Biotechnology or Agroecology? The Monsanto Debate from Both Sides

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October 12 marked the second March Against Monsanto this year, with actions planned in 52 countries and over 400 cities. Monsanto, which owns 90% of the world’s genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), is perhaps most famous for its production and supplying of Agent Orange to the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange, which contained a toxic dioxin compound, killed approximately 400,000 people and caused approximately 500,000 cases of birth defects. Other notable products include DDT, banned in the U.S. in 1972, and Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), controversial for its effects on dairy cows and humans.

Fast forward to 2013 and Monsanto’s corporate self-image hardly resembles its disconcerting history; now it insists it is one of the good guys, humbly trying to feed the planet and help farmers thrive. Sifting through Monsanto‘s descriptions of itself, it emerges as a sort of misunderstood bully that really wants to get along with everyone.

But, with a growing public awareness of GM food risks, biotechnology, mono-cultures and food (in)security, Monsanto faces a public relations crisis. Along with Walmart, BP, Apple, et al, it is a corporation people love to hate.

How does Monsanto respond to the charges made against it? And are the charges substantiated? The following are a few select comparisons of both sides of the debate.


Monsanto Causes Farmer Suicides

An Open Letter from World Scientists to All Governments Concerning Genetically Modified Organisms claims that “It is on account of increasing corporate monopoly operating under the globalised economy that the poor are getting poorer and hungrier. Family farmers around the world have been driven to destitution and suicide”. The U.K. Daily Mail estimates that 250,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives “as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops.” Seed activist and physicist Vandana Shiva explains in her book Earth Democracy, “When Monsanto first introduced Bt cotton in India in 2002, the farmers lost 1 billion rupees due to crop failure. Instead of 1,500 kilos per acre as promised by the company, the harvest was as low as 200 kilos per acre. …The crisis of suicides shows how the survival of small farmers is incompatible with the seed monopolies of global corporations.”

Monsanto claims that “higher suicide rates among Indian farmers long predate the introduction of biotech cotton in India”, and that “Bt cotton farmers in India are experiencing their best economic benefits ever.” Moreover, it claims that “a variety of third-party studies have proven that personal debt is the historical reason behind an Indian farmer’s decision to commit suicide, not biotech seed.” Yet, if we consider that the biotech seeds played a major role in creating said debt, Monsanto’s attempt to partition the causal relationship between seeds and suicides flounders. It may be unfair to say that Monsanto directly causes farmer suicides, but it’s attempt to absolve itself of any responsibility is equally unfair.


Monsanto Uses “Terminator Technology”

The Open Letter from World Scientists states that “in order to protect their patents, corporations are continuing to develop terminator technologies that genetically engineer harvested seeds not to germinate, despite worldwide opposition from farmers and civil society at large.” This claim is not made specifically against Monsanto, and indeed, Monsanto states that it “has never commercialized a biotech trait that resulted in sterile – or “Terminator” – seeds. Sharing the concerns of small landholder farmers, Monsanto made a commitment in 1999 not to commercialize sterile seed technology in food crops.”

Yet, Vandana Shiva claimed this year that “The ultimate seeds of suicide is [sic] Monsanto’s patented technology to create sterile seeds. (Called “Terminator technology”).” It seems that the misconception here is that, although Monsanto holds patents to terminator seeds, it no longer puts them into circulation.


Monsanto Suppresses GMO Labelling and Research

March Against Monsanto claims that “Monsanto has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to obstruct all labelling attempts; they also suppress any research containing results not in their favor.” The Union of Concerned Scientists claims that “multibillion-dollar agricultural corporations, including Monsanto, have fought independent research on their genetically engineered crops. They have often refused to provide independent scientists with seeds, or they’ve set restrictive conditions that severely limit research options.”

Monsanto’s side of the story, again, is quite different: “We oppose current initiatives to mandate labelling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks. Such mandatory labelling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.” Moreover, Monsanto states that it “fully supports research by the public sector research community with commercial products and fully endorses comparisons with competitors’ commercial products.”

Monsanto even brags about its relationship with universities that test its products and produce results Monsanto does not agree with, and it continues to work with them in the spirit of openness and scientific rigor.


Monsanto and Bureaucrats are Co-Conspirators

This is a claim that is made about many corporations; governments and big business are in bed together. March Against Monsanto claims that “in the USA, the revolving door between Monsanto employees, government positions, and regulatory authorities has led to key Monsanto figures occupying positions of power at the FDA and EPA .”

Monsanto’s rebuke: “Governments have occasionally hired a person who – at some point in his or her career – worked at Monsanto or at a company that was a vendor. Instead of the obvious conclusion that these are experienced and highly skilled individuals though, critics will suggest it is instead a quite complicated, global governmental conspiracy.”

These are mere samples of the seemingly endless contradictory information concerning the great GMO debate and Monsanto. Could it be that the truth is somewhere in the middle? Or ought citizens exercise the precautionary principle, disbelieve Monsanto outright, and judge it by its dark history and its desire to protect its billions of dollars of annual profits? Whatever the answer may be, the lesson here is that people should not believe claims made by either side at face value. If we care about the food we eat and how it affects people, animals, and our planet, we will all become investigators and find the answers for ourselves. The task is daunting, but isn’t it worth it?

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