisms — come in three categories which I’ll name traditional, accelerated, and weird.
A “traditional” GMO is nothing more than the product of selective breeding. Humans have been doing this since we began farming. By saving the seed of the biggest apple, or sweetest grape, or the most drought tolerant wheat, over time we bred the varieties of plants that best suit our needs. We’ve done the same with animals. Cows, dogs, and horses are great examples of the same process. Think of cows that are best for milking rather than barbecuing, dogs that are best for hunting rather than shepherding, and horses that pull plows rather than win races. Effectively what we have done is to modify the genetic makeup of these organisms over time to suit our needs.
The “accelerated” GMO is essentially the same as the traditional, except that we leap-frog over the generations of breeding by modifying the genetic makeup of the organism directly. We can do this nowadays because in many cases we know which gene does what. In the above examples, we would need to know which gene enlarges the apple, sweetens the grape, and protects the wheat. We’re not quite that far along in fiddling with animals genes, but we’re not far (though I may be behind the times on this point).
The “weird” GMO is just that. This is where someone may decide to put a bird gene in a soybean plant (I am making this combination up) to get a certain desired result in the soybean that is “better” in some way. Or, corn seeds might be modified in such a way that they are resistant to herbicides that would otherwise kill them.