The Monsanto dilemma

Published online: Jul 26, 2013
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According to estimates, about 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and many have little understanding of our agricultural industry aside from what they buy in the grocery store.

Various advocacy groups, however, are pushing for increased transparency of the food industry and agribusiness, which have amassed extraordinary power and
influence. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) and genetically engineered (GE) foods have generated much controversy around Monsanto, one of the largest biotech companies that engineers GMO seeds used corn, soy, cotton and more. GMOs are a contentious subject largely because of the uncertainty regarding the risks they pose to humans and the environment and the profits they generate. The recent wave of discontent with these companies' lack of disclosure has further fueled the debate about their place in agriculture.

At the root of the controversy is a provision that was slipped into the Continuing Resolution, HR 933, passed by President Obama at the end of March, called the Farmer Assurance Provision and dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act by critics. The provision allows seeds to be sold and planted, regardless of judicial orders; in other words, even if they have been deemed unsafe by a court.  It requires the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, to block judicial injunctions by issuing temporary permits to allow planting.

Further contributing to the consternation surrounding GMOs is the blocking of an amendment to the farm bill that would have allowed states to mandate the labeling of foods containing GE ingredients. This provision would enable consumers to choose non-GMO food products, thereby increasing competition against agricultural giants like Monsanto and growing the market for conventional seeds. For now, companies can choose to be certified as "non-GMO," but since it is difficult and expensive to buy non-GMO ingredients, and the lack of a mandate on GMO labeling means few people are even aware that their food is engineered, GE seeds continue to dominate the market.

Both the Farmer Assurance Provision and the blocked farm bill amendment are manifestations of biotech's immense lobbying power, especially in states whose economies are agriculture-based. Behind the scenes, they have influenced much of the country's food policy. Growing concern over this kind of power was expressed at the "March against Monsanto" that took place on May 25 in Washington, DC and in 250 other cities around the world. The marches were held in protest against Monsanto's influence in Washington as well as the health and environmental effects of GMO foods. The protesters called for increased labeling, research and public awareness.

Despite the public's furor with regards to the slipped-in provision, the Farmer Assurance Provision does not actually make major changes. The USDA already had the power to issue temporary permits, as it did to save the sugarbeet crop several years ago. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) cited the USDA's use of temporary permits to argue for the provision, claiming that injunctions would be detrimental to farmers and consumers.  In reality, however, the provision  takes away the discretionary power given to the USDA, by requiring that Vilsack issue temporary permits, regardless of the specific context.  Nonetheless, the continuing resolution is only effective for the next six months so the provision's measures, though not its precedent, are short-lived.

The provision's scope is limited, as is the proof that we would be better off without GE foods and seeds all together. The use of GMOs need not necessarily threaten human health and the environment: there is no conclusive scientific evidence that GE foods pose a danger to health, and findings tend to conflict depending on who funded the study. Furthermore, most GE crops aren't sold for direct consumption, but for animal feed or to produce other ingredients such as corn syrup, meaning the consumer will not necessarily experience potential adverse health effects. This is why the recent discovery of GE strains in Oregon wheat, which is directly consumed by people, caused such a stir. Though GE seeds might pose unknown dangers, they could also offer a myriad of potential benefits: drought resistant seeds could reduce irrigation, and pest resistant seeds could decrease the use of pesticides that leach into groundwater and runoff into lakes and rivers. As the global population increases exponentially, GMO seeds could prove an important tool in achieving food security.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be worried about the Farmer Assurance Provision, or that Monsanto is somehow going to save the world (in fact, quite the opposite). First of all, the provision essentially takes away people's ability to find remedy or redress in the courts. Sen. Blunt claims that the provision is necessary to protect farmers, since making Monsanto pay for a seed recall is not a potential solution. But it should be. When Monsanto or any other biotech company manufactures a seed, it should internalize the risk as well as the reward. The producer should be obligated to pay, not the beneficiary (i.e. the public). At issue is not the merits of GMOs but the fairness of the process by which they are manufactured and sold.

Still, what really makes the provision unnerving is that Monsanto helped draft it and that no one knew it was in the bill until after it was signed into law. Monsanto and Blunt quietly worked on the language together and then inserted it into the 500+ page bill. Even if Obama had known about it, he wouldn't have had much of a choice but to sign, lest the government cease its operations. Though the CR is only effective for six months, this clandestine collaboration, clearly in Monsanto's private interest, sets a terrible precedent for the legislative process. Corporations should be beholden to the public interest, not the other way around.

This is only a glimpse of the power Monsanto has in Congress. When other countries, especially in Europe, are banning, regulating, and/or labeling GE foods, the US is essentially banning their regulation. Fourteen states have now passed legislation that prohibits anti-GMO laws and local governments from labeling or otherwise limiting GMO products. Monsanto spent nearly $6 million on lobbying in 2012 which, while down from the $8 million record in 2008, still makes them a powerful force. They also made over $1 million in total contributions in 2011-2012, either through PACS and outside spending groups or directly to candidates, including to Obama and Blunt. Monsanto has made great use of the revolving door: 16 out of 22 Monsanto lobbyists have previously held government positions.  Additionally, many previous Monsanto employees now work for the Department of Justice, the USDA, and the FDA, among other agencies and departments.

The notion that the provision was written primarily to protect farmers is laughable. Let's be clear: Monsanto doesn't operate with farmers' best interests in mind. When it sells seeds to farmers, it requires that they sign an agreement not to replant the same seeds the following season, meaning they have to buy new seeds every year. This can only be in the interest of the company. When the genetic material from its GE seeds finds its way into the crops of nearby farmers through natural pollen drift, Monsanto sues, threatens or otherwise intimidates the farmers, claiming patent infringement. The company has a department of 75 employees for this sole purpose, while many of the accused farmers don't even have the money to hire a lawyer.

Though GMOs, in theory, have many potential benefits, the evolution of Monsanto-style large biotech companies and "agribusiness" has essentially negated those benefits. Monsanto's "roundup ready" seeds are resistant to the pesticide glyphosate, with the unintended effect of creating so called superweeds that are resistant to Roundup, the glyphosate pesticide manufactured by Monsanto. These effects occur because GE seeds are most often used in monoculture, with intensive use of one seed for one crop, resulting in a system of agriculture that lacks the stability provided through biodiversity. Though pesticide resistant weeds are a problem commonly faced by farmers, they usually use multiple pesticides. Roundup ready seeds allow farmers to apply glyphosate liberally, without rotating crops or varying chemicals to deter resistance. Similarly, Bt poison-producing crops are an example of a technology that could reduce pesticide use, but the lack of crop rotation and seed diversity is leading to the development of Bt-resistant pests. These ecological effects are common to large scale monoculture, but are exacerbated by GE seeds that create short term solutions to increase yield while disregarding long term consequences.

Much of the debate surrounding GE crops is a result of the fact that scientific evidence is inconclusive or contradictory; at the same time, the scientific community, businesses community and the public speak different languages and therefore come to different conclusions despite having the same information. GE proponents, for example, point to a lack of scientific evidence as proof that GE crops are safe. However GMOs are still a relatively new technology, so the lack of existing evidence should not be a reason to ignore potential future findings. It's still too early to decisively determine the risks posed by GE crops, but it's also too early to assess the rewards.

It is true that GMOs will play an important part in ensuring food security, but it shouldn't be done on the terms of the company that stands to profit from it. The rest of the world has taken a much more precautious stance toward GMOs, and for good reason. If the US wants to move forward with GMO use, biotech companies should be held accountable. Let them shoulder the burden of demonstrating seeds are safe and the pay the costs when they aren't. People's health and food decisions should be in their own hands, not in Monsanto's purse strings.