Monsanto aims high, while others hit below the belt

posted in: News | 5

Monsanto has had a few press releases lately that show they are working hard to change both their image and their products. The biggest by far is their three-point commitment to growing yields sustainably.

Develop better seeds – Monsanto will double yield in its three core crops of corn, soybeans and cotton by 2030, compared to a base year of 2000. The company will also establish a $10 million grant designed to accelerate breakthrough public sector research in wheat and rice yield.

Conserve resources – Monsanto will develop seeds that will reduce by one-third the amount of key resources required to grow crops by the year 2030. The company will also join with others to address habitat loss and water quality in agriculturally important areas.

Help improve farmers’ lives – The company will help improve the lives of farmers, including an additional five million people in resource-poor farm families by 2020.

The first two are good, but we expect improved seed from a seed company. I’m particularly interested in the third point. The press release tells us that “Monsanto also is committed to sharing its expertise in a way that gives [resource poor farmers] access to modern agricultural technology.” For example, “drought-tolerant maize for Africa that will be made available to farmers royalty-free.” Players include AATF, CIMMYT, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and government researchers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa. “Monsanto will also work with public institutions to develop products for non-commercial crops that are important in some world areas, including cassava, cowpea and papaya.” Some comments on the press release can be found in the NY Times Monsanto Seeks Big Increase in Crop Yields.

Improving the world’s food supply and keeping things as sustainable as possible is going to be difficult, and will require everyone working together. The Financial Times has a two part article about the history of the last Green Revolution and explains why the next one will be so much more difficult (see image below). Monsanto is simply one of the few organizations with the tools and the funds to make things happen, and with the correct dialogues, the advances will be good for people and for the environment.

Of course, the company isn’t perfect, and setting high goals isn’t the same as meeting them – but it’s time that GM opponents let go of the whole “Monstersanto” schitk. We need to have adult conversations about the real issues surrounding genetic engineering, not just sling insults at one company.

Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear in Vanity Fair is exactly the sort of nonconstructive criticism that I’m talking about. They start with tales of Monsanto’s goons going after defenseless farmers. I’ve seen these stories multiple times, but always in conjunction with an anti-GM agenda, so I’m hesitant to beleive them 100%. I’m sure there is at least some truth there, but I have to consider the famous Percy Schmeiser case, where the poor farmer was found by Canadian courts to be, ahem, less than perfect. I bring it up because GM opponents are always mentioning him, while not knowing or caring about the whole story.

The article states: “Some farmers don’t fully understand that they aren’t supposed to save Monsanto’s seeds for next year’s planting. Others do, but ignore the stipulation rather than throw away a perfectly usable product.” So, VF thinks that farmers are either stupid or criminal. “The seeds look identical; only a laboratory analysis can show the difference.” Actually, it’s pretty easy to tell if a seed is herbicide resistant or not. Let it germinate and spray it down. If the plant is getting eaten by pests, it’s not BT. True, you have to plant the seed, but I guarantee that the majority of farmers understand all of this. They might not know exactly how biotech traits are created, but they know how the traits work once they are in the plants.

Then there’s the whole issue of “life shouldn’t be patented”. Perhaps not, but patents are the way innovators are rewarded in a capitalistic system, as I explain in Gene flow, IP, and the terminator. China has refused to accept US style patent law, and chooses to have public funds develop new crop lines and research genetic engineering instead of leaving it to corporations. Why doesn’t the US move to this type of system? I think it’s because people are too distracted by fighting the wrong things instead of working to elect a government that won’t let lobbyists tell them what to do.

VF laments that Monsanto is buying competitors, reducing the number of varieties available to farmers. Be that as it may, this practice isn’t exactly limited to Monsanto, and the competitors did not have to sell. Almost all companies today are parts of huge conglomerates, and I don’t think we can legitimately blame part of a company for something another part did decades ago. I think we have to look at them separately – I’m not going to reject Kashi now that it is owned by Kellogg’s, or reject Naked Juice because it is owned by Pepsi. Instead, I’ll choose the healthiest brands (for the few pre-made foods I do buy), sending the message with my $ to the company that this is what I want.

I’m not saying that Monsanto (along with just about all corporations) doesn’t have unethical business practices, but we need to be realistic. Does it make sense to condemn one company for working within the established system (including that of patenting) or would it be more appropriate to work to change that system? In the system we have, corporations are legally obligated to make money for their stockholders. They are not obligated to be good global citizens – but many are trying.

For most of its history Monsanto was a chemical giant, producing some of the most toxic substances ever created, residues from which have left us with some of the most polluted sites on earth. Yet in a little more than a decade, the company has sought to shed its polluted past and morph into something much different and more far-reaching—an “agricultural company” dedicated to making the world “a better place for future generations.”

Monsanto’s crop group is functionally separate from its rBGH and chemical groups (EDIT: many of which have since been sold off). Yes, there is overlap in that Roundup Ready depends on Roundup but I’m sure Kellogg’s uses much of the same company infrastructure to make, move, and market both Smorz and Organic Promise cereals. To me, Nestle has given consumers as much or more reason for boycott than Monsanto. Nestle’s history includes pushing infant formula in places where contaminated water has condemned thousands of infants to death. If we are to blame all of Nestle’s subsidiaries for this evil doing, we shouldn’t buy anything from Munch Bunch, Perrier, Lean Cuisine, and Mighty Dog, just to name a few. Some people avoid packaged food – but plenty of people who call Monsanto evil aren’t so choosy.

Parts of this post were originally a comment at Ethicurean to a post that tipped me off to the VF article.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!