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?