Friday, July 20, 2012

Monsanto - Friend or Foe?

Who or what is Monsanto?  According to their company website, Monsanto is a Fortune 500 Company headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri.  They sell agricultural and vegetable seeds which have traits "developed through biotechnology."  They also manufacture "crop protection chemicals."  On their website, they state, "producing more, conserving more, improving lives that's sustainable agriculture.  And that's what Monsanto is all about."

They plan to "produce more" by "working to double yields in our core crops by 2030.  These yield gains will come from a combination of advanced plant breeding, biotechnology, and improved farm-management practices."  They plan to "conserve more" by strengthening their "goal of doubling crop yields by committing to doing it with one-third fewer resources such as land, water, and energy per unit produced."  They aim to "improve lives" by "working to help farmers achieve big increases in yield and productivity.  And for all of the world's farmers who raise themselves from poverty to prosperity, many more people will also prosper."

At Monsanto, they "are dedicated to providing farmers the broadest choice of products and services that will help them produce more, conserve more and lead improved lives."  They offer:  "high-yielding conventional and biotech seeds,  advanced traits and technologies that enable more nutritious and durable crops, and have safe and effective crop protection solutions."  They state that "product stewardship is something as a company, Monsanto takes very seriously.  Whether it's ensuring environmental standards are not only met, but exceeded or protecting the safety of our people and communities, Monsanto's stewardship commitments are a top priority."

They are the "world's leading producer of the herbicide glyphosate, marketed in the Roundup brand, and in other brands.  They are also the largest producer of genetically engineered seed."

Sounds like a great company, right?  They are innovating agriculture by using technology to improve crop yields.  Unfortunately, despite their marketing efforts, Monsanto has been controversial among the "alter-globalization movement and environmental activists."

Since its inception in 1901, Monsanto has been responsible for the development of the artificial sweetener saccharin, DDT, Agent Orange, Aspartame (NutraSweet), rBST (bovine growth hormone), and PCBs.  They were the first company to genetically modify a plant cell.  All of these products, many of which have been shown to cause cancer, have made them the target of activists.

They further "endeared" themselves to activists when they sued farmers in Canada and the US over "patent infringement" when farmers were selling seeds containing Monsanto's patented genes.  The farmers were actually the "victims" of contamination of their own crops by winds that carried Monsanto's genetically modified seeds into their own fields.  Monsanto failed to secure their fields from contaminating their neighbors fields.

Monsanto has genetically engineered seeds to produce plants that "produce its own insecticide. This it can do in every cell of every leaf, stem, flower, root and spud."  The idea behind this is the plant would be immune to pests without having to be actually sprayed with chemical insecticides.

If you planted in your garden seeds developed at Monsanto, the genes you are using "remain the intellectual property of Monsanto."  Were you to "save even one" of the seeds "to plant next year," you "would be breaking Federal law."  The plants seeds themselves are considered a "pesticide, registered with the Environmental Protection Agency."

The plants were "developed" to produce Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is a bacterial toxin produced in the plants to kill insects which are susceptible to this toxin when ingested.  Organic farmers have been using this toxin in their farming practices.  However, "the widespread use of Bt in biotech crops is likely to lead to insect resistance, thus robbing organic growers of one of their most critical tools; that is, Monsanto's version of sustainable agriculture may threaten precisely those farmers who pioneered sustainable farming."

"Uncertainty is the theme that unifies much of the criticism leveled against biotech agriculture by scientists and environmentalists. By planting millions of acres of genetically altered plants, we have introduced something novel into the environment and the food chain, the consequences of which are not -- and at this point, cannot be -- completely understood. One of the uncertainties has to do with those grains of pollen bumblebees are carting off. That pollen contains Bt genes that may wind up in some other, related plant, possibly conferring a new evolutionary advantage on that species. ''Gene flow,'' the scientific term for this phenomenon, occurs only between closely related species."  Scientists are worried about this "biological pollution."  Biological pollution has the potential to create "super" species like weeds or other noxious plants.

It is alarming that the "F.D.A. regulation of biotech food has been largely voluntary since 1992.  Under the guidelines, new proteins engineered into foods are regarded as additives (unless they're pesticides).  The determination whether a new protein is GRAS can be made by the company.  Companies with a new biotech food decide for themselves whether they need to consult with the F.D.A. by following a series of ''decision trees'' that pose yes or no questions like this one: 'Does. . .the introduced protein raise any safety concern?''"  Unfortunately, according to an executive with Monsanto, "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food.  Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job.'"  With a response like that, it appears no one is regulating biotech food.  The FDA leaves it up to the manufacturer and the manufacturer leaves it up to the FDA.

So, with all of this uncertainty about safety, how do we know if we are consuming a product that has been genetically modified?  There is absolutely no regulatory requirement in the US to indicate if a product has been genetically modified.  Residents of the State of California will have an opportunity to vote on a ballot measure in November's election to make it mandatory that products that contain or were derived from a genetically modified organism must be labeled as such.  This would mirror requirements in Europe.  Passing a law in California is similar to passing a nationwide law since manufacturers and growers will not label something one way for California residents and another for other states.  It is similar to the application of flame retardants.  California's laws have a way of becoming "standard" throughout the country.

The biggest opponent to this, obviously, is Monsanto who stands to lose millions of dollars should this pass.  There is an interesting blog post about a mother who tried to rid herself and her family from Monsanto's reach.  She found it difficult without labeling indicating a product has been genetically modified.  She also discovered just how many products contain a genetically modified organism.  There are also whole organizations dedicated to "exposing" Monsanto that you can read about.  A great article, published in 1998, details the controversies surrounding genetically modified crops.  Despite being 14 years old, many of the points addressed in the article are still relevent.

Since there are no labeling requirements, if you want tips for avoiding foods that are genetically modified, you can find them on my blog post from yesterday.

Is Monsanto a friend or foe?  Only you can decide.

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