Is It Right to Benefit from the Apocalypse?

As climate change impacts more industries, it begins to raise the question of whether profiting from that climate change is ethical. This topic is discussed by analyzing Monsanto and its growing business of GMO products.

 The Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture 

Imagine a world where it didn’t rain for an entire year.[1]  Not a single drop. Now imagine not only having to support 38 million people from such little rainfall but also having to grow enough crops to support that population. Not only does this seem to be a situation that business would struggle to be profitable but one that is an extremely undesirable outcome. However, I argue that there are companies that are not only positioned to survive a more widespread apocalyptic scenario but to thrive! The place I described is a part of California over the past several years. The company that I argue is looking to profit from this? Monsanto.

Climate change has started to impact the US. Looking at California shows a bleak situation: according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, 46% of the state is under the most extreme drought category while 97% of the state is experiencing some degree of drought (see below)– something not seen in over 1,200 years.[1]

Map of drought conditions across the US 2015
Map of drought conditions across the US 2015

 

So what does it look like? It looks like the before & after photo shown below.[2]

Example of Drought Conditions in CA
Example of Drought Conditions in CA

The drought of CA is having immense impact[3], but who is Monsanto and where do they fit into this?

 

Who is Monsanto and What Role Do They Play?

Monsanto is a agriculture company that delivers agricultural products that support farmers worldwide[4]. Monsanto’s products include high-yielding[5] conventional and biotech agricultural seeds, advanced traits & technologies that enable more nutritious and durable crops and safe & effective crop protection solutions[6]. Essentially, Monsanto profits by selling different agricultural seeds to farmers who then plant them, harvest them and sell the food products to various parties that eventually reach my table, your table and millions of other’s tables.

Climate change would appear to have a potentially significant negative impact on Monsanto – they can’t sell seeds that a farmer can’t grow a crop if there’s no water, right? Not quite. Part of the definition of “high-yielding conventional and biotech agricultural seeds” is that they are genetically modified (GMO)[7] to be able to produce crops despite unfavorable conditions – highly scarce water or extreme heat, shown below.[8]

Growing GMO crops in extreme conditions[8]
Growing GMO crops in extreme conditions

Monsanto’s Reaction to Climate Change

This brings us to how Monsanto is reacting to the continued impact of climate change. According to Monsanto, they are implementing a strategy to address the continued impact of climate change. This includes: “collaborating with others to advance climate change adaptation and mitigation in agriculture” by developing GMO seeds which utilize ~8% less of water[9] (via lessened water loss through transpiration and higher efficiency) and/or can survive temperature increases of 3-4 degrees Celsius[10]. As climate change worsens, their portfolio continues to transform to more efficient crops, as mentioned above. This brings the company to shift R&D from focusing efforts on increasing yields on crops, to focusing efforts on increasing the resistance of commercial crops (corn, wheat) in expectation of more extreme environmental conditions. Consequently, they implicitly rely on continued and worsened climate change to profit more from this new generation of seed as their portfolio shifts.

The diagram below illustrates, graphically, the scenario through which Monsanto can reap enormous profits:[11][12]

Combination of climate change, crop yield decrease and population growth
Combination of climate change, crop yield decrease and population growth

 A Question of Ethics

The GMOs that Monsanto produces have unknown and potentially dangerous long-term side effects[13] including potential to cause stronger antibiotic resistance. Given this uncertainty, Monsanto’s continued crusade for widespread GMO usage and acceptance by both the American public and the globe[14] should be met with fierce questioning. More critically, one must wonder: “is it right that Monsanto profits as the world’s condition continues to degrade? Should Monsanto focus more on developing alternative methods to increase crop yields rather than reliance on GMOs? Other mechanisms such as microbiomes[15] offer natural ways to improve yield, without the downsides that GMOs may bring. It is important for people to understand this is a situation that society faces and question the ethics of such profit.

Example of drought resistant crops
Example of drought resistant crops

 

Thanks for reading!

Word count: 799


For more information on GMO crops, watch this video from Scientific American:

 

 


[1] https://www.climate.gov/news-features/event-tracker/how-deep-precipitation-hole-california

[2] http://www.aessoil.com/geological-impact-of-california-drought/

[3] http://ca.water.usgs.gov/data/drought/drought-impact.html

[4] http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/pages/default.aspx

[5] A crop yield is a measurement of the amount of a crop that was harvested per unit of land area. Crop yield is the measurement often used for a cereal, grain or legume and is normally measured in metric tons per hectare (or kilograms per hectare).

[6] http://www.monsanto.com/products/pages/default.aspx

[7] According to the WHO, “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”

[8] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v501/n7468_supp/images/501S7a-i1.jpg

[9] http://science.time.com/2012/09/10/can-gmo-crops-bust-the-drought/

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3728475/

[11] Climate change impacts crop yield while population increases – a perfect storm for food security, globally

[12] http://www.frontiersin.org/files/Articles/48753/fpls-04-00273-HTML/image_m/fpls-04-00273-g001.jpg

[13] http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-blog/genetically-modified-foods/bgp-20164720

[14] http://www.latinpost.com/articles/118102/20160310/monsanto-company-gmo-corn-seeds-mexico-thinks-will-help-poor.htm

[15] Microbiomes are communities of microbes — microscopic organisms so tiny that millions of them can fit onto the head of a pin.

 

Citations

“How Deep of a Precipitation Hole Is California In? | NOAA Climate.gov.” How Deep of a Precipitation Hole Is California In? | NOAA Climate.gov. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

Minas, By Shant. “California Drought – Geological Impact | Applied Earth Sciences.” Applied Earth Sciences. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

U.S. Geological Survey California Water Science Center. “Drought Impacts.” Impacts of Drought. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

“Who We Are.” Monsanto at a Glance. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

Walsh, Bryan, and Bryan Walsh. “Can GM Crops Bust the Drought?” Time. Time, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

Bita, Craita E., and Tom Gerats. “Plant Tolerance to High Temperature in a Changing Environment: Scientific Fundamentals and Production of Heat Stress-tolerant Crops.” Frontiers in Plant Science. Frontiers Media S.A., 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

By Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. May 20, 2016. “Nutrition and Healthy Eating.” Genetically Modified Foods. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

latinpost. “Monsanto Pushes for GMO Corn Seeds in Mexico Despite ‘Probably Carcinogenic’ Herbicides.” Latin Post RSS. N.p., 2016. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

 

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5 thoughts on “Is It Right to Benefit from the Apocalypse?

  1. I would love to better understand what the potential side effects of GMOs are. In fact, just this past summer, over 100 Nobel laureates signed a letter asking critics of GMOs to stop spreading misinformation about GMO crops and argued that they provide a viable, safe solution to growing food demand as climate change threatens traditional agricultural practices (see here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/us/stop-bashing-gmo-foods-more-than-100-nobel-laureates-say.html).

    I am of the opinion that if Monsanto can provide an answer to food shortage as the impact of climate change threatens crop yields, the company should have every right to profit off of the solution that it brings to the market. Saying that Monsanto should not profit off of need that arises as a result of an unfortunate phenomenon is akin to saying doctors should not make money off of treating cancer patients.

  2. There is few evidence supporting GMO crops have long-term negative effect on human health. The Mayo Clinic blog post cited only talked about the “controversy” with no real studies to back it up. The problem with main Monsanto GMO is the use of herbicide, not the GMO itself.

    I also do not think this should be considered as profiting from climate change. I think they are one of the solution providers. Also, scientists have been developing more resistant crops for decades, many are for the purpose of growing them in countries or geographical locations that are unfavorable to these crops. I believe there is tremendous value in these seeds and new varieties, even if they are GMO. Profiting from climate change, is more like fossil fuel industry.

  3. I completely agree with the two comments above. If companies do not have the opportunity to profit from responding to climate change in diverse and creative ways, they will be far less likely to do so, and all climate change responses will be driven by the government. While GMOs may not be the ideal solution, if they do not show any negative health effects, they should absolutely be one of the options to respond to climate change and the need to feed a growing world population.

  4. The comments above do a great job of highlighting some of the issues around GMOs. Another interesting point which you touch on in your post is highlighted in section F of the diagram. The impact of climate change will vary by region. While large portions of the world will experience extreme drops in productivity, other portions will actually experience increases in productivity. How is Monsanto preparing itself to compete on a regional basis given the dynamics in productivity? As you’ve noted, the Company has focused its product portfolio to increase crop resistance vs. yield. However, is this the right approach to make the Company more competitive on a global scale? How big of a market opportunity do regions which are expected to experience a large increase in productivity (and may therefore be more focused on yield), compare to those regions which may experience productivity declines? Do you think that Monsanto is truly shifting it’s strategy from yield enhancements to crop resistance, or do you believe the company is simply broadening it’s focus so that it can target both customers that are focused on crop resistance and those that are focused on increasing yield? Are these issues mutually exclusive?

  5. Thanks for this post!

    I would agree with previous commenters, this is the best possible scenario: finding ways of adapting to climate change while still making profit.

    However, I understand the ethical concerns behind producing GMOs with potential side effects. In that note, I was wondering if Monsanto’s competitors (e.g., Syngenta, Dupont) could take advantage of that and start producing GMOs with no side effects or developing alternative yield-increasing methods. Would “market competition” take care of your concern? http://www.gmwatch.org/gm-firms/10558-the-worlds-top-ten-seed-companies-who-owns-nature.

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