Monsanto likes to think of itself as a sustainable agriculture company. Prominently featured on their website beneath a video that proclaims, “we’re all in this together,” is their slogan, “producing more, conserving more, improving lives.”
In their 2010 Sustainability Report, they proudly trumpet their commitment to improving crop yields in the face of an ever-increasing human population, which they put forth as the very essence of sustainability. Clearly, they are very single-mindedly committed to this goal, perhaps in what might be considered an ends-justify-the means manner.
In truth, they are pursuing a sustainable objective in an unsustainable fashion. Their very narrow focus on genetic modification, as well as their approach to systemic agricultural problems such as weeds and insect pests through chemical warfare, two tactics that they are now working in tandem, are both highly reductionist. Likewise, their belief that the root cause of world hunger is insufficient production is also overly simplistic. This puts them on a path, which is inherently opposite that of the kind of broad-minded, systems-thinking approach that characterizes a truly sustainable company.
As Chris Laszlo would say, “a sustainable organization has sustainability embedded in its DNA.” In this case, it might make sense to add, “not the other way around.”
The highly respected Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) just issued a report that slams Monsanto for this, giving them an “F” in sustainability. Monsanto, they claim, fails to deliver on its three criteria for sustainable agriculture which are:
- to produce an adequate supply of food
- safeguard the environment, and
- protect the bottom line for farmers
UCS senior scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman claims that Monsanto, “is producing more engineered seeds and herbicide and improving its bottom line, but at the expense of conservation and long-term sustainability.”
Specifically, Gurian-Sherman provides a list of eight ways that the company is undermining its own efforts to promote sustainability. These are:
1. Fostering weed and insect resistance. Monsanto’s RoundupReady and Bt technologies lead to resistant weeds and insects that can make farming more difficult and reduce sustainability. As I discussed in a post last week, this is an inevitable result of this kind of biological tampering.
2. Increasing herbicide use. Roundup resistance has led farmers to use more herbicides, which threatens biodiversity, sustainability and human health. Biodiversity loss could be the single biggest long term threat to human sustainability.
3. Spreading gene contamination. Engineered genes have a bad habit of turning up in non-genetically engineered crops. When that happens, sustainable farmers—and their customers—pay a high price. This has particularly outraged organic growers.
4. Expanding monocultures. Monsanto’s focus on a few commodity crops contributes to reduced biodiversity and, as a consequence, to more pesticide use and fertilizer pollution. Read more about biodiversity and topsoil loss, the biggest threats to our agricultural system here.
5. Marginalizing alternatives. Monsanto single-minded focus on genetic engineering fixes may come at the expense of cheaper, more effective solutions, such as classical crop breeding and ecological farming methods.
6. Lobbying and advertising: Monsanto spends more than other agribusiness companies to persuade Congress and the general public to support the industrial agriculture status quo. This would explain why, for example, the USDA is allowing Monsanto to conduct its own environmental studies. A very revealing graphic that shows how deeply the company has infiltrated the US government can be found here.
7. Suppressing research. Monsanto thwarts independent research on its products, making it more difficult for farmers and policymakers to make informed decisions that could foster more sustainable agriculture.
8. Falling short on feeding the world. Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops have done little to increase crop yields. Regardless, the company stands in the way of proven, scientifically defensible solutions.
The first seven claims are all important and indisputable. The last claim goes right to the heart of Monsanto’s raison d’etre. Its credibility comes down to whose numbers you believe. But even if Monsanto’s products do improve yields slightly, does that justify the other seven unsustainable impacts? The company insists that they are achieving higher yields through their engineered traits, and gives examples of increases of as much as 50 percent. On the other hand, UCS published a study called, “Failure to Yield,” in which they claim that, “genetically engineering herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn has not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn, meanwhile, has improved yields only marginally. The increase in yields for both crops over the last 13 years, the report found, was largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices.”
The UCS post closes with these cautionary words from Karen Perry Stillerman, a senior analyst with their Food and Environment Program. “As the farm bill is currently being debated in Congress, now is the time to prioritize sustainable agriculture alternatives to genetically engineered crops in our food policies.”
It certainly seems that the future of our food supply is far too important to be putting all of our eggs in one basket, even if that basket is lined with cash.
[Image credit: Microsoft free clip art]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.
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