The massacre of Apple Lincoln

Pat Mooney
A tyranny of sameness is sweeping the earth. Why? Because the chemical companies have discovered gold in genes.


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Lincoln was assassinated. So were Washington and Jefferson. In fact all three Lincolns were wiped out. In the end it wasn’t so much an assassination as a massacre, with 6,121 of the 7,098 American apple varieties that blossomed last century now extinct. The same has happened to American pears. Almost 88 per cent of the 2,683 varieties which our grandparents enjoyed have vanished along with the Lincoln, the Washington and the Jefferson apples.



Fruit aficionados in Europe might think this no great loss. After all, Europe has always had greater genetic diversity of apples. But the apple killers have crossed the Atlantic. In 1874, Belgium was Europe’s top pear-breeding country and boasted over one thousand varieties of pear. Today just three pear varieties dominate the country’s commercial crop. Golden Delicious over-runs half of Belgium’s orchards and just five apple varieties have taken over where once nearly 600 varieties thrived.

But the mass extinctions of fruit pale next to the murderous uniformity at the vegetable counter. Today 97 per cent of the vast range of vegetable varieties that adorned American dinner tables at the turn of the century have disappeared forever. Similar estimates are made for Western Europe.

Animal species are being made extinct worldwide: pandas in China, whales in the Pacific; elephants in Africa. And rightly there is a storm of protest aimed at saving them. But our own food supply is being decimated around us and hardly a hand is being raised.

Kiwi fruit and pizzas notwithstanding, a vast sameness has swept the supermarkets of Europe, North America and Australasia. Diversity on the shelves is an illusion. The local grocery in Brandon, Manitoba, sports 12,000 food products and flaunts 56 brands of breakfast cereal. Yet the gaudy boxes hold nothing more than wheat, rice, maize and oats. Three-quarters of human cereal consumption comes from only four crops.

Within these crops also, variety is being wiped away. Most cereals that used to grow in industrialized countries had dozens or even hundreds of different varieties of seed. But now fewer than five varieties predominate for each crop and even these are ‘kissing cousins’ of one another, genetically almost identical. Our wheat and our maize have experienced the same fate that befell our apples and pears.

In less than a century, market pressures for uniformity have slaughtered crop diversity. Machine harvesting demands uniform crops; food processing insists on standardized products. Each has contributed to the massive genetic erosion of the food chain.

When the demand for uniformity forces farmers to plant new varieties of cereal, the seeds from the old variety just get eaten. That is extinction. Because the good old seeds aren’t around any more, plant breeders have fewer and fewer breeding options. Where they could have taken genes from an old disease-resistant variety and inserted them into a disease-vulnerable, high-yielding new variety, the old genes can no longer be found.

Kissing cousins
Every year genetic uniformity contributes to crop wipe-outs. Famine hit Ireland in the 1 840s because of the genetic sameness in the Irish potato. When a new disease attacked the US maize crop in 1970, the kissing cousins in the fields had no genetic defence: farmers overall lost a billion dollars and some unlucky ones lost their farms as well. Two years later the Russian wheat crop was halved for want of genetic resistance.

Most of the world’s remaining food genes are in the Third World which is where most food species come from —though the apple is actually one of the few exceptions, having originated in northern Eurasia. Wheat and barley sprang from the Near East and Ethiopia, as did coffee and many millets and sorghum. Central America is home to maize, tomatoes and cocoa. Potatoes come from the Andes and most of our salad vegetables hail from Asia or the Mediterranean.

When Northern crops crash up against a new pest or a new processing requirement, breeders hightail it back to the gene pool in search of the genetic variability that may help them. Every year dozens of plant-collecting expeditions comb the fields and markets of the Third World searching for lost diversity.

There can be gold in those genes. Third World genes contributed about $20 million to the value of the American maize crop in the mid-1980s and some corporate breeders estimate this will rise to about $6,000 million in the coming decades. Individual genes valued at $50 million each have been inserted into California tomatoes and Oregon wheat. And the value of a distant relative of maize has been estimated by one company at $1,000 million dollars. Yet the Third World countries that these genes came from have not received a cent for them. All have flowed from South to North free of charge.

Once collected, Third World genes are stored in company vaults or government gene banks waiting to be incorporated into seeds patented and controlled by the multinational companies which monopolize the patents. In the midst of the global gene drain, more than 1,000 small family seed houses have either been bought out or come under the control of some of the world’s largest chemical companies. The new seedspeople of the 1990s are Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz of Switzerland; Shell, ICI and Unilever of the UK; Rhone-Poulenc and LaFarge Coppee of France; Monsanto, Dow and Upjohn of the US.

Big business
The interest of chemical companies in monopolizing seeds and genes is hardly accidental. These same multinationals also dominate the world’s crop-chemical business. They foresee a huge market ahead.

Already it is more lucrative to breed pesticide-resistant crops than pest-resistant crops: it is cheaper and faster to adapt the plant to the chemicals than adapt the chemicals to the plant. While companies talk about sustainable agriculture, they create plant varieties that can withstand being sprayed by their most virulent herbicides. That means a bigger market for their chemicals.

The chemical companies are also betting that the Greenhouse Effect will make them a killing. One thing we know for certain about global warming is that —whether fields get drier or damper, whether temperatures soar or only fluctuate — our crops will have to adjust quickly. An altered climate will require altered crops as new pests, diseases and growing conditions force breeders to scramble for new genetic options. Chemical companies are assuming that nations will turn desperately to the creation of new crops — like the recently produced soybean, which has been bred with genes from the flounder fish to increase its cold tolerance.

Patents on life-forms are the key to this corporate strategy. If you control the first link in the food chain — the seed — you are well on the way to controlling the whole food chain. With this in mind the genetics-supply industry has approached the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations at which all biological processes and products are assumed to be patentable. Third World countries that attempt to slap their own patents on life-forms have been attacked by the industry on the grounds that they are unfairly blocking corporate interests.

If this argument sticks — and it looks like it might — the only innovations that will remain unprotected will be those made by the rural poor in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The seeds of Third World farmers will be ripe for rip-off by big multinationals, to be incorporated into their own patented varieties. In this way a handful of companies in the North are edging towards having a monopoly over the world’s genetic pool.

Losing the war
But as political battles rage around conference halls, the war for diversity may be collapsing in the fields. Even the gene pools in the South are drying up. The Green Revolution that swept away Europe’s diversity at the turn of the century is now taking its toll on the Third World. Where 30.000 rice varieties once flourished in South-East Asia, one single kind now occupies two-thirds of the land. The incredible eggplants of the Sudan have succumbed to the US-bred ‘Black Beauty’ and the vast array of beets in Turkey have been vanquished by the ‘Detroit Globe’ beet.

For more than 10 years voluntary organizations around the world have been working to collect and conserve genetic diversity in community seed banks. From Java to Iowa, dedicated farmers and gardeners have been making a mighty effort to secure our future food supply. This is better than nothing. But extinction is forever and it doesn’t do the world much good to save a seed for a year or two. A programme of concerted political action is needed which will preserve the world’s genetic resources in a systematic way.

Apples it now seems — along with some other fruit — contain a substance which may help us fight off skin cancer caused by ozone depletion, and lung cancer caused by tobacco smoke. Scientists are beating the bushes for diversity again. Let’s hope they are not too late. But even two apples a day may not keep Ciba-Geigy away and unless we act fast the prayer ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ could soon become a prayer to Shell Oil.