Monsanto has held back the development of sustainable agriculture, and continues to do so. None of its competitors come close to matching its impact on global agriculture
Monsanto Company is the dominant player in commercial genetically engineered (GE) crops, the biggest seed company in the world, and—to hear them tell it—a leader and innovator in sustainable agriculture.
Monsanto aggressively touts its technology as vital to achieving laudable goals such as ensuring adequate food production, responding to the challenge of global warming, and reducing agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment.
The reality is not so flattering. In fact, Monsanto has held back the development of sustainable agriculture, and continues to do so, in several ways:
- Promoting Pesticide Resistance Monsanto’s Roundup Ready and Bt technologies lead to resistant weeds and insects that can make farming harder and reduce sustainability.
- Increasing Herbicide Use Roundup resistance has led to greater use of herbicides, with troubling implications for biodiversity, sustainability, and human health.
- Spreading Gene Contamination Engineered genes have a bad habit of turning up in non-GE crops. And when this happens, sustainable farmers—and their customers—pay a high price.
- Expanding Monoculture Monsanto’s emphasis on limited varieties of a few commodity crops contributes to reduced biodiversity and, as a consequence, to increased pesticide use and fertilizer pollution.
- Marginalizing Alternatives Monsanto’s single-minded emphasis on GE fixes for farming challenges may come at the expense of cheaper, more effective solutions.
- Lobbying and Advertising Monsanto outspends all other agribusinesses on efforts to persuade Congress and the public to maintain the industrial agriculture status quo.
- Suppressing Research By creating obstacles to independent research on its products, Monsanto makes it harder for farmers and policy makers to make informed decisions that can lead to more sustainable agriculture.
- Falling Short on Feeding the World Monsanto contributes little to helping the world feed itself, and has failed to endorse science-backed solutions that don’t give its products a central role.
1. PROMOTING PESTICIDE RESISTANCE
Monsanto’s RoundupReady and Bt technologies lead to resistant weeds and insects that can make farming harder and reduce sustainability.
On its website, Monsanto lists an impressive set of benefits for its Roundup Ready weed control technology: profitability, efficiency, convenience, and sustainability. The company even calls Roundup Ready “a perfect fit with the vision of sustainable agriculture and environmental protection,” claiming that it allows farmers to reduce overall herbicide use as well as fuel consumption and soil erosion.
But there’s a catch.
Enter the Superweeds
Beginning around 2000, weeds growing in Roundup Ready crops began to develop resistance to Roundup (glyphosate), the Monsanto herbicide that Roundup Ready crops are genetically engineered to tolerate. By 2011, eight agriculturally important weeds in the U.S. had developed glyphosate resistance associated with Roundup Ready crops.
Glyphosate-resistant weeds now infest millions of acres of U.S. cropland—and this area has been growing rapidly over the past several years. Countries where Roundup Ready crops were more recently introduced are now beginning to see similar growth in resistant weeds.
These “superweeds” are causing huge problems for U.S. farmers, especially in the Southeast (but also spreading in the Midwest), where some of these weeds cannot be effectively or economically controlled. The impact on cotton production has led one scientist to compare a glyphosate-resistant weed to the notorious boll weevil, which devastated cotton production across the American South in the 1920s.
In response, farmers are increasing their overall herbicide use (see #2) and in some cases, returning to heavy tillage (plowing), which can increase soil erosion—thus reducing two of the sustainability benefits claimed for the Roundup Ready system.
Making Matters Worse
Why is this problem growing so fast? Because the Roundup Ready system encourages unprecedented reliance on a single herbicide—which, as biologists know, is likely to make resistance problems more severe. Pest resistance is not a new problem, but Roundup Ready technology has made it worse than before.
And Monsanto exacerbated the problem by discouraging farmers from employing typical resistance management approaches, such as alternating the types of herbicides used over time—which would have reduced the amount of Roundup used in any given year, and thus cut into the company’s bottom line. This led a group of academic weed scientists to publicly contradict Monsanto’s recommendations and reiterate scientifically-based methods for reducing the resistant weed problem.
Adding insult to injury, Monsanto representatives were described in a 2009 ABC News story as blaming farmers for overuse-related resistance problems.
Sacrificing Sustainability for Sales
Monsanto’s pronouncements and recommendations about its engineered crops and glyphosate herbicide fly in the face of established science and common-sense precautions. Its actions have undermined the goal of weed control and jeopardized long-term use of glyphosate—a less toxic, less persistent, and more effective herbicide than most others—in favor of the company’s annual bottom line. This is the opposite of good stewardship and sustainable practices. Monsanto’s denialism and inadequate responses are likely to contribute to greater environmental harm.
2. INCREASING HERBICIDE USE
Roundup resistance has led to greater use of herbicides, with troubling implications for biodiversity, sustainability, and human health.
Monsanto’s Roundup Ready system, which involves applying glyphosate (Roundup) herbicide to crops genetically engineered to tolerate it, was supposed to decrease overall herbicide use—and for a while, it did just that. However, this has changed drastically in recent years.
As we’ve already seen, the number and extent of resistant weeds have increased dramatically over the past decade. At the same time, some Roundup-susceptible weeds have been replaced by weeds inherently less easy to control with glyphosate. The result has been an increase in overall herbicide use—recently estimated at about 383 million pounds higher than would have been the case without Roundup Ready crops.
Meet the New Herbicide, Same as the Old Herbicide
Monsanto’s proposed solution is to develop and seek regulatory approval for new engineered herbicide-tolerant crops to augment Roundup Ready crops. Predominant among these new engineered crops are those with resistance to two of the oldest herbicides, 2,4-D and dicamba.
These herbicides may be more harmful in some respects than glyphosate. Both become volatile after application, which means they can spread to nearby wild vegetation—important for biodiversity and natural pest control—and to other susceptible crops.
There is also evidence that 2,4-D may increase the risk of some types of cancer.
More Herbicide = Less Biodiversity = More Insecticide
Because of the volatilization problem, increased use of the old herbicides may also harm neighboring crops that are not resistant to them—including locally grown fruits and vegetables.
A recent article estimates that risk to plants surrounding sprayed fields is from 75 to 400 times greater for the older herbicides than for glyphosate. The industry is working on formulations of these herbicides that may be less volatile, but that is unlikely to eliminate the problem—especially because the use of these herbicides is projected to increase tenfold.
Damage to plant biodiversity near crop fields may also reduce the abundance and diversity of beneficial organisms that thrive in those habitats (but not in monoculture crop fields). Recent research has shown that when agricultural landscapes are simplified by the reduction of plant and beneficial organism diversity, much more chemical insecticide is needed to control pest insects.
So if the volatilization problems are not eliminated, this “solution” to glyphosate resistant weeds may make matters worse, and may also lead to increased insecticide use—and possibly greater risk to people, especially farmers and farm workers.
3. SPREADING GENE CONTAMINATION
Engineered genes have a bad habit of turning up in non-GE crops. And when this happens, sustainable farmers—and their customers—pay a high price.
The history of genetically engineered crops shows that it is not a matter of whether they will contaminate other farmers’ crops, but when and how much. Monsanto jeopardizes the future of the fast-growing non-GE and organic food sectors—and the environmental benefits they provide—by threatening the purity of their products through gene contamination.
In a 2004 pilot study, UCS tested samples of conventional (non-GE) corn, soy, and canola seed and found low-level but pervasive contamination with DNA derived from GE varieties. Some 50 percent of the corn and soybean samples and more than 80 percent of the canola samples were contaminated, with Monsanto’s genes detected in all three crops.
Unapproved Genes in Food Products: Accidents Will Happen
Though they did not involve Monsanto products, a string of incidents over the last decade or so in which experimental or unapproved GE varieties were discovered in supplies of various crops and food products—including corn-based taco shells sold to consumers, long-grain rice bound for export, and cottonseed fed to livestock—shows that GE contamination of non-GE crops continues to occur, with serious economic implications.
In the Starlink taco shell incident in 2000, costs to farmers from recalls and export restrictions were estimated at between $26 and $288 million, while the LibertyLink rice contamination discovered in 2006 had a significant impact on the export market for U.S.-grown rice, resulting in a $750 million settlement for injured rice farmers.
Roundup Ready Alfalfa: Disaster is Blowin’ in the Wind
Monsanto’s recently-approved Roundup Ready alfalfa may pose an even greater contamination threat.
Alfalfa, the fourth most widely grown crop in the United States (behind corn, soybeans, and wheat), is pollinated by various species of bees. Pollination between alfalfa fields, which can spread pollen from GE to non-GE alfalfa, has been detected at four kilometers—and honey bees can fly up to five miles. Feral alfalfa growing outside cultivated fields can act as a further bridge for contamination.
Moreover, alfalfa seeds are very small, and thus can be blown by wind into neighboring fields. Experts say that widespread planting of Monsanto’s GE alfalfa is almost certain to contaminate organic and non-GE alfalfa.
Such an outcome could spell economic disaster not only for those alfalfa growers but also for organic and pasture-based dairy farmers, who depend upon access to organic alfalfa to feed their cows in the winter. The organic dairy sector was valued at $3.9 billion in 2010, representing nearly six percent of the total U.S. market for milk products.
Contamination and self-seeding of organic alfalfa in perennial pasture could require expensive roughing and re-planting, with no assurance that some GE alfalfa would not emerge years later from buried seed.
4. EXPANDING MONOCULTURE
Monsanto’s emphasis on limited varieties of a few commodity crops contributes to reduced biodiversity and, as a consequence, to increased pesticide use and fertilizer pollution.
Large-acreage field crops—corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, and now alfalfa—make up the bulk of Monsanto’s products, in part because of the high cost of developing engineered traits. And the approach to agriculture that this product line encourages—monoculture, the production of only one crop in a field year after year—is not a sustainable one.
When Simpler Is Not Better
Monsanto’s approach to insect and weed management depends upon the heavy use of a few biocides to control pests. And most of these pests are large problems mainly because of the biological simplification of the agricultural system.
This simplification—represented by huge areas devoted to only one or two crops on very large farms, with little uncultivated area—requires more pesticide, because pests can more easily build up on crops when they are adapted to these crops and practices.
Many pests are selective about the crops they infect or consume, so alternating (or rotating) crops reduces the need for pesticides (see sidebar). For example, in much of the Corn Belt, corn rootworms are not big problems when corn is rotated with soybeans or other crops, because rootworms only thrive on corn.
Although Bt corn has reduced the amount of insecticide needed to control its target pests (unless resistance spreads), this reduction has been largely offset by increases in the treatment of corn seed with neonicotinoid insecticides. Neonicotinoids have recently been associated with honey bee colony collapse disorder and other bee mortality. And about 35 percent of U.S. crops rely on bees and other pollinators to be productive.
Simplified cropping systems also exacerbate the serious water pollution that results from the application of nitrogen fertilizers. Much of the fertilizer is not utilized by crops like corn.
By contrast, complex crop rotations that include cover crops (see sidebar) have been shown to take up excess nitrogen in the soil, keeping it from passing into groundwater. When the cover crop is incorporated into the soil in the spring, it makes this nitrogen available to the crops that follow.
A Growing Resistance Movement
As we’ve seen, over-reliance on a small number of pest control methods increases resistance problems. Bt insect-resistant corn has resulted in a reduction in integrated pest management (IPM), which relies on multiple means to control pests. Robust IPM is more sustainable and typically uses less pesticide than methods that rely heavily on chemical pesticide application or on GE insect-resistant crops.
Surveys have found that large numbers of growers use Bt varieties even when pest pressures are low and they are not needed. These surveys have also found that about 40 percent of growers say they cannot get high-quality non-GE varieties from Monsanto and other seed companies. This could interfere with their ability to plant non-GE refuges to prevent resistance from developing.
5. MARGINALIZING ALTERNATIVES
Monsanto’s single-minded emphasis on GE fixes for farming challenges may come at the expense of cheaper, more effective solutions.
Given the way Monsanto promotes its genetically engineered products as indispensable game-changers for agriculture, you might wonder how farmers could ever manage without them.
In fact, non-GE methods can be more effective—and often far more cost-efficient.
Classical breeding methods — sometimes augmented with newer methods that use enhanced understanding of crop genetics—usually outperform GE, producing a stream of new crop varieties with desirable properties like increased yield and improved nitrogen use efficiency (which can reduce the fertilizer pollution that contributes to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay).
In recent years, classical breeding has produced varieties of corn resistant to corn rootworm, as well as crops with drought tolerance, disease resistance, improved nutritional characteristics, and reduced susceptibility to fungi that produce harmful toxins.
Agroecological farm management practices – used by organic farmers and others—such as cover crops, mulches, manure, and more complex crop rotations—also reduce pest incidence (see #2 and #4), soil erosion, and pollution, and build soil fertility.
Cover crops can remove excess nitrogen from the soil. Long crop rotations in the Midwest can greatly reduce pesticide and fertilizer use while maintaining or increasing crop yields.
Telling a Lopsided Story
Monsanto’s extensive advocacy of engineered crops marginalizes these approaches despite their lower cost for purchased inputs like fertilizer and pesticides and their often superior results. A recent industry-sponsored survey found that the average cost for developing a new engineered trait is about $136 million, while a typical classically-bred trait in corn has been estimated to cost just $1 million.
Monsanto and other companies use classical breeding as well as GE. But by suggesting that its patented genes GE have achieved higher crop yields and generated other benefits, when in fact classical breeding and improved farming techniques are primarily responsible for those gains, Monsanto obscures better choices farmers might otherwise make.
6. LOBBYING AND ADVERTISING
Monsanto outspends all other agribusinesses on efforts to persuade Congress and the public to maintain the industrial agriculture status quo.
Like many other corporations and organizations, Monsanto engages in a variety of activities to influence policy makers and opinion leaders. From lobbying members of Congress and other federal officials and contributing to their election campaigns, to advertising aimed at reaching those officials and their constituents, the company spends millions of dollars every year pushing an agenda that runs counter to sustainable agriculture.
Lobbying Congress and Federal Agencies
Among agribusiness companies and interest groups, Monsanto is far and away the biggest spender on lobbying to protect and maintain industrial agriculture’s dominance over our food system.
In 2008—the last year a federal Farm Bill was negotiated—the company reported a whopping $8.8 million in lobbying expenditures (see table below) intended to influence decisions in Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies.
Quarterly disclosure reports filed with Congress show that Monsanto’s lobbyists worked to:
- Push through a short-lived crop insurance program called the Biotechnology Yield Endorsement, which provided cut-rate USDA-backed crop insurance to farmers who planted specific genetically engineered varieties of corn developed and sold by Monsanto.
- Defeat or weaken a patent reform effort in Congress.
- Protect Monsanto and other biotechnology companies from liability when their patented genes contaminate non-GE farmers’ crops.
- Prevent labeling of Monsanto’s artificial growth hormones on milk packaging.
- Enable further agribusiness consolidation, which could allow Monsanto to further reduce already poor competition for seed sales, leading to higher prices and even fewer choices of non-engineered seeds.
Between Farm Bills, Monsanto’s lobbying efforts haven’t let up. The company racked up $8 million in lobbying expenses in 2010 and another $6.37 million in 2011. Monsanto lobbied for approval of its RoundupReady alfalfa and sugarbeets, the widespread planting of which will further increase application of the company’s Roundup herbicide and could cause additional resistant weeds.
In addition, the company lobbied to:
- Increase production of inefficient corn-based biofuels, which require massive water use and lead to devastating water pollution.
- Weaken or prevent the EPA’s issuance of voluntary guidance to reduce pesticide “drift” from industrial farms. This could be devastating if new crops resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba are approved, because these herbicides cause much greater harm from drift than glyphosate.
- Weaken or defeat the Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that Congress ultimately passed, which will give the FDA the authority to force companies to recall contaminated food, and also reduce undue corporate influence over federal food safety agencies.
In addition, Monsanto reported lobbying in early 2011 for the creation of a so-called “modern agriculture” caucus in Congress. Unsurprisingly, in February of that year, the Congressional Caucus on Modern Agriculture was established.
Contributions to Politicians
Monsanto also wields influence on policy makers through campaign contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the company consistently ranks among the top political check-writers in the agricultural services and products industry. Monsanto gave more than $420,000 in campaign gifts during the 2010 Congressional election cycle, and appears on track to meet or exceed that in 2012.
7. SUPPRESSING RESEARCH
By creating obstacles to independent research on its products, Monsanto makes it harder for farmers and policy makers to make informed decisions that can lead to more sustainable agriculture.
Good policy is impossible without good information. Smart choices about the role of biotechnology in agriculture will depend on how much we know about its costs, benefits, and risks.
But 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.
In 2009, 26 academic entomologists wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that because patents on engineered genes do not provide for independent non-commercial research, they could not perform adequate research on these crops. “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions involving these crops,” they wrote.
A Purdue University entomologist who signed the letter put it more succinctly to a reporter for a scientific journal: “Industry is completely driving the bus.”
Keeping Decision Makers in the Dark
Independent research is needed to determine how well these crops work, how best to use them, their possible risks, and how they compare with alternatives such as classical breeding or ecologically based farming methods.
Without that research, farmers, policy makers, and research granting agencies are not able to make the most well-informed decisions possible. To the extent that those decisions would work toward improving sustainability, these research restrictions reduce our ability to move agriculture in a more sustainable direction.
Moving in the Right Direction—But Not Far Enough
Monsanto has attempted to take cover in a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that gives the agency’s agricultural scientists access to the company’s genetically engineered seeds for a wide range of research; Monsanto has also had agreements with some universities.
Several other seed companies are said to be negotiating voluntary deals with universities in the wake of the entomologists’ letter to the EPA. And the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), a trade group of which Monsanto is a member, is also developing guidelines to improve access to new seeds.
These are positive steps, but they don’t go far enough.
More Transparency Needed
For one thing, the deals and the trade association rules are not binding. The companies can back out of them. They are also opaque; the public really has no idea how far these deals go or how common they are. And what about scientists at research institutions that aren’t party to voluntary agreements?
Moreover, few if any of the agreements guarantee opportunities for every kind of independent research. The Monsanto agreement with the USDA covers research into crop production practices, for example, but not research into issues such as the health risks of genetically engineered crops.
Ultimately, patent law needs to change to allow independent science to function as it needs to. Monsanto should back such a change in the law. Until then, it and other large seed companies should post a list of the agreements that have been made so far with research institutions and individual scientists, and the conditions of those agreements. Monsanto’s behavior to date suggests that it is not really serious about addressing this problem.
8. FALLING SHORT ON FEEDING THE WORLD
Monsanto contributes little to helping the world feed itself, and has failed to endorse science-backed solutions that don’t give its products a central role.
The 21st century is going to be a time of enormous challenge for agriculture across the globe. Population growth, global warming, urbanization, and other factors are expected to put increasing pressure on the food supply. Somehow, the world’s farmers must find a way to meet this growing demand and feed us all.
Monsanto claims that its biotechnology products will be crucial to the success of this effort. Yet experts, such as the hundreds of international scientists that contributed to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)—a report supported and endorsed by several UN agencies, the World Bank, and dozens of countries—have said that non-GE approaches that cost less and are more effective should be prioritized.
But instead of accepting the results of the detailed analysis of the IAASTD, Monsanto and several other large seed and chemical companies backed out of the process at the last minute and refused to endorse it. This makes it harder for the important recommendations of the report to gain acceptance.
A Vision that Won’t Travel Well
The vision of “sustainable” agriculture proposed by Monsanto includes high-tech seeds, reduced tillage, and GPS-guided precision application of fertilizers.
This prescription was written for the large industrial monocultures of the midwestern United States. This approach is likely to remain highly dependent on fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides at the expense of regional biodiversity. And because it is very capital- and machinery-intensive, it is not viable for many small, poor farmers around the world.
On the other hand, data show that small farms can be more productive per acre than large ones on an overall (rather than single-crop) basis. In addition, many agroecological approaches outperform more expensive GE approaches—for example, the simple but elegant push-pull system for grains such as corn in eastern Africa (see sidebar).
With overuse of biotechnology, as we’ve already seen, comes resistance and related problems. Resistance of stem borer on Bt corn in South Africa has recently been reported. And in China, after initial reductions in insecticide use on Bt cotton, secondary pests not controlled by Bt have greatly increased, pushing chemical insecticide use back up. This has hurt income because farmers pay almost as much for insecticide—and a lot more for Bt cotton seed. In addition, Bt cotton may be contributing to increases in secondary pests moving from cotton to other fruit and vegetable crops, causing further damage.
Reliance on expensive GE seeds leaves poor farmers vulnerable to other factors, such as drought, floods, and the many pests that can harm crops but are not controlled by engineered genes. Agroecological approaches—which base farming on an understanding of the ecological relationships between crops and the environment—typically build broad resilience to pests and other challenges.
It has been suggested that GE traits are scale-neutral, and therefore small farmers may benefit as much or more as large farmers. But higher-priced seed and accompanying expensive inputs may be beyond the reach of poor farmers.
There are no panaceas, but there are accumulating data that support approaches other than those pushed by Monsanto for most poor farmers.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Why are we singling out Monsanto?
It’s true that Monsanto isn’t the only company promoting products and practices that impede the progress of sustainable agriculture. But none of Monsanto’s competitors come close to matching its impact on U.S. agriculture—or, thanks to its huge investment in lobbying and advertising, on farm policy.
What exactly do we mean by sustainable agriculture, anyway?
There are many definitions of sustainable agriculture out there, but most of them share some common threads. At a minimum, to be sustainable, an agricultural system must be:
- economically viable (farmers who use it must be able to maintain thriving businesses);
- ecologically sound (it must preserve the natural systems and resources it depends on, so that future generations can continue to use them);
- socially beneficial (it must meet the human needs of both the farm itself and the wider communities it serves).
Are we saying that Monsanto’s products have no sustainability benefits at all?
It’s true that Monsanto’s impact on sustainability can’t be painted in black and white. Some of the company’s products have indeed produced some real benefits, though we would argue that these benefits have not, in most cases, come close to outweighing their costs. And when weighed against truly sustainable alternatives, Monsanto’s solutions fall drastically short.
Several genetically engineered crops have been associated with desirable effects such as decreases in chemical insecticide use and increases in conservation tillage, which reduces soil erosion (especially no-till, a system that avoids plowing).
However, it’s debatable how significant these benefits are, and how much credit Monsanto really deserves. In the case of no-till, most of the observed increase in the U.S. came before the introduction of Monsanto’s GE crops, and it’s unclear how much of the increase since then is a result of their adoption. This shows that no-till can generally be accomplished without GE crops.
The benefits of reduced insecticide use in Bt corn in the U.S. are largely offset by insecticide seed treatments—so the actual environmental impact of insecticide use may not have decreased at all, although health benefits may remain. And the increase in uncontrolled insect species on Bt cotton in China is leading to insecticide application levels approaching pre-Bt days.