Monsanto: Our climate change Messiah?

When you eat a bagel, you thank a farmer. When you pop an aspirin, you thank a scientist. So why don’t we thank Monsanto for perfecting the mix between these two?

A multinational agrochemical biotechnology company, Monsanto is considered one of the leading producers of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs).  Not without controversy, Monsanto’s innovative crop development products have forever altered the farming industry’s approach to cultivation.  In roughly two decades since their introduction, GMOs have overtaken the market comprising 94% of US soybean acreage, 93% of all US corn acreage, and 96% of all US cotton[1].

Figure 1[2]

With growing food consumption in both developed and developing economies, despite a reduction in available acreage, Monsanto and its revolutionary GMO technology have played a critical role by developing crops that produce higher yields in challenging environmental conditions. New challenges lie on the horizon, as climate change intensifies, and total farming acreage continues to decrease. A 2014 Food Security and Food Production Systems report[3] forecasts some potential consequences emerging from climate change:

  • Rapid food and cereal price increases following climate extremes indicate a sensitivity of current markets to climate extremes
  • Studies have documented a large negative sensitivity of crop yields to extreme daytime temperatures around 30° C
  • Changes in temperature and precipitation, without considering effects of CO2, will contribute to increased global food prices by 2050, with estimated increases ranging from 3 to 84%

Certain trends – food shortages and decreased yields – are obvious dangers.  Tangential consequences, such as market instability, are less predictable but no less grave.

Through its GMO innovations, Monsanto aims to radically impact global agricultural production, and thus its bottom line. DroughtGard, Monsanto’s drought-resistant corn, is already on the market and may assure continued crop production in the driest of climates.[4] Given the dire projections listed above however, one or two product offerings are not enough.  Monsanto must continue to innovate with the aim to outpace climate change to ensure global food production not only remains consistent but that crops also maintains high yields, the latter being most difficult to achieve.

In late 2013 Monsanto acquired Climate Corporation, an agricultural data analytics firm, for $930 million[5].  Climate Corporation sold insurance products to farmers using its weather modeling platform.  From this acquisition Monsanto moves into services and data, a strong strategic move for a company trying to increase corn yields by 30-50 bushels.[6] Using Climate Corporation’s soil observations and weather simulations, Monsanto can now forecast agricultural shifts, such as weed migrations, and proactively develop technologies to combat such movements.  While crop genetics and data analytics are two levers Monsanto is using immediately, it is also driving long-term impact through its own practices.  Internally Monsanto set an operational goal to become carbon neutral by 2021.[7] To achieve this goal the company aims to focus on seed production, crop protection, and sharing data – increasing adoption of best practices.[8] It must also rely on farmers to achieve this goal, and is developing an incentive program to encourage farmers to use more carbon neutral crop production methods such as conservation tillage and cover crops.[9]

Monsanto’s genetic technology, although essential for global population growth, is highly controversial. A simple internet search titled “Monsanto” yields hundreds of negative stories, yet Monsanto’s response has been minimal, leaving tens of millions of both American and international food consumers to form their own conclusions about GMOs and their benefit to society.  Monsanto has also engaged in heavy handed litigation tactics against farmers, co-ops, and seed companies, alleging violation of its seed contracts and patent infringement. Monsanto’s repeated use of abusive investigative and surveillance tactics have generated much ill will in the agricultural community, causing farmers (Monsanto’s own customers) to refer to Monsanto as the “seed police” and use words such as “Gestapo” and “Mafia” to describe the company’s tactics.[10]  

For a company with such a critical role in the agricultural supply chain, these tactics are highly problematic and raise questions as to why the company hasn’t done more to raise awareness about its positive social impact.  For example, Monsanto is engaged with the Gates Foundation in sub-Sahara Africa supporting the Water Efficient Maize for Africa program.  Monsanto donates germplasm, or starter seeds, and drought-tolerant corn to help develop relationships with local organizations and to generate higher yields for poverty stricken communities.[11]  If similar programs were implemented, GMO technology has the potential to revitalize poverty afflicted areas across the globe.  To maximize its climate change capability, Monsanto must heighten public awareness and demonstrate how its innovation in agronomy has impacted society for the better.

(796 words)

 

  1. Is genetic engineering a necessity to sustain a foodstuffs supply chain affected by climate change? Why?
  2. Is Monsanto the best company to lead this initiative?

 

 

 

 

 

References

Barlett, D. L., & Steele, J. B. (2008, May). Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear . Retrieved from Vanity Fair:
https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2008/05/monsanto200805

Climate Corporation. (2017). About Climate Corporation. Retrieved from Climate Corporation: https://www.climate.com/about

Doering, C. (2015, December 1). Monsanto to work with farmers to be carbon neutral . Retrieved from USAToday.com: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/12/01/monsanto-work-farmers-carbon-neutral/76638432/

Geddes, G. (2016, November 15). GMO vs Non-GMO Soybeans: A Growing Debate. Retrieved from NorthStar Genetics: www.northstargenetics.com /ca/2016/11/15/gmo-vs-non-gmo-soybeans-a-growing-debate/

Minford, M. (2015, January 23). Farmers test drought-tolerant corn hybrids . Retrieved from Corn and Soybean Digest : http://www.cornandsoybeandigest.com/corn/farmers-test-drought-tolerant-corn-hybrids

Monsanto Takes Action to Fight Climate Change with Carbon Neutral Crop Production Program. (2015, December 1). Retrieved from Monsanto: https://monsanto.com/news-releases/monsanto-takes-action-to-fight-climate-change-with-carbon-neutral-crop-production-program/

Plumer, B. (2014, Aug 12). How GMO crops conquered the United States. Retrieved from Vox.com: https://www.vox.com/2014/8/12/5995087/genetically-modified-crops-rise-charts

Severns, M. (2013, October 9). 5 Ways Monsanto Wants to Profit off Climate Change. Retrieved from Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/10/monsanto-profit-climate-change-corporation/

Specter, M. (2013, November 3). Why the Climate Corporation sold itself to Monsanto. Retrieved from The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/why-the-climate-corporation-sold-itself-to-monsanto

Tackling Climate Change. (2017). Retrieved from Monsanto.com: https://monsanto.com/company/sustainability/climate-change/

United States Department of Agriculture. (2017, July 12). Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. . Retrieved from United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/

United States Department of Agriculture. (2017, Jul 12). Recent Trends in GE Adoption. Retrieved from United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption/

Upbin, B. (2013, October 2). Monsanto Buys Climate Corp for $930 Million. Retrieved from Forbes.com: https://www.forbes.com/sites/bruceupbin/2013/10/02/monsanto-buys-climate-corp-for-930-million/#3e72b6f3177a

Weiser, M. (2016, January 4). Can Genetic Engineering Help Quench Crops’ Thirst? Retrieved from Ensia: https://ensia.com/features/can-genetic-engineering-help-quench-crops-thirst/

 

 

 

[1] (United States Department of Agriculture, 2017)

[2] Ibid.

[3] (Porter, 2014)

[4] (Minford, 2015)

[5] (Upbin, 2013)

[6] Ibid

[7] (Tackling Climate Change, 2017)

[8] (Monsanto Takes Action to Fight Climate Change with Carbon Neutral Crop Production Program, 2015)

[9] (Doering, 2015)

[10] (Barlett & Steele, 2008)

[11] (Severns, 2013)

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9 thoughts on “Monsanto: Our climate change Messiah?

  1. Thanks Aaron for sharing your perspectives. These are my thoughts:

    With the increasing trend towards local and organic, Monsanto definitely has a tough road ahead when it comes to adoption from the end customer. However, because its touch point is with the farmers, who face the pressures for generating income and hence, are more likely to adopt GMOs, Monsanto has been successful and perhaps will continue to be successful.
    I agree with you that it needs to do a much better job in educating the audience on the role it has played so far. However, it almost seems like a deliberate effort not to to stay away from controversy. That being said, I would also view their work with the Gates foundation and poverty-stricken communities that you mentioned as it could be more of a forced necessity in today’s world than something done for the right reasons. Today, almost every firm has some initiative that it contributes to in society.
    Also, the means to the end of world food demand could be met through other innovations rather than GMOs for example: farming that uses less space, is faster, uses less resources, etc. Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2017/06/28/the-25-most-innovative-ag-tech-startups/#144be79e4883
    I do not view Monsanto as the best company to lead the required change. The question remains given the political and socio-economic structure and policies, would other firms be able to find their way into the supply chain to make a difference?

  2. In a world that sees over 1,000 chemicals come onto the market every given year according to the EPA’s most recent statistics, and one whose population is growing at 83 million people per year, I would argue there is no question some form of innovation is necessary to feed our changing world. While not well versed on the alternatives to genetic engineering, I consider its ability to help crops resist harsh weather conditions and maintain, if not increase, crop yield as quite compelling.

    Monsanto recognizes that while it has one of the strongest positions to influence the seed development market, every year competition increases. Consequently, farmers are now faced with an ever-growing array of choices, and subsequently, prices, on what seeds to plant (https://monsanto.com/company/media/statements/seed-industry-competition/). If we therefore take it as given that these new technologies and/or chemicals are here to stay, I believe that it is in our best interest to find ways to support the leading companies, most notably Monsanto, who are arguably essential to our ability to survive and adapt to our changing planet.

  3. I think Monsanto is in a good spot to lead some of these initiatives. As a multi-billion dollar company under a lot of public scrutiny, they can continue to pursue projects such as Water Efficient Maize for Africa in order to help bring food to poverty-stricken communities while boosting their reputation. They have the funds to make an impact. I believe the question of whether this is done “for the right reasons” is of low importance as long as they using their power and profit to undergo initiatives that do truly benefit communities. I think Monsanto should engage in the dialogue with the public, not hide from it, and respond to pressures with similar projects.

  4. Great thoughts, Aaron.

    I very much agree that GMO are one of the most feasible and best ways to keep our world fed in face of increasing climate change, despite the (as of now) not completely researched potential dangers to human consumption. Another factor, however, one should consider is the fair/equal distribution of food across the globe, especially to areas that are strickened by poverty and drought. Much of the food in the US is wasted and crops are burned/dumped, while in other parts of the world, people are still starving.

    On a sidenote, as a German, profit-oriented and emotionless machine, I very much welcome the acquisition of Monsanto by German pharmaceutical giant Bayer.

  5. With a global footprint touching 69 countries [1], Monsanto is well-equipped to lead GMO innovations to combat food shortages. However, it appears that Monsanto has forgotten the age-old adage “it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” Monsanto’s iron-handed approach to enforcing GMO technology adoption has clouded its noble intentions. In order to have a meaningful impact on global agricultural production through GMO innovation, Monsanto needs to engage two key stakeholders: 1) farmers and 2) end consumers.

    Clearly, Monsanto has already disenfranchised farmers through aggressive surveillance and litigation. While you cite Monsanto’s use of an “incentive program” to mobilize farmers, I would argue that this program either isn’t working or is insufficient. First, Monsanto needs to engage farmers as partners, empowering them with a sense of agency in the fight against declining yields. Once it has established this level of trust, Monsanto can work with farmers to develop an incentive structure that motivates them to join their movement towards more carbon neutral crop production methods.

    Finally, Monsanto needs to engage with end consumers on the merits of GMO technology and its potential to mitigate climate change. Consumer misconceptions of GM food products continue to be high. In fact, according to a recent study, 39% of Americans say that GM foods are worse for one’s health [2]. If consumer demand for GM food products is low, then Monsanto’s impact on food shortages could be moot. Monsanto needs to play a role in educating the public, so that the “fruits” of its GMO labor are realized.

    [1] Mosanto Company, “About Monsanto Company,” https://monsanto.com/company, accessed November 2017.

    [2] Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy, “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science,” Pew Research Center, December 1, 2016, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/public-opinion-about-genetically-modified-foods-and-trust-in-scientists-connected-with-these-foods, accessed November 2017.

  6. Thanks, Aaron! In general, I do agree that genetically modified crops have historically and will continue to provide benefit to the world through increasing food availability through improved yields. You ask, though, if Monsanto is the right company to lead this initiative, and I’m not so sure. I have worries about potential misaligned incentives between Monsanto and stewardship for general health and sustainability. Although operating in a highly regulated sector, Monsanto is a for-profit company and, at the end of the day, is looking to improve its bottom line. I worry that Monsanto is vulnerable to lose sight of the risks associated with fundamentally altering food crops in the pursuit of additional profit. While they have not been caught in an egregious error yet, should we, as society, really be comfortable allowing this type of risk to persist knowing that so many people depend on these crops to survive? In this regard, non-profit organizations would likely be less susceptible to the incentive to cut corners or ignore potential issues and therefore be better positioned to pursue GMO advancement in a more balanced way.

  7. I am not well versed in this topic, but the answer to your first question seems clear to me: yes, GMOs have a crucial role in ensuring a suitable food supply while the planet continues to heat up. As you state in your article, crop yields struggle to cope in high temperatures so as we continue to experience global warming, the situation will get worse. I’m no evolutionary biologist but I’d hazard a guess that the earth is warming up quicker than the crops we need for food can evolve. If you believe this, then should we want to continue to eat crops such as corn, we must ‘help’ with the evolutionary process. We must use GMO.
    Whether Monsanto is the right actor to lead the debate on the benefits of GMO is unclear to me. It makes sense considering their scale and technical expertise in this field, however, as you point out, they don’t seem particularly interested in widespread public education at this stage, even when it could be argued it would be significantly to their advantage to do so.

  8. Thanks Aaron! I raelly enjoyed reading this.

    It’s all about what’s at stake. Since the first genetically modified organism (GMO) was made in 1973, there has been many uses for genetic engineering. When we think about GMO, we tend to think of food. Some people are staunchly against eating GMOs. I would wager that many of those same people would not abject to using a live-saving cancer medicine even if they new it was made using GMOs, as most of these”biologic” medicine. It’s about the stakes– their life. Perhaps when the stakes for food are raised– climate change compromising food security– these same folks will thing twice about there GMO objection.

    I agree that Monsanto should publicize this initiative to create goodwill.

  9. Aaron, intriguing to think of Monsanto as our savior given the poor public perception and relationship at the moment. But, given their undeniable scale and capabilities, I think you are probably right in that some form of GMOs can play a role in combating climate change and meeting rising global food demand. To be fair, humans have been modifying organisms through cross-fertilization for centuries, so GMOs are nothing new. However, the introduction of synthetic materials into the genetic makeup of seeds certainly seems to have some negative effects, for both the crops and our health. Given they do have a role to play, I was curious as to how much their GMOs have actually increased crop yields? From even the most casual google search, it is clear there are vastly differing opinions on this matter, but several sources seem to agree that there are increased yields to be had [1]. And, according to PG Economics, there has been widespread increases in crop yields from the use of Monsanto’s GM seeds, ranging from a 9% increase in soybeans in Mexico to a 50% increase in cotton in India [2]. The other benefit Monsanto seems to claim is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from less pesticides being required. So, while I do agree Monsanto could be tackling the problem better from a PR perspective, GMOs, when explained and used properly, can and will be a helpful solution to the negative impact global climate change is having on our ability to feed the world.

    [1] Klümper W, Qaim M (2014) A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops. PLoS ONE 9(11): e111629. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0111629
    [2] Monsanto News, “Do GM Crops Increase Yield?”, May 6, 2017. , Accessed November 2017.

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