Monsanto’s Claims for Their Genetically Engineered Crops Seem Too Good to be True—But What Are the Alternatives?

Ask a Scientist - February 2012

D. Mathes from Brromfield, CO, asks "Monsanto’s claims that they are going to save the world through new genetically engineered crop varieties seem too good to be true—but what are the alternatives? What specifically does UCS mean when you talk about "modern farming practices?"  and is answered by Senior Scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D.

You’re right that Monsanto, the leader in commercial, genetically engineered crops, makes a lot of grand claims about the ability of its high-tech products—such as genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crop varieties—to increase yields and profits for farmers. Our research clearly shows that not only are Monsanto’s claims often overblown, the company actually impedes the development of sustainable agriculture in a number of important ways, from suppressing independent research on its proprietary products to promoting a chemically intensive agricultural model that increases resistance in weeds and insects. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists supports agricultural techniques that can provide high yields of food, feed, or energy crops sustainably, that is, without harming the environment or undermining current or future productivity. When we talk about “sustainable, modern farming practices,” in other words, we are featuring the work of farmers who take a sophisticated approach to agriculture that substitutes knowledge for pesticides and fertilizers.

It is important to note that these sustainable agriculture practices are every bit as modern as their chemically intensive counterparts and draw equally heavily upon cutting-edge science. Such practices build on the latest, most sophisticated agricultural research on maintaining high yields and farm profits without undermining the resources on which agriculture depends. For instance, these farmers use crop rotations and other adjustments of the agricultural system to solve problems. They understand how soil enrichment can produce healthy plants that resist disease, how so-called “cover crops” can prevent erosion and reduce ground water pollution, and how natural predators can be used to control pests. The result is that farmers are able to minimize their use of pesticides and fertilizers, thereby saving money and protecting the environment.

In other words, sustainable modern agriculture practices are firmly based in science. They use knowledge of the complex interactions between crops, pests, and pest predators to avoid the need for costly technological fixes like pesticides and fertilizers. Such knowledge rests on research in a number of scientific disciplines, including entomology, agronomy, genetics, and weed science. Scientists in these fields are working together to understand agriculture as a system.
And, just as in other fields of science, there is much still to learn. Ecologists, for instance, are still learning a great deal about new ways to cultivate and use crops to control weeds. And soil scientists still have far to go in unlocking the mysteries of healthy soil.

Finally, as agricultural economists have shown, to understand which farm practices make the most sense in the long run, it is important think about more than simply crop yields. Lower costs for energy, fertilizers, or pesticides can be profitable for farmers as well as provide benefits for the environment. Reliance on fewer off-farm products has many benefits for sustainable agricultural systems worldwide, especially in poorer countries. At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we believe that we sell our scientists and agriculturalists short if we accept Monsanto’s version of productive but highly polluting agriculture as the best that this country can do. Our challenge can and should be to develop agricultural practices that are both highly productive and environmentally sound.

Doug Gurian-Sherman is a senior scientist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he focuses on agricultural biotechnology and sustainable agriculture. Previously, he was senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC, and was also founding co-director and science director for the biotechnology project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Dr. Gurian-Sherman holds a doctorate degree in plant pathology from the University of California at Berkeley.

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