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.
Large-acreage field crops—corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, and now alfalfa—make up the bulk of Monsanto’s products, in part because of the high cost of developing engineered traits. And the approach to agriculture that this product line encourages—monoculture, the production of only one crop in a field year after year—is not a sustainable one.
What's the Alternative?
If Monsanto-style monocultural farming isn't sustainable, what is? Research has shown that biologically diverse farms can be productive and profitable. These farms use sophisticated, science-based methods such as these:
Crop rotation—growing different crops in succession in the same field—is one of the most powerful techniques of sustainable agriculture. By replenishing soil nutrients and disrupting the food supplies of insect pests, it greatly reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and insecticides.
Cover crops such as hairy vetch, clover or rye can also promote soil health, prevent erosion, and suppress weeds, again reducing reliance on fertilizers and herbicides.
Natural pest predators—birds, beneficial insects, and spiders are natural predators of agricultural pests. Biologically diverse farms are more hospitable to these predators, and thus can reduce the need for insecticides.
When Simpler Is Not Better
Monsanto’s approach to insect and weed management depends upon the heavy use of a few biocides to control pests. And most of these pests are large problems mainly because of the biological simplification of the agricultural system.
This simplification—represented by huge areas devoted to only one or two crops on very large farms, with little uncultivated area—requires more pesticide, because pests can more easily build up on crops when they are adapted to these crops and practices.
Many pests are selective about the crops they infect or consume, so alternating (or rotating) crops reduces the need for pesticides (see sidebar). For example, in much of the Corn Belt, corn rootworms are not big problems when corn is rotated with soybeans or other crops, because rootworms only thrive on corn.
Although Bt corn has reduced the amount of insecticide needed to control its target pests (unless resistance spreads), this reduction has been largely offset by increases in the treatment of corn seed with neonicotinoid insecticides. Neonicotinoids have recently been associated with honey bee colony collapse disorder and other bee mortality. And about 35 percent of U.S. crops rely on bees and other pollinators to be productive.
Simplified cropping systems also exacerbate the serious water pollution that results from the application of nitrogen fertilizers. Much of the fertilizer is not utilized by crops like corn.
By contrast, complex crop rotations that include cover crops (see sidebar) have been shown to take up excess nitrogen in the soil, keeping it from passing into groundwater. When the cover crop is incorporated into the soil in the spring, it makes this nitrogen available to the crops that follow.
A Growing Resistance Movement
As we've seen, over-reliance on a small number of pest control methods increases resistance problems. Bt insect-resistant corn has resulted in a reduction in integrated pest management (IPM), which relies on multiple means to control pests. Robust IPM is more sustainable and typically uses less pesticide than methods that rely heavily on chemical pesticide application or on GE insect-resistant crops.
Surveys have found that large numbers of growers use Bt varieties even when pest pressures are low and they are not needed. These surveys have also found that about 40 percent of growers say they cannot get high-quality non-GE varieties from Monsanto and other seed companies. This could interfere with their ability to plant non-GE refuges to prevent resistance from developing.