The great American satirist, H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” He might have been talking about biotechnology in general or Monsanto’s approach to controlling weeds using their Roundup Ready crops. But then again, it depends on which problem they were trying to solve: responsibly increasing crop yields, or increase their own herbicide sales.
By creating varieties of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, sugar beets, wheat, and now sweet corn that can tolerate direct application of its glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide, the company has seen a dramatic increase in sales of both the herbicide and the seeds.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, roughly five times as much of the weed killer was used on farmland in 2007 as in 1997, a year after the Roundup Ready crops were introduced. Department of Agriculture statistics show that 94 percent of the soybeans and 72 percent of the corn being grown in the United States are herbicide-tolerant.
But when you mess with Mother Nature and the complexities of the ecosystems that are responsible for us all being alive, you need to be prepared for unintended consequences.
The latest oops, in Monsanto’s growing list, after the recent study linking Roundup with birth defects, is the elimination of large numbers of monarch butterflies from the landscape. Does Roundup kill butterflies? No, it doesn’t. It simply kills everything that butterflies like to eat: milkweed plants in particular. A 2011 study in Insect Conservation and Diversity found that the heavy Roundup use associated with GMO crops in Mexico, where North American butterflies overwinter, has contributed heavily to a 17-year decrease in monarch populations.
Dr. Chip Taylor, an insect ecologist at the University of Kansas claims that the milkweed has disappeared from hundreds of millions of acres of row crops. The use GMO corn, with its associated herbicide is considered a major cause of the monarch’s decline, along with the loss of milkweed to land development, illegal logging at the wintering sites in Mexico, and severe weather.
Andrew Davis at the University of Georgia, disputes the fact that monarchs are declining based on observations he’s made in Cape May, NJ.
But it stands to reason that if you eliminate an animal’s primary food source, as well as their nursery ground (monarchs like to lay their eggs on milkweed so that the caterpillars can feed on them), their population will be adversely impacted. Researchers Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and John M. Pleasants of Iowa State agree that the monarch decline is due to loss of milkweed.
This is a classic systems failure that results from focusing on narrow, short term goals. At the risk of getting a little technical here, let me quote from this month’s Mechanical Engineering. Shannon Flumerfelt of Oakland University, writing about complex systems and their design, says that, “Systems operate under the principle that the sum of interdependent elements holds inherently different characteristics and outcomes from those of the individual elements; this is the crux of complex adaptivity. In other words, one may understand elements of a system and have the ability to respond to the state of those individual elements, but a systems approach requires the ability to envision and grasp all of the elements and their synergistic properties as holistic thinking.”
Monsanto, which took in upwards of $11 billion last year, is clearly not interested in holistic thinking. Not while responding to the state of individual elements is generating such a high rate of return.
And those that cheerlead for them on Wall Street, like InvestorPlace from which the following quote was taken, clearly don’t want them to think or act holistically either.
In these days of overzealous government regulation — in which the EPA has virtually destroyed our domestic cement-making business, sending that sector’s stocks down considerably — you’d think the evildoers at Monsanto making (gasp) genetically modified seeds would have been keelhauled by now. It turns out that despite the unfriendly regulatory environment and enormous levels of bad press directed at Monsanto itself, the company continues to thrive. In fact, the FDA itself recently approved a new type of genetically modified corn seeds.
That’s what I’d call lobbying dollars well-spent, but that’s a story for another day.
[Image credit: Big Grey Mare~Back—But Barely: Flickr Creative Commons]
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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