Eight Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture
Monsanto Company is the dominant player in commercial genetically engineered (GE) crops, the biggest seed company in the world, and—to hear them tell it—a leader and innovator in sustainable agriculture.
Monsanto aggressively touts its technology as vital to achieving laudable goals such as ensuring adequate food production, responding to the challenge of global warming, and reducing agriculture's negative impacts on the environment.
The reality is not so flattering. In fact, Monsanto has held back the development of sustainable agriculture, and continues to do so, in several ways:
Monsanto's RoundupReady and Bt technologies lead to resistant weeds and insects that can make farming harder and reduce sustainability.
Roundup resistance has led to greater use of herbicides, with troubling implications for biodiversity, sustainability, and human health.
Engineered genes have a bad habit of turning up in non-GE crops. And when this happens, sustainable farmers—and their customers—pay a high price.
Monsanto's emphasis on limited varieties of a few commodity crops contributes to reduced biodiversity and, as a consequence, to increased pesticide use and fertilizer pollution.
Monsanto's single-minded emphasis on GE fixes for farming challenges may come at the expense of cheaper, more effective solutions.
Monsanto outspends all other agribusinesses on efforts to persuade Congress and the public to maintain the industrial agriculture status quo.
By creating obstacles to independent research on its products, Monsanto makes it harder for farmers and policy makers to make informed decisions that can lead to more sustainable agriculture.
Monsanto contributes little to helping the world feed itself, and has failed to endorse science-backed solutions that don't give its products a central role.
Questions & Answers
Why are we singling out Monsanto?
It's true that Monsanto isn't the only company promoting products and practices that impede the progress of sustainable agriculture. But none of Monsanto's competitors come close to matching its impact on U.S. agriculture—or, thanks to its huge investment in lobbying and advertising, on farm policy.
What exactly do we mean by sustainable agriculture, anyway?
There are many definitions of sustainable agriculture out there, but most of them share some common threads. At a minimum, to be sustainable, an agricultural system must be:
- economically viable (farmers who use it must be able to maintain thriving businesses);
- ecologically sound (it must preserve the natural systems and resources it depends on, so that future generations can continue to use them);
- socially beneficial (it must meet the human needs of both the farm itself and the wider communities it serves).
Are we saying that Monsanto's products have no sustainability benefits at all?
It's true that Monsanto's impact on sustainability can't be painted in black and white. Some of the company's products have indeed produced some real benefits, though we would argue that these benefits have not, in most cases, come close to outweighing their costs. And when weighed against truly sustainable alternatives, Monsanto's solutions fall drastically short.
Several genetically engineered crops have been associated with desirable effects such as decreases in chemical insecticide use and increases in conservation tillage, which reduces soil erosion (especially no-till, a system that avoids plowing).
However, it's debatable how significant these benefits are, and how much credit Monsanto really deserves. In the case of no-till, most of the observed increase in the U.S. came before the introduction of Monsanto's GE crops, and it's unclear how much of the increase since then is a result of their adoption. This shows that no-till can generally be accomplished without GE crops.
The benefits of reduced insecticide use in Bt corn in the U.S. are largely offset by insecticide seed treatments—so the actual environmental impact of insecticide use may not have decreased at all, although health benefits may remain. And the increase in uncontrolled insect species on Bt cotton in China is leading to insecticide application levels approaching pre-Bt days.