Popular Science just published a profile on agribusiness giant Monsanto, looking at the nitty gritty of how the company develops and produces its genetically modified seeds. Monsanto obviously has reasons to avoid the press; continued bans on its products by European countries and news of the company’s lawsuits against thousands of small farmers and antitrust problems with the government have certainly not endeared it to the public. Read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or watch the Oscar-nominated Food Inc. and you’ll probably come away with the impression that Monsanto is run by Hitler and Satan’s illicit love child. Still, the company, worth an estimated $44 billion, dominates the marketplace, owning 90 percent of all transgenic crops in the world.
Monsanto begins the process by testing hundreds of plants and animals for desirable traits (in this case, omega-3 fatty acids for soybeans), inserting the desired traits via bacteria that trick the plant into accepting its genes, and testing each seed in one of the 108 climate-controlled chambers on the 1.5 million square-foot St. Louis campus.
A marvel of modern technology, yes. Monsanto promises crops with higher yields, resistance to disease and extra nutrients. These all sound like good things, but to get at the heart of why there is so much animosity directed at Monsanto, we have to head back to 1980 and the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty. Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty was a genetic engineer at General Electric who tried to get a patent for bacteria that broke down crude oil. He was rebuffed by the Patent Office but won an appeal with the Supreme Court, which set the precedent that genetically modified organisms could indeed be patented.
So began Monsanto’s rise after starting as a chemical company that developed both DDT and Agent Orange. Monsanto developed seeds that were resistant to its weedkiller, Roundup. You could plant these seeds, spray the whole area with Roundup and your Monsanto-engineered plants would be the only things left standing.
That’s where we come to our second important court case, Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser. Percy Schmeiser is a Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto, who said he was planting its Roundup-resistant canola seeds illegally. Scheiser maintains that Monsanto’s seeds, widely used in the area, polluted his own seeds, resulting in a high concentration of Roundup-resistant canola plants on his farm. The implications of Monsanto’s successful lawsuit were huge. First, it showed that Monsanto could essentially randomly test any farm and if it found any of its genetically engineered plants growing, no matter how they got there, it could sue the farmer. It also put a spotlight on the stranglehold Monsanto had on farmers who could now no longer save their own seeds but rather had to buy new seeds every year from Monsanto, along with pesticides, weed killers and all of the other equipment that went with Monsanto’s very integrated crop program.
As Monsanto continues its global expansion, its private ownership over a huge percentage of the global crop supply has wide implications (see the video below). Say you’re a poor farmer in India or Africa. In the past, you have planted crops the way people have done it since agriculture was first discovered; planting seeds, harvesting crops and then saving the seeds for the next growing season.
All of a sudden, Monsanto owns nearly all of the seeds on the market. You have seeds of your own but TV ads are telling you can yield much more cotton with Monsanto’s seeds. All of a sudden, you are trying to grow seeds without the proper conditions to do so, using pesticides you weren’t using before and having to buy new seeds at the end of the year. Its easy to see how a poor, illiterate farmer in an undeveloped nation could all of sudden find himself in a hopeless, indentured servitude to a comapany like Monsanto. And what if, like in Percy Schmeiser’s case, Monsanto’s seeds cross-pollinate and take over the majority of fields in the world? What if a handful of private companies, the biggest one by far being Monsanto, essentially owned every seed on Earth? In 100 years, could private companies own every kind genetically “superior” crop and farm animal, from fast-growing pigs to vitamin-enriched corn?
Questions like these aren’t too far-fetched. When we envision our ideal society, we have to think about these fundamental questions. Which areas of our life do we want privatized and which do we want to keep public? What is okay for companies to own and what is off limits? Earth’s population is estimated to hit 7 billion people this year. How do we feed all of these people if not through genetically engineered crops? The answer is probably that genetically altered crops will more or less be necessary, especially if the Earth’s population keeps growing. People have been breeding crops for certain traits since agriculture first started. Whether we want all of the world’s farmers beholden to a single corporation, however, is probably an easier question to answer.
Photo: Kevin Lallier, Flickr, CC