A web search for Monsanto brings up their homepage along with the phrase “A Sustainable Agriculture Company.” They have a heart-warming mission statement about “helping farmers” meet the needs of a growing population. There is an entire page called “Improving Agriculture” with several subcategories on how they purportedly do this.
It’s a masterpiece of propaganda that would make Edward Bernays proud. In fact, Monsanto has used Bernays’ strategies for decades, employing Freudian psychology to sell their products and create a sense of trust based not on logic but unconscious motivation.
Monsanto spends hundreds of millions of dollars to influence public opinion and to get federal lawmakers in its pocket. During 2010-2012 it spent over $300 million in advertising, carefully targeted in important areas like the commuter pathways of Washington, D.C. During the same time it spent $20 million lobbying government, including for approval of its RoundUp Ready alfalfa and sugar beets. In 2011 Monsanto lobbied Congress for the creation of a “modern agriculture” caucus, and sure enough, the “Congressional Caucus on Modern Agriculture” was created that year.
Monsanto’s most insidious claim is that they represent sustainable agriculture. If we look beyond the PR white noise, we see a far different reality.
Preventing Seed Saving. The basic premise of “sustainability” is using a resource so that it is not depleted. For thousands of years farmers have recognized this concept by saving seeds from vegetables and fruits for the next year’s crop. Monsanto crushes this tradition by not allowing the saving of seed from its patented products, and viciously goes after those who do. Farmers must buy new seeds, thereby breaking the most fundamental principle of sustainability.
Increasing Herbicide Use. Monsanto created “RoundUp Ready” crops that can withstand being sprayed by their glyphosate herbicide. The sell was that farmers could spray their entire fields with RoundUp and save labor costs of weed control. The problem is that weeds developed resistance in a matter of years, which resulted in more and more overall use of herbicides. It is estimated that 383 million pounds MORE herbicide was used since the introduction of RoundUp Ready crops than if the crops had not been in use. In response to this, Monsanto is developing GM crops that can withstand other, more toxic herbicides such as dicamba and glufosinate.
Expanding Monoculture. A major part of sustainable agriculture is crop rotation. Alternating the type of crops grown in an area reduces pest problems and improves a number of soil conditions. Monoculture results in more chemical and fertilizer use, more pesticide use, and lifeless soil. Monsanto produces a very few commodity crops like corn, soybean, and cotton. It has discouraged farmers from crop rotation and promoted the idea that continuous planting of the same GM crops, coupled with heavy use of its chemical products, is the best way for farmers.
Gene Contamination. Sustainability also means diversity. We must have diversity in many forms to meet the challenges of agriculture and environmental stewardship. However, the purity of non-GM and organic crops is threatened by contamination from Monsanto’s GM crops. Pollen is blown by the wind or carried by bees to other fields, and some types of seed can be blown to non-GM fields. A 2004 Union of Concerned Scientists study found that 50% of non-GM corn and soybean and 80% of non-GM canola was contaminated by DNA from Monsanto’s GM crops. Crop contamination by other biotech company products has resulted in millions of dollars in losses to non-GM farmers.
Promoting Pest Resistance. True sustainable agriculture practices do not encourage pest problems because crops are rotated and several integrated approaches are used to manage pests. The Monsanto approach is to insert a gene that causes crop plants to emit a pest toxin, such as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn. But like weeds, pests can also develop resistance to poisons when they are exposed on a continual basis. This has already happened in the case of the corn rootworm. This resistance is just another opportunity for Monsanto to develop another patented GM product with a different toxin and ensure a grip on the market for a few more years.
Stifling alternative methods. Because Monsanto has been so effective at convincing farmers and lawmakers that its GM products are the salvation of agriculture, other alternatives are marginalized. Classical breeding methods have produced new crop varieties with desirable traits like drought tolerance, increased yield, and pest and disease resistance. Marker-assisted technology has allowed for great advancement in breeding. These approaches have a lower cost and are usually more effective, yet they are virtually silenced by the economic and political might of Monsanto. Agroecology and Integrated Pest Management have no place in the biotech empire.
We need sustainable approaches to the challenges of agriculture as populations grow and greater pressure is put on resources. One thing should be clear: Monsanto is not helping us on that path. Increasing chemical use, increasing monoculture, worsening weed and pest problems, contaminating non-GM crops, prohibiting seed saving, and stifling alternative methods are antithetical to the principles of sustainability.
Justin Price, TheFreeThoughtProject.com