Multinational Agricultural Biotechnology Corporation

Multinational Agricultural Biotechnology Corporation. What does that even mean?

Well, it’s a few of the words used to describe Monsanto – a company often viewed as the universal bad guy of seed and fertilizer production. I know there’s a lot of debate around the benefits and harm associated with using and supporting Monsanto products and I don’t feel as though it’s my place to take a side when there are benefits for some people. I’m just here to share what I know and a little bit of how I feel – from the perspective of someone who grew up with no access to large scale farming and no access to any Monsanto products.

Historically, companies couldn’t own seeds or own the rights to seeds. If you wanted a new plant or a variation of one, you went to your friends, family, neighbours and took clippings, for crops to carry over you’d save a portion of the plants and dry out the seeds to have enough for the next season: this model is one that I saw and experienced growing up in Northern Ontario. In many other parts of the world, this model changed in the 1980’s when the USA Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allowed patents for “live human-made micro-organisms” and set the groundwork for seeds to become commodities, rather than elements of a community or neighbourhood.

This vote essentially developed the economic and legal framework that allows a few multinational corporations to hold monopoly over the global seed market and has allowed Monsanto become the leader in that with over 674 biotechnology patents for their products. The business model that Monsanto follows is genius and allows them to maintain their monopoly. They began by developing their own pesticide called Roundup and their own pesticide resistant seeds termed ‘Roundup Ready’, the pesticide killed all plants except for those grown from Roundup Ready seeds, guaranteeing the joint sale of those products.

Now, where a lot of the controversy enters is the next element of Monsanto’s business model: farmers who purchase Monsanto seeds must sign an agreement guaranteeing that they will not save seeds to use from season to season, or sell the seeds to other farmers. This means that the whole practice of saving seeds and sharing products has been destroyed, it also means that fields may be subject to testing from Monsanto to ensure compliance. While this does make sense, it also means that nearby farmers who may choose not to use Monsanto products could have their farms compromised as seeds may blow into their fields and make them subject to legal cases regarding their use of Monsanto patented seeds.

I understand both sides: the ease and security of using Monsanto seeds to increase yields and quality of produce, and the struggle associated with trying to maintain traditional and/or organic methods of farming. But the question I consider is ‘What about the diversity?’ We all know that for successful farming and crop production we need diversity; diversity of crops, diversity in crop species and subspecies, and diversity in soil nutrients. But what about diversity at the macro level? Is it truly safe to eliminate biodiversity in seed production? Is it safe to eliminate diversity in the market? How much faith can be put in one company that holds a monopoly on agricultural production? Should there be more competition at that level?

Do we really have choices about which companies we’re choosing to support?

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7 responses

  1. Even thought we get more food production today by using those seeds, but we never know how it’s going to effect our environment 10 years later, there are many things that EA don’t’ cover, even if they do discover the issues, how many of the politicians will choose to give up GDP and the food production for our environment?

    • I think its a fine balance and its hard to quantify the future cost that environmental degradation will have. It will come down to whether GDP or human health is more important I think.

  2. Hey Steph,
    I wanted to tackle the idea of diversity loss that you brought up. Playing devil’s advocate- I have to point out that our idea of biodiversity is highly anthropocentric. We tend to consider the environment, the way we found it, to be the way it is supposed to be. We tend to forget that the composition of our environment has and will always continue to change. So in the long run of things in terms of biodiversity, there are going to be changes, which is only natural, and if our major food crops get wiped out, due to reduced resilience from our GM practices, humans would survive… just not 7 billion of them.

    • I remember this conversation a bit from the weekend. Do you think that that vision of the future is immanent? Should our idea of the environment change, even if it means we may be unable to adapt? It seems either way people are out of luck: if we protect the environment and natural diversity, we don’t have enough food; if we don’t protect natural biodiversity, we lose main food groups..
      What about the idea of diversity within the companies producing our food?

      • Hey steph,
        It seems that either way, humans have exceeded the sustainable capacity of our planet. Sooner or later we will hit a major event that would greatly affect the population of humans on the planet. In the mean time the best future situation would be to have a public/private partnership to try and use human ingenuity(which got us into this situation in the first place) to find our way out. Our food source along with our water, and air are all under threat. Having a diversity in the companies doesn’t necessarily mean that we will be better off. Sometimes having one leadership leads to more actions being taken.

  3. Monsanto gets a bad rep a lot – but there are many other companies that do the same work as them, like Bayer, Dow, Dupont. I agree that it’s strange the way we grow food, and it has shfited from a natural, community-based thing to a highly corporate one. It was brilliant of Monsanto to do this for their own purposes, as it breaks the production cycle completely and funnels money into their pockets.These companies may have provided us with some benefits with their hybrid and GMO seeds though – seed varieties that are more efficient to grow, product better yields, and in some special cases (look up Golden Rice), enhance nutritional value. It’s also important to remember that seed breeding has been going on for a long time – which is basically what seeds are. Interestingly tough, hybrid seeds cannot be patented, which GMO ones can – more reason for companies to make GMOs which they can profit more from. I think this profit-driven view of agiculture is what is responsible for a lot of the negative things we hear about. The science itself is one thing, but the way it is being used is exploitative.

    Seed homogenization is a worrisome thing – plant species are disappearing. I think it comes back to our food systems in general. When we buy from the supermarket, we look for consistency and perfection. We want food to look and taste exactly the same. This means that we need to grow a lot of the same variety of crops.

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