The most striking imagery in the documentary Genetically Modified Children, by filmmakers Juliette Igier and Stephanie Lebrun, is the children suffering from incurable diseases purported to be from GMOs. This is by design, since it pulls on the emotional strings of anyone viewing. Yet, the heart of the film is something any of us can relate to: economic desperation.
By Rick Paulas
The film opens with the story of Ricardo Rivera, regional head of an electrical company in Argentina. He’s noticed that many of the farmers on his route can’t pay their bills, and discovers that it’s because they have sick children at home to care for. “We are all contaminated,” Rivera says, talking about the pesticides that have been used for decades in the region’s tobacco fields.
“We are all contaminated,” Rivera says, talking about the pesticides that have been used for decades in the region’s tobacco fields.
While the story of the tobacco farmer children is the core of the documentary, to me, the most striking moment was that felt by a fully-grown, healthy tobacco farmer.
Midway through, the filmmakers introduce us to a cooperative where farmers sell their annual crop. There, each tobacco bale is evaluated by the color of its leaves, its size, and its texture. But as the norms of what tobacco is considered “the best” have changed over the years, so have the payments. “Now, only the use of chemical products insure good results,” says the narrator.
One farmer has brought his year’s haul in for sale, but his crop wasn’t grown using the same pesticides that the larger farms around use. In comparison, it looks dark and flimsy. Thirty seconds of evaluation later, the farmer finds out how much his year of labor is worth. He looks at his receipt, and walks away disheartened. “He has just earned $1,000 Euros for a year’s work,” explains the narrator.
The farmer shakes his head and gets into his truck, nothing left to do.
This scene is at the core of why the argument around GMOs has to change.
GMOs are a tough conversation for the liberal set. On the one hand, claims of rigorous scientific testing, stating that GMOs are safe; according to the New York Times, “about 90 percent of scientists believe G.M.O.s are safe,” in addition to endorsements by “the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization.” For a mindset that prides itself in Science with a capital S—particularly now, as fact has also become a political battleground, most dumbly exemplified in the climate change conversation—it makes sense that many liberals are not only fine with GMOs, but get downright angry if you suggest otherwise.
Where this sentiment gets sticky is with the rise of corporate conglomerates like Monsanto and Bayer. Due to the strength of current intellectual property laws, GMO-producing multinational corporations—the so-called “Big 6” are the aforementioned two, plus BASF, Dupont, Dow Chemical Company, and Syngenta—have been allowed to dictate the lives of the world’s farmers. Frankly, that’s what their products are intended to do.
Simply examine the mechanisms of Monsanto’s Roundup brand. In 1970, a chemist discovered glyphosate, a herbicide that kills weeds, but also kills the crops around them. You can see how this would be problematic to cash crop farmers. But, in 1996, that all changed. Monsanto announced its first line of Roundup Ready products, genetically engineered to resist glyphosate. Suddenly, farmers not only had an herbicide to kill weeds, but plants that wouldn’t be killed by the herbicide. Perfect corporate synergy. Since, Monsanto and friends have developed an army of seeds and plants that work in the same way, creating a vertical monopoly that forces farmers to buy both the herbicides and the seeds, or else.
Leaving aside the potential health impacts of such seed monoculture, consider the implications of these products. As time’s ticking clock marches forever forward, and capitalism’s innovation factory searches for more, better, stronger versions of perfectly fine methods from the past, so does the necessity to utilize such innovations to stay one step ahead of the competition. In the capitalistic race to the bottom, farmers have no choice but to use the herbicides, and then also the seeds that are resistant to them, or risk financial ruin.
This decision, despite the World Health Organization announcing that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. This decision, despite their children living painful, short lives while suffering from harrowing, incurable diseases. If farmers are financially dependent on GMO crops to sustain themselves, they’ll continue taking the risk. What other choice do they have?
The film ends with two lines spoken by the narrator: “According to the World Health Organization, 3 million people are poisoned by pesticides every year. Agri-chemicals are worth $40 billion dollars a year to the multinationals that produce them.”
It’s a cost-benefit analysis made between people and corporations. And as long as anti-GMO liberals continue to focus on the scientific and emotional arguments—as opposed to the one provided by examine the pure economic incentive that the farmers are reliant on—they’ll forever be stuck on the sidelines, watching the world poison itself for the benefit of the few CEOs.
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