The GMO debate: sowing the seeds of controversy

In the eyes of its critics, Monsanto is the big bad of the GMO world. But should we be worried about genetically modified crops?

Monsanto is one of the biggest producers of genetically modified organisms in the world 

Having been voted “the most evil corporation” in the world by readers of the NaturalNew website in 2013, there’s no denying Monsanto has had some reputation problems. That said, the poll result could be seen as quite an achievement – given the company itself is not consumer-facing.

Monsanto may be one of the biggest producers and sellers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the world (see Fig 1), but by no means does it have the lion’s share of the global market. It has, however, struggled to always manage its public relations as best it might and has a controversial track record of suing farmers, both of which factors have made it a target for critics of GMOs.

monsanto-fig-1GMOs are plants or animals that have had their DNA adapted by transferring individual genes from a source organism to a target organism. In doing so, breeders are able to produce crops and livestock with certain beneficial traits, such as pesticide resistance or enhanced nutritional value. Glenn Davis Stone, Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Washington University, said: “Herbicide tolerance is by far the most widely planted GM trait. Its advantage is not in yield – it actually tends to have a yield drag – but because it makes the use of cheap herbicide convenient.”

Though at first glance it may seem genetically modifying plants and animals is a logical step in modern agriculture, numerous multinationals have come under fire for ‘messing with nature’, with critics claiming such tampering could have unintended and damaging consequences. Monsanto has been at the centre of this debate, having been the biggest target of anti-GMO groups and campaigners since the 1990s.

Monsanto’s controversial history
To understand why the company has attracted so much ire, it is necessary to go back to the very beginning. Monsanto was established in 1901 as a chemical company deep in the American Midwest (in St Louis, Missouri to be precise). Things moved quickly for the group once it expanded into drug manufacturing and by the 1920s Monsanto had become the world’s largest producer of aspirin.

It was during this time that Monsanto introduced polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to its portfolio. At the time, PCBs were considered to be a wonder chemical for hydraulic fluid and lubricants, prized as an oil that didn’t burn or degrade. Once again, Monsanto had reached the pinnacle of market success, becoming the globe’s biggest manufacturer of PCBs. Despite the seeming benefits at the time, it would later prove a very controversial move.

Monsanto has been the biggest target of anti-GMO groups since the 1990s

Things didn’t get much better when, in the 1960s, Monsanto became one of the few companies to produce the biochemical weapon Agent Orange. The company’s dealings got even more complicated in the 1970s, when the US and numerous other countries banned the production and use of PCBs, which had been linked to birth defects, immune system disorders, cancer and fatalities. In fact, Illinois – where Monsanto’s first PCB factory was based – had one of the highest rates of birth defects in the US at the time. According to the University of California, even three decades after their ban, PCBs could still be detected in the bloodstreams of pregnant women living in the state.

Also prohibited during the same decade was DDT, a chemical commonly used in pesticides, which Monsanto had been manufacturing for years. DDT was linked to cancer, miscarriages, male infertility, developmental delay, liver and nervous system damage, adding further damage to Monsanto’s reputation.

Delving into agribusiness
Perhaps because so many of the company’s products had been banned, the executives at Monsanto decided an overhaul was needed; by the 1980s, the group had let go of both its chemical and plastic departments. Monsanto then headed in a new direction as it began buying up seed companies while also investing in biogenetic research.

With approval from the US Department of Agriculture in the bag, in 1994 farmers began growing soybeans with Monsanto’s GM seeds, making their crops immune to the most commonly used weed killer in the industry (another Monsanto product: Round-Up). The firm has been profiting handsomely from products of this nature ever since (see Fig 2).

monsanto-fig-2Monsanto also developed a way to ensure crops could not produce viable seeds: sterile seed technology prevented second-generation crops, prompting the nickname ‘terminator seeds’. According to Monsanto’s website, the company has never commercialised this technology, and in 1999 made a decision never to do so. Despite this, backlash from anti-GM activists resulted all the same, with many accusing Monsanto of preventing farmers from using their best seeds – a practice that has been in place for centuries.

While terminator seeds may not be in general circulation, it is true Monsanto does not allow its customers to reuse seeds for a second season. Despite criticism, the company maintains banning second-generation crops is necessary in order to prevent the spread of glyphosate resistance among crops. Nonetheless, over the years, many have argued this rule is simply a clever sales tactic.

Public outcry
Despite the company’s chequered history, the general public was largely unaware Monsanto even existed for many years. That all changed in 1996, however, when Monsanto attempted to sell its first products in Europe. With the UK still reeling from an epidemic of mad cow disease, the tide of public opinion at the time was very much against modern farming techniques. And so, despite regulatory approval from the EU, consumers in the UK rebelled against Round-Up Ready seeds, leading supermarkets to boycott GM foods and tabloids to coin the term ‘frankenfoods’.

Monsanto was caught off guard, dubbing the British the “sad sacks of Europe” for querying the use of GMOs – hardly a masterstroke of public relations. Modern Farmer reported that, in an anonymous interview, a former employee of Monsanto had said the company’s attitude at the time was “if they try to block it, we’ll sue them” – a tactic the company would be accused of pursuing a number of times in the years to come. A subsequent and ill-advised campaign (which read, “Food biotechnology is a matter of opinions – Monsanto believes you should hear all of them” and included the phone number of Greenpeace) ran into trouble with both environmental activists and industry watchdogs; the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority found Monsanto had presented “as accepted fact” what were merely its own opinions and that some of its scientific claims were “wrong” and “unproven”.

Environmental organisations encouraged the fallout with a series of high-profile campaigns against the company and GMOs in general. To name but a few examples, in the mid-1990s the Organic Consumers Association founded the Millions Against Monsanto campaign in a bid to “fight back against Monsanto and other biotech bullies”. In 1999, Friends of the Earth introduced a campaign entitled: “How safe is the food you eat?” It concluded that “the scary answer is, no one really knows”, playing on public fears.

Such a debate is not constructive, it’s not informative and it definitely doesn’t really mean much

“NGO opposition originally crystallised around two primary issues: the social and ethical aspects of designing life, and the potential impacts on seed diversity and control”, Stone explained to World Finance. “A secondary set of issues concerned safety and the integrity of systems for evaluating safety.”

Further criticism was levelled at Monsanto’s interactions with farmers. Vanity Fair reported that in 2008 Missouri shop owner Gary Rinehart had recalled how six years earlier, anonymous men in suits had turned up at his convenience store, accusing him of planting Monsanto soybeans without consent. They reportedly advised him to “come clean and settle with Monsanto… or face the consequences”. The article described a fear among farmers of the company’s alleged behaviour towards those it believed had infringed its copyright. “Farmers call them the ‘seed police’”, wrote Donald L Barlett and James B Steele, “and use words such as ‘Gestapo’ and ‘Mafia’ to describe their tactics”.

The most prominent of such cases was that of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto in 1998 for refusing to pay a licensing fee for Round-Up Ready Canola. Schmeiser argued the seeds had blown onto his farm, and so growing the crop had been unintentional. The story blew up when it was made into a documentary called David vs Monsanto, reinforcing in the public imagination the idea of the company as a Goliath using its deep pockets to prosecute poor farmers.

For its own part, Monsanto has never denied investigating those it believes to have unlawfully used its seeds. In a series of articles published on its website, the company described the process by which it goes about investigating possible cases of “farmer seed patent infringement”; the company says its investigators are polite and open about who they are and who they work for, that they only collect samples with farmers’ permission, and that lawsuits, though possible, are not probable. “There’s nothing good about seeing a farmer or a family upset”, the site quotes investigator Larry McDowell as saying.

A lot of the bad press about GMOs lacks scientific evidence and makes nonsensical comparisons

Whatever the truth of such cases, arguably Monsanto’s biggest mistake has been its failure to understand the cultural significance of farming, or that many people feel strongly about the idea of ‘patenting nature’. In an attempt to squash this notion, Monsanto has often compared its GM seeds to software, stating the technology is proprietary and belongs to the creators.

Stone described the resultant nature of the debate as “self-amplifying”, a phenomenon known as ‘schismogenesis’: “I take an extreme position in reaction to your extreme position, leading you to take a more extreme position, and so on… The polarisation feeds on itself as nuanced differences become disagreement, then disapproval, exasperation and eventually hatred. For example, GMO promoters accuse GMO sceptics of crimes against humanity, in part because the sceptics make the same claim [of them].”

You can’t mess with science
It has taken some years, but the evidence in favour of GMOs is beginning to take hold in the public consciousness. “The National Academy [of Sciences] in the US has done a really thorough study that once again shows that there is no evidence of harm for human health or for the health of the environment, so these studies have been pretty exhaustive over the last 20 to 30 years”, said Dr Sarah Davidson Evanega, Director at Cornell Alliance for Science, an organisation that supports “evidence-based decision-making in agriculture”.

She continued: “We’ve had a lot of studies that have suggested there’s no reason to think that the nature of how these plants are bred would pose any danger to human health and the environment, and that of course is based on the crops we have today.”


The number of acres covered by Monsanto’s primary research campus in Chesterfield, Missouri


The value of Monsanto’s failed bid for Syngenta in 2015


The amount Bayer paid for Monsanto in 2016


The number of cities that took part in the March Against Monsanto in May 2013

In response, the media is beginning to change its tune. “Increasingly, the coverage of tech by reputable media outlets is very much based in science – and people don’t want to get on the wrong side of science”, Evanega told World Finance. “There is a scientific consensus around climate change, and there’s a scientific consensus around safety of GM crops, and you can’t deny one scientific consensus and embrace the other; you’re either on the side of science, or you’re not.”

Indeed, a lot of the bad press about GMOs lacks scientific evidence and makes nonsensical comparisons. Take the American chestnut tree, for example: in an attempt to bring the tree back from near-extinction, it has been engineered using a gene from wheat, which protects it from a fungal disease known as ‘chestnut blight’.

“[This is] a blight that has basically killed every nut-bearing American chestnut tree on the planet over the last 100 years”, Evanega explained. “If we think about the efforts that have been made to repopulate the forests of the eastern US with what is now a nearly extinct species, that’s very different than Round-Up Ready corn, so how can we compare those two products?”

Evanega also raised the question of whether we should even be having such a global debate at all: “It’s not really useful for us in the global north to be debating about whether or not a banana farmer in Uganda should have access to choose whether or not she wants to grow a genetically engineered crop – that should be a decision that is left to the Government of Uganda and the farmers of Uganda. So, to engage in a global GMO debate over this huge amorphous bucket of aggregated things called GMOs is not constructive, it’s not informative and it definitely doesn’t really mean much.”

More and more people now seem to understand the distinction between different GM products. Through a gradual shift in the media, the public is also increasingly aware that genetic modification is a tool used by farmers in order to develop new, healthy crops, with the aim of optimising their quality.

“I do know they [Monsanto] have spent billions on public relations and have surely made some progress by enlisting academics and other scientists, who appear to be objective, to praise GMOs”, Stone added.

Necessary progress
Underpinning much of the GMO debate is the role of technology in agriculture, which is something many people are instinctively afraid of. With numerous campaigns and media outlets telling us we are consuming poisonous chemicals and feeding them to our children, it is no wonder many worry about what they eat each day. A lot of this, however, is hyperbole, and in many cases simply fallacious.

The truth is, science helps to bridge the widening gap between the escalating demand for food and its production. With a global population that has reached 7.4 billion – and is expected to reach 11.2 billion by the end of the century – more and more pressure is being placed on agricultural systems to feed the planet. Worryingly, our current infrastructure and farming methods are buckling under that pressure. A trust in science is therefore desperately needed if solutions are to be found and implemented – solutions that work with limited space and resources, and do not spoil our landscapes any more than is necessary.

And science has an answer: genetically modifying crops can help alleviate some of the stress we have placed on our planet, while also feeding billions (see Fig 3). Although products such as Round-Up Ready do not directly increase yield for farmers, GM crops generally require fewer herbicides and pesticides, thereby reducing the exposure our food and environment have to them. By making crops more resilient, we create a more sustainable system for farming, which in turn can help to enhance food security across the planet.

Throughout the centuries, society has always had a strong affection for farmers and profound respect for their practices – it speaks to most of us on a number of levels. Food is deeply personal; it provides a vehicle for communication, community, celebration and comfort. While western civilisation has become somewhat detached from the source of its food, most of us are still aware of how much work is required to produce it. Unsurprisingly, therefore, we disdain those who we believe take advantage of farmers and threaten their livelihoods.

It is perhaps this that lies at the core of derision for Monsanto: the company is, in the minds of its critics, the big bad guy that picks on hardworking farmers, squeezing pennies out of them and suing them.

Yet Monsanto’s reputation for bad spin control and tendency to sue, together with some questionable decisions in its earlier years, should not muddy the reputation of GMOs in general. For there is something to be said for the good GMOs can bring: science can help us grow crops that are less prone to disease and more likely to thrive, while scientific evidence suggests they do not in fact cause any harm to humans or the environment. Finally, the media is beginning to realise the benefits of GMOs, and as a result, more people are becoming aware of the fact that the battle against genetic modification is not one we should be waging at all.