Essay: Monsanto vs. the world

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Owing to the rapidly increasing field of technology over time, especially in Genetic Engineering (GE) and Biotechnology, agricultural techniques around the world have become more modernised and efficient in order to supply enough food for the world, with only a few countries still using their ”old fashioned farming” techniques which have been passed down through many generations. Genetically modified crops (GM crops) such as cotton, maize, soybeans, canola and many other staple foods (inexpensive macronutrient enriched foods which make up most of one’s daily diet) (Anonymous, 2016) produced by biotechnology companies such as Monsanto, have been very beneficial to Third and First World farmers such as the U.S.A., Canada, India, South Africa and China being some (Ackerman, 2016). In order to understand the benefits of GM crops for both the Third and First World farmers, dismissing concerns about the negative impact on Third World farmers, many aspects, both the pros and cons need to be clarified and defined, such as the processes of genetic engineering and the economics of buying and growing GM crops for First and Third World farmers as well as biotechnology companies such as Monsanto.
”Old fashioned farming” and Conventional Breeding techniques
Old fashioned farming (aka conventional breeding), uses methods such as artificial selection. Artificial selection is a form of selective breeding which has been practiced for thousands of years. Farmers control the production of crops by only allowing plants with the desirable traits to reproduce.
This method is much slower as it may take generations to get a crop which exhibits the desired traits, and it is also unpredictable as one may not know if the genes will be passed down to the next generation or not. This also limits the variety of genes in which farmers can choose from as the farmer can only breed plants of the same species or closely related plants.
Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) is used where agricultural techniques and knowledge is passed down from each generation by word of mouth, such as the ways in which farmers can conserve genetic resources, how to manipulate crops and improve diagnosis and treatment of crops. Scientists obtained this knowledge from the farmers and combined it with their own knowledge to get a bigger perspective and a greater understanding about those crops. Scientists then applied this knowledge in biotechnology and Genetic engineering (Grogan; Suter, 2015).
Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering and GMOs
Biotechnology is the use of ”scientific procedures to influence specific processes in living organisms which will benefit humans or improve the environment” (Grogan; Suter, 2015 pg.180) and Genetic Engineering (GE) is ”any manipulation of an organism’s genes” (Grogan; Suter, 2015 pg.180). GE is a rapidly growing branch of genetics and has led to the creation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) which are ”organism(s) with introduced foreign DNA (gene) that results in new and useful traits” (Grogan; Suter, 2015 pg.180).
Creating GM crops and their benefits
Agriculture has been affected with the introduction of GM crops, where the crops are genetically transformed. There are many ways in which these crops can be transformed; ‘Gene Gun’ method (microprojectile bombardment/ biolistics method) and recombinant technology being some. ‘Gene Gun’ method is the process where the desirable DNA is coated onto metal pellets and shot into a plant. Recombinant DNA techniques is more controlled as the desired DNA (transgene) is introduced into the plant cells via recombinant plasmids (ring of DNA) from a soil bacterium (the vector), Agrobacterium tumefaciens, to form a transgenic organism (Grogan; Suter, 2015).
These crops will then have the transgene, from any organism which is beneficial in many ways such as; to resist unwanted substances or organisms, or have a larger size or grow faster. This results in increased yields of the crops, higher nutritional value as well as reducing the reliance on chemical pesticides and herbicides which preserves and protects the environment as well as reducing the cost for the use of these chemicals.
First World vs. Third World farmers
In Third World countries, the yields are actually low owing to crop damage from bad farming practices, drought, flooding, pest infestation and lack of fertilisers and pesticides. These farmers cannot afford to buy these GM crops from the First World countries which provide these GM crops and are already reaping the benefits from using these GM crops, so the benefits of GM crops are essentially only limited to First World farmers. In order for Third World farmers to benefit from these GM crops (financially, environmentally and nutritionally), they would need financial support from countries (First World countries), examples of how First World countries and Monsanto have tried to help Third World farmers with their GM crops are mentioned later on in this document.
Monsanto is a public American company which manufactures agricultural products through the use of biotechnology. They manufacture GE herbicides*, insecticides and GMOs such as seeds, such as Bt.cotton and Roundup Ready. They are considered to be a giant biotechnology corporation as they supply the world with their GE products. Monsanto is specifically known to manufacture and sell crop seeds with specific traits such as being herbicide resistant* and pest resistant (without harming the health of humans or animals) as well as having higher nutritional value. Monsanto was also the largest non-GM supplier of vegetables seeds in 2012. The company has done 95% of their research in developing conventional breeding (Anonymous, 2016). Third World farmers would therefore benefit from this as the way in which they farm would be improved without moving away from conventional breeding methods as a whole. This company has also created stacked seeds which are both insecticide and herbicide resistant. This is beneficial to farmers as this is proven to reduce the labour cost for weed removal and spraying of the insecticides
Benefits of herbicide resistant crops
*Monsanto has created a herbicide containing the substance, glyphosate which is harmful to weeds. This herbicide, under the name Roundup, does not affect the GM seed, Roundup Ready, which is resistant to Roundup. Having this gene in the seeds enables farmers to plant their crops in narrower rows as there would be no need for mechanical weeding, thus leaving the top soil unharmed. This is called no-till farming, and this reduces the loss of the soils nutrients which therefore reduces costs as there would be no need to use excessive fertilisers. Third world farmers can therefore benefit from these GM crops and herbicides by saving on fertilisers and excess labour costs. In 2014 the first patented Roundup Ready crop expired and farmers continued to grow these crops. This is once again beneficial for Third and First World farmers as these seeds can be cultivated and harvested as many times as they want to without having to buy the seed each season.
Bt. Crops
Monsanto has developed their research in Bt. cotton (genetically modified cotton containing the gene which produces a crystalline insecticidal protein from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis which is lethal to the cotton pest bollworm) (Pearce, 2014). They have found that the Bt. gene can then be used in other crops such as maize, canola and soybean, which are crops that are produced on a large scale in Third World countries specifically. Research was done in South Africa on small-holder farmers from 1998-2000(Ismael; Bennett; Morse, 2002). Some used the Bt.cotton seeds and even though the farmers paid twice as much for them than those who did not use the GM seeds, their yields and gross margin average were much higher than the non-Bt. users. These farmers saved on insecticides as well as labour costs as there was no need to spray insecticides on a regular basis. Chinese farmers using Bt.cotton said to have reduced the cost of pesticides by 28% per kg by reducing the number of times sprayed a year from 20 to 6 (Clay, 2004). Figure 1 shows the distribution of GM crops to poor farmers (Third World farmers) in 2010, and Figure 2 shows the income of both the developing (Third World countries) and developed (First World countries). This shows the improvement of helping Third World farmers and therefore improving their productivity of agriculture and inevitably their income.
Bt. Crop yields in Third and First World countries
It was discovered in various sources taken from one source that Bt. Cotton yield increase was much higher in developing countries than in developed countries. For example, U.S.A only increased by 9-11% and South Africa increased by 40-70%. In Bt. Maize, South Africa has a larger yield increase than U.S.A. (4.7%) at 11% (Adenle, 2011). This is a positive thing for Third World farmers as their yields and therefore their profits have increased, even at a larger scale to the First World countries. However, there have been concerns that these increases are still not enough to satisfy the large populations in those countries.
Bt. Crop economics
Research has shown that countries adopting the Bt. crops (soybean, maize, cotton and canola) have contributed to 5.7% of the total global value of production in 2008 (Adenle, 2011). Farmers in Third World countries in 2008 were estimated to receive a 50.5% income from farm benefits. GM crops have also been estimated to have increased farm income and agricultural production by US $52 billion since 1996 (Adenle, 2011). This is positive news in terms of income for both Third and First World farmers.
Figure 1 (Adenle, 2011)
Figure 2(Adenle, 2011)
GM crops in agriculturally poor areas
GM crops have the potential to help many Third World farmers by introducing crops which could be grown in conditions where crops could not be grown before. Research has been done and published by The University of Chicago Press in 1985, that South-eastern Asia had approximately 86.5 million hectares of poor soil which could not grow High Yielding Varieties (HYV) of crops using conventional methods of farming. These HYVs need controlled irrigation, precise quantities of fertilisers and pesticides as they are highly vulnerable to pests. These farmers could be given GM crops (fixed with nitrogen) such as rich and maize which reduce the cost of fertilizers and increase their profits.
Bt. brinjal controversy in India and Bangladesh
Monsanto along with scientists at Cornell University also produced Bt.brinjal, and had an alliance with India in 2003, allowing the farmers to propagate the seeds without having to pay for the patented gene (royalties), which Monsanto normally does not allow. The chairman of the company in agreement with Monsanto said ” we looked for crops with problems that couldn’t be addressed by conventional breeding”, meaning that conventional breeding methods cannot always be used which leads to the use of modern technology. However, in this situation, brinjal used the second highest amount of pesticides after cotton and the pest problem could not be solved before the introduction of the Bt. gene. The chairman also stated that the crops that they are trying to improve are for the poor farmers, to improve their yield and profitability. This would mean that these poor farmers would have to use modern agriculture as well as their own methods in order to make a living. Researchers have also said that technology raises crop yields by one third as there is more control over pests, diseases and weeds.
The negative aspect to the Bt. gene is that it is incompatible with heavy rains and the pests, bollworm, thrives in rainy seasons. This situation happened in India as the Bt.brinjal was planted too late and the crops wilted in the rainy seasons. This caused a major loss in yields (Pearce, 2016). It was also found in 2009 in India that there were insects resistant to the Bt.cotton crop. Monsanto then told the farmers to invest in the second strain with 2 resistant genes. Owing to political reasons the Bt. brinjal did not succeed in India, as the Indian government refused to pay for the very expensive crops and so they illegally crossed their own crops with the GM crops using plant breeding methods, known as seed piracy. These crops did not survive owing to the lack of rain and they were put into large debts (Pearce, 2016).
Monsanto’s economic gain on GM crops
Since large amounts of money were invested into research, development and manufacture of these GM seeds, Monsanto regain their money by patenting these seeds. This means that Monsanto has legally registered a certain gene (with a specific genetic sequence), which they have manipulated to have a specific trait, as their own. They have been criticized that the patented genes are naturally occurring or that the genes were not originally discovered by Monsanto, thus accusing them for biopiracy. The crops are also grown on large scales as a monoculture. This means that crops of the same species are grown in large areas, and since they will all have the exact same genes, there will be no crossing over of alleles which ensures genetic variation, ultimately ensuring genetic vigour. Pests will build up owing to the large amount of the desired food source and therefore there will be a huge loss in yields and in money once these pests invade the monocultured crops. By doing this, they have also been accused of reducing biodiversity.
By patenting the gene, Monsanto is legally allowed to sue farmers which have not signed a contract with them and have the patented gene in their crops. The contract often indicates that the farmer may not grow the second generation of seeds or cross pollinate them with his/her own seeds. Once the patent contract has expired, many farmers continue to harvest the second generation and grow them. This means that the seeds from the GM crops can be cultivated and crossed over with other crops without being charged, however, the quality of the second generation would not necessarily be as good as the first generation, it may be weaker or less resilient. These patents allow Monsanto to have power and control over farmers as they will be fined if the patented gene is found in other crops, and farmers are forced into buying the patents as they want the crops with the same genetic material as the first generation. However, Monsanto has promised not to sue farmers if their crops contain less than 1% of the patented gene.
Monsanto have had many legal court cases where the farmers inevitably lost. Percy Schmeiser was one of those farmers.
Percy Schmeiser vs. Monsanto
Percy Schmeiser, a South African who grows canola, was sued by Monsanto for having crops which contained the patented gene. This farm which has been passed down for three generations did not cultivate the GM crop; it was cross contaminated via pollination with the crops from his neighbour which was in a contract with Monsanto. Schmeiser said at the Third World Network teach-in on globalisation on genetic engineering and biosafety at St Stithians College that ”the world is becoming colonised by transnational companies who control seed and food supply” (Roy, 2012). Monsanto then came up with Terminator technology owing to the large amount of people using their patented genes.
Terminator technology
Terminator genes found in GM seeds, made by Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT) / terminator technology causes the second generation of seeds to be sterile. This means that farmers will have to buy the seeds every time they need to grow the crop, as the crop which they have grown produced seeds (second generation seeds) which would not be able to grow. There are 2 types of GURTs. Variety ‘level GURTs are those seeds which produce sterile seeds. The western (First World) farmers already buying hybrid seeds from biotechnology companies would not be affected immediately because they are not using their own seeds to grow the crop again. This method is not approved by many Third World countries as approximately 80% of the farmers in Brazil and Pakistan grow their crops from seeds that their crops produce (Anonymous, 2016).
The other is Trait-GURT. This is when the GM crop can only show the desired trait or function once treated with a chemical which is sold by the seed company. So a farmer can harvest as many seeds as he/she can, but the desired trait would only be activated when treated with the chemical sold by the seed company. These seeds were developed by university researchers, companies and governmental labs for the protection of the specific gene in the seed. It was said that these seeds were commercialised, however in 1999, Monsanto pledged not to commercialise these seeds, as well as other giant biotechnology corporations (Anonymous, 2016).
If terminator genes were to be used in seeds, it would immediately affect fashioned farming as farmers would no longer need to extract the seeds from the harvest and replant them. Farmers would no longer need to look for and breed crops with the best traits as all the crops would be genetically identical. Terminator genes do not ensure genetic variation and this also empowers large seed companies as all their customers are forced to buy these seeds as they have the best traits and they cannot grow crops from the next generation of seeds. Agriculture, socio-economic and inevitably biodiversity around the world would be controlled by these companies such as Monsanto. Many countries, especially LDCs, would be in large debt as they would have to buy these seeds on a regular basis (which would be extremely expensive owing to the exchange rate).
In conclusion, Monsanto and other large biotechnology corporations do seem to have a large control in agriculture around the world owing to the patented genes in crops, which does negatively impact the Third World farmers economically and reduces the use of conventional farming methods. The reason behind buying GM crops is to increase one’s yields, profits whilst deceasing environmental and crop damage as well as increasing the nutritional value of the product being grown. As shown earlier, many Third World farmers are already benefiting (financially and more efficiently) from using the GM crops. The use of terminator genes would not be a concern as it is not allowed to be commercialised. In order for Third World farmers to benefit from these GM crops, they would need financial assistance from First World countries and maybe even patent free seeds from Monsanto or the actual gene itself so that those countries can try to produce solutions which are specific to their problems. However, in order to grow the crops, conventional farming methods need to be used along with the GM crops and the benefits of saving from insecticides and labour costs also reduces, so Third World and First World farmers and conventional farming techniques are positively affected by biotechnology and genetic engineering.
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