SciTech

Pugwash: Monsanto gives a bad name to genetically modified products

Credit: Kelsey Thompson/ Credit: Kelsey Thompson/

In recent years, Missouri-based chemical company Monsanto has generated nearly-endless negative press associated with their genetically modified Roundup Ready crops. The crops, despite not being Monsanto’s primary products, are designed to be pesticide- and herbicide-resistant or even produce their own pesticides. This ability theoretically allows crops to have a higher survival rate, allowing a higher yield for farmers. The crops are incredibly controversial and have come under fire for being a threat to everything from human health to scientific research. However, high profile public battles like the one over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) produce many myths on both sides, making the heart of the Monsanto debate very hard to access.

The major genetically modified crops created by Monsanto are designed to withstand Monsanto pesticides. While very few crops have actually been commercially released by Monsanto (Roundup Ready versions of corn, canola, cotton, soybeans, squash, and papaya, to be exact), these crops account for a huge share of agriculture and the effects of the pesticides can be devastating. The increase in pesticides has created large populations of pesticide-resistant insects. This leads to Monsanto nearly fighting an arms race every year with bugs that are becoming increasingly resistant to Roundup and other chemicals used to kill pests and weeds. These population changes could drastically affect ecosystems, as well as the increase in foreign chemicals as local flora and fauna fail to adapt. Another threat to local ecosystems is Monsanto seeds that are blown out of the confines of the farms on which they are grown, which could also lead to contamination with local populations and change the landscape very quickly.

Monsanto has also come under fire for what is called the Terminator Gene, according to NPR, with claims that Monsanto seeds are sterile. People argue that these sterile seeds force farmers to continuously buy Monsanto seeds rather than replanting the ones already produced. While Monsanto has isolated the Terminator Gene, they deny using it in their crops.

Further, buying new seeds each year is a common practice for farmers. The Terminator Gene can also help prevent Monsanto crops from acting as invasive species, as the seeds terminate and cannot grow.

Another thing muddling this debate is a common tendency to equate Monsanto and GMOs. While companies like DuPont are also part of the market, Monsanto holds a massive amount of the market share, and it is very difficult for GMO producing companies to start up because the negative press of Monsanto has spread to GMOs. GMOs are widely disliked, largely because of some of Monsanto’s business practices, but mostly anti-GMO sentiment has fueled the charge against Monsanto. However, under closer examination it seems Monsanto has used the concept of GMOs for its own gain and not for the benefits that GMOs can yield.

GMOs have been used for extremely positive purposes. One example is golden rice, a form of rice genetically modified to contain vitamin A in order to help regions where vitamin A deficiencies are extremely common. The production of the rice has been met with mass resistance, as both environmental groups and protesters have uprooted crops and prevented the spread of the product. This resistance stems from a general resistance to GMOs, as golden rice has undergone extensive testing and has been determined to be safe both to eat and for the environment. It is clear that most of the world refuses to eat genetically modified crops despite the scientific urge to do otherwise.

The most common concern with GMOs is the health risk often associated with genetically modified foods. Many scientists tend to believe that GMOs are not inherently dangerous, but there is a very vocal minority who say they are. A common example is a 2012 study by Gilles-Éric Séralini linking Monsanto corn crops to cancer in rats. For a vast number of reasons, this study was retracted, and GMOs are likely safe to eat, but that is not the end of the debate. These general defenses of GMOs are not always specific to Monsanto. Often, Monsanto genetically modifies crops to solve problems that wouldn’t exist without Monsanto, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of need for Monsanto products.

Further, Monsanto’s use of patent laws makes it extremely difficult to research the exact effect Monsanto’s crops can have. Researchers need permission from the company to conduct studies. While claims of Monsanto suing people because their crop blew into a garden stems from a sensationalized version of one lawsuit, something similar happens with scientific research where Monsanto will often refuse to give people the rights to research their products.

Genetically modified organisms and Monsanto, at the end of the day, are different. Monsanto is a chemical company producing pesticides and herbicides to help kill everything in someone’s garden that isn’t a crop. They make crops designed so that their products do not kill the crops too.

However, with massive public resistance to GMOs, these crops seem to be what we get from GMOs for the near future. With the potential of foods that can make more land arable and arable land more efficient, a company that designs foods that only survive their own products holds a massive share of the market, coming close to a monopoly. As time goes on, will GMOs ever reach their full potential, or has Monsanto poisoned the well?