Monsanto is one of the most scrutinised companies in the world, seen as the epitome of corporate greed and evil. Despite global protests against it’s actions and products, along with other similar purposed companies, Monsanto continues to expand and dominate the global food industry, and now has it’s hands in a sometimes majority portion of food production.
Perhaps there is merit to some of Monsanto’s achievements, but there do seem to be inherit risks partnered to GMO.
This can be said for both the potential health risks as well as environmental factors such as cross pollination on non genetically modified plants.
So what is good about genetically modified plants and food?
Using genetic modification, researchers from Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and a series of other companies have been able to establish new crop varieties which are completely resistant to fungal and viral diseases.
This is extremely beneficial to combat diseases like wheat leaf rust, which targets wheat, barley and rye, and contributes to yield losses upwards of 20% in regions around the world.
Increased nutritional content
Many GMO plants have been designed to contain higher amounts of nutrients, for example, increased vitamin A. In areas where there are human vitamin deficiencies of a particular type, targeted crop breeds can be grown and eaten in order to reduce or eradicate deficiencies. In many GMO species however, the opposite of this effect has been noted, and so fine tuning is still considered necessary.
Higher yielding crops have always been a major drawcard for genetically modified farming. In some cases, modification has led to increase of more than double the average yield. This fact alone has led farmers to adopt Monsanto seeds and farming standards, with the potential for profits to increase drastically.
For countries or areas undergoing food shortages, or those with little arable land, higher yields could be particularly beneficial.
A reduced workload for farmers
Disease resistance alone can reduce the effort required by farmers to maintain their crops. Plant immunity to glyphosate (Roundup), a product owned by Monsanto directly, allows for a less careful and time heavy application of herbicide, and some farmers even blanket their crops with the chemical annihilating everything except their crop.
There are now several breeds of GMO plant that have a high tolerance to salinity. This allows farmers with high sodium concentrations in their soil to plant crops that they were once unable to, and even turn once unusable farmland into newly arable land.
So why the concern over GMO farming and food?
Several studies have demonstrated a clear increase of cancer risk in both rats (image above, more below) and people.
Allergies have been found to develop or increase in many people when consuming particular GMO foods. These allergies can usually be attributed to new proteins that people may be allergic to, being introduced to plants that originally did not contain them.
Another health related issue paired with the consumption of genetically modified foods is the reduction of antibiotic efficacy. Because antibiotics are often built into new GMO breeds in order to help them resist diseases, consumers are constantly exposed to antibiotics in their food, reducing the effectiveness of pharmaceutical antibiotics and building a tolerance.
Increased herbicide use
Although one of Monsanto’s strongest selling points is that it’s crops require less herbicides, the opposite is usually observed. Herbicides use in generally increased because crops are immune to them (mainly Roundup), and farmers are able to coat their entire fields with thm. By doing so, more chemicals are introduced into the ecosystem and more herbicides are found in most foods.
Contamination of other crops
Because plants cross breed with pollen, GMO genes are readily spread to neighboring crops. When this occurs, plants that were once essentially organic instantly become GMO, and adopt new GMO genes that may be harmful. The ‘terminator’ gene is a good example of this as it causes seeds to become unviable to sow, leading to a potential shortage of non GMO seeds in the future as well as ruining many breeds currently used by farmers.
Contamination of the natural environment
This genetic contamination is not limited to farming, and can spread to other plants as well. This includes those found within the surrounding flora of farmland. The spread of GMO genes into nature could potentially cause the extinction of many species of plant and animal, not to mention introduce health hazards as well.
When genetic modification is used to combat insects, it is usually accomplished by inserting proteins that are poisonous to insects like those found in pyrethrum directly into the plant. Although at first most of the pests can not eat the plants or die off, the few that manage to survive and continue breeding effectively create a new class of pesticide resistant insects. More pesticides must then be used to fight off the pests, leading to an end result of more pesticides used than what was originally necessary.
Loss of farmers rights
When a farmer originally decides to grow seeds purchased from Monsanto or some of the other GMO corporations, they are usually required to sign agreements and contracts.
A contract from Monsanto contains several clauses that demonstrate their intentions fairly clearly, and appear to be oppressive on many different levels.
Farmers are: not allowed to re-sow their own seeds, required to allow Monsanto to inspect their property at basically any time to check for offences, not allowed to sue Monsanto for damages etc, not allowed to speak publically about grievances they may have with Monsanto. A more in depth look at these contracts can be found here.
Failure to comply with this contract amongst other things will generally lead a farmer to court.
The rat study
The infamous Séralini study conducted in 2012 and consisting of 2 years feeding rats GM maize and Roundup, was a detailed look into the health and safety risks associated with Monsanto products. This study was also created in an extremely similar fashion to a Monsanto led study that determined their own products to be safe, but took a much more in depth path.
The conclusion of the Séralini study was that the maize and Roundup both caused serious liver and kidney damage in the rats that had consumed them, as well as tumors (pictured at the top of this page).
Monsanto has continually disputed these claims, despite their own study being too limited to prove any true positivity.
More details of Séralini’s findings can be found here.
Legal disputes and tactics
Monsanto is definitely no stranger to a courtroom. Aside from taking farmers to court over non-compliance issues, they are constantly suing farmers that have accidentally had their crops contaminated with GM genes (because Monsanto now essentially owns these crops), as well as land holders that have had Monsanto owned plants make their way onto their land via seed.
They have been known to offer rewards to farmers who dob in their neighbours for non-compliance.
Lobbying to governments is another tactic employed to benefit Monsanto. Laws have been changed worldwide in favour of Genetically modified foods and plants, however few have been changed to reduce dependence or restrict use.
Several past and present high profile staff from GMO corporations hold positions in government that provide the needed capabilities to sway decisions, or moderate laws in favour of GMO. Self regulation is extremely common within this industry.
A war of misinformation
The entire GMO subject it riddled with hysteria from both sides of the fence, and so it can often become difficult to separate fact from fiction creating confusion and a severe lack of understanding.
It would appear that this is often far from an accident. The companies behind GM have been caught out on a now uncountable amount of occasions outputting misleading or false information about themselves and their products, silencing farmers with threats and legal action, disputing studies that go against them with baseless and unfactual counter-studies and trying to have some studies removed from journals based on legal disputes, as opposed to legitimate reasons for removal like false claims.
What can be done?
The movement against Monsanto and GMO has grown substantially in the past decade, and continues to grow thanks to education on the topic. The only way that the average person can truly stand up against a corporate giant is by not paying them. There are several detailed lists available online, a good one here, that demonstrate which brands to avoid.