Marginalizing Alternatives

8 Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture: #5

Monsanto's single-minded emphasis on GE fixes for farming challenges may come at the expense of cheaper, more effective solutions.


Given the way Monsanto promotes its genetically engineered products as indispensable game-changers for agriculture, you might wonder how farmers could ever manage without them.

Dominating the Marketplace

Despite the continuing achievements of publicly-funded breeding programs, these programs have been losing ground in recent decades, increasingly replaced by the private sector.

And because of the concentration of the seed industry, in which a few companies control a large majority of the domestic soybean and corn seed markets, plant breeders at public universities and government agencies have many fewer opportunities to introduce their promising, low-cost varieties to farmers. (See chart below.)

Companies like Monsanto introduce their engineered genes into most of the varieties of major crops that they sell. So fewer advanced varieties are developed that meet the needs of organic growers and others who do not want to use engineered crops or pay their higher costs. The lack of non-GE varieties with desirable traits such as increased disease resistance makes it hard for these farmers to compete, even when they otherwise have environmental advantages.

In fact, non-GE methods can be more effective—and often far more cost-efficient.

Classical breeding methods—sometimes augmented with newer methods that use enhanced understanding of crop genetics—usually outperform GE, producing a stream of new crop varieties with desirable properties like increased yield and improved nitrogen use efficiency (which can reduce the fertilizer pollution that contributes to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay).

In recent years, classical breeding has produced varieties of corn resistant to corn rootworm, as well as crops with drought tolerance, disease resistance, improved nutritional characteristics, and reduced susceptibility to fungi that produce harmful toxins.

Agroecological farm management practices used by organic farmers and others—such as cover crops, mulches, manure, and more complex crop rotations—also reduce pest incidence (see #2 and #4), soil erosion, and pollution, and build soil fertility.

Cover crops can remove excess nitrogen from the soil. Long crop rotations in the Midwest can greatly reduce pesticide and fertilizer use while maintaining or increasing crop yields. 

Telling a Lopsided Story

Monsanto’s extensive advocacy of engineered crops marginalizes these approaches despite their lower cost for purchased inputs like fertilizer and pesticides and their often superior results. A recent industry-sponsored survey found that the average cost for developing a new engineered trait is about $136 million, while a typical classically-bred trait in corn has been estimated to cost just $1 million.

Monsanto and other companies use classical breeding as well as GE. But by suggesting that its patented genes GE have achieved higher crop yields and generated other benefits, when in fact classical breeding and improved farming techniques are primarily responsible for those gains, Monsanto obscures better choices farmers might otherwise make.

Click on the chart below to see a zoomable version on the creator's home page.

Source: Philip H. Howard, Michigan State University

Last revised date: January 9, 2012

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