Monsanto: The Anti-GMO Boogeyman

Time for one last post in this vague series about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In it I am going to commit the ultimate sin and defend Monsanto. Or rather, I want to do for it what I did for organic farming. I’m not interested in attacking organic farming but I would like to shed light on what organic farming is and what it isn’t so that informed decisions can be made based on facts and not ideals. Similarly, I don’t actually want to defend Monsanto, but I do think it is worth while to dispel some myths that surround the company; Monsanto, like everything else in this debate, should be judged on the facts and not on myths and memes.

If you put the M word into Google your first hit will be, then it’ll be the Wikipedia entry and then it’ll be a torrent of anger, bile, accusations and fear. If you keep scrolling occasionally you will see some good journalism like this strong piece from Forbes countering Neil Young (I love his music but the man’s an idiot). Generally, though, you’re going to be awash in anti-GMO propaganda.

There are certain accusations that come up again and again and I’m going to look at a few of them here. Let’s begin with “Monsanto only sells crops that don’t produce viable seeds forcing you to buy fresh every year”. There are many reasons why this is nonsense. Right off the bat: farmers are not idiots. They are some of the hardest nosed businessmen out there. If they are buying Monsanto seed every year you can, well, bet the farm that they’re doing so because it is how they will make the most money. No one has a gun to their head, they’re free to buy whatever seed they like from whomever they like, they’re not slaves.

The main reason that the accusation doesn’t hold up, however, is that Monsanto has never in their history produced such a crop. It just doesn’t exist. Never has. In the late 1990s Monsanto bought a company, Delta Pine and Land Company. One of the many products that company had developed was a type of seed that could only be propagated once. We don’t know if the board of Monsanto had intended to use the technology, that doesn’t seem to be provable one way or the other, but we do know for certain that Monsanto never developed or sold any such seed. Any claim that Monsanto traps farmers in such a way is either misinformed or an outright lie.

Where there may be a kernel of truth here is that when you buy seed from Monsanto you have to sign an agreement. This agreement says that farmers must not keep the seed from the crops, they must buy new every year. That’s what’s known as ‘business’. Someone has a product, someone else wants that product so they pay for it. If a farmer breaks that agreement then Monsanto can and will sue them, as is their right. They have never sued anyone for growing Round Up ready crops that have blown in from neighbouring farms; it hasn’t happened.

What you may have heard of is a Canadian farmer by the name of Percy Schmeiser. In 1997 Mr Schmeiser found that some of the canola on his farm, particularly that near the road, survived when sprayed with herbicide. His land had caught some seeds from a neighbouring farm and Monsanto’s GMO canola had been happily growing alongside his own without his knowledge. Monsanto didn’t care. It happens regularly, there is nothing to be gained from them in pursuing legal action. However, the following year Mr Schmeiser saved the seed from the GMO canola and planted his entire farm with it. This clearly infringed on Monsanto’s patents and he was successfully sued by them. Ever since, Schmeiser has been the poster child ruddy faced farmer beaten down by The Man but the fact is that he broke the law.

Another common anti-Monsanto trope is the one about them stealing an ancient cultivar of wheat from Indian farmers, patenting it and then banning them from using it in an act referred to as biopiracy. Again, this never happened. There is a very old cultivar of wheat in India called Nap Hal that was developed over the centuries by traditional methods (all of which, by the by, are a way of genetically modifying food but without any of the control). This variety of wheat is very low in gluten which makes it particularly useful in India where it can be used to make naan, chapati and other flatbreads.

Unilever, who at the time had nothing to do with Monsanto, took a sample of this wheat and started developing a version that would grow well in Europe, the resultant cultivar was, indeed, patented by them. That patent was in Europe, though, and was meaningless in India, not that the new variety would even have grown well in India. Monsanto entered the fray when they bought Unilever and acquired the patent along with it. At that point, in the early 2000s, Monsanto was withdrawing from the wheat market and never sold the wheat variety in question.

By far the most commonly reported allegation is that Monsanto is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Indian farmers. Some report there is a farmer killing themselves every 30 minutes, some claim it is 250,000 in the last decade. The idea is that the Bt cotton they grow fails and leaves them financially devastated and then they kill themselves, usually by drinking a load of pesticides.

Let’s try to unpack this one step at a time. Firstly, the genetics. Bt cotton is a genetically modified cotton that has genes added to it from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. This makes the cotton resistant to cotton bollworm, a moth whose larvae think that cotton is tastier than a tasty thing covered in tasty sauce.

Patel et al, 2012, The Lancet

The suicide rate in India is, on average, a bit higher than in developed countries but on a par with other countries with a similar economic background. If we look at the suicide rate amongst Bt cotton farmers and non-farmers then, averaged across all 9 Indian states that grow cotton, the suicide rate is actually a little lower in Bt cotton famers than in the general population.

If we look at the rate of suicide of cotton farmers since 2002 when the GMO variety was introduced then we see that the suicide rate has gone down from 31.7 per 100,000 to 29.3 per 100,000. This is not a statistically significant decrease but may be the beginning of a trend that shows that growing GMO cotton actually leads to a lower rate of suicide due to increased yields and greater financial security. To be clear, that’s my own idea, the data does not prove this.

Ian Plewis, 2012

90% of cotton grown in India is now Bt cotton. That is because farmers are choosing to grow it because they get better results. The most thorough financial analysis to date shows that cotton yields are up 24% and profits for smallholder farmers are up 50%.

There are 4 million cotton farmers in India. Most of them grow Bt cotton and are protected from the bollworm, but if the monsoon rains fail then so will the crops. In that case there is likely to be an upsurge in the suicides of farmers, but this has nothing to do with the their GMO crop nor the company that sold it to them. The Monsanto-Indian farmer suicide meme is now deeply entrenched into the anti-GMO and organic mindset, yet it is utterly false, based on nothing. Given the claim can, and has been, empirically tested and found to be made from whole cloth you’d think the anti-GMO side would stop using it. A cursory investigation of the facts shows it to be false and so its continued use should do harm to their argument.

Sadly, their argument does not hinge on facts or evidence but on ideology and dogma. Monsanto is evil and they will say anything to persuade you of that. To reiterate, I am not a Monsanto fanboy, neither am I against organic farming. I am very much a fan of an evidence based debate into how the hell we are going to feed everyone later this century. We’re struggling as it is now and we’ve got 2 billion more hungry mouths to feed by the middle of the century.

Perhaps you think that seeds and biological organisms should not be patentable, that they should be exempt from patent law altogether. If that is your position that’s fine, there is a reasonable debate to be had there. But let’s not muddy the waters with accusations about this or that biotech company being evil. You’re arguing an ideal, not a fact based measure or outcome.

Personally I think it needs to be decided on a case by case basis, I don’t think a blanket law would be useful here. You might not like seeds to be patented but if you want 22% higher crop yields, pesticide use reduced by 37% and farmer profits up by 68% then we need to let companies innovate and deliver us the products capable of doing so. Unfortunately, it is ruinously expensive to develop such things and the only organisations with the heft to pull it off are the large multi-nationals.

Monsanto is neither evil nor our saviour. It’s just a company trying to make money like any other. Sometimes it does some shitty things just like any other. My solution is to allow the Monsantos and Syngentas and Astrazenicas of this world to innovate in whatever way they can, but under a robust regulatory framework that holds them to high standards whilst allowing them to make a reasonable profit. It’s utterly boring, I know, but I think it just might work.


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