Falling Short on Feeding the World
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.
The 21st century is going to be a time of enormous challenge for agriculture across the globe. Population growth, global warming, urbanization, and other factors are expected to put increasing pressure on the food supply. Somehow, the world's farmers must find a way to meet this growing demand and feed us all.
Push-Pull: An Ingenious (and GE-free) Solution to a Devastating Pest Problem
Stem borers are a major insect pest across much of Africa. These moth larvae can substantially reduce corn yields.
In the 1990s, scientists in Kenya and Britain began looking at the stem borer problem. Their research led to the "push-pull" system, an integrated pest management (IPM) approach in which corn is planted alongside two other crops that work together to prevent stem borer damage.
In the "pull" component of the system, Napier grass, a wild perennial often used as livestock fodder, acts as a "trap crop," attracting the stem borer moths to lay their eggs—but then exuding a sticky gum that traps the larvae.
The "push" component is provided by silverleaf desmodium, a plant that repels borer moths while attracting their natural enemies.
As a bonus, desmodium also kills striga, or parastic witchweed, another huge thorn in the side of corn farmers. And to put the cherry on the sundae, desmodium—a leguminous plant—has the ability to convert nitrogen from the air into a form other plants can use, improving soil fertility.
According to a 2011 report, farmers adopting the push-pull system typically double their yields.
Backing Out on Science
Monsanto claims that its biotechnology products will be crucial to the success of this effort. Yet experts, such as the hundreds of international scientists that contributed to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)—a report supported and endorsed by several UN agencies, the World Bank, and dozens of countries—have said that non-GE approaches that cost less and are more effective should be prioritized.
But instead of accepting the results of the detailed analysis of the IAASTD, Monsanto and several other large seed and chemical companies backed out of the process at the last minute and refused to endorse it. This makes it harder for the important recommendations of the report to gain acceptance.
A Vision that Won't Travel Well
The vision of "sustainable" agriculture proposed by Monsanto includes high-tech seeds, reduced tillage, and GPS-guided precision application of fertilizers.
This prescription was written for the large industrial monocultures of the midwestern United States. This approach is likely to remain highly dependent on fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides at the expense of regional biodiversity. And because it is very capital- and machinery-intensive, it is not viable for many small, poor farmers around the world.
On the other hand, data show that small farms can be more productive per acre than large ones on an overall (rather than single-crop) basis. In addition, many agroecological approaches outperform more expensive GE approaches—for example, the simple but elegant push-pull system for grains such as corn in eastern Africa (see sidebar).
With overuse of biotechnology, as we've already seen, comes resistance and related problems. Resistance of stem borer on Bt corn in South Africa has recently been reported. And in China, after initial reductions in insecticide use on Bt cotton, secondary pests not controlled by Bt have greatly increased, pushing chemical insecticide use back up. This has hurt income because farmers pay almost as much for insecticide—and a lot more for Bt cotton seed. In addition, Bt cotton may be contributing to increases in secondary pests moving from cotton to other fruit and vegetable crops, causing further damage.
Reliance on expensive GE seeds leaves poor farmers vulnerable to other factors, such as drought, floods, and the many pests that can harm crops but are not controlled by engineered genes. Agroecological approaches—which base farming on an understanding of the ecological relationships between crops and the environment—typically build broad resilience to pests and other challenges.
It has been suggested that GE traits are scale-neutral, and therefore small farmers may benefit as much or more as large farmers. But higher-priced seed and accompanying expensive inputs may be beyond the reach of poor farmers.
There are no panaceas, but there are accumulating data that support approaches other than those pushed by Monsanto for most poor farmers.