Why Monsanto Fails at Sustainability

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.

Related stories:

Is Monsanto Responsible for 200, 000 Farmer Suicides?

Monsanto Wins Worst Company of 2011 Award

Monsanto Gets $2.5 Million Penalty for Misleading Cotton Farmers

Photo credit: Christian Fischer


Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra6 years ago

Thank you Joel, for Sharing this!

Charli S.
Charlotte S7 years ago

We must push for CLEAR labeling. I don't think it 's safe to eat this crap and yet our government doesn't think it's IMPORTANT for the items to be labeled. You now those cereals your kids are eating with all the healthy "grains" probably have GM grains in them. Maybe your grand babies will be mutated too.

Write your legislators and tell them you want product labeling. I want to now the source of every item that goes into the production of a product. I want to know where the products is created, grown, etc. I am very worried about the damage we're doing to our bodies and our earth with these "genetically enhanced" foods. Europe does it, why can't we? http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/biotechnology/gmfood/labelling_en.htm

I guess because our government is owned not by the people but by big businesses. If our elected officials were barred from voting on any issue that was a conflict of interest (due to money they have collected for elections) most would just have to sit there doing noting. It's time to take back our government. Register, Investigate each candidate, and then vote as if your life depended on it because it does.

Vicky Pitchford
Vicky P7 years ago

interesting, I agree they are a horrible company, very sneaky

Charli S.
Charlotte S7 years ago

They must be stopped before ALL our natural plants, bugs and seeds are Frankenstein. All they care about is $$$$$$$$$. I will not rest until this company gets out of the "monster seed" business.

Jean  L. C.
Jean Corcoran7 years ago


Richard B.
Richard B7 years ago

The current centralized production doesn't work. Why? Precisely because it is centralized. Big corporations want us to believe they will be around forever. Too big to fail. Sounds familiar? High tech (under the centralized model) means the company assumes all development costs, but gets all profits. To monetize these developments costs, intellectual property laws are used. This means high barriers of access. When the dollar will reach 1/1,000,000,000 of its current value, (or even before) guess what will happen? That intellectual capital will sit in a safe somewhere, unused, out of reach of humanity. Like a bout of amnesia just happened. Many things can be done today the 'low tech' way, knowledge that be readily transferred between persons. Check out the Low-tech Magazine: http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/

rita b.
Rita B7 years ago

I disagree that genetically modified crops can ever be safe even if a more responsible company than Monsanto were to grow them. First of all there is no way to stop them from contaiminating the fields of non-gmo crops because pollen can be spread by wind,insects etc.

How would they be tested to make sure that they do not undermine human or animal health? The fact that the industry has oppossed labeling shows that they know that the public does not want GMO food. Also, they have already proved to be an economic disaster for farmers on many fronts.
Diversity is the answer to growing better seeds. Read Where Our Food Comes from by Gary Nabhan about the Russian scientist Nikolay Vavilov who traveled the world to find diverse seeds and sacrificed his life along with other Russian scientists to protect them. Diversity, organic and permaculture - working with Nature will solve problems and open more doors. Genetic modification will create many more problems than it solves.

Dan B.
Dan Brook7 years ago

If Monsanto were a person, it would have been imprisoned a long time ago.

Buy Organic! Protect your health and the environment.


Chelsea M.
Chelsea M7 years ago

very confused.

monica r.
monica r7 years ago

You're eating GM food every day. Do you know where it is? We MUST have labeling so we can choose for ourselves! Monsanto fights this labeling of course. On the rare occasions I buy cow milk, I buy non-rGBH milk. On the label is a disclaimer "there's no difference between rGBH and non-rGBH milk." That disclaimer is there because Monsanto insisted on it.

All consumers have a right to know how their food was made. This goes for halal, too, where animals having their throat slit while fully conscious (and prayed over to allah) might not be okay with you, but on airlines, school lunches, and even some fast food venues, or all butterball turkeys also, this is done and you aren't being told about it.

MonSATANo will kill all plant life on the planet if that terminator gene gets into wild plant species, and since the wind carries their "round-up ready" into even organic crops, how the heck will we contain it to a farm field???