The Union of Concerned Scientists recently put together a list of ways in which Monsanto hurts sustainable agriculture. Agricultural reform is a significant issue right now, since modern farming techniques and the logistics of food supply are major contributors to climate change, food production is struggling to keep up with some growing populations, and the secondary effects of pesticide and herbicide use are a long-documented problem.
Though some people might not like me to say this, I think genetic modification could achieve many of these goals, and more. After all, through selective breeding, our species has customized strains of plant crops and livestock for more than 10,000 years. The version of corn which so intrigued the Spanish on their “visits” to the New World was significantly different than the unaltered grass, called “teosinte,” which the Indigenous Americans had bred it from. Genetic manipulation is nothing new — we’ve just gained some new tools.
I think those who issue a blanket condemnation on the very idea of genetic modification are motivated from a simple lack of understanding of basic biology, and a sort of “sympathetic magic” superstition. There are a lot of pseudoscientific myths on GM and organics. A tomato designed for surviving overnight frost may have gotten the gene from an Arctic fish, but it’s not going to taste “fishy” as a result, nor will it infect you with the same gene or cause mutations when you eat it. DNA is DNA.
So, I’m cautiously optimistic about the potential for GM crops in a sustainable future. Does this mean I’ll give Monsanto my business? No way!
The seed giant’s reprehensible environmental and human rights record puts the lie to its vaunted goal of sustainability. Instead of decreasing reliance on poisonous chemicals, they’ve simply made us reliant on their own chemicals. By developing crops that are strongly resistant to their own weed-killer, Roundup, they’ve gotten a lock on the herbicide market. In response to the near-exclusive use of one chemical, “super-weeds” have been popping up, requiring even heavier use of the same product.
Monsanto products are also designed to produce high yields, so long as they receive the unreasonably high doses of artificial fertilizers they depend on. But run-off from artificial fertilizers is not only poisonous to the environment, the process by which they’re made (the Bosch-Haber process) is energy-intensive and produces a tremendous quantity of emissions worldwide.
Least sustainable of all, Monsanto insists customers purchase new seed every year. Where for all of farming history, each crop would include the seeds to be saved and planted the following year, Monsanto sells its seeds for a one-time use.
So far they’ve used legal contracts to enforce this. But Monsanto purchased the Delta & Pine Land company in 2007, which is the company that developed terminator seed technology. Due to a PR backlash, they’ve held off on using it. But imagine a future where the only source of seeds was a multi-national corporation, rather than the plants themselves. What a grotesque twisting of the cycle of life.
The problem with Monsanto products isn’t that they’re genetically modified. It’s that they’re genetically modified to be worse in most ways than the crops we already had. The thing is, there’s no profit in sustainability. Creating the perfect crop and then giving it to farmers who never have to buy anything from them again isn’t a very likely outcome for private enterprise. Only public research has an incentive to do that.
I’d like to see governments help small and large farmers alike find the best, most sustainable use of their land. Tried and true methods developed over centuries could work alongside specially-designed varieties for difficult environmental conditions. The seeds of all varieties (traditional and GM) should be made available to farmers, who should only have to buy them once. Poly-culture farms should become the norm as they once were, and artificial fertilizers should be effectively eliminated entirely.
Monsanto’s goal is to make farmers dependent on their products, so they have to keep buying them — seeds, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers — forever. What’s dangerous about their advertising propaganda is that some of the pie-in-the-sky claims they make might actually be true. At least theoretically, GM could be part of a sustainable future. What’s left unsaid is that Monsanto won’t be.
Photo credit: Christian Fischer